Practice What He Preached?

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The other day I was stopped behind this car at a traffic light near home, and noticed a bumper sticker on it that I had never seen before. It had Jesus’ face on it along with symbols from 15 different religions, and it read, “Practice what he preached.” I was so intrigued I snapped this photo with my phone.

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Here’s a close-up from Amazon, in case it’s hard to read.

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The message is a restatement of the more familiar “Coexist,” which this car was also displaying, except for the twist about its being what Jesus preached. That part in particular astonishing in multiple ways—and yet some good may come out of it anyway, as I reflect on my own reaction to it.

It is quite clear that Jesus did not preach anything like “coexist” with respect to other religions. He warned his followers they would be hated for for following him (Luke 6:22, John 15:18-25). When religious leaders had him killed it was not because of some grand inclusiveness on his part. It was because he kept insisting they were wrong, both in doctrine and in deed.

He did not say, “Have no enemies.” He said, “love your enemy.” If that kind of love is what one means by “coexist,” Jesus could agree. But he would insist that there is only one way, one truth, one life, and that he himself (and he only) is all of these (John 14:6).

Jesus was exclusivist to the point of paying the ultimate price. His death wasn’t just about his relationship with religious leaders. It was what he came to do. In Gethsemane he prayed, “Is there any other way?” (Matthew 26:30-39). He knew the answer. He died for us precisely because there was no other way. All other religions are ways of deceit and death. There is life in Christ, and only in him.

This is the Jesus of whom we have an historical record; it is the only Jesus of whom we have any record. Whence, then, comes a message like the one on this bumper sticker, so out of touch with evidence and reality? I can think of two possible sources: ignorance or deception.

It might be that whoever made up this message really thought this was what Jesus was all about. It’s not hard: if you want to think of Jesus as history’s grand teacher of tolerance, all you have to do is listen to popular misconceptions and never bother to check the facts. That’s not just ordinary everyday ignorance, mind you; it is ignorance with respect to the obvious. It’s easy to find out what the historical record has to say about Jesus. To be this ignorant, a person would have to refuse to look.

Or it might be that the message is pure deception, sprung out of the lying heart of some religious inclusivist who wanted to co-opt Jesus to his or her cause. (I suppose it’s even possible a person could do that out of self-deception.) If so, then why Jesus? Is the idea to poke at Christians, to provoke us to be more inclusivist like the Jesus we claim to follow? But that’s counting on us being ignorant. Any good liar ought to know better than that. It’s a lousy deception in every way.

The message is product either of willful ignorance or deception. Obviously so.

So obviously so, in fact, that I must ask myself, how can I really practice what Jesus preached at this point? What if I were to see this car at the grocery store this week, and have a chance to talk with the driver? What would I say? Should I pounce on her error? (I think it was a woman at the wheel.) No; I would want her to understand her error, but to experience that understanding through an encounter of love.

I would want to affirm her for putting Jesus at the center of the question. I would ask, “What do you think Jesus actually preached?” If she was willing to answer, I would listen. I would ask how she came to that conclusion. (Readers of Greg Koukl’s Tactics will recognize the questions.) I would ask her if she’d like to know more about what Jesus preached—in hopes she would come to know his truth and his life.

Final point, a question for myself: Am I that committed to genuine encounters of love with everyone on this blog? I’m a little worried about myself on that score. I have no love for deadly, deceptive error. Jesus didn’t either. He opposed it forcefully enough to get himself killed over it. Still—what a great God we have!—he loved men, women, and children, including his enemies.

He never compromised. Still he loved.

Practice what he preached? I like that idea.

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14 Responses to “ Practice What He Preached? ”

  1. Yes, the “COEXIST” bumper sticker always makes me throw up in my mouth a little – because whatever the original meaning of the sticker, most of the bearers I have met intend it also to rebuff any Christian discussion of the need for salvation.

    A few months back, I saw a shirt advertised that used similar symbols from the COEXIST sticker – but used it to spell some snippet of John 14:6. I wish I had bought it immediately, because when I went to look for it a couple of days later, I could not find it – nor can I remember the specific use of the symbols; merely that I found it clever.

  2. Hi Tom:

    Did you notice the second symbol from the right is that of the American Atheists (http://www.atheists.org/)? Apart from the interesting point of atheism being a disordered belief system, I wonder whether g might not have been the author of that small piece of cognitive dissonance… Jesus preached atheism?!? I’m with Beez on the barf-inducement thing with these non-thinkers.

