Remember, Jesus is the Way, and He started by saying, “Follow Me.”
If all of this gives you pause, then I suggest a thought. We do not really know the gospel. It’s part of a multifaceted tapestry of other things. We have misplaced the gospel, perhaps become blind to it. It has become hidden in sermons, churches, self-help books, and apologetic philosophies.
I know that it can be difficult to differentiate between good theology and Jesus because in our culture they are glued together. To us, Jesus evolved from an ancient culture into a modern, churchgoing, legalistic, politically active, conservative Westerner. We see Jesus through the lenses of our concerns and grievances. We think of Jesus as an evangelical Christian.
I often have to force myself to come back to the straightforward resolution of Paul: to simply know nothing else but Jesus. I know the one place I can’t go wrong is the place where Jesus is. I can be weak, sinful, foolish, and even rebellious. I can fail others, ruin ministries, bumble my work, and still, I cannot go wrong when I stand with fear and trembling, knowing only Jesus Christ.
Often, instead of actually following Jesus, we’re trying to do all the things Christianity tells us, hoping to come out in the same place as Jesus. We have the right goal, but we’re following the wrong guide. I realize that it offends many people when I say that Jesus and Christianity are not the same thing. I’ve even heard it said that Christianity is the living Jesus on earth now. “John 1:1 says that Jesus is the Word,” someone admonished me, “and that clearly means if we’re living according to the Word, then we’re being Jesus.”
The problem here is one that I can’t solve. It’s a simple fact that there are complexities in both the world and the Bible. As Donald Miller pointed out, Christianity means ten different things to ten different people.1 That’s why I propose that we simplify all of the explanation and doctrine down to the pure nucleus: the person of Jesus Christ.
I’m not a brilliant theologian. I could preach endless sermons and write numerous books and never say any of this stuff exactly right. Let’s simplify by making two generalized distinctions. For the duration of this book, I’ll use Christianity as the catchall term for the Western model. Western Christian history, doctrine, theology, Western-style churches, reason, dogma, and denominations are all products and parts of Christianity.
The second distinction: What I’m proposing is simply following Jesus. This means learning from Him, obeying His teaching, doing what He did. Instead of trying to define the line that separates the saved from the unsaved, we point to Jesus. We don’t have to “own up to” Christendom this way. We simply follow Jesus. Christianity is problematic in so many ways. While the ideals of Christianity have a basis in Jesus, in the history of the world, from the Crusades to Calvin’s oppression of Geneva, we have often seen everything but Jesus’ love. Culturally, Christianity has met with resistance because of this pained history, and also because, to most of the world, embracing Christianity means embracing Western civilization, Western policy, and even Western rule.
Even within the boundaries of our own “civilized” countries, we can see the systemic problems within Christianity. Picketers, political manipulators, and cultural warmongers all tend to have their own versions of Christianity. Many racists consider themselves Christians. The same goes for many corrupt politicians, gangsters, and abusive parents.
The coin has another side too. Within the domain of Christianity, we all suffer beneath the weight of sin. Understanding the doctrine of forgiveness does not deliver us from sin. Jesus does. Our Western logic, our reason, our “right thinking” cannot deliver us from evil.