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Getting Jesus Wrong (Review)

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Getting Jesus Wrong by Matt Johnson is one of those books that will probably make you mad before you reach the last page! Johnson is able to take readers on a journey to the recesses of their hearts to see which view of Jesus they’ve been tempted to follow since they began their spiritual walk with the Lord. Getting Jesus Wrong is a powerful reminder for me that even the Reformed, expository-focused, theologically sound Christians (I am one!) can struggle to keep their eyes on Jesus as He is presented in the bible. We all, in our flesh, have a style of Jesus that we would like to worship and follow. We all must fight to worship and follow Him as He is rather than how we want to see Him.

You may be wondering, “Why is this book so offensive?” As you will see, Johnson digs deep and reaches places in our hearts and lives that are uncomfortable. Johnson points out that there are four types of Jesus that people tend to gravitate toward in their hearts. The first one is Life Coach Jesus. This is the view of Jesus who, like a coach, cheers you on when you’re doing morally well, keeps yelling at you to do better when you’re struggling, and screams at you to get up when you fall down because you’ve got to work harder to be successful. We imagine Him giving us a bunch of personal goals so that we can do better and “win” at this game of life.

The next type of false Jesus people follow is Checklist Jesus. This is the view of Jesus that has a checklist of things to do to attain SuperChristian status and have the deepest spiritual life of everyone around you. To be honest, this is often the view I have of Jesus and I have to fight daily not to miss who He really is. I often think if I can get my eschatology right, have a set time for daily devotions, have the right emotion in worship, have the right amount of prayer time each day, read the right books, get the right hermeneutical strategies, etc. that I’ll attain the spiritual level of status needed to be a good husband, father, minister, Christian hip-hop artist, teacher, etc. Following this view of Jesus is exhausting! Note that none of those things on my list are wrong, it’s the motive that is sinful!

Movement Leader Jesus  is the view that Jesus can be found in the next big movement. Think of the following terms: missional, gospel-centered, emerging, radical, community groups, etc. None of these phrases are inherently bad, nor are the churches associated with these groups necessarily bad. In fact, many of the churches that have used these terms or taken these labels are excellent churches (Acts29, Soujourn, Soma, etc.). The problem is that we can sometimes chase the next BEST church that REALLY gets it. I’ve seen this view Jesus take shape in people (myself included at times) who reject the “traditional” church because traditional churches “don’t get it”. Jesus can definitely be found in these church movements when they are focused on Him. Jesus can also be found in traditional churches who have been around for 200 years.

Visionary Jesus is the view that Jesus gives us CEO-like pastors who have a vision for our churches. They lay out their vision and they find workers (or sheep) to buy into the program, put their efforts toward the greater good, and submit without any back talk. The issue here is that those leaders often become wolves and eat up the sheep in their congregations. When the vision changes and people don’t buy in, the workers are replaced with better workers who will submit and continue the efforts of the visionary. There is nothing inherently wrong with pastors having a vision or pursuing change in churches. The issue is when the pastor has a vision and uses his power to achieve that vision by any means necessary. I do not know the details of the Mars Hill Church situation in Seattle, but it seems that Johnson experienced this type of abuse in that church.

After presenting these views of Jesus, Johnson lays out how to get beyond these wrong views of Jesus. His answer is to get beyond the pride and despair that come with following these wrong Jesus types by finding the true Christ as laid out in the scriptures. We have to find out the various purposes of the law, one of which is show us our sin in light of the holiness of God (Romans 7:7-25). We then must find grace displayed through Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection to give spiritual life to all those who trust in Him by faith. We have hope in Christ that though we have struggled and followed these false views of Christ at times, that we can daily seek the true Christ. We may again fall into these traps of having false views of Jesus, but we will one day be completely freed from sin, death, hurt, and despair that comes from having a wrong view of Jesus.

I want to offer a few brief words of concern and frustration. At the end of Chapter 4, Johnson calls readers in “visionary Jesus” type churches to be a “redemptive pain the a**” by asking leaders hard questions. Though some view cursing as a Christian liberty, I find this type of language absolutely unnecessary and distracting to readers (like myself) who don’t feel at liberty to use curse words (based on scriptural convictions, not legalistic personal preference). Another issue I had was his treatment of the so-called prideful religious people. He describes these people in the following quote:

These are the sort of folks who are uptight over loose living—alcohol and tobacco consuming, card playing, heavy metal listening and expletive dropping. They tend to have end-times theories perfectly charted out too.

This description of pridefully religious people is ill-advised because rejection of alcohol and tobacco consumption, card playing, and heavy metal listening are not explicitly laid out in scripture (I personally enjoy a glass of wine, a game of Rook, and some good screamo music). Expletive dropping, however, is condemned in scripture (I don’t have time to go into it right now), and taking a stance on eschatology is not necessarily prideful. A few pages later he also stated that it was prideful to take a hard stance on gender roles (which seems to be the tide of the day). It seems that Johnson’s brokenness and response to bad churches in the past has shaped these faulty views of prideful religiosity, and I would recommend readers to be cautious when encountering these examples and illustrations.

Overall, Getting Jesus Wrong is an excellent book for biblical self-examination. Johnson’s treatment of the false views of Jesus that pervade our lives is excellent. His transparency and authenticity make the frustrating parts worth reading because he admits that he could even be wrong about where he is now. His treatment of hope in the last chapter is a major encouragement for broken, hurt-by-a-church (or several churches!), and depressed Christians. Give this book a thorough and prayerful read, keeping in mind that Jesus wants us to know who He really is, not who we want Him to be.

I received a complimentary copy of this book through Litfuse in exchange for an independent and honest review.

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