This is part of a short series on my first book, The Evangelical Experience. Chapter 3 is simply entitled "Jesus." This is the entire chapter.
It’s all about Jesus. Nothing is more important to an Evangelical Christian than Jesus Christ: What he did for you on the cross, and what he wants you to do with your life. Within the Evangelical system of thought, Jesus plays three key roles. Jesus is your Savior. Jesus is your Lord. And Jesus is your Friend. Each of these roles compliments each other and creates a diverse understanding and experience of Christ.
JESUS AS SAVIOR AND ATONING SACRIFICE
The primary way that Evangelical Christians view Jesus is as their personal Savior. One of the reasons that this is the primary lens to view Jesus through is that it often connects to the conversion experience. When you first meet Jesus, it is as Savior.
When someone is introduced to Jesus and the gospel, there is usually some structured sequence of thoughts, a presentation, they are led through which explains the most core concepts of the faith. One of the most common of these presentations is called the Romans Road to Salvation. I literally had a small card in my wallet that contained the Romans Road in case I found myself with the opportunity to lead someone to Christ. This series of verses/ ideas follows the book of Romans, which was written by the apostle Paul and is arguably a more fundamental document to Evangelical theology than even the four Gospels.
The Romans Road presentation runs as follows:
Romans 3:23: “For all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God.” The first step to finding Jesus is the recognition that you have sinned and are, therefore, a sinner. You need grace and forgiveness. If your life were to end today and you were on trial before God for how you lived, you would be found guilty. Sometimes an evangelist will try to get an individual to realize this by listing off the Ten Commandments. Have you ever lied? You are a liar. Have you ever stolen anything? You are a thief. Have you ever lusted in your heart after any person who was not your spouse? You are an adulterer (Jesus, in the Gospels, says that lusting in your heart is equivalent to the act itself). It’s hard for someone to argue that they have never sinned. No one is perfect. The evangelist tells the individual that, because of their sin, they can expect just punishment from God.
Romans 6:23: “For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” After you admit your sinfulness, the evangelist leads you further down the road. Not only can you expect punishment, but the punishment is death. Often this is interpreted to mean that you will go to Hell when you die (i.e. not only a physical death, but a spiritual death as well). Sometimes other verses in which Jesus warns against hellfire are added here. Discussion about the nature of Hell may also be included and is often presented simply as “eternity away from God.” The alternative is the offer of eternal life through Jesus Christ.
Romans 5:8: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” To save you from eternal death, God sent Jesus to die on the cross for your sins. This is the way that God shows His love to humanity and creates a way for us to be with Him forever. Because God is just, He must punish sin. But because God is loving, He sent His Son as an atoning sacrifice to take the punishment we deserve. This transaction is technically called “penal substitutionary atonement.” Just as lambs were slaughtered for the forgiveness of sins in the Hebrew Scriptures, Jesus is slaughtered as the ultimate Lamb of God. It is in this way that Jesus dies for your sins and expresses his love to you personally."
Romans 10:9: “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” The transaction is complete and you are forgiven of all your sins when you confess Jesus as your Lord and Savior. Often, at this point, an individual is led through a Sinner’s Prayer. An example, put out by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and PeaceWithGod.net, is as follows:
Dear Lord Jesus, I know I am a sinner, and I ask for your forgiveness. I believe you died for my sins and rose from the dead. I trust and follow you as my Lord and Savior. Guide my life and help me to do your will. In your name, Amen.
Thus, from the very beginning, Jesus is presented as Savior. Because the fundamental problem that is being solved by the cross is sin, the fundamental lens that Jesus is seen through is as Savior from sin. Jesus’ other roles are important to the Evangelical, but are secondary.
JESUS AS LORD
The initial experience of Jesus is as Savior, but the deepening experience of Jesus is as Lord. In all of orthodox Christian theology, Jesus is not only the Son of God but is also God Incarnate – fully man and fully God. The theories that explain how Jesus was both fully human and fully Divine are complicated and there are several models that try to do so, but understanding this doctrine philosophically is not important to most Evangelicals. It is generally left to the theologians to do so, or perhaps simply considered a paradox. But if Jesus is God Incarnate, he is also necessarily one’s Lord or Master. We have four Gospels that made it into the orthodox canon of Scripture. For the Evangelical, the direct words of Jesus are found in these Gospels (generally, Evangelicals don’t play the historical Jesus game in which scholars sift through the Gospel material and try to determine what goes back to the historical Jesus vs. what was simply a product of the early church). Because Jesus is seen as God Incarnate, and we have his direct words recorded, whatever Jesus says in the Gospels is true. Whether it is a theological statement about God, a comment on ethics, an observation about human behavior, a command to his disciples, or a prediction of the future, whatever Jesus says goes. He is Lord.
