Did Jesus Say, "What Would Jesus Do?"

I was a teenager during the height of the “What Would Jesus Do?” movement. I and my peers at church had “WWJD” bracelets and saw this saying all over T-shirts, stickers, and the like; while you still see it in places today, it is not as prominent as it was that at time As we come to a close of our “Did Jesus Say...?” sermon series, ask the question if Jesus said - or would say - “What Would Jesus Do?”

Origins of the Saying

In some ways, this phrase traces itself throughout church history in that we are called to imitate Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. However, this particular expression came into wider popularity in the late 1900 century by the minister Charles Sheldon in his popular book titled, In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do? Like many books in the time, it was written one chapter at a time and then published together. Its premise was that a pastor challenged his congregation to live for one year always asking “what would Jesus do” before doing anything; this then leads to lives being transformed.

Something to note about Charles Sheldon, however, is that he was a leader in what was known as the Social Gospel movement. This movement did not discuss the need for redemption from sin through faith in Christ as much as it talked about the way we should seek to remedy poverty and other ills in the world around us. In effect, Sheldon and others in this movement looked to Jesus more as an example of what we should do rather than as the Son of God whose death and resurrection is what makes us right with God and then leads to transformation. In some ways, they latched onto teachings like those found in 1 Peter 2:21-24 which tell us to be like Jesus in suffering, but in the process, they overlook passages like Romans 3:21 or 2 Corinthians 5:21 that speaks about how Jesus saves us from our sin through his death and resurrection. As Jesus himself says, he did not just come to serve, but to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45) - to pay for our sins with his life and to actually give us his righteousness since we could not earn it ourselves. It is unclear to me if Sheldon would have denied the need for faith in Jesus and thought that we were saved by following his example, but I do find this background interesting to note as we think about this saying.

“What Would Jesus Do?” rose in prominence again about 100 years later as pastors and Christian leaders started challenging people (especially youth) to ask this same question - likely not knowing the roots of the saying or its earlier popularity.

Thinking about the Saying

There is definitely a sense in which we should be asking this question as we are called to follow Jesus and thus do what he taught us to do. Since Jesus is the one person who always practiced what he preached, we also know that his actions always reflected his teaching and thus, God’s will. Jesus tells his followers to serve others as he has served them (see John 13). The Apostle Paul told the Corinthians to imitate him as he imitates Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1) and points the Philppians to the example of Jesus (Philippians 2). The Apostle John also tells us that “whoever says he abides in [Jesus] ought to walk in the same way in which he walked” (1 John 2:6), showing us that we should be doing what Jesus did.

However, we also need to recognize that Jesus was the Son of God, and thus there are things that he would do that I cannot do and should not despair of. As one person said, if you are asking “What would Jesus do?”, you better hope you are not at a wedding when they run out of wine, because then you would need to turn the water into wine (John 2)! You see, we can’t just ask what Jesus would have done, but we need to remember what Jesus has done and why. Our salvation is not dependent upon doing what Jesus did, but on believing he did what he promised to do and died for our sins. As we believe this, we will then ask what Jesus would do and seek to live in a way that always prioritizes the love of God and love of others. We need to look at what Jesus did, and at times, do what he did while also recognizing that the Christian faith is not simply a faith of following the example of a teacher -- it is just a monkey-see, monkey-do life.

Asking (and Modifying) the Question

Jesus calls us to follow Him, obeying all that he taught us to do (and teaching others to do the same - see Matthew 28:19-20). We live in a world much different than the one he lived in, so we will not always be able to look back at his example to see what he would have done. However, in each action that we take, we should ask if it reflects well on Jesus, the one who came and died for me, and whether it furthers his mission and his assignment to us. Before we post something on social media or say something about others, we need to think about Jesus. We need to think about his example and his mission as we go through our lives, asking if we are pointing others to the kingdom and to the king. Because we are sinful people and like to make Jesus and other authorities support what we want to do (justifying our own behaviors), we need to make sure that what we think Jesus would do or want us to do is grounded in what we know about Him, which we discover in the Bible. Let us remember what Jesus did and then live accordingly in every area of our lives.

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