Reaching the peak of its popularity in the mid-1990s, the phrase “What Would Jesus Do?” used to be the de facto slogan of mainstream American evangelicalism. (Remember the bracelets and wristbands?) And although its prevalence has declined in recent years, a quick internet search reveals that WWJD remains a popular motto.
You can still find the famous acronym emblazoned on a wide array of available paraphernalia: from the expected forms of share-wear (like bracelets, t-shirts, and buttons) to more-surprising curiosities (like baby onesies and pacifiers). There are WWJD books, booklets, bumper stickers, mugs, key chains, and cell phone cases. There are even several films: the 2010 original, and two sequels.
Yet, despite the continuing popularity of this evangelical catchphrase, I doubt the majority of American Christians have ever seriously evaluated whether or not the question, “What Would Jesus Do?” is a biblically-valid mechanism for everyday decision-making.
Upon closer examination, I would suggest that WWJD—at least in terms of its popular application today—is often less than helpful, and sometimes downright dangerous.
History of the Phrase
A brief survey of the history of the phrase reveals that it was born out of the social gospel of the late nineteenth-century.
The social gospel, which was primarily championed by theological liberals, attempted to undermine the true gospel by redefining it in terms of social justice and community activism. Advocates of the social gospel focused on curing society’s ills such as economic inequality, alcoholism, poor working conditions, homelessness, slums, and inadequate education.
To be clear, as believers, we ought to be concerned with thinking about how a Christian worldview affects society. But the problem with the social gospel, is that it eclipsed the true gospel in the preaching and thinking of those who promoted it.
For them, the gospel message was no longer about the salvation of sinners from the wrath of God through the atoning work of Jesus Christ. Instead, the social gospel was about saving society from poverty and inequality through the establishment of things like labor unions, political action groups, and charitable organizations.
Consequently, the true gospel was obscured and distorted by those who preached the social gospel. In their minds, even the death of Christ was viewed, not as a sacrifice for sin, but merely as a good example of love and selflessness that people should try to follow in their efforts to cure society’s problems.
So, what does all of this have to do with the phrase, “What Would Jesus Do?”
One of the early popularizes of the social gospel, and of Christian socialism, was a man named Charles Sheldon. A pastor and author, Sheldon published a famous novel in 1896 entitled, In His Steps, the subtitle of which is: What Would Jesus Do?
Throughout that book, Sheldon repeated his famous question through the lips of his characters, as they considered certain social problems, like homelessness and poverty, and contemplated how they might help alleviate those issues.
“What Would Jesus Do?” quickly became a slogan for liberal theology and a catchphrase for a pseudo-gospel of community activism.
Yet, in spite of these questionable beginnings, the phrase was indiscriminately adopted and popularized by evangelicals roughly a hundred years later.
In addition to its historic connection to theological liberalism, there are also issues with how the phrase is popularly used by modern evangelicals.
For many American Christians, “What Would Jesus Do?” represents a rudimentary guide for everyday decision-making.
Should I make a particular purchase? watch a certain movie? take a specific job? marry a particular person? move to a new location? To these and a thousand similar questions, the acronym WWJD is enthusiastically applied.
But there are at least two problems with using WWJD as a guide for making everyday decisions.
First, it ignores the obvious fact that we are not Jesus. We cannot do all of the things that Jesus did, nor can we make the same claims He made.
After all, “What would Jesus do?” Well, the four Gospels tell us: Jesus would walk on water; He would rebuke the wind and the waves and they would obey Him. Jesus would miraculously heal the sick, fully restore the injured, and raise the dead to life. He would answer prayer, accept worship, and forgive sins. He would declare Himself to be the eternal Son of God. And He would die as the perfect sacrifice for sin.
We know that Jesus would do those things, because that is, in fact, what Jesus did. The simple yet profound reality is that you and I cannot do those things, because we are not Him.
That brings us to a second concern: in its popular usage, WWJD is usually applied in an arbitrary way, based solely upon what a person subjectively imagines Jesus might do in a given situation.
But that is not a biblically-sound method for decision making. Being biblical about our choices begins by looking to the Bible. We shouldn’t rely on our imaginations to discern what honors Christ, because He has clearly revealed His will for us in His Word.
