January 21, 2021

The Jesus Shaped Question: Are Christians Like Jesus?

Expect to see a lot of posts in this category.

(ESV) Philippians 3:7 But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 8 Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ…

(The Message) Philippians 3: 8 Yes, all the things I once thought were so important are gone from my life. Compared to the high privilege of knowing Christ Jesus as my Master, firsthand, everything I once thought I had going for me is insignificant—dog dung. I’ve dumped it all in the trash so that I could embrace Christ 9 and be embraced by him.

Christians are supposed to be like Jesus. They’re not.

Everyone knows Christians are supposed to be like Jesus. Not “like Jesus enough to be saved without him,” but “like Jesus because you’re following Jesus.” Of course, everyone also knows the vast majority of Christians aren’t like Jesus, or even making any real efforts in that direction.

Christians are conservatives and liberals.

Christians are culture warriors and advocates of family values.

Christians are excited about the megachurches and busy consuming Christian products, from t-shirts to music to cruises.

Christians are defenders of denominations and watchdogs for doctrinal orthodoxy.

Christians are having their best life now and becoming a better you.

Christians are purpose driven and super spiritual.

Christians are taking back what the devil stole and taking a stand in a godless culture.

Christians have dozens of labels and participate in hundreds of activities.

Christians have their own celebrities, their own cable channels, their own entertainment and their own comfortable subcultures.

But few Christians are like Jesus, especially here in the prosperous Christian west.

By any measure you want to use, most Christians don’t resemble Jesus in action, attitude, character, thinking, motivation or sacrifice. Christians don’t live like Jesus, relate to other people like Jesus, deal with money life Jesus or have the spiritual practices of Jesus. Jesus and those who claim his name are often so far apart that a kind of sleight of hand has to be performed to distract the world into looking away from the obvious.

Most Christians today aren’t like Jesus, and apparently it doesn’t seem to be a very big deal to many Christians themselves.

If you ask non-Christians about this discrepancy, you’ll discover one of the supreme ironies of the age. Unbelievers are far more aware of the normal connection between Christian faith and Christian behavior than many Christians.

Atheists, Muslims and various kinds of unbelievers are well aware that to be a Christian should mean to be like Christ, and they are very aware most of the Christians they know are very unlike Christ, with little concern about the discrepancy. Often, these non-Christians have a more honest and accurate view of the connection between Christ and Christians than Christians themselves.

Because I teach and minister to many of those atheists and non-Christians, I should have known this long ago, but it took years for the truth to force its way into my stubborn consciousness.

My default position, like most Christians, was an assumption that Christians knew their own failures, but unbelievers would never notice the things we said, did and failed to do.

We could notice our greed, shallowness, cultural bias, arrogance and lack of compassion, but unbelievers would only see our good works and sincerity. We would be aware of our failures, but unbelievers would always see our good side.

Then one day, one of my Muslim students wrote me a letter assessing her experience with Christians. It was eloquent and thoughtful, and it was brutally honest: Most Christians weren’t like Jesus, and the Christian insistence that God was working in and through them was largely undercut by the failure of individual Christians to show character that surpassed what was seen in Muslims or Buddhists.

I’ve had similar letters and conversations in the 30 years I’ve worked with students. Like many ministers, I had trained myself in making a response to this kind of observation. My counter-case went something like this:

Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven. The Good News of Jesus is about God’s gracious forgiveness of the undeserving. Christians aren’t necessarily better people on the moral scale. They have a different kind of righteousness; the righteousness that is a gift from God.

What about becoming like Christ? Well, that’s a process that happens through the work of the Holy Spirit. It is a work in the heart. You really have no idea how far someone’s come in their resemblance to Jesus Christ just be looking at their outward behavior.

So when a Muslim says Christians aren’t Christlike, they are demonstrating their inability to understand the Gospel. And when an atheist says Christians are hypocritical, they are showing their own hypocrisy, since they have no foundation at all for their own morality.

