The J Curve: the gospel message lived out

Mar 10, 2020 by

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream:

Christians wanting to remain faithful to the apostolic gospel and the teachings of Scripture in the context of an uncomprehending and sometimes hostile world and increasingly secularised church, need wise guides to help navigate the future. In the face of discouragement and complexity, leaders can capture imaginations by articulating vision with optimism, simplicity and clarity – for example: “our mission is to plant churches, our message is the cross of Christ, our method is to win people one by one”. Straplines like this, and the philosophy behind them can generate enthusiasm, and it can certainly be argued that they encapsulate and summarise the essence of the Christian enterprise. But over-simplifying can lead to omission of key elements. In particular, for certain church cultures in the West, there is a danger of prioritising “what to believe” at the expense of (rather than as a foundation for ) “how to live”.

Historically, evangelicals have emphasised the cross in our salvation: the body of Christ broken and blood poured out as he took our place, receiving the righteous judgement of God on our sin so that, as we receive the benefits of his passion by faith, we do not have to face that judgement, but are declared not guilty, and can enter freely into an eternal relationship with God as Father without guilt or fear.

A wonderful message, and central to the gospel. But is it the whole gospel, and will this message be enough to “win people one by one” to a life of discipleship where we cope with the real difficulties of life with growing Christ-like character, and develop a fully biblical worldview? Can the full richness of “by grace alone” be summarised by the message of “Christ died for your sins” alone? Will churches emphasising faith at the expense of humility, patience and love be sufficient to survive the onslaughts and temptations of the surrounding culture, and to eventually influence the culture with the goodness of God’s Kingdom, as used to happen in the West and is still happening in parts of the world today?

According to Paul Miller’s powerful and groundbreaking book, J-Curve (Crossway, 2019), the familiar evangelical understanding and communication of the message of the cross is deficient. We are not called to simply understand the atonement and our justification by faith, but to enter into union with the one who died for us and lives in us. Being “in Christ” means entering into the fellowship of his sufferings, as we go through the painful process of daily putting self to death, standing against evil, and showing love to others. And the shape of the “J-Curve” means that in Christ we are taken down into death and then up into resurrection, in the long term (eternal life) and also in the daily taking up of our cross and walking in step with the Spirit. 

Paul Miller shows, with a series of reflections on everyday experiences with family and work, and focussing on a small number of key Scriptures, the tendency for Christians to believe the gospel but not live it out. For example, while we applaud Paul for explaining how his trust was not in his religious good works but in Christ (Phil 3:4-10), we regularly fall into traps of pride and boasting. We believe, in theory, that our intrinsic value is not determined by our success and the high esteem in which others hold us. We know the verse “humble yourselves and God will lift you up”. But in practice we are easily slighted; we resent not being recognised; we find ways of moving ourselves up the ladder. While we know we are justified by faith, we can’t help trying to justify ourselves in the eyes of others.

When our minds and hearts are in the system that rewards success and punishes failure, whether in the workplace, sport or relationships, we’re looking to feed our ego, to feel good, to avoid suffering. But as Christians we’re no longer in that system, we’re “in Christ”. Suffering, then, is no longer something meaningless, but part of the pattern of the life of Christ which we are living. Whether the suffering takes the relatively trivial form of being passed over while someone else gets credit for my work, or a persistent “thorn in the flesh”, or a life of constant pain such as a major disability, or being persecuted for my faith, Miller sees the biblical pattern as Jesus using these events to take the believer down in him to the bottom of the “J-Curve”, then up in a mini-resurrection as God’s grace enables a good outcome.

Miller helpfully explains the difference between the Christian vision and other philosophies. Entering into the life, death and resurrection of Jesus breaks the hold of our sinful nature (which continues even if the penalty of sin has been taken away by the atonement). It also helps us to make sense of, and deal with, suffering which comes to us unwanted from outside. We die to old-self-focus, live in the new self, and wait to be lifted up, but because we are “in Christ” this is very different from the ancient “self—help” ideas of Stoicism and Buddhism. It’s also different from the natural, and very contemporary instinct to avoid anything difficult or inconvenient, and to reward our coping with the inevitable difficulties of life by sinful self indulgence.

“The greatest of these is love”. Miller, who is himself completely committed to a reformed evangelical understanding of biblical faith, is also critical of a typical evangelicalism which emphasises the work of Christ on the cross and justification by faith, and then sees living the Christian life of sacrificial love for others as merely one of a number of optional applications. Rather, that love should be motivated by a vision of the beauty of Jesus and a desire to imitate him, and empowered by him:

Paul first enthrals us with a vision of a life completely devoted to the other (Phil 2:1-4). Then he tells a story of the person of Jesus as he traces the letter J with his life of love (v5-8). Unless we are animated by a vision of beauty (the good) that we are moving toward, love will remain either an occasional or a wearisome task. So cultivating a sense of the beauty of love and the oneness it creates is essential to the work of love.” [J-Curve, p142].

For anyone concerned that this might lead to a “salvation by works” or “Christianity is just being nice to people” approach, Miller deals with that. His exposition of Paul’s understanding of the Christian life as a “J-Curve” is based on a clear grasp of justification by faith, but doesn’t end there.

If the church of the 2020’s is going to create counter-cultural communities which model Jesus rather than just talk about his salvation as the icing on the cake of comfortable lifestyles, if it is going to enable those whom Christ calls to suffer for the truth in an increasingly hostile environment, then it will need to listen to guides like Paul Miller. The J Curve is highly recommended.

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