It’s a great pleasure to participate in the blog tour for Jared Wilson’s book Your Jesus Is Too Safe: Outgrowing a Drive-Thru, Feel-Good Savior—though I must confess that the term “blog tour” gives me an image of a truly strange-looking trolley rolling along the infobahn, dinging merrily away, with a disembodied voice gravely intoning, “Next stop . . .” None of which, of course, has anything to do with the book.
Full disclosure: I’ve known Jared Wilson as a blogger and blog correspondent (for lack of a better term) for a couple years now, I had the privilege of meeting him in person and spending a little time with him at GCNC this past April, and I consider him a friend. I like and respect him a great deal.
Truth behind full disclosure: none of that affects my review of his book. If anything, it’s the other way around—this book captures much of the reason why I like and respect Jared. When Ed Stetzer begins the foreword by declaring, “The pages you are about to read are an antidote,” he’s right; and it’s an antidote that far too much of the American church badly needs.
An antidote to what? To the legalistic no-gospel that fills so much of the American church—conservative as well as liberal; some of the worst offenders consider themselves “evangelical”—and our convenient, comfortable, sanitized, commoditized caricatures of Jesus, all precisely designed to meet our felt needs. As Jared says, our culture is plenty familiar with Postcard Jesus, Get-Out-of-Hell-Free Jesus, Hippie Jesus, Buddy Jesus, ATM Jesus, Role Model Jesus, and Therapeutic Jesus, and many Christians are thrilled when some famous person or other gives thanks to Grammy Award Speech Jesus; but the real Jesus, the Jesus we find in Scripture, is an altogether unfamiliar figure, because all too many churches aren’t preaching him. After all, he makes us uncomfortable, and he makes the world uncomfortable, and that’s no way to grow a church, now, is it?
To this kind of thinking, Jared offers his book as an antidote, driven by the love of Christ and the provocation of the Spirit of God. As he writes (239-40),
The passion of my life is the scandalous gospel of God’s amazing grace in Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit cultivated this passion in me through the Scriptures, in which I see Jesus chastised and criticized for proclaiming the gospel by eating with sinners and giving himself to sinners. My encouragement to you—my call to you—is to partake of that gospel, to acknowledge and confess and believe that you are a sinner in need of God’s grace, and that Jesus Christ died and rose to manifest that grace to you, and that you can’t live without Jesus. You cannot do it.
That is the sort of thing that ought to be the lifeblood of every Christian and the heartbeat of every church . . . and it isn’t. It isn’t because we don’t take our sin seriously enough, and we don’t take Jesus seriously enough. The purpose of this book is to change that, for those who have ears to hear.
To do this, Jared presents what he calls twelve portraits of Jesus, looking at Christ from twelve different angles, through a dozen different lenses. He considers:
- Jesus the Promise
- Jesus the Prophet
- Jesus the Forgiver
- Jesus the Man
- Jesus the Shepherd
- Jesus the Judge
- Jesus the Redeemer
- Jesus the King
- Jesus the Sacrifice
- Jesus the Provision
- Jesus the Lord
- Jesus the Savior
Some of these sound familiar to American ears, while others are quite strange (I can imagine readers asking “Jesus the Provision? What does he mean by that?”); but the truth is that even the familiar ones have been trimmed and tamed, made safe and non-threatening and altogether nice, in the teaching of far too much of the church in this culture. Not to put too fine a point on it, far too many of us in this country aren’t Christians at all but idolators, worshiping a Jesus of our own invention who is nicely tuned to tell us just what we want to hear. In response, Jared sets out to open our eyes to what it really means that Jesus was a fully human adult male, or that he is the King of Kings. In so doing, he will no doubt make a lot of folks very, very uncomfortable—but it’s a holy discomfort, the evidence of the Spirit of God at work.
In painting his portraits of Jesus, Jared draws heavily on Scripture, as he should; this is a book filled with biblical quotations, and not just single verses, but whole passages. Of course, there are plenty of books out there which quote a lot of Scripture and then proceed to misuse it, but that isn’t a problem here; one of the chief qualities of the book is its careful attention to what Scripture is actually saying, and its author’s clear determination to follow wherever the word of God leads and let the chips fall where they may. Rather than using the Bible to make his points, he has sought to place himself under the Bible and its authority, and thus to say only what it says.