Now, this isn’t a ridiculous set of answers at all. Much of what I said is true and useful in the right setting.

The problem, however, is simple: There’s no answer, explanation or apologetic that can possibly sever the connection between the person of Jesus and the lives of those who claim he is their Lord, God and example. It doesn’t make sense to assume that Christ followers aren’t growing in similarity to Jesus.

Jesus-following people should be Jesus shaped people.

Every so often, I’ll meet a student who has a United States Marine Corps tattoo they’ve acquired in their teenage enthusiasm for the United States Marines. If that student makes it to Marine boot camp, they may be surprised at the reaction of their drill instructor to that tattoo.

He or she won’t be impressed with their admiration and enthusiasm for the corps. Wearing the Marine symbol is a privilege that belongs only to those who have been through the process, trials and tests of Marine training.

You can be a fan of the Marine corps, but don’t say or imply you are one- or deserve to be one- until you’ve been “shaped” by the pain, values and loyalty of the Marine experience.

Jesus seems to have a lot of fans these days. But being a fan, and being a Jesus shaped follower of Christ are two entirely different realities.

Jesus’ fans live a kind of external Christianity that majors on personal satisfaction, entertainment, big crowds, cultural influence and consumption of Christian products.

Jesus’ followers are living in a process of being shaped by the person of Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit. The goal at every stage is conformity to Jesus himself. Conforming us to the image of Jesus is God’s goal for his entire work in our lives. The methods, practices and resources of Christian spirituality are all Jesus-centered. The result of the process is a person who is a recognizable, credible disciple of his/her master, Jesus of Nazareth.

Like real Marines, Jesus shaped disciples have no excuses for what it means to follow Jesus. They don’t specialize in proclaiming themselves as something they are not. Instead, they are students of Jesus and demonstrations of the resurrected power of the Jesus we meet in the pages of scripture.

While they deeply feel the distance between Jesus and their own version of discipleship, the observing world notices, instead, the increasing similarity between these Christ followers and the Christ they follow.

Are Christians like Jesus? Enough like Jesus that a Muslim or atheist wouldn’t have to remind us of the relevance of the question?

Here in Kentucky, we sometimes say that someone has gotten “the cart before the horse.” We mean that someone has gotten things out of order, especially in the area of what should naturally have the power to lead and what should naturally follow.

Carts don’t lead. They have no power to do so. Horses can follow, but when hitched to a cart, they are meant to lead the way.

Much of modern Christianity has put the cart before the horse. We’ve put a version of Christianity that has no power out in front of the one who is the only power Christianity has.

Our Christian “cart” is elaborate and crowded. Our “horse” isn’t very impressive by the world’s standards. But without Jesus out front and leading a movement that resembles what we read in the Gospels, we risk creating something that is no more than our own collection of ideas, preferences and entertainments.

And then bringing Jesus along to bless that mess.

In Philippians 3, Paul spoke passionately about the life-transforming power of “knowing” Jesus Christ. While we don’t know if Paul ever encountered Jesus in his earthly life, he was acquainted with the Christian movement in the sufferings he caused in the years he persecuted the church.

He watched women and children hauled off to prison. He watched men die by stoning. He watched the homes of Christians be broken into and ransacked. He watched the leaders of the Christian community suffer persecution, imprisonment and death.

He watched Stephen die with the enemy-forgiveness of Jesus on his lips.

When Paul encountered the Christian community as a persecutor, he met people suffering, sacrificing and dying like Jesus. When Jesus spoke to him on the road to Damascus, he said that Saul/Paul been persecuting him. Jesus himself.

Paull would later say that Christian suffering was making up what was lacking in the sufferings of Christ, a statement that radically identifies Jesus with those who follow him.

Many Christians have invented a kind of Christianity where “knowing Christ” and being “Jesus shaped” are two completely separate realities.

