The “Heart” of the Atonement (Part 6): Example Model

Sacrificial Lamb betterMaybe it was their kitsch, or perhaps they just clashed with my attire, but I have generally always been annoyed with WWJD bracelets. Maybe it was their ubiquity in high school, or maybe it was just because they reflected an odd form of evangelism. But for whatever reason, I eventually “lost” mine and never found it again. While much of pop-Evangelicalism was embracing whole-heartedly the WWJD bracelet, a number of theologians have been quick to rebuke the movement as a whole. Their response has been, more or less, to suggest that asking the question of “what would Jesus do” is dumb, because, after all, we aren’t Jesus. What Jesus did we can’t do and that’s why we need Him. He has to be more than example, they explain. As with all responses, there’s truth and error in this one. While I readily concede that Jesus must be more than our example, he is not less than that. The example model of the atonement is both Biblical and inspiring to believers.

Exploring the atonement in all its manifold glory requires us to see it from a myriad of angles. Looking at from this particular angle empowers and motivates us to a level of obedience that is right for the Christian life. When theologians critique the model they are right to find it deficient, in and of itself, but wrong to suggest that we can’t learn from Jesus’ example. That is precisely what Jesus calls us to do, and what the apostles challenge the church to do.

Repeatedly, throughout the Bible we find that Christ’s death is an example for believers. Paul writes to the Philippians in chapter 2, verses 5-11, encouraging them to develop humility by looking to the example of Christ, who “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death,even death on a cross.” The author of Hebrews tells us to “Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted” (Heb. 12:3). Jesus’ self-sacrifice is an example for husband, “love your wives like Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph. 5:25-26). Peter gives maybe the most clear articulation of the exemplary model of the atonement when he writes:

For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. (1 Peter 2:21)

Christ’s death is repeatedly held up as the model of the humble, self-sacrificial, and righteous life that Christians are to emulate. In other words, according to Scripture He is our example.

It seems strange to many of us to suggest hat Jesus can be our example. After all He is the divine Son of God. In His earthly life He was sinless, resisted temptation perfectly, and kept all the law. How can I follow His example when I struggle so much, fail so often, and am bound by my human limitations? I answered some of these questions in a series I wrote last year on Jesus’ humanity, but to summarize: Jesus lived His earthly life out of the divine resources given Him as a man by the Father and the Spirit. His earthly life, then, can be an example for us precisely because we are “in Christ” have access to this same divine power (Acts 1:8; Rom. 8:11). What would Jesus do, then, is not an entirely inappropriate question to ask.

Again, we see how Christ’s death isn’t just about dealing with past sins or future hope. Rather, His death is also about life right now, in the present. Christ’s death gives us an example of how we ought to deal with persecution, how we ought to love others, how we ought to submit to the will of the Father and entrust ourselves to Him who judges justly (1 Peter 2:23). Yes, the example theory alone is not sufficient, for it doesn’t deal with our guilt nor our inability to follow Christ perfectly. But as one aspect of the multi-faceted work of Christ on the cross it is an encouraging and empowering aspect. Christ on the cross, as strange as it sounds, is an example for us.

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