Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Book Report: In His Steps, by Charles M. Sheldon

             You might find it in a Christian bookstore or a church library. A friend may give it to you to read. You would find it listed in the Google search of the WWJD Movement. Although this book, “In His Steps”, has a history that may impress, its impressive history masks a devious underlying message.

          I happened upon this book while cleaning one of our guest rooms, in which the book seemed to be left on purpose. Whether it was meant for the housekeeper or the next guest, it was intersected by the housekeeper and I sat down, curious about the little book. I only meant to read the description to see what its contents might be, but soon I found myself plunged into the first chapter, intrigued by the story. To my disappointment, I came to discover that the story was fictional; but I wanted to continue reading and to see how the tramp’s impromptu sermon changed the church. So I stuffed the book into my backpack and kept cleaning (I was on the clock, after all). I finished the book within the week, but in my reading, I came to examine some of the storyline and lessons to be applied by the reader, implied by the actions and dialogue of the fabricated characters.


            The basis of the book was “What Would Jesus Do?” And indeed, as I discovered, this book was a significant part of the WWJD Movement. At first, the question seemed altogether right. The pastor of the church challenges his people to live for a whole year on the basis of that question, only acting after having considered what Jesus would do. Great, right? Well, as sacrilegious as it may sound, it’s not so great, and the foundation has some serious holes in it, all stemming from a lack of Biblical understanding. Unfortunately, a lack of Biblical understanding always leads to a lack of Biblical practice, and this principle plays out in the words and actions of the characters in this book.

            First of all, our Biblical misunderstanding begins in 1 Peter 2:21, seemingly the key verse of the story. It says, “For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps.” Now, it’s easy to think that the WWJD goes right along with this verse, since it says that we are to take Jesus as our example! But context is so important in understanding Scripture, and the context here is not “go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow Me.” (This is the other key verse in the book, tied to our verse in Peter.) The context in Peter is submission.

Submit to your governing authorities. 

Servants, submit to your masters even when they are cruel and you suffer at their hand.

Wives, submit to your husbands, especially to win them to Christ. 

Husbands, be understanding toward your wives. 

And finally, all of you be of one mind (submit to God and to one another). 

            In the midst of these commands, Jesus is the example of ultimate submission, who did no evil yet was accused; who suffered yet did not fight back. To what end did He suffer like this? Not just to leave us an example, but in order to gain our salvation through His death. That salvation would lead us to a life of righteousness, whether in politics, service, marriage, or the church. He left us an example of suffering for righteousness. So here, Peter, under divine inspiration, told us not only what Jesus did, but what was expected of us in our various relationships. Bluntly, there is no reason to have to ask “What Would Jesus Do?” Unless you didn’t read the context.

          Another key verse for the book, piggybacking on our out-of-context-example-of-Christ, is the Gospel account of the rich young ruler. In Matthew, you’ll find the account in 19:16-26. Here, this religious young man asks Jesus how he can gain eternal life. Jesus’ answer must be understood in its context, or it will be misapplied. It is evident that Jesus is testing the man with His answers, and this young man fails the test. The final answer to the question is “Follow Me”. But in this book by Sheldon, the characters are more driven by the “sell that thou hast, and give to the poor.” There are several problems with this. 

            1. First, the selling and giving is not seen in Jesus’ instruction as an act of Christian love and generosity, but it is a personal test to see if the young man really loved Christ more than his riches. 

            2. Second, this is Jesus’ instruction to this certain young man with a specific problem, not a command to everyone in the church to give away all that they have. Money is not evil, and earthly riches are not condemned in the Bible, although greed (the love of money) is both evil and condemned. In fact, we see God’s use of people with great wealth for His purposes throughout the Bible. 