If you are surprised that most unbelievers and fringe-believing observers of our version of Christianity don’t want to be like us, you should consider this:

We’re not like Jesus.

And we think that’s normal.

In his ministry, Jesus often had to listen to the Pharisees tout their relation to God based on a collection of externals. Jesus told them pointedly that God could raise up their version of being God’s people from the rocks on the side of the road.

Throughout his criticisms of the Pharisees in Matthew 23, Jesus points out what the Pharisees would never admit: they talked up one thing, and lived another. They proclaimed themselves true sons of Abraham; Jesus called them whitewashed tombs and hypocrites.

Jesus didn’t want this problem to be replicated in his disciples. He plainly taught them to abide in him, and as they did, they would bear much genuine fruit.

If Christians are supposed to be Jesus shaped as disciples, then we should take an extended look at Jesus himself, and how he differs from so many of us.


  1. Bror Erickson says

    hmmm. Are you not the one who said “not perfectly.”
    Are you not the one who compared Christians who for all you can tell only confess Christ, but don’t go and do works, who maybe haven’t suffered for Christ yet, to wanna be Marines who haven’t made it through boot camp?
    I’m sorry but it was that annalogy that got me going. We aren’t Christians until we actively seek to be like him? Until we have been put through his boot camp?
    Your the one who, as it seems to me, equates being salt in the world to following the law, and being uber righteous by worldly standards.
    When the pharisees harrassed the disciples for not living up to thier own standards, did Christ berate the disciples for not washing their hands befor they ate? No he turned on the Pharisees, through the law on them a little harder, and defended his sheep with the Gospel. Try that next time a Muslim or an Athiest starts complaining about he behavior of Christians you don’t know, or even the ones you think you know.
    The world lives off of law. Christians the gospel. It doesn’t mean we have to be pigs. But we don’t take the gospel away from Christ’s sheep in order to make them be Salt.
    Sorry, to be a discussion killer. I only have what Christ has given me. It’s not that I don’t see a third use to the law. It’s that no matter how you cut it the law does not make us righteous, does not distinguish us from the world.
    Do I need Luther to understand Christ? No. But I thank God for him every day. and If I was trying to understand Christ, I don’t think I would reduce my studies of him to 3 chapters in Matthew, and call foul anytime someone brought something else he said up.

  2. Bror: You are basically giving me the choice of 1) agreeing with your version of Lutheranism, which I won’t be doing anywhere close to 100% of the time, OR 2) I can spend all my time in the comments of my posts defending myself from the hyper-Law/Gospel paradigm you use to read every statement I write.

    Your own small catechism says it perfectly:

    “God threatens to punish all that transgress these commandments. Therefore we should dread His wrath and not act contrary to these commandments. But He promises grace and every blessing to all that keep these commandments. Therefore we should also love and trust in Him, and gladly do [zealously and diligently order our whole life] according to His commandments.”

    Unless Luther misspoke, Christians are to seek to keep these commandments, knowing Christ has taken their place in judgment and in perfect obedience, allowing us to follow Jesus in command and example without fear of condemnation.

    This is the last go around with this. Another good thread has been turned into a discussion of the same law/gospel issue that has been covered many times in these discussions.

    I think you guys need your own blog. I’ll be happy to link you 🙂

  3. I grew up in the church. I coasted. I stopped going.

    I could never escape the reality of God. Atheism, much less agnosticism wasn’t going to work.

    Then, in my journey, I was confronted with the stark question: Do you *really* want God, and do you *really* seek to be more like Christ? The path towards such ends was opened to me as never before in my Christian experience. And it was a harder question to answer than I wanted to admit. Grace beyond measure is available to me. Do I want it?

    In many ways, for the first time I’ve picked up my cross and followed. I am such a sinner. I fall so short. But the grace is abundant. And so little matters except Him.

    I’ll be dragging the rest of my life, but at least the scraping sounds drowns out the clamor of arguing over law/gospel in the meantime.

