We’re All Like Thomas Jefferson

In 1820, 77-year-old Thomas Jefferson, by this time long retired from his political career, sat down at his writing desk with a razor, glue, and Bible and began cutting and pasting his favorite passages. Jefferson realized that many of the Bible’s teachings pleased him very much. The problem, however, was that he found other parts very offensive. To remedy the situation, Jefferson essentially made his own religion—one adapted fully to his own personal preferences.

While the story of Jefferson’s Bible is often told with scorn and incredulity, I believe that we all are a little like Thomas Jefferson. We live in an age of customization. From dream homes to iPhones, we are trained to believe that the world exists to do our bidding. It makes sense that we would long for customizable religion as well. We don’t need scissors and glue sticks to limit our attention exclusively to the aspects of the Bible that best suit our own personal preferences.

But there’s a hard truth that we need to reckon with: When it comes to God, our personal preferences do not matter. While culture trains us to believe that the sovereign self is the starting point for everything in life, the Bible has a radically different message. God does not conform to our preferences. God does not abide by our rules. When it comes to God, it’s either his way or self-destruction.

John Calvin, one of the architects of the 16th-century Protestant Reformation, began his magnum opus with this insight: “Man never achieves a clear knowledge of himself unless he has first looked upon God’s face, and then descended.” This is Calvin’s way of saying, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction” (Prov. 1:7).

If we get the starting point wrong, in other words, we get everything else wrong. Everything depends on where you start, and the Bible only gives us two choices: God or self. Notice how Jesus invited disciples to follow him: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?” (Luke 9:23-25).

At this point, you may be wondering, “How would I know?” It seems very abstract. Certainly, many think their starting point is God when it’s not and vice versa. But it’s not so difficult. It all comes down to one question: When a choice must be made between God’s clearly revealed will and your own preferences, which way do you typically go?

We’ve fine-tuned the skill of coming up with reasons to not obey God’s clearly revealed will. Our love of prosperity, comfort, and convenience is often detrimental to growth and discipleship. We like to think we can have it all. We expect to get our preferences, and we expect Jesus to work around them. Far too often, our starting point is self.

When we baptize new believers at Ashland, where I pastor, we ask them to make a confession, “Jesus is Lord.” Those aren’t mere words. That confession represents the new starting point for our lives as disciples of Jesus. In essence, we are saying, “May Jesus’s will, not mine, always be done.” Let’s revisit that commitment daily, and let’s make sure that Christ reigns, not us.

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