When one accepts Jesus as Lord and becomes a “disciple,” they are signing up for the most difficult mission of their life. Living up to the commands of Jesus is not only challenging, it is nearly impossible. In the Gospels, Jesus commands his disciples to give up everything for him, even to the point of death. He tells people to sell everything they own, giving the proceeds to the poor, and to forsake even their own families if necessary.
Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.
– Matthew 10: 37-39
Ethically, he directs his disciples to “be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” He is uncompromising. Jesus is not some new age spiritual teacher; he is a Hebrew prophet. Jesus commands in the name of God. The Christian journey is one of trying to follow Jesus, failing, and continuing to get up, again and again. If you’re resting and okay with where you’re at in the journey, you’re probably going backwards. There is work to be done in Jesus’ name. The Lordship of Jesus Christ demands everything a Christian has, and is not taken lightly.
Within every religion there are going to be members with varying levels of dedication. Evangelicalism is not exempt from this reality. In some churches, Jesus is watered down. He is a Jesus who just wants you to be happy and is always on your side. He is a Jesus you pray to like you were sitting on Santa Claus’ lap. One who, you hope, gives you what you want for Christmas. But this is not the biblical Jesus. Authentic discipleship carries a seriousness with it, and authentic Evangelicals have an uncompromising seriousness about following Christ as Lord.
JESUS AS FRIEND
Because accepting Jesus as Lord and committing your life to him is such a severe task, the believer also needs to experience Jesus as Friend. Sometimes this is experienced by reading the Gospels, because, although Jesus is severe, he is also presented as a loving Master who leads his flock gently.
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.
– Matthew 11: 28-30
I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit -fruit that will last -and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you.
– John 15: 15-16
Jesus is also often recorded as sharing table fellowship with tax collectors and notorious sinners. Table fellowship was a sign of intimacy and friendship in the ancient world and it is a comfort to know that Jesus shared meals even with those who were considered sinful by the religious authorities.
While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
– Matthew 9: 10-12
While the experience of Jesus as Friend is aided by reading Scripture, just as often Jesus is experienced as Friend through personal witness to a believer’s soul. That “deeper voice” inside us that we might hear in a silent place or when in prayer is often identified as Jesus and a believer may even practice forms of imaginative prayer in which they are encouraged to visualize Jesus speaking to them. In this way Jesus can counsel the believer through specific problems, give encouragement, and tell the believer that they are forgiven and loved. Different people have different beliefs regarding what constitutes “Jesus talking to them.” Some might not hesitate to say “I heard Jesus tell me ___ .” Others are much more measured. But most Evangelicals are going to have some concept of experiencing Jesus in their soul as a Counselor or Friend, however that is described.
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These interpretations of Jesus are fundamental to the Evangelical experience. One has the personal assurance that they are loved and forgiven by God due to Jesus’ role as Savior. They have a mission and commands to follow due to Jesus’ role as Lord. And they are strengthened and encouraged in the task by Jesus’ role as Friend. These roles mutually reinforce one another, leading the Christian on their journey of discipleship. Jesus is, in a sense, the whole deal, and following him should be the believer’s primary concern. Anything that stands in the way of that is a danger to one’s soul.
One effect that the experience of Jesus has on the believer is generally an exclusivistic outlook on the faith. Unlike in the liberal strands of Christianity and other religions, there is no room for pluralism. Jesus isn’t Allah, Vishnu, or any other deity. Jesus is the unique Son of God and does not compete with other gods. Other gods are idols. The superiority of the Christian religion, and especially the claims of Jesus over and against other deities, is heavily emphasized. As John Hick points out in The Metaphor of God Incarnate, these ideas are simply a logical conclusion of traditional Christology (doctrine about Jesus):
If Jesus was God incarnate, the Christian religion is unique in having been founded by God in person. The Christian story is that in Jesus God came down to earth and inaugurated a new and redeemed community, the church; and it seems self-evident that God must wish all human creatures to become part of this community; so the church is called to convert the human race to the Christian faith.
Another effect that the experience of Jesus has on the Evangelical is a reaction against watered down, “liberal” Christianity. Often in mainline or liberal branches of Christianity, focus will be taken off of Jesus and his unique claims in the Gospels, specifically his claims of Divinity in the Gospel of John. The focus in these churches might be more on God in the abstract, loose spirituality, and social justice causes. The Evangelical is very much rooted in Jesus Christ and may have a strong reaction against what they believe to be a diluting of the faith.
Finally, the experience of Christ gives the believer the comfort that, in Jesus, they have everything they truly need. When life gets chaotic, and you find yourself upset or overwhelmed by day to day, worldly concerns, you can always return to your center – Jesus Christ. Scripture teaches that, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” True disciples know that nothing on earth will truly fulfill them, that their treasure is only ultimately found in their Lord and Savior. The classic hymn Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus captures this reality well:
Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in his wonderful face. And the things of this world will grow strangely dim, in the light of His glory and grace.
When the believer accepts Jesus into their heart, the things of this world grow strangely dim.