How Did Jesus Do What He Did?

In North America, the letters W.W.J.D.? have become recognized as a popular Christian slogan. These initials appear on things such as jewelry and clothing to prompt the question, “What would Jesus do?” This question stems from the classic novel by Charles Sheldon, In His Steps. Written a century ago, the book used this question to initiate and illustrate personal and church renewal.

Years ago a youth musical based on this theme was produced. At a premier presentation of the musical, one of the composers said, “When we entered the project, I did not realize myself the depth of the [W.W.J.D.?] question. We see it on bracelets, bumper stickers, caps, everywhere—and it’s so easy to dismiss it. But when you start trying to write songs and concepts and dialog around that question, it begins to work inside you. As we asked ourselves that question over and over and over, we were drawn back to the cross. He would give his life… We didn’t want to present a musical that would say, ‘Don’t do this, don’t do that.’ … We wanted them to see a portrait of the life of Jesus, through suffering, surrender, sacrifice and service.” [1]

The basic premise of imitating Jesus is based on Bible verses such as 1 Peter 2:21 which states: “For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps” (hence the title of Sheldon’s novel; cf., 1 John 2:6). Certainly Christ, as the Sinless One, is the supreme example of righteous living. Sinlessness is one of Christ’s unique qualifications as our King-Priest: “For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb 4:15).

The perfect standard

Yet how many of us have come to despair of trying to imitate Christ? We end up confessing with James that, “we all stumble in many things” (James 3:2). Then we try to excuse ourselves by remembering Christ’s unique qualifications. We reason, Jesus could live righteously because He was God’s Son. Also, He was virgin-born and did not inherit original sin (and a disposition to it) that everyone one else did. He also had a unique mission as our Redeemer (Luke 19:10). So, is this Christ-like standard realistic for us?

Such attempts to lower divine standards, however, side-step our high calling to be holy as God is holy (1 Pet. 1:16). This brings us back to a humble admission of our inability to live the righteous life that God requires of us in His law. This humble perspective is described in the beatitudes. “Blessed are the poor in spirit“—we confess our moral weakness. “Blessed are those who mourn“—we grieve over our sins. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness“—our new heart desires to please Him in all things (Matt. 5:3,4,6).

The open secret

Since Jesus is our standard as well as our Savior, we find ourselves needing to answer another question: How did Jesus do what He did? (H.D.J.D.W.H.D.). In other words, we need not only an awareness of Christ’s righteousness, but we also need the understanding of how He was able to perfectly fulfill the Father’s will (Matt. 3:17; John 17:4). The answer to this question shows us that the Christian life is more than an imitation; it is a participation.

Using a familiar analogy from nature, Christ taught His disciples: “Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing” (John 15:4,5). So we need to know more than God’s standards; we need to know His provision and strategy for us to live the abundant life!

Norman Grubb addressed the “H.D.J.D.W.H.D.” question this way:

What then were the secret resources of this sinless life [of Christ], perfect in holiness, mighty in word and work? John tells us in his Gospel, for the same Gospel which supremely emphasizes His Godhead, also gives us the profoundest insight into His manhood. How striking that the one thing He was always saying about Himself was that He was nothing! They challenged Him on the healing of the lame man. His answer was, “The Son can do nothing of Himself, but what He sees the Father do; for whatever He does, the Son also does in like manner” [John 5:19]. They challenged Him on the judgments He passed; “I can of Myself do nothing” was His reply, “As I hear, I judge” [John 5:30]. They questioned Him about His doctrines. “My doctrine is not Mine, but His who sent Me” was His answer. “If anyone wants to do His will, he shall know concerning the doctrine, whether it is from God or whether I speak on My own authority” [John 7:16,17]. His very life was was derived from another. He said, “As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who feeds on Me will live because of Me.” [John 6:57] … “Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father in Me? The words that I speak to you I do not speak on My own authority; but the Father who dwells in Me does the works” [John 14:10]. [2]

That author emphasized this truth as the dynamic of Christ’s life on earth: “The great secret was out at last. All these years among them He had been living as a man in hidden union with the Father. As perfect man, He fully knew His natural nothingness and constantly spoke of it; but He also knew that man was created to be indwelt by God, and He had always known that indwelling so completely that all His mighty words and deeds were not His, but the Father’s, with Himself the container, the co-worker.” [3]

And then Grubb drew the connection for how we are to live: “And so this perfect man shows us perfectly the hidden meaning of creation—the creature nothing but a container, the Creator living His own life in the creature, both distinct beings, both thinking, feeling, willing, acting; yet one the nothing, the Other the all, … for a whole man is really God in a man. [Living through spiritual union with Christ] is the fundamental necessity if I am ever to know life and live it according to its predetermined pattern.” [4]

The need for humility

We tend to attribute Christ’s powerful and victorious life to His deity as the Second Person of the triune God. Yet His coming to earth as man involved an astonishing act of humility. As Paul declared,

Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross” (Phil. 2:5-8).

So without ceasing to be God, the Son emptied Himself of the right to directly use His divine attributes. (This explains, for example, why during His earthly ministry Christ did know the timing of His second coming; only the Father knew—Matt. 24:36.)

The perfection of the ministry of the Lord Jesus, then, involved not only the right standards, but the right dynamic. As Christ lived by complete dependence upon the Father, so we as believers are to live by complete dependence upon the indwelling Christ.

An author identified as E.C.H. wrote on this theme:

There would be little harm in trying to imitate Christ if such an endeavor did not hide from us what our Lord really desires; and so keep us back from ‘life more abundant.’ Christ has come Himself into our hearts to dwell there, and what He wants is to live His life in us, as the Apostle Paul says, ‘For to me to live is Christ.’ Christ was the very source and mainspring of all he was and did. What a wonderful thing this is! We would be driven to despair if Christ had simply left us an example to follow or imitate, for we have no power within ourselves to do it. We must have a new source—a new spring of action, and Christ Himself wants to be just that for us.”

So when we consider W.W.J.D.?, we applaud the intention of encouraging people to live by God’s standards. Yet the way to fulfill that desire is to discover life as a participation with Christ, not only an imitation of Him. “H.D.J.D.W.H.D?” seems a bit long for bracelet or bumper sticker, but the answer to this question is an open secret for experiencing the Abundant Life.


[1] “WWJD? musical creators urge youth to take a stand,” Baptist Press Archive, January 11, 1999

[2] Norman Grubb, The Liberating Secret, Christian Literature Crusade, 1955), p.44-45. (Mr. Grubb was prominent missions leader and devotional writer of the mid 1900’s)

[3] Ibid., p.46

[4] Ibid., p. 46-47

Note: Norman Grubb was a prolific devotional author. However, his later writings overemphasized oneness under the name of “total truth.” For a discussion of this see James Fowler’s article: No Independent Self: An Attempt at Clarification.

Revised from the July 3, 2000 edition. This article is copyrighted by John B. Woodward, 2010. Permission is given to reprint it for non-commercial use with credit given. Biblical quotations are from the New King James Version, copyright by Thomas Nelson.

Honorable Mention

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