Some years ago Francis Quinn, then Roman Catholic bishop of Sacramento, and I were talking about evangelicals who were converting to Catholicism. I was a Presbyterian minister at the time, serving a small church in Sacramento. I can’t remember the occasion of our conversation, but I do remember one his remarks. He said that when evangelicals move into Catholicism, “I hope they bring Jesus with them. We Catholics need more Jesus.”
Catholics certainly don’t ignore Jesus—he hangs crucified at the front of most of their churches, after all. And they believe it is his very body and blood that they receive in every Mass. But as the good bishop noted, Jesus isn’t necessarily at the center of most Catholic daily piety. For many Catholics, that place would be occupied by the Virgin Mary or perhaps one or more of the saints. Other Catholics are enamored with the magisterium or the church’s tradition. But it would be hard to argue that the Catholic faith is “Jesusy.”
That term was coined by writer Anne Lamott soon after her conversion. In a period of dark despondency, one night she lay in bed, when “I became aware of someone with me, hunkered down in the corner. … The feeling was so strong that I actually turned on the light for a moment to make sure no one was there—and of course, there wasn’t. But after a while, in the dark again, I knew beyond any doubt that is was Jesus.”
For the next few days, she says, “I had the feeling that a little cat was following me, wanting me to reach down and pick it up, wanting me to open the door and let it in.”
A week later, she found herself in church crying uncontrollably at the singing of hymns. She left before the benediction and raced home and again felt like the little cat was running at her heels.
I opened the door to my house, and I stood there a minute, and then I hung my head and said, “F[orget] it. I quit.” I took a long, deep breath and said out loud, “All right, You can come in.”
Jesus has been at the center of her faith since, so much so she said in an interview in Christianity Today, her friends “roll their eyes at me because I’m really Jesusy, there’s just no way around it.” As she stood before a mostly evangelical audience at Calvin College in 2000, she exclaimed, “We’ll have the Jesusiest time ever!”
Lamott, by her own admission, is anything but an evangelical Christian. But “Jesusy” is not a bad way to sum up what is distinctive about the lived faith of evangelical Christians, in both their conversions and subsequent spirituality. It harkens to the 1960s and the conversion of so many hippies, who recounted in various and sundry ways their dramatic encounters with Jesus. They were, as they came to be known, “Jesus people.”
This is why at the heart of evangelical spirituality lies Jesus. Thus the classic phrases that sum up what one does to become Christian: One “accepts Jesus as Lord and Savior” or “invites Jesus into your heart” so that one can have “a personal relationship with Jesus.”
And thus the classic stories that describe the born-again experience of evangelical saints, none more evangelical than that of John Wesley. One evening he reluctantly attended a meeting in Aldersgate. Someone read from Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to Romans. About 8:45 p.m., as he later recalled, “while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”
Historian Albert J. Raboteau, in describing the key role conversion played in African American religion, quotes Baptist preacher George Liele, whose conversion occurred while he was a slave in Virginia:
I was convinced that I was not in the way to heaven, but in the way to hell. This state I labored under for the space of five or six months. … I was brought to perceive that my life hung by a slender thread, … and I found no way wherein I could escape the damnation of hell, only through the merits of my dying Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”
To be sure, one cannot be a Christian without Jesus Christ playing a central role, so in this respect, Jesus belongs to every Christian tradition. But one distinctive of evangelical Christianity is that it is perhaps the most Jesusy. Most Christian traditions, while surely trying to imbibe the full counsel of God, often understand and enjoy a particular encounter with the Triune God. To contrast but two: If Pentecostals are known for having a powerful experience of the Holy Spirit, and the mystics for enjoying sublime spiritual moments with “the Absolute,” evangelicals are characterized by their Jesus-centered piety.
The first question and answer in the Heidelberg Catechism of 1563 is not a bad summary of the existential priorities and biblical theology that drives much of evangelical spirituality:
Q. What is your only comfort in life and in death?
A. That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation. Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.
A great amount of theology is packed into that paragraph, but for the purposes of this essay, two themes are worth noting.
The first is that evangelicals admit they need “comfort.” As the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the word, they need “a feeling of relief or encouragement.”