  3. We don’t teach what He preached…we preach what He did. The cross. Forgiveness for real sinners.

    All that ‘be like Jesus’ stuff just makes little Pharisees…or leads people to despair.

    We preach Christ crucified.

    The universalists? They haven’t a clue…so we preach Christ crucified to them, too. Maybe a few of them will hear it.

    Thanks. Keep up the good work!

  4. Thanks for the comment, Steve Martin. But I want to say, we do preach what Jesus preached, not just what he did. I agree legalism is a danger, but Jesus intended his teachings to be taught. The key is to be in Christ through the cross to start with, then living by grace, abiding in Christ, or as I put it metaphorically once, knowing the difference between the map and the fuel.

  5. We preach what Jesus taught (“love your enemies, visit the prisoners, sell all you have, be perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect”, etc. )but we understand that to be law.

    And that law’s (theologically speaking)job is not to make us better…but to expose our sinfulness and kill us off to the notion of any self-justification project.

    Then the gospel can come and raise us again to new life.

    That’s what we nutty Lutherans believe and practice.

    Thanks.

  6. A great post with a challenging topic dear to my heart too, Tom. How does one speak the truth (which at times is confrontational and hurts) and yet call it loving? That balancing act between truth and love is the Christian’s daily dilema. I have always found that an equal measure of truth AND love always leads directly to the cross – no exception – always!

  7. I’ve always read the coexist language very literally, i.e., we can literally coexist even though we believe different things. I don’t have to kill you, and you don’t have to kill me. We can literally inhabit the same planet.

    In that sense, those bumper stickers don’t bother me at all. In fact, I rather like the idea, since I’m rather fond of being alive.

    Perhaps I’m being a bit too generous here, but if so, I think Tim is probably reading a little more into it than is there.

    I wonder about how Jesus’ interactions with the Samaritans should have any bearing on this post, though. Jesus’ harshest critiques were against his own — Jewish religious leaders. Some of his most compassionate moments and parables were directed toward those who were regarded as heretics by the religious establishment — the Samaritans.

    I’m also going to throw Luke 18 into the conversation, as I think it has bearing on any conversation about pluralism, exclusivism, and tolerance:

    9 To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
    13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

    14 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.

    Man cries out to God for forgiveness. Man goes home justified before God. Period.

    Does this passage ever inform Evangelical soteriology? Should it?

  8. Jesus was quite clear with the Samaritan woman in John 4.22 that salvation comes from the Jews. In doing so, he was correcting centuries of Samaritan belief and prejudice while also offering to extend that salvation beyond the Jews but only if it was based in acknowledgement of truth. He went on to say that true worshipers are those who worship in Spirit and in truth. He extended the possibility of grace but only if He was received as Truth. She and the others in her town were required to receive a Jewish Messiah against what they had always believed.

  9. brgulker,

    Here’s why I’m not happy with the idea of simply coexisting. For one thing, it’s wimpy, bland, insipid. Coexistence is the practice of avoiding harm and offense. As you put it, “I don’t have to kill you, and you don’t have to kill me.” Thank you, but Jesus taught something a lot deeper, harder, truer, and better than that.

    Second, in today’s religious and epistemological environment, I find it hard to believe that the message of “coexist” does not include some expectation of affirming one another’s beliefs. Maybe on that point I’m too cynical; maybe you’re right. But I’m viewing it in a cultural context that leads me to that conclusion.

    Yes, Luke 18 informs Evangelical soteriology. Do you have any other questions about it?

  10. “I find it hard to believe that the message of “coexist” does not include some expectation of affirming one another’s beliefs.”

    Bingo. To believe otherwise is sheer naïveté.

  11. Second, in today’s religious and epistemological environment, I find it hard to believe that the message of “coexist” does not include some expectation of affirming one another’s beliefs.

    Well, if you want to completely change the definition of the word, then you’ll win the argument.

    But for the sake of conversation, can we assume that the English word “coexist” actually means what our dictionaries say it does?

    Where in any of them do you see a definition that says anything about affirmation? What I see is exactly what I described. We may disagree, but we don’t have to go to war with each other over it.

    http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/coexist

    http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/coexist

    http://www.thefreedictionary.com/coexist

    Yes, Luke 18 informs Evangelical soteriology. Do you have any other questions about it?

