What Does Jesus Tell Us to Do?

Reading Time: 3 mins

What if Jesus had said on the cross, “Earn it”?

I grew up in a Christian culture that revolved around W.W.J.D (What Would Jesus Do) bracelets, calls to action, Life Application Study Bibles, and the constant drumbeat of “go and do more for Jesus.” 

The gospel got me into the Christian club, and now it was my job to live like, look like, and talk like a Christian via my righteous living. Popular, contemporary Christian culture was primarily focused on giving me many things to do as a Christian. The main focus was on my improvement in life. The gospel was passed over to get down to business: the work I did to change the world as a Christian. 

The chains of the so-called “purpose-driven life” dragged me down to the bottom of burnout and despair. I escaped only when God sent people into my life who told me about the actual finished work of Jesus Christ for me. It took me crashing and burning from the weight of seminary and spiritual growth charts to finally admitting I could not work out my salvation in the champion Christian life. 

The weight of the armor I worked so hard to keep buckled tight to me dropped me to my knees. Being freed from these burdens changed my life and how I see and hear Christian messaging. I could never work to place the armor of God on me. It was God who held his armor on me. 

This is why I am so “triggered,” as the kids say, when I hear things that emphasize my work for Jesus at the expense of his work for me. When I see church signs that say things like “Jesus died for you. Live for him,” it is clear that, as Rod Rosenbladt has said, “the emPHASIS is on the wrong syLLABLE.” Such statements reveal the desire to worship our work and ourselves rather than Christ. The desire to add that second sentence “Live for him,” after the gospel smacks of the circumcision party coming in and messing up the good news that started in the church in Galatia. It is exactly what C.F.W. Walther identified in the seventh thesis of his work, The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel:

In the third place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when the Gospel is preached first and then the law; sanctification first and then justification; faith first and then repentance; good works first and then grace. [1]

Hearing the law after hearing the gospel on a Sunday morning service reminds me of what Captain Miller said to Private Ryan in the movie, Saving Private Ryan. After finding and rescuing Private Ryan, Captain Miller lies dying when he whispers his last words to Ryan, “Earn it.” The movie ends with Ryan as an older man who has lived his entire life wondering if he earned that sacrifice. That daily haunting must have been devastating and terrorizing – without grace and without peace. This could not have been good news for Ryan to hear.  

What if Jesus had said on the cross, “Earn it”? Maybe you have often felt as you left church on any given Sunday that you were given this command: “Go and earn it in your living, your serving, your loving, your morals, your speech, your everything. Go and live for Jesus because he died for you! You bear the name of Christ, Christian, so live like it!” 

But “Earn it” sounds a lot like “Be Afraid.” 

Fortunately, Christ’s last words before he died on the cross were not “Earn it” but “It is finished.” Jesus said so many times in Scripture to “fear not.” If what you are hearing at the end of a sermon sounds a lot like “Earn it, do more, try harder, or be afraid,” you are not hearing the gospel. Instead, you are hearing some version of the law and are therefore being accused in a way that only the law knows how to do because the law was never meant to bless, resurrect, or give peace to a sinner. It may seem scary and wrong to end a sermon by handing over forgiveness to sinners, but this is the only show in town that can set people free, give life to the spiritually dead, and comfort troubled consciences.

Fortunately, Christ’s last words before he died on the cross were not “Earn it” but “It is finished.” Jesus said so many times in Scripture to “fear not.”

Preaching is not for life application. Instead, preaching is for proclamation. Specifically, for proclaiming this: “Christ was crucified on the cross for the forgiveness of your sins and was raised for your justification.” But what about good works? Surely we need to tell people in church to do good works? 

Yet Scripture tells us that it is the gospel and God himself that produces good works. “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10). This echoes an exchange between Jesus and a crowd, “Then they asked him, ‘What must we do to do the works God requires?’ Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent” (John 6:28-29, NIV).

So what does Jesus leave us with? Fear and motivation to do more and try harder? I think this passage answers that question and settles the matter of what people should leave Sunday morning with: “Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Do not let your heart be troubled, nor let it be fearful” (John 14:27).

Surely, those who grew up in churches and Sunday Schools that were designed to create good, champion Christians in their Christian living might get antsy and demand that you must give them sinners something to do. So after proclaiming the gospel to a church full of sinner saints and handing over the forgiveness of sins, you can give them something to go do. Tell them to do this:

“Go in Peace!”

[1] C.F.W Walther, “Thesis VII,” essay, in The Proper Distinction between Law and Gospel (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1986), 89.