            3. Thirdly, and this is the clincher, here Jesus tells this man to do this—Jesus is not exemplifying anything for us in this passage! In Sheldon’s book lives the argument that Jesus gave up His heavenly glories to come and live among sinners, and so He did, in a sense, sell all He had and gave to the poor, thus leaving us that example. When we begin to think this way, we are walking on dangerous ground. It does sound so good, but where did this notion come from in Scripture? In Matthew 19, Jesus is instructing a man with no mention of His own sacrifice as an example. The key passage discussing His coming to earth, Philippians 2, is not about charitable giving and generosity, but humility and submission—there’s that theme again! And the application that Paul gives for Christ’s example in verses 1-5 is unity in the church. No giving to charities. No self-inflicted suffering for Christ. Stay in context! Don’t make up doctrine, even if it sounds right, because doctrine that doesn’t come from God ALWAYS leads to behaviour that doesn’t come from God, no matter how good it looks and sounds.

          The premise of Sheldon’s book leads to another problem, which is the characters’ intense zeal for those in poverty and their great disdain for those with wealth. Truly, God does rebuke those who with their wealth have oppressed the poor (James 5:1-6); and those blessed with earthly wealth always need to beware of the pitfall of trusting in money. But again, owning riches is not sin. Ecclesiastes points out that it is God who gives the blessings of earthly goods, and as He gives, we should give thanks by enjoying them (not worshipping the riches, but the Giver). But in Sheldon’s book, the church is seen as full of rich, high-society snobs, and the poor are all unsaved creatures, wallowing in sin. There is no talk of reaching out to the unsaved rich, wallowing in their sin; how unlike Jesus, who did just as much to reach out to the rich as to the poor (John 3, Nicodemus; John 4:46cf, Nobleman; Matthew 9:9, Matthew the tax collector; Luke 19, Zacchaeus; etc.). Neither are there any in the book who are poor and saved, though assuredly the church has been full of impoverished believers throughout history. Poverty does not make one unsaved any more than being rich makes one saved, though this is the dichotomy seen in this book until some of the poor “repent”. The characters were driven to sacrifice huge amounts of money, amazing talent, and other of their resources in order to go down to the level of the city’s sinners to help them. Not to reach them with God’s hope in the Gospel, but to help them. To find them jobs so that they would no longer steal and commit suicide. To get rid of the saloon so that they would no longer face such evil temptation to drink. To help them by social reform. There is no Gospel given in the book that corresponds with what the Bible calls the Gospel; the closest it gets is in the soprano’s singing sappy “Come follow Jesus” songs at the revival services. There is no mention of Jesus’ death for the sins of the people, no mention of His conquering death by resurrection, no sermons on the Gospel being the power of God unto salvation of people, rich or poor; there is only the repeated question, “What Would Jesus Do?”

Through the lense of Scripture, it’s the characters’ answers that should have the question mark behind them. Why do I say that? Because what they were doing is not what Jesus would have done! I don’t say that as my opinion, but as a matter of fact. We have record of what He did, and it was not in making appeals unto Caesar to remove pagan prostitution temples; it was not in asking His disciples to pitch in and buy property so that they could put up housing for Jerusalem’s beggars. In fact, Jesus was moved with perfect, Godly compassion for people many times—and what did He do? Nothing to secure housing, besides the one time He committed His mother to John’s care, and the fact that as God, He cares for every living creature (which we are unable to replicate, not being God). He fed multitudes to show His power, not to fill their bellies. He healed the sick and blind, not to give them relief, but to give God glory (Jn. 9:3). He was a Man of love and compassion, but it was not about physical well-being (though He does care about that, being the One Who created and gives health). It is about lifting man out of satan’s dominion and transferring men to the kingdom of God’s Son: the Gospel!

One major scene that convinced me that this book is not Biblical on its Gospel took place within the revival tent. A woman comes to the altar crying and one of the characters goes to pray with her—whatever that means. Later, the character sees the same woman coming out of a bar, drunken. The character is recorded to have thought in this way: “She simply saw a soul that had tasted the joy of a better life slipping back again into its old hell of shame and filth.” (Pg. 113) If “tasted the joy of a better life” means that she came to know Christ as Saviour, the Bible is clear that there is no “slipping back again into its old hell”—for Jesus will never let any of His children perish. It is confusing language at best, but whatever is meant by it is not Biblical. The book also uses the term “Hell” repeatedly in ways much like the previous citation, as if there is no real place called Hell that these people were really destined for, but that Hell was the shame of their sinfulness and the bitterness of their poverty. While these things certainly can torment during life, it is unBiblical to compare such meager sufferings to the place of the eternal punishment of the wicked.

