In His Steps

A Critque of the Novel

In His Steps might better be entitled False Steps! The philosophy behind it is not in keeping with the teachings of the Scriptures But with over 30 million copies sold, the 1896 novel, by Charles Monroe Sheldon (1857-1946), ranks among the best-sellers of all time. This article will make no attempt to analyze the characters and incidents described in the book. Rather, it will deal with the underlying theories it presents.

Charles Sheldon was a Congregational clergyman who became a leader in the Social Gospel movement. He preached a series of sermons with the overall theme “What Would Jesus Do?” applying his understanding of the life of Christ to decision-making today. These messages eventually evolved into a fictional account of what happened to some people who made it their aim to live that way. (The full title of the novel was originally In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do?)

The Social Gospel
The social gospel teaches we should apply what it sees as Christian principles to modern social ills. Its focus is not on personal salvation through faith in the shed blood of Christ, but rather on moral living, by which it is expected that society as a whole will be transformed.
But is that a proper approach?

Generally, the movement and its adherents have been liberal in theology, unconcerned with such crucial fundamentals as the verbal inspiration of Scripture, the deity, virgin birth, and substitutionary atonement of Christ, and salvation by grace through faith and apart from works. It mainly views Jesus’ earthly life as a pattern of good deeds, and an example to follow. (Even Christ’s death on the cross is reduced to this.)

And overwhelmingly, the social gospelites have been post-millennial in theology. That is, they see it as the calling of Christians to bring in an earthly golden age. They see it as the responsibility of the church to transform society, until the world becomes a fit kingdom for Christ to rule over. It is important to understand this background to the novel, and appreciate its philosophical roots.

The Key Text
Following “in His steps” was for Reverend Sheldon a matter of copying Jesus’ moral example. The phrase that became the title of the book is taken from Scripture (from First Peter), but it does not have exactly the significance the author makes it have. The theme of Peter’s first epistle is suffering for the cause of Christ. That is the context in which the apostle writes:

“When you do good and suffer, if you take it patiently, this is commendable before God. For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow in His steps: ‘Who committed no sin, nor was deceit found in His mouth;’ who, when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously” (I Pet. 2:20-23).

Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Peter is exhorting believers to be willing to suffer, if necessary, live for Christ, and defend and do the right. (And, indeed, we are to expect to suffer, cf. II Tim. 3:12.) The words of Peter are about personal sacrifice, not about transforming society. He is speaking about a patient, Christ-like response to wrongs inflicted by those who reject Him, and who determine to oppose and oppress His followers. This attitude is akin to what Paul describes to the Roman Christians:

“Repay no one evil for evil. Have regard for good things in the sight of all men. If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men. Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, will repay,’ says the Lord. Therefore ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:17-21).

The Essential of the New Birth
Only a regenerate heart has either the sensitivity or the power available to discern an answer to questions of conduct and to act upon them. And not all who claim to be followers of Jesus are born again Christians. This is a major flaw in Sheldon’s approach. He makes no mention of the necessity of the new birth through faith in Christ. But that is where it has to begin. We “must be born again” through personal faith in Him (Jn. 3:7; cf. 1:12-13). It is only the one reborn spiritually, and indwelt by the Spirit of God, who is able to truly and consistently follow the Lord (Rom. 8:9, 14; cf. II Cor. 2:14).

To suggest otherwise is to espouse a heretical doctrine called Pelagianism, named for Pelagius (circa 354-420) the man who proposed it. Pelagianism teaches that original sin did not taint human nature, and that the will is still capable of choosing good or evil without God’s help. It says Adam's basic sin was to set a bad example for his descendants, and the role of Jesus was to set a good example for the rest of humanity (thus counteracting Adam's bad example). And because humanity does not require God's grace for salvation, Christ’s death is devoid of the redemptive quality ascribed to it by orthodox theology. It becomes merely an example of self-sacrifice. Pelagianism claims that human beings have full control, and thus full responsibility, for their own salvation. That is a serious error.

Beyond the Life of Christ
If we are thinking of a pattern for conduct, taking “What Would Jesus Do?” as a central guiding principle will only work with certain qualifications, regeneration being the first. Then, we must realize that Christ is “the Word...made flesh” (Jn. 1:1, 14), fully God and fully Man. Some of the things He did had the purpose of establishing and confirming His unique identity. He demonstrated His absolute power and authority over such things as the spirit world, and the natural world, over disease, and over death. No other person is able to say of himself, as He did, “No one takes [My life] from Me....I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again” (Jn. 10:18). So, not all that the Lord Jesus Christ did is either possible or appropriate for the Christian.

