As I survey the Australian church it seems to me there are three portraits of Jesus commonly found. I call them the forgiving Jesus, the empowering Jesus, and the just Jesus. These portraits shape our values, our mission, our ethics, our piety, our worship and our engagement with the world around us. So the portraits matter. My contention is that when we tend toward one or the other of the three portraits our discipleship is diminished and that biblical faith calls us to hold simultaneously to all three.
Portrait 1: The Forgiving Jesus
This portrait focuses on Christ as the one who secures our eternal destiny. Created to enjoy eternal life with God our sin instead calls forth the penalty of eternal death. Christ came to resolve this problem, to make known the God who forgives, who restores us to right relationship with himself and thereby makes it possible for us to enjoy eternal life rather than eternal death.
This portrait is often associated with the idea that Christ restored individuals to right relationship with God by dying on the cross as their substitute. He suffered the penalty we deserve, making it possible for us to enjoy the eternal life he deserves. With the penalty paid we are able to be forgiven, reconciled to God and welcomed by God into eternal life after our physical death.
The dominant notes of this portrait are the sinlessness of Christ, the sinfulness of humankind, the reality of the judgement to come, the necessity of turning away from sin and toward God, the possibility of finding eternal life, and the passionate love that God has for us, a love so deep it drove him to become incarnate in Christ and suffer the horrors of the cross.
Portrait 2:The Empowering Christ
This portrait emphasises the idea that Jesus enables us to become everything we were created to be. We are magnificent beings, created to live in close relationship with our Creator, to image God in lives of love, grace, generosity, compassion, and goodness, and to live purposeful and meaningful lives. Jesus makes us right with God and starts making us right within ourselves, enabling us to become the people we are designed to be.
In some versions of this portrait we are empowered to become like Christ in our character, values, life purpose and behavior. In other versions the empowering includes things such as supernatural manifestations of the Spirit, God’s material blessing on our work and homes, and divine guidance for all our decision making.
The dominant notes in this portrait are affirmation of our humanity, the aspiration to become everything God created us to be, hope that our lives can be changed, and a sense of God’s shaping of our lives in the midst of the everyday.
Portrait 3:The Just Jesus
This portrait emphasises that Jesus came not simply to put individuals right with God and within themselves, but to put the whole world right. Jesus is understood as one who challenges social, economic and political systems that marginalise, oppress and exploit and redeems the whole created order, including the natural environment. Following Jesus means sharing these same concerns.
The dominant notes in this portrait are a concern for social justice and the environment, a focus on the poor, oppressed and marginalised, a suspicion of power and a commitment to participate in the effort to build a better world.
Why It Matters
In my experience it is common for Christians and churches to emphasise one of these portraits and to neglect the others. This creates a faith that is unbalanced and diminished.
For example, those who focus on Christ as the forgiving Jesus easily neglect social justice. The overriding focus of their spirituality is getting souls saved for eternity and all else is seen as a distraction from this goal. Consequently adherents of this portrait frequently fail to address the challenges of our age and so present a faith that has little relevance and attraction to those outside the church.
The danger for those embracing the empowering Jesus is captivity to the aspirational values of our age. With little critique of the cultural systems in which we live and a weak sense of sin, those holding this portrait of Jesus all too easily slip into a narcissistic individualism in which Christ simply endorses the consumerist priorities of our culture and faith is a means by which they are attained.
For those following the just Jesus it is all too common to embrace a Christ who changes social structures but does little to change me, to reduce sin to systemic wrongdoing and so tolerate personally poor behaviour, and to neglect questions of conversion and our eternal destiny in favour of the transformation of our temporal destiny.
Indeed, so far apart are the adherents of each portrait when those portraits are held to the neglect of the other that there often appears to be little common ground. To each group the other groups appear to hold to an alien and unbiblical faith.
It seems to me that each portrait captures an important dimension of the biblical witness to Christ, but that each portrait is also incomplete. To do justice to the biblical witness we need to hold to all three portraits – to a Jesus who in forgiving sin calls us to turn away from treading the path that leads to eternal death and opens the way to receive the gift of eternal life; who as the one true human who perfectly images God calls us to grow into our humanity and through the Spirit is continually working to move us toward this goal; whose view of humanity is inherently social, feeding a vision for a just, inclusive, equitable and graceful world, driving a prophetic critique of systems that exploit, damage and oppress, and calling us to work with God to see God’s will done on earth as in heaven.
Embracing this more complete portrait of Jesus will lead us to a more complete worship, a more complete reading of Scripture, a more complete piety, a more complete engagement with our culture and a more complete mission to our world.