This is not to say, however, that he has produced a book which is disconnected from life as we know it; quite the contrary. The academic foundation is clearly there, but this is no theoretical discussion; it is, rather, a profoundly practical book—or perhaps we might say, following G. K. Chesterton, that it is a profoundly unpractical book in all the right ways. Chesterton has one of his characters, the poet and painter Gabriel Gale, offer to help a man who has attempted suicide, explaining his offer with these words:
I am no good at practical things, and you have got beyond practical things.
What you want is an unpractical man. . . . What can practical men do here? Waste their practical time in running after the poor fellow and cutting him down from one pub sign after another? Waste their practical lives watching him day and night, to see that he doesn’t get hold of a rope or a razor? Do you call that practical? You can only forbid him to die. Can you persuade him to live? Believe me, that is where we come in. A man must have his head in the clouds and his wits wool-gathering in fairyland, before he can do anything so practical as that.
Chesterton was right: the practical counsels of this world can only forbid people to die (or, more ominously, order them to die); they cannot persuade people to live, much less tell them how. That is for unpractical people, for those who have given their lives over to the unpractical mendicant teacher from Nazareth, and in so doing have learned how to live; and to illustrate that, Jared offers a number of stories of just what that unpractical life looks like. Some, like the story of the Amish of Quarryville, PA who forgave the man who murdered their daughters, are widely known; others, like the story of his cousins Steve and LaVonne Jones and their son Colton (which, as a father of three, wrenched at my heart), are not. All bear witness to the truth that it’s only in the real Jesus Christ, not any of the more “practical” or “useful” versions of him that we invent, that we find real life.
The tone of this book is informal and conversational, at times snarky and sarcastic (though the bulk of that is to be found among its copious and entertaining footnotes), and occasionally slangy; some, at least of older generations, may find that off-putting at points. In general, however, I don’t think any but the most formal of readers will find it a true problem, while younger folks in particular will likely find the tone attractive and appealing. Taken as a whole, I believe the conversational tone is a benefit to the book, for a couple reasons.
One, it suits the author; I don’t have any way of knowing if attempting to write in a more formal style would have made him sound stuffy and pedantic, but writing in this vein makes it clear that he is anything but. That’s disarming, which is a good thing; given that he’s calling his readers to set aside our comfortable Jesuses for one who will challenge us and make us very uncomfortable with ourselves, the natural response from many will be to look for a reason to reject that call. Many will no doubt find reasons, but branding Jared as stuffy and out of touch won’t be one of them.
Two, the book’s tone serves to reinforce the point that its message is for all of us, and all of life. Following Christ isn’t just about doing formal things for an hour or so on Sunday morning, but it’s about how we’re supposed to live all the rest of the time, too; it has to do with cracks about old teen movies and popular fiction just as much as with the sorts of things we think of as “spiritual.”
The great risk Jared took with this book—one which he himself acknowledges—is that in looking at Jesus from twelve different perspectives, he might have “inadvertently propose[d] twelve different Jesuses, creating intellectual confusion where the purpose has been to enhance clarity.” I think, though, that he has avoided that quite successfully by tracing one strong theme through all twelve chapters: “the great unifying presence of the gospel.” This is the hub of which the twelve perspectives are spokes, as he lays out in the conclusion of the twelfth chapter (280):
The good news is that Jesus Christ is not just God with us, but he’s also God forus. For us, he is the promise of fulfillment, the prophet of truth, the forgiver of sins, the man of sorrows, the good shepherd, the righteous judge, the redeemer, the reigning king, the atoning sacrifice, the all-sufficient provision, the almighty God, and the rescuer of the lost. He is all these things and more, but none of this is good news if he is not also the Lord and the Savior of sinners in need of grace.
Today is the day of salvation. The kingdom is at hand. Repent and believe.
If you will confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.
Jared Wilson has written a book that is full of the gospel of Jesus Christ, that shines the light of that gospel from every page, and that I believe will call many in this country to that gospel for the first time. It is a book for the reconversion of the church, and for the conversion of many who are outside the church because they’ve rejected our false Jesuses, not knowing that the real Jesus is someone altogether different. It’s a book we need to read, not because Jared is wonderful, but because Jesus is wonderful, and Jared is talking about Jesus. It is, in short, a book for which we can honestly say, “Thank you, God.”