Much more than an example
As a school pupil I was once wakened from slumber during class by an irate teacher who was more than a little offended at my choosing to nod-off in the midst of his lesson. Being a conscientious student, I was not given to regularly cat-napping during school hours. The simple fact was that the lesson was mind-numbingly boring and, on that occasion, my mind had numbed sufficiently to embrace unconsciousness.
The lesson in question was ‘religious education’, which at that time was not taught by a trained specialist but was reluctantly led by a variety of teachers of other subjects who had, presumably, drawn the short straw and were required to baby-sit the class. A few of them courageously sought to introduce the theme of religion. My memory of the teacher who inspired sleep in me was of his attempt at presenting Jesus as a good example to follow. We ought to strive to be like Jesus - the great moral teacher; we should seek to copy Jesus the 1st century Philanthropist; we should live lives like Jesus - the great champion of the poor and downtrodden. Jesus was an example to follow. Indeed, we ought to try harder tomorrow and strive to be better than today. Try, try, try.
It evidently sent me to sleep. In retrospect this was a better option than taking the lesson seriously. This creed is cruel, for it removes the gospel from the message of Jesus and leaves us with a heavy and growing burden to carry. It is joyless and graceless. It is also very common as a distortion of the faith.
The ‘try-harder-to-follow-Jesus-as-an-example’ religion was a version of the ancient heresy of Adoptionism, which reduces Jesus to no more than an example to follow. It is essentially a self-centred religion of pride, which makes the staggering presumption that we have the resources in ourselves to copy Jesus. It is subtle in that it superficially points to Jesus but actually the focus is on ourselves and upon our own effort. The Lord Jesus is banished to the periphery, having served His purpose in giving us a pattern for us to create in ourselves. Religion becomes my effort in this.
In February’s newsletter we thought about the heresy of Docetism and how it denies the humanity of Jesus, and by denying His humanity becomes a form of escapism. It prefers a religion of ease, and echoes of it are evident in the ‘prosperity gospel’ with its false offer of wealth and health. It is a religion of flight rather than a religion of the cross. It grows out of our fallen tendency to avoid the costly implications of love. We would rather have it easy.
Historically, the early church in the great city of Alexandria was a place where Docetism dogged the life of the faithful. Meanwhile, the other great church city of the ancient world, and the sending church of none other than the apostle Paul - Antioch - was harassed by the other great heresy, that of adoptionism. Whilst Docetism denies the full humanity of Jesus, adoptionism (or Ebionism) denies the full divinity of Jesus. It sees Jesus as attaining some bestowal of divinity by pleasing God the Father. His baptism is portrayed as a kind of knighting ceremony where a measure of divinity is bestowed in recognition of good service, rather like famous personalities being honoured at Buckingham Palace with OBE’s and the like. He is adopted into this measure of divinity rather than actually being divine. We are then encouraged to tread the same path as Jesus. But ultimately it is all about trying hard and doing better, which is no gospel at all. It is a distortion which saps all joy out of the Christian life.
It is worth being warned of adoptionism at Easter time, for this heresy sees the death of Jesus as being little more than an illustration of love after which to pattern our lives. Adoptionsim fails to take seriously the problem of sin and therefore refuses to accept the necessity of the Cross as Jesus’ death for our sin, the sinbearer forsaken that we might be forgiven. By minimising the problem of sin, this false teaching minimises the true divinity of Jesus who alone can atone for that sin.
In my former Parish in Galloway I got to know four elderly brothers, none of whom had married and all of whom had served as Paratroopers during the war. They were delightful company and teased me mercilessly as a young minister. One of them was a fisherman. He once snagged his finger on a fish hook. It was a nasty injury. He bathed it and covered it with a plaster. The finger became badly infected. He wrapped it in a bandage. He was encouraged to go seeking medical attention, but insisted he had cut himself before and it would heal. The infection spread to his hand and he began to feel unwell. He continued to insist that it would pass.
I led worship at his funeral a few months later. I was fond of the old chap and very sad that he had died in such a needless way. He simply refused to take his condition seriously. That is adoptionism. It tries to stick a plaster over a cancer.
Strangely, those of an adoptionist persuasion, who believe in Jesus as no more than an example, often refer to the Sermon on the Mount as ‘sublime teaching to follow’ . I often wonder if they have ever actually read Matthew 5-7. The standards Jesus expounds are so high as to be breath-taking. His principles are clearly unattainable. But that is the point. The Sermon on the Mount exposes the hopelessness of our attempting to secure salvation by our own effort and points us to a crucified Saviour. By making Jesus the centre of our lives, crying to Him for mercy, we can accept His gift of salvation and relinquish the vain hope that we might, by trying, meet the demands of righteousness. It is by thus trusting in Christ that we find the easy yoke and the light burden. Change, then, is not by our own effort but by His grace.
When we attain something by our own effort then there are no thanks and no joy, because joy springs from gratitude. When God’s love is seen as an entitlement rather than a gift, then we remain trapped in our self-centredness and no genuine change in our hearts can take place. For the adoptionist there is no new birth into a living hope.
If you hear a version of it - best just ignore it and go to sleep.