    I suppose I should just believe your one sentence affirmation? Luke 18 doesn’t confirm Evangelical soteriology on its face. It says nothing about the exclusivity of Christ. It says nothing about justification by faith. It simply describes a man who cries out to God and is saved. Period.

    You can read all sorts of other passages into it, and that’s a fine, common practice in biblical interpretation. But the phrase you’ve offered isn’t that. It’s simply dismissive.

    And while we’re on that, I’ll say this, because it eats at my every time I comment here. When I do comment, it’s usually a disagreement, and it’s always respectful.

    Still, I’m not sure I comment on any Christian blog in which the blogger is as dismissive of dissenting opinions as you are, Tom, even when the comments are Christians offering a dissenting Christian from within the fold.

    Ironically, of course, you grade yourself low in the post and then fail again in the comments.

    Do you have any other questions about it?

    If you think that comes across in any way other than dismissive, arrogant, and condescending, read it until it does.

    You have clearly overreacted to and misinterpreted the word “coexist.” I am a Christian who believes in the exclusivity of Jesus, and I also strongly believe in the idea that we human beings should coexist. This doesn’t make me a pluralist, and it doesn’t oblige me in any way to affirm things that I disagree with.

    Moreover, the English definition of the word is what it is. You can just through all the semantic hoops possible in order to convince yourself and others that you haven’t misrepresented the meaning of the word and the people who use it. You can infuse it with all sorts of philosophical and religious overtones that the word doesn’t actually have in order to set it up as one of your straw men.

    You do those sorts of things all the time around here, in your posts and in your comments instead of just admitting that you’ve missed the mark.

    You have read something into a bumper sticker that simply wasn’t there. It seems painfully obvious to me given the other bumper stickers on the man’s car. Clearly, he’s opposed to religious killing, war in the name of God, etc. (Jesus in the Garden telling Peter to sheathe his sword might affirm such a position, no?).

    “Coexist” means what it means, Tom. It’s not naive for me or anyone else to accept the English language over your opinions.

    Tom, it’s okay to overreact. We all do it. More importantly, it’s okay to admit it.

  12. brgulker,

    Concerning the definition of “coexist,” yes, the dictionary definition is what it is. We have acknowledged that; you offer nothing new. What is your response to the contextual issues Beez and I have raised? Are you suggesting context means nothing?

    Concerning Luke 18: you asked a question and I answered it. Do you have a more specific question?

    But the phrase you’ve offered isn’t that. It’s simply dismissive.

    I could have written an extensive treatise on Luke 18 and soteriology. I chose not to do that because I had a sense that you probably had some specific question in mind. I asked you what that question (or questions) might be. I’m still not sure.

    When I do comment, it’s usually a disagreement, and it’s always respectful.

    Still, I’m not sure I comment on any Christian blog in which the blogger is as dismissive of dissenting opinions as you are, Tom, even when the comments are Christians offering a dissenting Christian from within the fold.

    brgulker, I’m sorry, but if this is in regard to Luke 18, you didn’t offer an opinion. Rather, you did, but it was so vaguely stated it could mean a thousand different things. How could I have been dismissive toward it when there wasn’t anything there, stated clearly enough to dismiss?

    If you think that comes across in any way other than dismissive, arrogant, and condescending, read it until it does.

    Actually my mood when I wrote that was none of these. It was impatience. You had written something that vaguely implied Evangelicals disregard Luke 18 in our soteriology. You had put it in the form of a question, as if there was something there that I was expected to answer, but the question was too vague to answer. (If you think it was a specific question, read it again until you see it.)

    And if your complaint is in regard to “coexist,” I disagreed, and I gave you an explanation for my disagreement. That’s not being dismissive, that’s engaging with the topic. So as you can see, I disagree with you again. And I’ve explained why I disagreed. You do not agree with me. Apparently that concerns you, or bothers you, or something. I’m sorry about that, but I do have contextual reasons for seeing “coexist” in the way I do.

    If you disagree, that’s fine with me. But I wonder. Do you, as Christian, really think that “I don’t have to kill you, and you don’t have to kill me” (as you put it in #9) is a high and worthy goal? Do you think that’s what Jesus preached? Do you not think Christianity offers something better than that? Is it overreacting to want more than that? Is it overreacting to notice that Jesus was misrepresented on this bumper sticker? I don’t think so. I disagree with you on that. Sorry, that’s just the way it is.

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