The Demands of Jesus: A Letter

From a campus minister, and used with permission:

Is the Jesus Creed bad news? Where are you seeing this interpretation of the demands of Jesus?

Let me first say how much I have enjoyed reading your books, specifically The Jesus Creed, One Life, & The King Jesus Gospel.  I am a Baptist campus minister in Georgia.  Interestingly, I began working with campus ministry in the Chicago area … [and am now using] your book on prayer for a class I teach on Spiritual formation.  I myself have been praying fixed hour prayers using Phyllis Tickle’s prayer book.  It has provided structure and spontaneity at the same time.

Recently I heard a strange interpretation of the Jesus Creed saying it is really bad news because we can never fully love God and neighbor because of our sin.  He then used the Ten commandments as proof that we are never able to live the way God intended.  We must daily confess our unworthiness.  This is of course coming from a reformed way of thinking.

It just seems so fatalistic and negative to me.  For me, the Jesus creed is uplifting and challenging.  It challenges me to love more fully both God and my neighbor.  I realize that I may very well fall short but I see Jesus saying this to change our own way of thinking and living.  Is it really wrong to think we can love God and neighbor more fully by his grace?

Thanks for any insight you may have.

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  • DMH

    Do we live “more fully” by grace or the power of the Spirit? (not that the two have to be completely separate.)

  • candeux

    By that standard, all of Jesus’ teaching (and all Scripture teaching) on morality is bad news. This, of course, is why we need to gospel of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.

    For me, the value of the Jesus Creed is that it provides a simple rubric for assessing one’s actions, rather than having to remember hundreds of individual laws and regulations. Granted, it is easier to understand than it is to practice, but its simplicity is, as your correspondent put it, both “uplifting and challenging”.

    –Joe Canner

  • There’s an ‘already and not yet’ tension, the ‘Jesus Creed’ as you call it is also a description of a wholly redeemed world, in which we will never live on this side of Judgement day. We will indeed fail, and need to grow a whole life towards living it out more and more, but in the end it is the only way of life that could make sense looking from a Kingdom perspective. All else is futile…

    The ‘reformed’ view in the letter here to me is more like an ‘adventure in missing the point’ but maybe I’m just bad with reformed theology.

  • Andrew Holt

    Last night I was writing a response to a friend on my blog, and this friend happens to have a Reformed perspective. He was criticizing some of my criticisms of David Platt’s book, Follow Me. I summed up my response like this:

    “The core of our disagreement, I think, is that, in my opinion, you give sin too much credit. The creative act of God is more powerful and more enduring than the destructive acts of Satan or humans. If Jesus is Lord, then sin, death, hell, Satan, or anyone or anything else is not. The Genesis 3 world is passing away, and the Revelation 21-22 world (which is really just the mirror image of the Genesis 1-2 world) is coming. Jesus has already defeated sin, evil, and death. He is defeating them. And he will defeat them.”

    While I don’t want to discount sin, I just think the neoReformed folks give it way too much credit, as this letter-writer’s friend did. Jesus did something truly remarkable on the cross, and to imagine that the world goes on exactly as it did since Genesis 3 misses the point of our faith. Jesus’ death and resurrection (and the grace of God, and the power and presence of the Holy Spirit) enable us to love God, obeying him, in a way that was not possible before.

  • Phil Miller

    “Worm theology” rears its ugly head once again…

    Sometimes I feel really bad for people who are immersed into this particular type of Reformed thought. It gets very tiring going through life believing that God hates you and that nothing you can ever do will ever be pleasing to Him.

    That’s not to say that God simply winks at our sin as if it doesn’t matter, but, really, to have the idea that we are continually unworthy and essentially unlovable, well, people can only live like that for so long.

  • A bit of background on me: First, I incorporate a request for help to live the Jesus Creed in virtually all the shared prayers in our family (I have two young girls, 8 & 5) along with general thanks for every good thing and then other specific thanks, praise and requests. Second, I think the “Law/Gospel” lens that is common in Lutheran and general Reformed thought has major problems, not least of which include bifurcating Jesus so that only part of him is “grace” or “gospel” as this post illustrates.

    All that said, though, after decades of being a Christian, almost 20 of being married, only 8 of being a parent (!), and 3 years of facilitating and participating in a Christian support group whose sole purpose is to help its participants grow in love, I am more convinced than ever that, when it comes to love, the first and most important thing that Jesus reveals is not the Creed, but the love of the Father. We only love (God, others, enemies, etc.) because he loves all of us, even while we were at our worst, and before we gave a rip. Jesus only teaches the Creed because it reflects the character and heart of God. His parting command of love does not refer to how we love ourselves (the Golden Rule), but rather how he has loved us. As Paul says, we must be “rooted and established” in and thereby continually nourished by the love that comes from God, then we will be full with the fullness of God. We must come to see, as a regular, conscious occurrence, multiple times a day, the great love of the Father as the primary and over-arching context for everything–every event in our lives, every person we encounter. Nowhere is our status as the branches, and his as the Vine, more apparent then in living lives of love. To do it requires constant, life-giving, connection to him.

  • Scot, this seems like the unsurprising fruit of a very elementary version of what you call the “Soterian Gospel” in your book “The King Jesus Gospel”. In the extreme, the Soterian Gospel reduces the gospel to imputation of Christ’s righteousness (think John Piper) and then looks to find that reality on every page of scripture. When we allow this narrow definition to become a totalizing thing it seems like the inevitable outcome is a wooden reduction of any command or injunction to “law” or “bad news”. I’ve been thinking for a while now that the most tragic thing about this formulation of the gospel is that it leaves us with nothing for the here and now but a privatized/individualized quest for assurance and comfort.