Also, Sheldon’s focus on the three years of Christ’s life and ministry as recorded in the Gospels is far too narrow. Though it may not be as catchy as “W. W. J. D.,” it would be far better for the Christian to broaden the question to: What does the Word of God teach that relates to this situation? What does God want me to do, in dependance on the indwelling Holy Spirit? We need to grow in our knowledge of all that God has said. “All Scripture” is profitable for us (II Tim. 3:16-17). And Christ, as God the Son, can legitimately be considered the Co-Author of the Bible. If it is all the Word of God, it is also all “the Word of Christ” (Col. 3:16; cf. Matt. 24:35).

In addition, it soon becomes apparent that a lot of specifics in modern life are not covered in the Bible (smoking cigarettes, for example). There are also cultural differences to be accounted for. This requires, first of all, the proper interpretation of Scripture (and there is only one correct interpretation), and an appropriate application of it, growing out of that interpretation. We may not, for example, be required to shake the dust off our sandals when departing from someone who has rejected our witness (cf. Mk. 6:11). What we must do is discover and discern practical precepts and principles from the Bible which can be applied in the Christian life today.

We should also keep in mind that many of life’s decisions are mundane, and morally neutral (such as choosing which socks to wear in the morning). God has given us minds to think with, and liberty in such matters. But as we Christians cultivate the mind of Christ, through meditation on, and the habitual application of God’s Word (Rom. 12:1-2; Phil. 2:5), we will develop a sensitivity to those choices that have a moral dimension, and be better able to discern the right course to take (Heb. 5:13-14).

Limitations in the Theory
Living "In His Steps," on the basis of what we suppose Jesus would do in a given situation has the danger of becoming a subjective hunt for what feels right at the moment. It is all too easy to impose our own ideas and desires, and claim they are Christ’s. There must be a more concrete anchor than that, and it is found in the entire written revelation of God making up the sixty-six books of the Holy Bible. Imagination and wishful thinking are not enough to guide us–especially since “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately [incurably] wicked” (Jer. 17:9), and it will inevitably lead us astray, apart from the gracious working of the Holy Spirit.

Further, the post-millennial premise that the Lord is waiting for believers to christianize society before He will return is fallacious. In the late nineteen century this was a more popular view than it is today. Amazing inventions and other innovations seemed to hold out the prospect of an earthly utopia up ahead. But two World Wars, and the growing moral corruption in western culture do not point in that direction at all. We are certainly to be salt and light in society (Matt. 5:13-16), and stand for what is right. But the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20) has nothing to do directly with reforming society. It is about calling individuals to faith in Christ, and teaching them to follow Him. In fact, the Bible’s portrait of the last days before Christ’s return is far different from that of post-millennialism. It sees evil as being rampant and on the increase, with society becoming more polluted, as the time of the second coming approaches (cf. I Tim. 4:1; II Tim. 3:1-5, 13).

The Bottom Line
All of this is not to say that following in the footsteps of Christ is wrong. It is not wrong to seek, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to become more Christ-like (cf. I Cor. 11:1; Eph. 5:1-2). Living according to the pattern presented in the Word of God is certainly a valid goal. Holy living and a faithful witness are expected of the children of God. But human beings are incapable of doing that in a way that is pleasing to God, apart from the new birth and dependance on the transforming work of the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:16, 25).

And as Christians we cannot be transformed as to all our habits or our entire lifestyle in a day. As believers daily immerse themselves in the Word of God, the Spirit of God wisely and gently will address those things that need to change, one by one. Even then, the Lord recognizes our weakness (Ps. 103:13-14) and we are told what to do when we stumble (I Jn. 1:9). Christian growth takes time (I Pet. 2:2; II Pet. 3:18).

Involvement in the Christian community is a factor in this. Sheldon is right in his emphasis on fellowship as a key element in spiritual growth. His characters gather weekly to testify to decisions made, and the result, to share questions and concerns, and to pray for one another. This is needed. As believers communicate with one another, they are encouraged to keep on in what is right, and to reconsider and turn from what is wrong.

But having said this, Charles Sheldon’s philosophy is unbiblical because rests on a false foundation, and because, even at its best, it is incomplete. In His Steps may make for some interesting reading, but it does not provide sound and solid teaching for Christian living. It is unfortunate that many are still purchasing the book, and espousing its errors.