What happens when Jesus is separated from the Gospel? He becomes an abstraction, free to be molded into any image or idea we want Him to take. No longer is He the God who loves us through concrete, verifiable ways in history. No longer is He the God who came down from heaven to die on a cross for our sins. No longer is He the God who rose to new life to bring us into eternity with Him. Jesus becomes a directionless divinity, an idle idolatry.
Below are a few false christs that result when we sever Jesus from the Gospel.
Those who idolized this form of Jesus lift good teaching over the Good News: Jesus as instructor over God incarnate. It doesn’t deny a historical Jesus. Sure, He existed; but Jesus was only a man and not God incarnate. He didn’t do the miracles the gospels claim. He wasn’t born of the Virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. But He didn’t rise from the dead (and certainly isn’t seated at the right hand of the Father). Jesus was only a good teacher, no different than any other influential religious figure of history.
Holding to Jesus’ teaching while denying His divinity presents a host of complications that make it difficult to take one and leave the other. For starters, what does one do with Jesus’ teaching that He is God and as God, came to die for the sins of humanity and rise from the dead? Are we free to ignore those teachings and hold to His other, “more rational” ones?
Holding to Jesus’ teaching while denying His divinity presents a host of complications that make it difficult to take one and leave the other.
Another issue arises from the fact that Jesus’ teachings and His miracles reside together in the same source documents — Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The historical reliability of these documents makes it difficult to ignore His miracles, including His incarnation and resurrection and accept any of His teachings as authoritative and true. The Gospels say Jesus’ miracles testify to His authority not only to teach but to forgive sins as God incarnate (Mark 2:5–11 and John 20:30–31). When we dismiss the historical reliability of the gospels, and with them, Jesus’ miracles, all that’s left to determine the validity of His teaching is our reason.
Ultimately, this false Jesus boils down to salvation by means of human knowledge and reason. Reason rules over Scripture, instead of serving our understanding of it. All this in hopes to replace the authority of God with human authority. This allows us to pick and choose those teachings which fit into our idea of who Jesus should and shouldn’t be.
The problem is that our reason can’t save us. “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God” (1 Cor. 1:27–29). We cannot ascend to a knowledge of salvation by our own reason or strength. Faith is a gift of the Holy Spirit. The acknowledgment of our sin does not itself earn forgiveness for sin. Only Jesus, God incarnate, could win forgiveness for our sin by becoming our sin and dying on the cross.
The Spiritual Guide
Those who worship at the feet of this false christ lift good advice over the Good News. They don’t deny Jesus as the Son of God, but do overlook His incarnation in favor of an ethereal Christ who is known primarily through hyper-spiritualized, often emotionally charged experiences. Jesus becomes part life coach, part guru, and part porter for the individual’s assent to new spiritual heights, rather than the incarnate God who came down to give His life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45).
The root of the problems presented by this false christ is a Gnostic tendency to favor the spiritual over and against the material. God is not most assuredly found outside the individual in Word and Sacrament. Instead, one is directed inside, to the recesses of the heart to find Him.
This emphasis on the spiritual over material means of grace implies that spiritual advancement is measured by subjective feelings and experiences. To this end, the individual’s personal spiritual journey dominates the corporate worship experience. The church is no longer marked by the pure teaching of the Gospel and the correct administering of the Sacraments, but by each believer’s progressing personal piety. Forgiveness of sins becomes a means to an end, not the end itself.
The church is no longer marked by the pure teaching of the Gospel and the correct administering of the Sacraments, but by each believer’s progressing personal piety.
The salvation this christ offers is found in the notion that Christ grows ever present in us, in our hearts, as we grow in our piety. It ignores the truth that Christ is ever present for us and for our salvation and that He is most assuredly found in His Word and Sacraments.
While there are advice-like elements to Jesus’ teaching, the ultimate goal of His teaching was to point us to the Gospel: that He is God incarnate and came to die for the forgiveness of our sins on the cross. He came because we could not ascend the heights to heaven. And He came in the flesh to redeem our sin-corrupted human bodies.
The Safety Blanket
Worshipers of this false christ lift their idea of the good life over the Good News. This good life is full of safety and void of suffering. In an effort to evade the latter, Jesus becomes a safety blanket designed to guard and protect from any hardships. He is carried around to protect his adherents from anything that might infringe upon the comforts of the good life, whether it be physical pain or an intellectual challenge to their assumptions about the idol they have sown for themselves.
Since the absence of suffering is paramount, the focus of the Christian life shifts. No longer is the resurrected life marked by the forgiveness of sins merited for us by Christ’s wounds and poured out on us in the waters of Baptism. Instead, God’s favor is distinguished by a victorious life of blessings (usually material), free from pain and full of comfort. Suffering is blamed on the presence of sins or a particular sin in a person’s life and a sign of God’s contempt.
Ignored are Jesus’ words in Luke 6 about the upside down way of life in the kingdom of God. “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets. But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep. Woe to you, when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets” (21–26).
The crucified Christ is an affront to the safety blanket Jesus. The violence and suffering that took place on the cross bring discomfort and discord. So they downplay it and attempt to scrub the cross clean by replacing it with the resurrection. Jesus becomes what Rev. Matthew Richard wrote, “a crossless christ with no blood, no wounds, and no suffering.”
Jesus the safety blanket offers no protection at all. Living the good life because of earthly blessing cannot protect us from the evil and chaos of the world. Feeling comfortable cannot protect us from the attacks of the Devil. Feeling safe cannot protect us from the self-centered inclinations our sinful nature. Instead of salvation by Christ’s work for us, this Jesus offers up salvation by our own work to root out sin in our lives in hopes of reaping of earthly rewards.
When we lift anything over the Good News, whether it be good teaching, good advice, or the ideal good life, Jesus becomes a new law-giver instead of the Law fulfill-er.
These are but a few of the numerous false christs. Though these false images of Jesus differ, they all have a common denominator: they separate Him from the Gospel. When we lift anything over the Good News, whether it be good teaching, good advice, or the ideal good life, Jesus becomes a new law-giver instead of the Law fulfill-er (Matt. 5:17). And we remain trapped in despair.
But take heart! Jesus Christ, God incarnate, took on flesh. He became your sin and died for you. You are forgiven.