    In other words, the idea of “becoming like Jesus” or “following Jesus” is completely lost if all we see is imputation.

  • John W. Frye

    I imagine your “reformed” friend has embraced a gospel aimed at sin management (as Dallas Willard suggested) rather than Christlikeness. There is a fundamental Trinitarian lapse in reformed “worm” theology–it has no place for the loving, powerful, indwelling Holy Spirit. This leaves people driven by guilt rather than love “poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit.” So, so sad.

  • Patrick O

    Someone seems to have lost everything after Romans 7 from their New Testament.

  • scotmcknight

    Tommy, actually it may be the opposite: it so magnifies the righteousness of Christ as gift that any demand focuses on human effort and devalues the glory of Christ. That’s how I hear much of this kind of conversation. Correct me if I’m wrong…. anyone?

  • scotmcknight

    Patrick, I’ve heard some refuse to teaching anything other than the doctrinal passages for fear of turning the grace of God into efforts by humans.

  • I see the Law/Gospel lens that’s at work here more of an over-reaction to the abuses that Luther and his contemporaries suffered, extended into today by generations of followers.

    If I yell to my child who is approaching a busy street, “Look out!” I don’t think there’s any problem categorizing my command as “grace” or “mercy” or “love.” But those within the L/G approach have a very hard time calling any command “grace” no matter how much it’s given out of love. There are only certain “uses of the law” (which includes Jesus’ own teachings!) and most if not all of them are for non-Christians. The whole scheme, to me, makes perfect sense for the religiously abused, which can be fine for a season, but if we always see Jesus’ own commands with suspicion, we will bear the fruit of that.

  • That seems very likely. I’ve actually heard that very line about “devaluing the glory of Christ”. It’s really puzzling when you think about it… wouldn’t it be true that Jesus is most glorified when we are becoming like Him?

  • Luke Allison

    Dr. McKnight,

    To me this is a New Perspective vs. Old Perspective argument deep down at its heart. If the primary issue of the Hebrew Scriptures is “how can we keep the law when we’re such rotten sinners?” then the Sermon on the Mount becomes a mechanism exposing this reality, and really nothing more. The teaching of Jesus holds no real power in this viewpoint (certainly not centrality), because it’s all subsumed by “our need for a savior.” I’m finding that this viewpoint has a subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle, as recent post-tornadic tweets have shown) dehumanizing effect. True moments of humanity become meaningless. Mother Theresa is a liberal mystic who didn’t understand the “true way” to salvation. Anyone who strives their whole life taking care of orphans is a pointless example of trying to work their way into heaven. The ramifications to this viewpoint are deadly.

    Something I’m working on is a popular level theological book that would explain and apply the NPP just like so many have done for the OPP (yeah, you know me.) If you think about it, most of the popular books on grace (Yancey, Keller, Ortberg, the list is endless) are still working from a “stop trying to save yourself and trust in God’s love” paradigm. The big story is lost. But because this popular level theology works, it sells and it spreads. How can we come up with a popular level NPP text that does the same thing?

  • rising4air

    Two things:
    1) I really appreciate the breadth of comments so far: everyone has captured what I sensed about this post, and much more.

    2) I note the use of the adverb “fully” as a subtle, but nonetheless significant move away from the Scripture’s use of the pronoun “all.”

    Scot and others, I’ll need your help here: It’s one thing for Jesus to invite us to bring all of our mind, etc. to love God and neighbor. It’s another thing for us to attend to how well we love or monitor the amplitude of our love.

    I’m not suggesting that we don’t have some responsibility to learn or improve or develop in our love of God or neighbor. Far from it.

    Rather, there is something else at play in this substitution in usage: Instead of getting on with loving God and neighbor, we’re paying attention to how we don’t love God or neighbor.

    There’s probably more to this observation, but it’s likely found in all of the comments so far.


  • Hmm, this might be my problem with glory-obsessed reformed theology:I am semantically lost here, I cannot see how such a thing would give Jesus more glory.. What definition of ‘glory’ do they use? where do they base their definition on?

  • Phil Miller

    It’s completely arbitrary as far as I can tell. I have heard a number of Reformed folks say something to the extent of that whatever God does, it’s meant to bring Him as most glory as possible. If something happens that doesn’t appear bring God glory, than we just can’t understand it fully yet. It’s kind of a “pay no attention to that man behind the curtain” theology.

  • Andrew Dowling

    I can’t help but think that the Reformed way of looking at the world masks some psychological issues of the proponent . . and I mean that seriously.

  • This minister’s concern is something to which I can strongly relate, and in fact wish to echo his sentiment. Though I understand works don’t “save”, but rather manifest the faith one already has by God’s grace, the question of commitment still lingers. For example, I could ask myself, “Am I thanking/loving God with everything I have, or is there still some small part of me I’m holding back?” Even if we can’t live as blamelessly as Christ, we still want to live with as little sin as possible; the question is, how can one ever tell if they’re doing as much as they could be?

    Of course, my view could be rather wrong-headed, in which case I’m very much open to correction.

  • Jean

    Andrew – I think your theology is spot on. However, I don’t know that the evidence in the world and among Christians confirms your thesis. I wish it did.

  • Jean

    Sam, someone put like this: grace is not opposed to effort; grace is opposed to earning. Paul encouraged effort and compared it with the training of an athlete. However, at the same time we acknowledge that we never do as much as we can; but, that’s okay. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Our poverty of faith and obedience should not shake our assurance that we adopted sons of God through Christ. If we live by the Spirit, we will mature in faith and obedience (i.e., sanctification).