…It is a laudable and happy thing to imitate the example of Christ in His deeds, to love one’s neighbors, to do good to those who deserve evil, to pray for one’s enemies, or to bear with patience the ingratitude of those who requite good with evil. But none of this contributes to righteousness in the sight of God.
-Martin Luther, Lectures on Galatians
Imagine their are two types of Christs. We have Christ the Example, and the Christ that Redeems. Which Christ is feeding the evangelical daily devotional industry?
Redemption means justification. Redemption is the cross, the climax of the biblical story. Redemption, justification, is NOT your daily struggle to obey. Redemption and your spiritual disciplines are different things. A sermon on spiritual disciplines has a lot more punch if it intertwines these two things, though. If you leave a sermon about obedience thinking, “Oh man! I reallllly need to obey more like Jesus did, because I can make myself closer to God and more like God,” then you might subtly be focusing on the example part and missing the redemption part. If they get muddled at all, then what always happens is the Christ that Redeems gets left behind and all you think about is your own glorious striving to imitate Christ the Example.
Even the phrase Christ that Redeems seems a little boring. But instead of being boring, I think it is dreadfully exciting. If we need ‘redemption’ it means that we are not sufficient without someone acting on our behalf. Christ didn’t consult us about dying on our behalf. If we are like the disciples, we even discourage Christ from wrestling spiritual control out of our legalistic hands. Christ that Redeems excites our deepest fears that the only way up is actually down – through a bloody cross. The human part of you rejects the notion that power is made perfect in weakness, almost as much as it rejects the scandal that life is found in death. Naturally we want to quiet these fears, so we dismiss all of these spiritual matters of death and life as esoteric and boring and detached from daily experience.
Christ the Example is less offensive and intertwined with daily experience. Even business leaders and Ghandi can get behind this guy. We have Jesus Christ, CEO and Ghandi’s quote about “Give me your Christ, and to hell with your Christians” (Paraphrase). The point is, imitating a meek Jewish philosopher sounds glorious. Even imperfect imitation promises glory (try your best, forget the rest!). So your daily devotional that gives you application to imitate heroic Christians or Christ himself is wonderful and respectable.
But if the Christ that Redeems thing gets any traction, then all the glory we seek with our imitation is damned. Is damned too strong a word? Maybe. Even Luther says imitating Christ is ‘laudable and happy.’ So go for it! But without the Christ that Redeems, our imitation is reduced to law. And it is law based on the presumption that glory comes with diligence. But we can’t presume that. Christ’s point in the Sermon on the Mount is that when you evaluate the heart, all under the sun are defiled. So our imitation, and especially our failed attempts at imitation, has nothing to do with our righteousness.
Now, before anyone starts thinking I’m copping out here, trying to lower the bar for becoming/being a Christian, let me say one thing: the price is more not less. But the person who pays the price is not YOU. Luther elaborates:
For us to be righteous in the sight of God a price far higher than human righteousness or righteousness of the Law is required. Here we must have Christ to bless us and save us… Not through works but through faith.
Your daily devotion is probably fine. But don’t leave the Christ that Redeems in the dust of your obsessive imitation. When the spiritual train comes off the track in your life, Christ that Redeems will pick up the pieces, while your ambitious imitation of God’s love cowers, shielded from the flames.