Is Your Jesus Too Small? / Spiritual Meditations

There are few places is the divide between the “liberal” and “conservative” Christian faith more evident than how each side understands the person of Jesus and what it means to be his disciples. Many of us find ourselves somewhere in the middle but let’s be aware of and wary of the disadvantages of being at the extremes.

The Liberal View of Jesus

Liberal Christians tend to focus on a Jesus that leads people to justice and radical obedience to the will of God and ushers in the reign of God. They cite the words of Jesus’s first sermon, as recorded in Luke 4: 18, where Jesus quotes Isaiah.

“The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.”

They focus on scriptures like Matthew 25: 31-45 (see below), where the sole criterion of the last judgment is what we do or do not do for the poor and those in need. They highlight Jesus’s call to love not only our neighbor but also our enemies. They see in the parable of the Good Samaritan, Christ’s call to compassion and the breaking down of social structures of racism and classism. They note that Jesus sought the outcasts and the underside of society. He invited women into his ministry, including those who were despised by society and used by men. He is the model of a prophet of social justice. He calls us to lay aside our sins of apathy toward those in need, our materialism, our bigotry, and to work for a world that looks more like the Kingdom of God. Racism, injustice, poverty, war—these are the sins to which liberals give a bit more attention than others.

The Conservative View of Jesus

Conservative Christians emphasize Jesus as “personal Savior and Lord.” He is the one who expresses God’s love to us individually, who came to seek and to save the lost people, and who came to die for the sins of the world. They tend to focus on Jesus’s teaching that we must be “born again” and his words of invitation: “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11: 28-30).

Jesus calls us to follow him in a life of personal holiness. For conservatives, being a Christian starts with having a “personal relationships” with Jesus — a relationship that changes our hearts. The world is changed as Christians tell others about Jesus and invite them to receive him. Conservatives emphasize that Jesus came to save us from our sins and to deliver us from hell. When it comes to social ills, the emphasis is typically on sexual sins and sexual purity. Abortion, homosexuality, and pornography are important topics.

What the Gospels Tell Us About Jesus’s Teachings

In his book Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White, Adam Hamilton focuses on the major teachings of Jesus as follows:

Jesus was not a social reformer in the typical sense of the word. We may wish that he had taken on women’s rights, and slavery, and oppression — but while his words and work would eventually lead his followers to push for reform in these areas, Jesus does not directly address them as a social reformer might. His primary opponents were the religious leaders, who he condemned for their legalism and hypocrisy, rather than the wealthy or powerful. Jesus invited people to love God and neighbors sacrificially.

Having said that, the implications of Jesus’s call to radical love and to the Kingdom of God included all the dimensions of social justice that liberals see in Jesus. Following him will lead us to care for the poor. It will lead us to love our neighbor sacrificially, regardless of the color of their skin. It will lead us to question the use of violence to solve problems. Following Jesus will lead us to build hospitals and clinics and homeless shelters and to pay attention to the weightier matters of the law: justice, mercy, and faith (Matthew 25: 20 three b).

In John’s gospel, Jesus speaks about his followers having a relationship with him that is compared to a vine and its branches and in which his believers share a certain unity with him. The concept of a personal relationship with Jesus for all future followers is hinted at but does not seem to be the essence of his message. Although he speaks about the afterlife, his comments about it are sparse. The focus of his preaching and teaching is not to call people to a personal relationship with him but to call people to repent and submit to the reign of God. It is after Jesus’s resurrection that the Holy Spirit becomes more available to transform our hearts in a new relationship with God (see Romans 5:5 below).

Every dimension of Jesus’s ministry seemed focused on unpacking how the Kingdom of God impacts our lives. Yet having said that, Jesus does speak of his death as bringing about the forgiveness of sins, but this is only one dimension of his mission. Eternal life is addressed In that most famous of all gospel passages, John 3: 16, were we learned that “God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Though heaven and the afterlife are important, and Jesus clearly offers us hope for eternal life, he seems far more concerned with how we live in this life than the next.

Jesus seemed to have little interest in the theological concerns of many evangelicals today. He did not lay out for us a systematic theology. He didn’t clarify for us the issues of predestination or foreknowledge. He didn’t seem concerned to lift up a doctrine of inerrancy of scripture or to teach us about justification by faith. That’s not to say that one can’t find statements of Jesus that might be used to support these views, but they did not seem to be Jesus’s primary concern.

A Bigger Jesus

So which Jesus are we to believe in and follow: the social reformer of liberal Christianity or the personal savior of conservative Christianity? Or more to the point, is either of these portrayals of Jesus adequate apart from the other? Neither the liberal nor the conservative view of Jesus seems entirely consistent with the Jesus we find in the Gospels.

The evangelical gospel calls people to receive Jesus as savior and to pursue a life of personal holiness. It opens the promise of grace, the love of God, a new beginning, and the hope of eternal life. Jesus invites us to be born again, calls us to take up our crosses and follow him, promises he will be with us always, and gives his life to save us from our sins.

The social gospel calls people to follow Jesus as Lord, and to live dangerously — even radically — in practicing his love towards others and pursuing the will of God in addressing issues of justice and mercy. Jesus calls us to love our neighbor, and our neighbor is anyone who needs our love. That love is not a warm emotional bond, but a willingness to sacrifice what we must to meet the needs of others. We are called not to seek first our own personal salvation and happiness, but the Kingdom or Reign of God. We are called to serve God, not money. We are to feed and clothe and shelter those in need. We are to heal the sick and to cast out the kind of demons we find destroying people today.


Individually, conservative and liberal conceptions of Jesus are “too small.” It is only as we hold together these two pictures of the Master, that Jesus and his call on our lives begins to come into clear focus. It is only then that we find the fullness of the good news, a life of meaning and an opportunity to change the world.

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Relevant Scripture

The Sheep and the Goats

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’  (Matthew 25:31-45)

And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us. (Romans 5:5)


Seeing Gray in a World of Black & White by Adam Hamilton

Image by Myriams Fotos

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