Is “What Would Jesus Do” (WWJD) Biblical?
I was recently asked by a member of the congregation my stance on WWJD (“What Would Jesus Do?”). Before I get too deep into this issue, a little context is in order. The church in which I serve is a member church in the Reformed Church in the United States (RCUS). The RCUS is a denomination with German Reformed roots going all the way back to the Reformation itself. The RCUS subscribes to the Three Forms of Unity (TFU) as their secondary standard of authority after the Holy Bible itself. The TFU are: The Belgic Confession, The Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dordt. These three documents express a decidedly Calvinistic theology.
Why does this matter to the question? Well, in Reformed circles, the emphasis is on God’s sovereignty and free grace. You may have heard of the “Five Solas” of the Reformation (Sola Scriptura, Sola Fide, Sola Gratia, Solus Christus, and Soli Deo Gloria). In English, they read: Scripture Alone, Faith Alone, Grace Alone, Christ Alone, to the Glory of God Alone. In other words, we are saved through faith alone by grace alone in Christ alone to the glory of God alone. Furthermore, Scripture alone is the sole infallible source of authority in faith and practice for the Christian.
So when a Reformed person hears WWJD, there is an almost autonomic negative response to it. The feeling is that WWJD reduces the richness of the Christian faith to a slogan: What would Jesus do? It also seems to suggest that to be a Christian is simply using Jesus’ life as an example to emulate. It reduces the sovereign grace of God in salvation to a crass “do this and live” mentality.
Now as one who considers himself Reformed, I understand that reaction to WWJD. There are some segments of Christianity who preach “saved by grace, stay saved by works,” or “saved by grace, sanctified (made holy) by works.” I believe this is a perversion of the gospel. It preaches a “do more, try harder” type of Christianity that creates anxiety or burn out in Christians. The Christian life is a life of faith from beginning to end:
Romans 1:17 (NKJV) For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, "The just shall live by faith."
Now if this person had asked me 10-15 years ago, as I was becoming reformed in my own thinking, I might have very well reacted much the way I described above. Basically saying that WWJD has no place in a Reformed church and should not be used as means to train children. However, now as a pastor of a church, my responses have to be more measured, more thought out. Rather than react with a negative response as the subject of WWJD is brought up, I gave a more nuanced response.
Two reasons. First, a negative reaction on this subject would have not been helpful. Here was a dear saint in the congregation attempting to raise her children in the Lord, and she thought that WWJD was a useful tool to help train her children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. So to get a negative reaction from her pastor would be shocking to say the least.
Secondly, I think there is an aversion to “works” in Reformed circles. I love Reformed theology and I love redemptive-historical preaching, but if all of our preaching application is only and exclusively “trust in Jesus, rest in Jesus, look to Jesus,” I think we’re missing the point. We’re so focused on God’s sovereign grace in salvation that we forget that the Bible does contain commands. Shocking, I know, but it does! We need to preach the commands in Scripture as commands! If all we do in preaching commands is “you can’t do it, Jesus did it, trust in Him,” then I think that kind of preaching is just as shallow as “do more, try harder.”
Reformed preaching needs to be balanced. It must be rooted and grounded in God’s sovereign grace toward us in salvation. Amen! Reformed preaching must emphasize the fact that Jesus Christ is our righteousness, that He did for us what we couldn’t do for ourselves. Amen! However, we must also not forget that the imperatives (commands) of Scripture flow out of the indicatives (facts) of Scripture. Because Jesus did, we can do!
Let’s not forget that in the RCUS, our very own beloved Heidelberg Catechism is organized as: Sin, Salvation, Service; or Guilt, Grace, Gratitude. In fact, LD32, Q86 asks “Since, then, we are redeemed from our misery by grace through Christ, without any merit of ours, why must we do good works?” That’s a really good question! The Catechism gives three answers: (1) “We show ourselves thankful to God for His blessing, and that He be glorified through us;” (2) “We ourselves may be assured of our faith by the fruits thereof;” (3) “By our godly walk win also others to Christ.”
This is so much more than simply “rest in Christ, look to Christ, trust in Christ.” Jesus Himself said, “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word” (John 14:23). Obedience = Love of Christ! Let’s not also forget that the Bible does speak of WWJD. Consider the following:
1 Corinthians 11:1 (NKJV) Imitate me, just as I also [imitate] Christ.
Ephesians 5:1 (NKJV) Therefore be imitators of God as dear children.
Colossians 2:6 (NKJV) As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him
Imitate Paul as he imitates Christ, be imitators of God, as we have received Christ so walk in Him...all of this sounds like WWJD. Not to mention all of the passages that speak of “walking” in general.
So is WWJD Biblical? Yes. There are clear commands in Scripture which call us to walk as Christ walked. Can WWJD be abused? Yes. Like anything good and useful, it can be reduced to a cliche and abused. Should we balance obedience with faith? Absolutely! We must always remember that our obedience to Christ flows out of His salvation for us. It is always a walk of faith that is grounded in God’s great salvation for us; never as a means to obtain God’s favor.
EDIT (11/04/2020): In an earlier version of this post, I had previsouly mentioned a "former pastor of Emmanuel Reformed Church." It was brought to my attention that unless I had spoke with this man about it, making a disagreement between pastors public information was inappropriate. Obviously I agree with that critique. It was a lapse in my own judgment for which I apologize. Even more so since I do not know the identity of the former pastor, even more reason NOT to mention that information. I will endeavor to avoid such gross lapses of judgment in the future.