Remember those famous nylon acrostic bracelets we all sported back in the 90s? The motivation for wearing them was simple: It was to remind us to be mindful, through our daily decisions, struggles, and conversations, to approach them the way Jesus would. It served as a visual trigger for that famous rhetorical question pastors and Sunday school teachers seemed to thrive on: “What Would Jesus Do?” This has been the culture I’ve grown up around in the heart of Bible Belt America. In all areas of life, Christians must strive to be just like Jesus.
So you can probably start to understand my initial reaction when I read a striking excerpt from Sam Storms’ new book on the life and theology of J.I. Packer. Packer says the following:
“My primary authority is a Bible writer named Paul. For many decades now, I have asked myself at every turn of my theological road: Would Paul be with me in this? What would he say if he were in my shoes? I have never dared to offer a view on anything that I did not have good reason to think he would endorse.”
It sounds like Packer’s bracelet reads, “WWPD?” That’s quite a statement coming from someone who holds up the Deity of Christ and the centrality of the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement perhaps more than any other theologian alive. To be clear, J.I. Packer is in no way saying that Paul is more Godlike than Jesus, nor is he saying he worships Paul more than Jesus, nor is he saying Jesus is less perfect than Paul. What he is saying, essentially, is that in his study of theology, in his pursuit of decision-making, he better identifies with Paul than Jesus. Paul is, in a sense, a better litmus test for his life than Jesus. Is this a dangerous, even heretical, pedestaling for Paul and/or minimizing of Christ?
By natural instinct, I made sure I was reading his quote correctly, and read all surrounding context a few times. But I have arrived at the conclusion that he indeed means what he said; his bracelet would appeal first to Paul and not to Jesus. The more I’ve pondered this idea over the last week, the more I think I’ve begun to grasp why this mindset is not only appropriate, but really helpful.
We Are Sobered By Our Sin.
Anyone who models their life after Paul will be clearly aware of the extent of their sinfulness. It seems nearly bizarre to talk about the great apostle Paul as a sinful man, but he certainly never forgot it. “Christ came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” (1 Tim. 1:15). Paul never forgot his days as Saul, and neither should we. Christ didn’t come into the world to sympathize with our weaknesses to the point of sinning, but was only tempted (Heb. 4:15). Yet Paul shared with us in nailing Jesus to the cross. He went beyond temptation and was subjected to the same reign of sin we were. And while we are delivered from the bondage of sin by Jesus’ death and victory over it, we are nonetheless mindful of our sinfulness. Even Paul, an inspired writer of Scripture, evangelist to many, and miracle-worker to some, knew that he had never arrived to perfection. Thorns were still attacking his soul (2 Cor. 12:7–8). We can identify with that easily. Appealing to a perfect Jesus may not help us as much in this regard as appealing to a humbled Paul.
We Take The Pressure Off Of Ourselves.
There is nothing harder in this life than earning your salvation. It’s utterly impossible. Submitting ourselves to the question, “What Would Jesus Do?” has the potential of launching ourselves into a cesspool of guilt, shame, and worry when we don’t do what He would have done. Thank the Lord that He is All-Sufficient. When we are faced with a conflict or circumstance and we implore Paul’s writing, we are not only aware of our sin, but we are reminded of the all-sufficient Savior (2 Cor. 3:5, 12:9), and there’s no longer pressure on us to justify our salvation with action, for we parade an unashamed gospel (Rom. 1:16–17). Only the gift of grace and love from Christ can cover our multitude of sins (Rom. 3:24). “Jesus actions” are perfect, “Paul actions” rely on His perfections.
We Are Better Reminded Of Our Mission.
Sometimes we try to make Jesus’ mission synonymous with our mission. Certainly, there are places where the two missions overlap, but there are major distinctions between the motivations for Jesus’ actions and the motivations for our actions. Jesus came to us to give His life as a ransom for His people (Matt. 20:28, Mk. 10:45). He came for redemptive purposes (Lk. 9:55). He came to seek and save what had been lost (Lk. 19:10). He came to save the world (Jn. 12:47). What would Jesus do? He would save, redeem, restore, and heal His people. That’s not our office. We are called to a much different mission. The reason Jesus didn’t spend a wealth of time traveling to unreached nations and leading a small group and baptizing believers is because He gave that mission to us (Matt. 28:19–20). The mission of Paul is much more an indication of the life we ought to be living. We aren’t all called to travel overseas as missionaries, but we’re all called to live on mission in the field God gives us. We aren’t all called to write epistles to encourage the Church, but we’re certainly called to strive towards its unity and communion with the saints. We could never redeem God’s people — only One is able.
It’s not wrong to want to live like Jesus. We are certainly united to Him through His death and resurrection, and we even become like Him (Rom 6:5, 1 Cor. 6:17). But when it comes to the wrestling with sinful desires, facing the conflicts life present us, pondering how to better live the Christian life, what if turning to Paul as our “primary authority” is actually leading uscloser to a life dependent on an all-sufficient, gracious, redemptive Jesus? Only Jesus can be King; Paul can and never will be. Only Jesus’ commands on our lives should be obeyed; Paul has no similar right.
But there is a significant help following in J.I. Packer’s footsteps here. Let’s consider the life of a man who was just like us. Not a Savior, but a sinner. Let’s lean on Paul in a way that makes us lean so much on Jesus instead of letting shame creep in. Let’s follow the mission of Paul, a mission we are able to.
What would Paul do?