My wife and I were flipping through the channels a few nights ago, looking for a good (free) movie to watch and eventually landed on Tyler Perry’s Madea Goes to Jail. In case you are not familiar with the movie, Mable Simmons (Madea) is a fiery, no-nonsense, slap-you-upside-yo-head-if-you-get-out-of-line elderly woman who has what one might call…a temper problem. One particular scene shows Madea’s daughter Cora confronting her cantankerous mama’s disposition.
Cora: “You have an anger management problem. That’s why I’m gonna get you one of these (looking down at her wrist).”
Madea: “What is that?”
Cora: “It’s a reminder on how to treat people. WWJD. I’m gonna get you one. You know what that means?”
Madea: “What does that stand for? What’s Wrong With Jermaine Dupree?”
Cora: “No, it stands for What Would Jesus Do? C’mon Madea, everybody knows that.”
Not seconds after this conversation, Madea and Cora are cut off by a disrespectful driver and retaliate by slamming into the back of his car which sends him careening (ironically) through a church sign off the side of the road. After all, “Jesus did not have no car.” Most well-intentioned Christians wouldn’t bat an eyelash at Cora’s explanation of WWJD. The problem with Madea’s anger was that she wasn’t trying hard enough to be like Jesus. Simply, Cora believes what many of us have believed and still do: that Jesus example alone should be a sufficient catalyst for moral change in our lives.
Such an idea is not new to Madea, or American Christianity for that matter. In fact, some believe that the seed for a “Moral Influence (or Example) Theory of Atonement” can be traced back as far as a medieval theologian named Peter Abelard,¹ who believed that while Jesus died as a sacrifice for sin, his death was not meant to satisfy the God’s wrath (or “offended dignity” according to Anselm). Rather, Jesus’ crucifixion was primarily a demonstration of God’s hatred toward sin and love toward humanity and excite us to love Him in return.
Early in the 19th century, aspects of the Moral Influence Theory became a permanent fixture in the theological landscape under men like Horace Bushnell, who believed that God’s nature was essentially love and nothing in his character required satisfaction or rectification. Our separation from God is a not a result of breaking God’s law, but of our bad attitudes toward God. Jesus came, therefore, to demonstrate God’s love toward humanity. His dying on the cross was not his purpose for coming, but the unfortunate consequence of his coming. He came to show us God’s love and we killed him. Jesus death, according to Bushnell, should both convict us of our sinful attitudes and inspire us to live similar lives of love.
Many of us, like Cora, have functionally inherited bits and pieces of Abelard and Bushnell’s moralistic gospel, walking day-to-day with an “if/then” relationship to God. If I try to be more like Jesus by living a better life and having a better attitude then God will bless me, accept me, love me, save me.
Unfortunately, such a gospel tends to leads to self-righteousness, discouragement, and despair instead of humility, hope and life. The life and death of Jesus was surely a demonstration. He shows us who God is, and who we are not! Trying our best to live like Jesus, whose life was a perfect fulfillment of the law, clearly demonstrates that we can’t live like Jesus.
Trying to live like Jesus only shows us our deep need for Jesus.
And that is why we always come back to the cross. If righteousness can be obtained through our moral efforts — as Bushnell purports — then Jesus died for no reason (Gal 2:21). But Jesus’ death was not an accident — it was intentional and purposeful (Acts 2:21-25). His dying on the cross was just a spectacle, but a substitution (2 Cor. 5:21; Gal. 3:13).
The law-giver became like a law-breaker so that law-breakers would be accepted as law-keepers.
We are counted righteous not because of our sincerity and moral energy, but because of Jesus righteousness alone and His atoning death on the cross. Because Jesus died as our substitute to the satisfaction of God’s righteous anger toward our sin, our if/when gives way to “It is finished. (John 19:30).”
The gospel intends to turn all of our WWJD efforts into joyful responses to WHJD (What Has Jesus Done)!
Agree or disagree with this post? Have anything to add? Post your comments below.
¹Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, 2 ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books), 802-806. According to Alister McGrath, “Abelard does not, as some of his interpreters suggest, reduce the meaning of the cross to a demonstration of the love of God. This is one among many components of Abelard’s soteriology, which includes traditional ideas concerning Christ’s death as a sacrifice for human sin. It is Abelard’s emphasis upon the subjective impact of the cross that is distinctive (see Alister McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction. 4th ed. (Malden: Blackwell), 343-344).”