  4. Michael,

    Well, I guess we gave that one a good run.

    We Lutherans(many of us)really believe that Law/Gospel is the ‘hitting and pitching’ of the Bible.

    We believe that God speaks to us in one, or the other ways…and that’s pretty much it. That is why we bring it up so often, it is always right there staring us in the face.

    We do realize that it is not so in Roman Catholic or most Protestant traditions. That is why we believe we have a unique and important contribution to make with respect to the understanding of the Christian faith. We also realize that our view is not, and never has been,(and probably never will be) very popular.

    From a Lutheran perspective, I’m proud of the way Larry, Bror, Brent, Brian, Scott, and not as much, myself, defended the unflinching demand of the law.

    On your team, I was impressed with the way you guys hung in there so long in the face of such a powerful barrage of law. You guys are tough!

    I actually do have a fledgling blog where we do discuss the law and gospel once in awhile (almost always – what a shocker!).

    It is ‘the old Adam’ the address is http://theoldadam.wordpress.com/

    Anyway, thanks for all the fun, (I told you I would enjoy it all!)

    I’ll be back! (MacArthur, Arnold, and me)

    – Steve Martin

  5. Bror Erickson says

    To tell you the truth I was going to ignore this post, until you asked me to explain how law/Gospel is different thatn antinomianism. I was really going to try honor your request that we not always talk about law/gospel. It is your blog. Had you left it at that, I would have stayed out. But then you asked for us to explain.
    I do see a place for the law in the Christians life, even after baptism. The only thing that I cringed at was your somewhat arbitrary seperation of Jesus fans and Jesus followers. Comparing Christians marines before and after boot camp.
    I don’t know maybe I do need a blog. Believe it or not though, I’m trying to quit.

  6. “We Lutherans(many of us)really believe that Law/Gospel is the ‘hitting and pitching’ of the Bible. We believe that God speaks to us in one, or the other ways…and that’s pretty much it.”

    steve, were you being sarcastic or something? I know that it’s really hard to get emotion across in text, but tongue-in-cheek is the only way I am getting coherence out of the comment, but it didn’t quite sound that way. (to me anyway)

    Just checking.

  7. Being in the military, I thought the Marines illustration was particularly apt. Kinda along those lines, I suppose we’ve lost the wartime mentality that illuminates the reason to live as soldiers of Christ like in 2 Tim. 2.

  8. WebMonk,

    I wasn’t being sarcastic at all. I meant what I said.

    I believe(and I am not alone)that God speaks to us in two ways. Through His demands and through His promises.

    He gives us law and we break it. He promises to forgive us and he does it.

    The meat and potatoes, the pitching and hitting, the fundamental paradigm for understanding the Bible and God Himself is through His Law and His Gospel.

    As I’ve said before, there are many others that do a much better job of explaining this view than I.

    You can google Law and Gospel and find some great materials, I’m sure.

    Grace and Peace to you, WebMonk!

    – Steve M.

  9. Hmm… a lot of interesting comments. As to the original post, the concept that came across to me was one of people professing a form of godliness but denying the power… it is the crux of what has driven me from Institutional Churches.

    And as to grace versus law… Galatians 5 has a lot to say. I have had to read it and re-read it a lot over that last year or so to help overcome the performance based theology of my upbringing. Hmm… to me, this is the essence of where He has brought me (so far – long way from being done ;-)…

    You progressively get to know Him more and more, do your best to do what He tells you (not what man says, what God says – important distinction in some circles), then rely on God’s incredible Grace to make up the difference in what you could not do and what you messed up in doing. Sleep. Wake. Do again. Follow Jesus, not men. Be a friend to friend’s even when their theology gets out of line with yours. Be a friend to those who have just fallen and need help getting back up. Stop being a supporting prop to cover the unacknowledged abuses of the ‘called’ and ‘gifted’ leaders of your church.

