Should we take a hammer and chisel to the Jesus of the Bible and shape him into our own personal Jesus? Of course not! This does not, however, stop North Americans from getting out their toolbox. Obviously I’m not speaking literally, but the tendency of people to “rebrand” the Jesus of history into their own personal avatar is quite real. Truly did Calvin say that our hearts are idol factories, carving out that which is uncomfortable and enhancing that which speaks to our desires. Remaking Jesus into an image of our choosing results in a happy medium between the discomfort of bowing one’s knee before the real Jesus and the guilt-inducing conviction of an outright rejection.
The fact that we like to make Jesus over in our own image isn’t exactly big news. When we consider the general mind-set of our North American society, it makes sense. We are a culture that personalizes just about everything—playlists, food, smartphones, relationships, even gender. Why shouldn’t we customize Jesus? And this is precisely what we do. We redefine Jesus according to our own image, desires, and aspirations. He becomes the Giver of Bling, the Feminized, the Mystical Friend, the National Patriot, the Moral Example, the New Moses, and the Mascot. We twist him into a funhouse-mirror image of ourselves, since life is easier when we can convince ourselves that what Jesus really wants is what we really want.
The problem with our false christs is that they can’t fix our problem. They may make us feel better, but they can’t address the foundational flaw in our existence. They have no power to appease the wrath of God. Our problem isn’t ultimately that we die, suffer physically, mentally, and emotionally, or that there is rampant injustice and corruption. Our problem is that we have offended a holy God and that we cannot, by our own powers, be reconciled to him. Our false christs cannot resurrect us from the dead—they crumble at the slightest discomfort; they smash to the ground as we stumble into the traps of our own sin and despair; they stare back with vacant eyes as we plead for salvation.
They cannot forgive sin or resurrect dead people, because they are not real. Like trees cut down and carved into idols one day and used as firewood the next, these false christs are essentially puppets of their creators (Isa. 44:9–20). Like their mutable and easily swayed originals, they vacillate from one thing to another—a savior one moment and kindling the next. They are frail and will never have more power than those who fashioned them, which means they cannot overcome sin, death, the devil, or the world. They may possess the qualities of the Jesus of Scripture, but they are not God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, the Savior of both body and soul.
There’s an old saying, “If you want to show up a crooked stick, put a straight one next to it.” We need the real Jesus to stand up so we can clearly see who he is and hear what he has done, because it is only the power of that gospel that will set us free from the sin that ensnares us into believing that the Jesus of our imagination can fulfill our deepest human desires. While false christs stand or fall by our own power, Jesus Christ continually sits at the right hand of the Father. He stood in our place as he became flesh and blood and walked through the wilderness of depravity on our behalf. He conquered the temptations to which we so easily succumb, drinking the vile cup of our suffering and sin, stumbling up the hill to Golgotha. He was displayed on a bloody cross, his body pierced, and blood and water poured out for each and every one of us who desperately hold onto hollow, fake christs.
Unlike the idols of our creation, which harden our hearts against the inborn knowledge of sin, Jesus declared from his cross that our sins have been paid for. Unlike our false christs, who ultimately require that we live and die for them, the true Christ lived the righteous life we ought to have lived and died the death we should have died. Unlike the “rebranded” Jesus, who is hampered by the finite and flawed power of their creators, the historical Jesus rose victorious from the grave, taking his seat at the right hand of the Father in glory, allowing all who believe in him to share in his triumph. Through his word and sacraments, we not only hear who he is and what he did, but we receive him and his benefits of forgiveness, life, and salvation. When our culture, society, and circumstance shift like reeds blowing in the winds of change, this Word does not change but remains forever (Isa. 40:7–8). We can taste, see, and believe the real Jesus right here and right now.
This is the real Jesus—the Jesus you and I do not deserve but certainly need. This is the God who is for you, who has saved you, and who will not fail you. Unlike idols that cannot see or speak, he has drawn near to you in his word to reveal himself to you, so that you might receive him by faith and be his own. This is the real Jesus: Christ crucified and resurrected, the only one who forgives sin and grants everlasting life.
Rev. Dr. Matthew Richard is pastor of Zion Lutheran Church in Gwinner, North Dakota.