When grace is missing from the Christian message, we are so quickly led to false views of Jesus. Matt Johnson admits his struggles over 20 years of following false Jesus’s, some who set an impossibly high standard and some who were just there to help him fulfil his own dreams.
This book reads as though for the first time in long life of faith, he has truly grasped the gospel of grace. It is almost a recovery story. It’s personal and records a process still in progress.
Johnson identifies four false views of Jesus:
- Life Coach Jesus – it’s all about you, Jesus helps you achieve your goals. Society’s view of “moral therapeutic deism” was more clearly explained in Spiritual Formation in Emerging Adulthood and the same ideas were here. When this is our tendency, we must remember is that Christianity is about Jesus, not us and our live dreams. As Johnson says “You’ve got you own problems, and you need a bigger story too. I don’t know about you, but I don’t need a life coach; I need a Savior.” (p30).
- Checklist Jesus – where we are always looking for the one thing that will fix our lives and make us truly right with God. It could be mastering ‘the quiet time’, or having a spiritual experience. But what we need to realise is there is nothing we lack when we are in Christ, we are already loved unconditionally.
- Movement Leader Jesus – here Johnson shares some of his experiences in a mega-church. The cool place where thousands flocked and people all looked to the pastor and his family as their role model. People keep looking for the perfect church, yet there is no perfect church. He concludes that all we need is faithful preaching (and he also adds communion and baptism). No fancy lightshows, no rock band. We need Jesus to be present in his word and that is enough.
- Visionary Jesus – again through the mega-church experience, Johnson highlights the problems with following the visionary leader. A leader must be a shepherd, not a narcissist who expects everyone to meet their desire for church growth. God loves us as we are and where we are. Our ministries are a gift and service to him, not a way of proving our worth in his kingdom.
Not surprisingly, these false views of Jesus don’t need lead us to a saviour – instead they lead in two directions – pride and despair. We hold ourselves up thinking we are worthy and we did it on our own, or we despair that we never meet the standard that we think Jesus wants.
Johnson then leads us through the despair of a life lived under the law compared to the saving, refreshing, redeeming truth of God’s grace. Finishing with some vulnerable, personal observations about his life, Johnson leads the reader to see that when we turn to grace alone, fleeing the false views of Jesus that are all about performance, we are brought both to humility and to hope.
He writes in a very casual, conversational style, with numerous stories and illustrations. His language and phrasing is (dare I say it?) ‘young’. I suspect people who are older than me or a bit more traditional in their reading might find the style a bit grating.
I found myself wanting one more chapter at the end. What now? So, you have thrown down all these false views, but what does that mean for how I live today? When I read Titus 2:11-14, I see:
For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope–the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.
How do I do that, while I still grasp firmly to grace and not to performance? I felt he left the reader wanting more guidance at the end.
Yet this is a book that has made me think. Many of his false views of Jesus are not obviously apparent in circles I move in, but I know they exist. Anyone who is in the megachurch movement might be challenged to analyse the message of Jesus they are given. Yet we all tend to a legalistic view of the Christian life. Am I doing enough? Is God pleased with me? Can I affect my salvation at all? This is a refreshing balm to the soul in the reminder that God is all we need; he does not need us at all, but he calls us to come to him, broken and despairing, knowing he alone can save.