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Some years ago, it was common to see young evangelicals sporting a peculiar fashion accessory: the WWJD bracelet. These bracelets—the initials woven therein standing for “What Would Jesus Do?”—served to remind the wearer to consider the example of Christ in all his daily activities.
For some, these bracelets likely also had a secondary function: evangelism. This was the case for a friend of mine who worked among many non-Christians. He told me one day that he wore the bracelet in order to elicit curiosity among his coworkers, in hopes that they would see it, along with his upstanding behavior, and ask him what the bracelet meant.
But what then? My friend did not want to rock the boat at his office by being verbally open about his faith. But at some point, the gospel must be preached, for the need of our neighbors is great. Let us look at three reasons why behavior and other externals cannot take the place of preaching the gospel.
We Are Not Alone
We as Christians do not have a monopoly on good behavior. In the West, the legacy of Christendom lingers such that even non-Christians will still often profess a moral code that borrows heavily from the Scriptures. In the East, kindness and humility are cardinal virtues. For every story of a Christian saint, there is a Gandhi or a Buddha.
It is not unusual to find non-Christians whose upright behavior matches or exceeds that of even the most sanctified among us. We should not be surprised at this. Paul says God has given each of us a conscience, and that conscience serves to guide and correct even unbelievers (Rom. 2:14–15). So, while our good works bear witness to the work of the Spirit in our lives, they are not sufficient in themselves for evangelistic purposes.
We dare not reduce Christianity to a life well lived, one that can be caught and need not be taught. To do so threatens to water it down to a works-based religion, one based on what we do, rather than what Christ has done.
Nearly a century ago, J. Gresham Machen clashed with those who sought to define the Christian faith as a life rather than a doctrine. Such a view has the appearance of godliness, he said, but it is radically flawed. For the Bible records not simply the ethical teachings of Jesus, as if that were enough, but also a singular, epochal event in the life, death, and resurrection of the Son of God (1 Cor. 15:3–8). And the Bible goes further, telling us what that event means. Machen says:
The world was to be redeemed through the proclamation of an event. And with the event went the meaning of the event; and the setting forth of the event with the meaning of the event was doctrine. These two elements are always combined in the Christian message. . . . “Suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried”—that is history. “He loved me and gave Himself for me”—that is doctrine.
The life change wrought by the Spirit in the wake of one’s receiving and resting upon Christ alone for salvation is a wonderful and desirable thing, but it can never be divorced from Christ’s work on the cross, or else it puts the focus on us and our works. Thus, we must always point people to the cross. If it is not merely a life to us, neither is it for them. There is truth that we must grasp, and so must they. And for them to grasp it, they must hear it (Rom. 10:14).
Judgment Is Coming
Many teachings of Christ (Matt. 11:20–24; 25:31–46; Mark 1:14–15) and much of the preaching of the early church (Acts 2:38; 17:30–31; Heb. 9:27–28) focused on the coming judgment and on repentance and faith in Christ as the only way to avoid it.
Some in Peter’s time pointed to continuity in life as proof that Christ would not return in judgment: “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation” (2 Peter 3:4). Similarly, the ease of modern life lulls us into complacency. The non-Christian tries to console himself with the thought that he need not fear judgment, either because he is a “good person” or because no judgment is coming.
But, Peter says, the scoffers overlook the fact that God has judged the world before, and He will do it again (vv. 5–7). Thus, we must challenge our neighbors. As only those in the ark survived the flood, so only those who are in Christ will survive the judgment.
As we live lives of faithful obedience, we must always be ready. When our neighbors ask why we live the way that we do, we must tell them: we have been freed from the burden of sin because of the work of Christ, and now we live for Him. And we must warn them: a judgment is coming, and their works will not save them—but God, in His love, has made a way for them through the sacrifice of His Son, Jesus. If they will repent and believe the gospel, they will surely be saved.