          So if the true Gospel is not present in this story, upon what were the characters basing their lifestyles? Well, superficially, on the question “What would Jesus do?” But without the Gospel, who is Jesus? Throughout the book, the characters realize, as they try to do what Jesus would do, that they don’t quite know what Jesus would do in their particular situations. The book’s answer to this question is so lacking that it is misguiding and unbiblical. Several characters realize their difficulty in knowing “what Jesus would do” in company with each other for the first time, and the preacher’s only conclusion is that it will take time. This leaves the reader with hope that the revelation will come later in the book. Later, one character remarks to her friend that “we must each one of us decide according to the judgment we feel for ourselves to be Christlike.” (pg. 55) The preacher, in trying to discover what Jesus would do in his church, sat at his desk writing, thinking of ways he could “cast his thought of Jesus’ conduct.” (pg. 73). He kept searching for a deeper understanding of the Spirit of Jesus in his mind. One character recognized, and many, many followed with similar statements, that “I am not sufficiently knowledgeable of Jesus’ methods.” (pg. 88). This particular statement is what got me thinking. 

            At first, these confessions by these characters seem like great humility; but piecing together the individual statements along with similar concepts expressed throughout the story and the subtitle of the book gives a clearer insight into the author’s unBiblical mindset at the core of his imitation-of-Christ doctrine. The subtitle reads: “What would Jesus do? In each situation, they found out as they walked....”
It seems obvious to me that if you want to know about the life of William Jennings Bryant, you would find books and articles about his life. So it is with Jesus, only that Jesus’ Biography is divine and living and tells much more than the events surrounding His life; so if you want to know what Jesus would do, logic says that the first step is to know #1, What kind of person He is, and #2, What He has already done. Yet in spite of this logic, none of Sheldon’s characters dive into the Bible. They never come up with Bible study as the solution. Instead, their solution involves trying to catch a glimpse of Jesus’s Spirit by daydreaming. My friends, if there is no Scripture that you are meditating on, your spiritual meditation is useless and even dangerous as you seek answers from inside your sinful self rather than from God’s unflawed Word! You will never imitate the real Christ if you don’t read about and meditate upon the real Christ.

 It isn’t magic. 

It isn’t mysterious. 

            A relationship with God works in similar ways to our human relationships, although certainly there are important differences; but if you would know what Jesus would do, don’t just sit and grasp for sound-good feel-good answers, and certainly don’t judge it according to how you feel, as this book would encourage you to do.

          There is a significant reason to explain why this is a fictional work: the situations in this book could never be real. These characters were not driven by a Biblical understanding of Christ, nor did they have a Biblical practice for seeking His will; therefore they could not have His strength to do His word and reap His results. The author had to make up a story to get God’s results from man’s methods because that isn’t how God works. He works all things according to His will, true, but He does not bless unBiblical behaviour. In addition, even believers who are walking in obedience to God get very tired; how much more do those trying to serve in their own strength and wisdom! These characters who were seemingly not in communion with God through His Word should have burnt out, but their plastic WWJD hardly suffered a confusion or a question. Following the kind of teaching in this book, real people will get burnt out and fail, and their thought will be, “What did I fail to do as Jesus would do?” Whereas the real question needs to be, “Where is my strength coming from?”

          These are the main issues, besides notes that I took regarding the ignoring of doctrinal creeds in favour of practicality, constant misuse of the term “Spirit baptism”, failure to show the Biblical view of the Church as the Body of Christ seeking to edify one another, consistent stress on not judging other people’s application of WWJD, and other red flags or odd events that did not line up with Scripture. While I do not think I derived no benefit from reading this book, I do not recommend this book for challenging faith, teaching, or edifying believers; rather, I warn all other believers to beware when reading this book—and any book written by a fallible human—not just to feel good about a book, but to understand what it is really communicating and to see if it lines up with Scripture.

Hoping to point you back to God's Word,

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