This harkens to the same urgent sense the Puritans had of humankind’s predicament. Evangelicals are especially troubled by a particular set of human predicaments. Working backward from the relief Christ brings (as noted in the parentheses below), the Catechism outlines what I believe evangelicals wrestle with most deeply:
[blockquote] Guilt and shame (“forgiveness of sin”)
Spiritual slavery (“set me free”)
Insecurity and anxiety (“He watches over me…”)
Fear of death and annihilation (“assures me of eternal life”)
Meaning and purpose (“ready now to live for him”)
It can certainly be argued that many human beings coming from many different places wrestle with such things, but I’d argue that evangelicals seem to be especially concerned about them, and they respond to them in certain characteristic ways. But more of that in later essays.
For now, the key thing to note is that for evangelicals, Jesus Christ is their only comfort, the only one who has adequately dealt with the core human predicaments. In the words of the catechism, Jesus has “fully paid for my sins.” Jesus “has set me free.” Jesus “watches over me.” And so on. Again, more later on how evangelicals theologically understand how Christ has done that. For now, it’s important to note that evangelicals see that Jesus Christ has made all the difference.
But the Heidelberg Catechism is not satisfied merely with saying what Jesus Christ did for us long ago or what he does for us from far above. It describes the believer’s ongoing relationship to Christ. He is our comfort not merely because he has done something for us but because we “belong—body and soul, in life and in death” to Jesus Christ. This idea of belonging to Christ is repeated in the answer and given definitive emphasis in the opening phrase: “I am not my own.”
Evangelicals are especially moved by the way the apostle Paul talks about this:
I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me (Gal. 2:20).
I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ (Phil 3:8).
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! (2 Cor. 5:17).
Such sayings go hand in hand with Paul’s repeated affirmation that we are “in Christ”—he uses that phrase over 200 times in his letters. Evangelical Christians do not merely believe truths about Christ; we do not merely believe that God forgives because of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The distinctive thing is this: We are in Christ and Christ is in us. It is a lived, dynamic, and personal experience.
A popular contemporary Christian song celebrated in evangelical churches that gets at this is “Christ Alone,” whose last verse is:
No guilt in life, no fear in death—
This is the pow'r of Christ in me;
From life’s first cry to final breath,
Jesus commands my destiny.
No pow’r of hell, no scheme of man,
Can ever pluck me from His hand;
Till He returns or calls me home—
Here in the pow’r of Christ I'll stand.
The key line is: “… the pow’r of Christ in me.” This is not a song just about Christ’s historic work on the cross, but an inward reality. This prompts a response in us as expressed in classic hymns like “Take My Life and Let it Be” whose last verse is:
Take my will, and make it Thine; it shall be no longer mine.
Take my heart, it is Thine own; it shall be Thy royal throne.
Take my love, my Lord, I pour at Thy feet its treasure store.
Take myself, and I will be ever, only, all for Thee.
This devotion to Jesus crosses cultural and racial lines. Some of the most well-known African American hymns and gospel songs include “Jesus Is My Rock,” and “Jesus, Jesus, Oh, What a Wonderful Child.” From across the world we have “Jesu, Jesu, Fill Us with Your Love” (Ghana), “O Christ the Great Foundation,” (China), and “Christ Is Living!” (Argentina).
One might suspect writers, both biblical and contemporary, of being a bit neurotic about Jesus. Maybe so. As the Catholic writer Brennan Manning put it in his The Ragamuffin Gospel, “Those who have the disease called Jesus will never be cured.” For better or worse, evangelicals are victims of this disease (which they happen to think is really the cure).
As the quotes from Manning and Lamott suggest, they aren’t the only Christian ones so afflicted. And evangelical theology and hymnody surely appeals to other dimensions of the faith. But as evangelical composers Bill and Gloria Gather put it in one song, “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, there is something about that name.” We might say, “Evangelicals—there’s something Jesusy about that movement.”
This does not mean that all evangelicals are Jesusy in a more evocative, emotional sense. I’m certainly not. For some, “Jesusy” means firmly Christocentric. One reason so many evangelical scholars are attracted to theologian Karl Barth is precisely because he grounds his theology so firmly on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
But what about Jesus especially and uniquely resonates with evangelicals? Our lived theology hinges on two descriptors of Jesus. We accept him as our “Lord and Savior.” Evangelicals live in the tension that phrase suggests, a tension that leads to some uncomfortable moments for us, but also one that brings a great deal of dynamism to the movement. More of this in future installments.