And what is that one question? It’s WWJD, of course!
If you were around Christianity during the 90’s you certainly would know that WWJD stands for What Would Jesus Do?. You may have even owned the ubiquitous WWJD wrist band at one point.
Asking yourself What Would Jesus Do was a reminder to follow the example of Jesus in whatever situation you found yourself. This was especially helpful if you were in a moral or ethical dilemma.
So how did asking WWJD change the world?
Well, it wasn’t this specific question, but it was the intention behind the question that sparked change for millions of people.
Long before WWJD hit the pop-Christian scene, a slightly-built Indian lawyer led one of the greatest revolutions in modern history – and his guiding principle was WWJD.
Of course, I’m referring to Mahatma Gandhi. Jesus’ moral example undergirded much of Gandhi’s efforts to lead India to freedom from British rule using non-violent civil disobedience. Here’s what Gandhi said in the newspaper, Harijan:
“The example of Jesus’ suffering is a factor in the composition of my undying faith in nonviolence which rules all my actions, worldly and temporal.” Harijan, 7-1-1939
In turn, Gandhi influenced other efforts at change in other parts of the world through the same means, in particular, America’s civil rights efforts led by Martin Luther King, Jr.
It’s easy to see how following Christ’s example of love, generosity, kindness, and self-sacrifice would bring positive change to the world. Imagine how much better this world would be if everyone asked WWJD. How much better our country, state, neighborhoods, marriages, jobs, etc. would be if we lived by the WWJD principle.
In fact, in the bible the Apostle John seems to encourage Christians to live by this principle. John says in 1 John 3:16:
“By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.” (ESV)
And then in v.17 he tells us what this looks like:
“But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?”
In other words, we are to follow the example of Jesus and live sacrificially for others, especially for those who have needs that we have the means to meet.
Therefore, if Gandhi, who wasn’t a Christian, lived this way, certainly Christians should live this way too.
And if you’re anything like me, you’re thinking: “man, I have a lot of work to do!” I mean, couldn’t we all be doing better in this area? Maybe we should bring the WWJD wrist bands back.
But we need to tap the brakes and slow down a moment.
Is WWJD really at the heart of what John is saying? Is the main point of John’s letter (and the bible for that matter) to get people to follow Jesus’ example?
While it’s a good thing to follow Christ’s example, you don’t especially need to be a Christian to do so, vis-a-vis Gandhi.
In fact, most world religions encourage love and care for others, especially for the less fortunate. What’s more, you don’t even need to be especially religious to love others. So what John writes doesn’t seem particularly Christian.
This is why it’s important to read what John writes in the next two verses:
19 “By this we shall know that we are of the truth and reassure our heart before him; 20 for whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything.”
At first, these verses seem disconnected from what John wrote in vv.16 and 17. I think they call it a non-sequitur.
But if we read this in context, we understand of what our hearts condemn us. Our hearts condemn us of the fact that we aren’t doing vv. 16 and 17 very well – our hearts condemn us because we aren’t doing Jesus, or Gandhi, as well as we should. In fact, I see myself more in verse 12 and in verse 15.
I am Cain
v. 12: “We should not be like Cain, who was of the evil one and murdered his brother.”
I shouldn’t be like Cain, but I am. And so are you. And just in case you think you never murdered anyone, there’s v. 15:
“Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.”
And just in case you think you never hated anyone, there’s Jesus’ teaching (remember, he’s the guy we’re supposed to be modeling our lives after):
“But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.” (Matthew 5:22, ESV)
(And just in case you never insulted anyone, or called anyone a name, you probably were never born.)
And therein is the point of John’s passage; John is pointing out, along with our condemning hearts, that we are more like Cain than we are like Christ. We know, deep down, that we aren’t living as Jesus did. Heck, we’re not even living like Gandhi, or MLK, Jr. And our hearts know this. And our hearts are quick to condemn.
But then the tidal wave of good news comes rushing in. Just when we are about to agree with our hearts, for our hearts condemn accurately that we are like Cain, John proclaims good news!
God is greater than our hearts!
John says God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.
He knows everything going on in our hearts, our thoughts, our intentions. And yet, he’s greater than our hearts – he’s greater than the condemnation and blame our hearts throw at us.
At the end of the day, John says, God’s grace is far greater than our sinful hearts.
At the end of the day, the gospel has the last word, not the self condemnation which comes from our own hearts!
So what John is writing is more than trying to get us to follow an example. John is pointing us back to the good news of God’s grace that tells us that Jesus was the one condemned for our unloving, hateful hearts. Jesus, the one who loved perfectly, died as one who loved imperfectly.
Jesus didn’t die as a great ethical example (as Gandhi sees him), Jesus died for the propitiation of our sins (see 1 John 2:2).
In other words, God’s wrath and judgement, that should have been given to us because we fail to perfectly follow Jesus’ example, was given to Jesus instead – that’s propitiation.
What we need is not an example – we need a Savior!
And as a result, Jesus was condemned to die precisely because we could not do as Jesus did.
And by this we don’t merely know a moral example, nor know a better way to live. No, John says by this we know love!
This love that comes to us, to a people who don’t love as well as we should.
So God is greater than our condemning hearts, and when the gospel assures us that there is no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:1), we have what v. 21 says:
“Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God.”
We have confidence that God won’t condemn us, that the courtroom is closed. He won’t retry the case.
So Christian love for the brothers isn’t because we’re trying to be better people and to follow a better example; rather, we love because we are born again.
This is what makes Christian love Christian.
This means we show Christian love, not only to follow an example, but because we are new people (new creations). As new creations we live out this life as part of a new community (the church).
Thus, our affections are stirred for our fellow Christians. We lay down our lives for one another, but not just in word, but in deed (v.18).
This means Christian love is Christian not because your love is the most like Christ’s; Christian love is Christian because that is who you are.
John says you know this love, you have confidence in this love that removes condemnation. Now go and love others. Go and obey the command.
John is firmly rooting our love in God’s love for us.
And when our hearts rise up and start to blame and condemn us that we’re more like Cain than like Christ, it’s the Spirit (v.24) that again and again points us back to the gospel.
And rather than asking us WWJD, the Spirit proclaims to our hearts: Remember and trust in what Jesus did!
This is Good News!