    Anyway, that’s the idea… Good topic. 😉

  10. It’s interesting to see the bits and pieces of where people come from. For those who grew up in what they saw as law-based works righteousness, I can totally understand why a strong law/gospel would be welcomed as freeing. For others (and I admit this is where I am) who grew up in an evangelicalism that was “just intellectually assent that Jesus died for you and then go on living however you want to”, I don’t respond very friendly-like to law/gospel.

    For what it’s worth, the Jewish connotations of the word translated “perfect” in Matthew isn’t “flawlessness” like we use the word. It’s maturity or wholeness. Not that God isn’t flawless, that just isn’t really the aspect of God Jesus is calling us to imitate in that particular passage. Then of course there is the problem that Paul (and first century Jews in general) seemed to think they actually could keep the law…but of course we probably should reject all of that New Perspective rubbish out of hand. 😉

    Anyway, don’t assume those who don’t find the Law/Gospel distinction helpful either don’t understand or are doomed to works righteousness. Some do understand, and disagree for good reasons. That’s like saying all who hold to Law/Gospel as the core of the Gospel miss the Kingdom and are doomed to cheap grace. Both statements are true as strawmen, but both oversimplify the issue and (I think) the Gospel.

    Michael, I appreciate your patient attempts to restore substance (and literalness) to Jesus’ teaching.

  11. Jon,

    It does not suprise me at all that people desire to water down the law. Jesus is then telling us to be ‘mature and whole’ as our Father in Heaven is ‘mature and whole’. Right. As if we could ever be those things either.

    Our default position is the law. Doing is what we are all about.

    When Jesus gives us the sermon on the mount, the desired effect would be for us to say,’depart from me Lord for I am a sinner’. Instead we get out our religious ladders and start climbing.

    As a law/gospel guy my job is to shake the ladder so that you’ll fall off and get your feet back on the ground where they belong.

    I have never said that those that do not agree with me on L/G are doomed to anything.

    Christ’s death on the cross was enough for all. My hope is to fan the flames of the gospel into a bonfire for those that might yet only see a flicker.

    To clarify my position when it comes to L/G…Gospel is King and always trumps the Law.

    Thanks much.

    – Steve Martin

    PS – Give a listen to the ‘Law and Gospel’ radio program (Google KFUO) Yesterday’s archived program, Wed. May 7th was particularly informative.

  12. Even some of the early Christians failed to be like Christ. Take Corinth for example.

  13. And they got a letter about it, which I recall, didn’t find their situation acceptable as disciples of Jesus.

  14. We could all get a “letter”.

  15. Well, I realize a futile conversation when I see one. Steve, I’m content to disagree, although I’m not sure that you really understand my differing position. You just say the same thing over and over (and I realize that is what you are trying to do).

    I guess I can only say that there has been some excellent scholarship in the last 30 years that poses real challenges to Luther’s interpretation of Law as it was understood by Jesus, Paul and their Jewish contemporaries. Even if you decide to disagree, I’d encourage you to make yourself aware of the Biblical scholarship challenging your position. There is more going on here than just the human impulse to “do it ourselves”. There is solid textual evidence that must be dealt with that first century hearers, writers and readers did not share Luther’s penchant for internalized guilt with regards to the Law, nor did they divide grace and works so cleanly as you suggest. In fact, I think they would find your lasseiz-faire attitude rather offensive on this account.

    No point in trying to go through the issues here. I’m just saying there are significant arguments both from the Gospels and from Paul that pose serious problems for a strict Lutheran perspective.


  16. I apologize for not reading the comments before reading myself.

    There is of course much uncomfortable truth in the original essay. I work almost entirely with nonChristians, however, and my impression is pointing out the weaknesses of Christians is simply an excuse for not engaging the issues. As evidence, I would point to those few Christians we all know who do show enormous humility, sacrifice, and kindness – the nonbelievers around them make the same accusations.

    I say this because that was what I also did as a pre-believer.

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