Hence, a better question for believers to ask themselves would be: “What Would Jesus Demand (that we do)?” What are His directives, His desires, His declarations, and His dictates?
(My use of words that start with the letter “D” was intentional. That way, if you feel compelled to keep your WWJD bracelet or if you can’t get that bumper sticker off your car, you can simply adjust the acronym.)
The Bible teaches that Christ is our King and we are His subjects; He is our Lord, and we are His servants; He is our Master, we are His slaves. “To follow Him,” then, is to submit to Him, obey Him, swear allegiance to Him, and carry out His will. We can know what Jesus wants us to do by going to His Word where His will is unambiguously revealed.
Following Jesus’ Example
Now, someone might ask: But aren’t there places in the New Testament where Christ’s example is given to us as a model that we are to emulate?
The answer to that, of course, is yes.
The Lord Jesus pointed to His own example in John 13 and John 15, in the Upper Room, after He had washed the disciples’ feet. And Paul appealed to Christ’s example in Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3 when he instructed his readers to love one another and to forgive one another just as Christ has loved and forgiven them.
We might note, of course, that the context of those commands pertains to the way that believers treat fellow believers in the church, and not the way in which the church thinks about cultural problems in society at large.
But here’s the point: Too often, the subjective sentiment represented by WWJD completely ignores the contextual constraints of the biblical text.
In other words, too many people make WWJD mean whatever they imagine it to mean—rather than allowing Scripture to inform their thinking. It is that arbitrary application of this famous four-letter acronym, along with its historic association with bad theology, that generally renders it less than helpful.
To reiterate an earlier point: The Word of Christ (and not our imaginations) ought to be our guide for decision-making. For example, when 1 John 2:6 instructs believers to “walk in the same manner as Jesus walked,” it is in the context of obeying His commands (vv. 3–5). And that, of course, points us directly back to Scripture.
A Case in Point
It is important to note that the actual question, “What would Jesus do?” does not appear on the pages of Scripture. It comes from the subtitle of Charles Sheldon’s famous novel. However, the main title of that famous work, In His Steps, is derived from a phrase found in the New Testament.
In 1 Peter 2:21, the apostle Peter writes, “For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps.” But does that verse provide biblical warrant for the way WWJD is commonly applied?
The simple answer is no. In its context, 1 Peter 2:21 has nothing to do with curing society’s ills, nor is it referring to the mundane choices of everyday life. When Peter appeals to Christ’s example here, he is pointing to the way in which Jesus responded to persecution and unjust suffering. The command in this text is a specific call to endure persecution in keeping with the pattern of Christ Himself.
It is in that sense that we are to follow in His steps.
Peter leaves no doubt as to what this kind of Christ-like response would entail. In verses 22–23, he demonstrates that the Lord Jesus responded to His attackers without sin, without deceit, without retaliation, without violence, and without any lapse of trust in God.
So if we were to ask the question, “What would Jesus do in the face of persecution?” this would be our answer. His actions would be sinless; His words would be true and non-threatening; and His mindset would be fully anchored by faith in God.
In the context of suffering and persecution, asking “What Would Jesus Do?” actually does reflect a biblical perspective (as reflected in 1 Peter 2:21). But that is rarely how WWJD is applied in contemporary evangelical circles.
Additionally, as the subsequent verses in 1 Peter make clear, we cannot ask “What would Jesus do in the face of suffering?” without also asking “What did Jesus do through His suffering?” As the apostle goes on to explain:
He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed. For you were continually straying like sheep, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Guardian of your souls. (vv. 24–25)
Clearly, Christ’s passion was not merely a good example for us to emulate. His substitutionary sacrifice for sin provided the very means by which we are saved.
So, what should we make of WWJD?
Well, given its historic connections to the social gospel, and its arbitrary misapplication in contemporary circles, it’s probably best to avoid the famous acronym altogether.
But, if you feel compelled to keep that 20-year-old wrist band, please remember to think about the phrase within the constraints of its biblical context. Don’t forget that it is derived from a verse in 1 Peter 2 about how to respond in a Christ-like way to unfair treatment and persecution.
Moreover, as the surrounding verses make clear, it should never be divorced from that second essential question: “What did Jesus do?”—because therein lies the heart of the gospel.
(Today’s article was simultaneously published on Preachers & Preaching.)