In the early days of liberal theology, it was the vogue to claim that Jesus' death was the result of His zeal. He shot His mouth off too many times about religious and moral truth, until, finally, His opponents could take no more and had Him assassinated. The theological axe-to-grind of this view was their rejection of the atonement as an objective, meritorious, vicarious sacrifice - in short, as a substitionary death.
Evacuating Christ's death in such a way, all that remained was His example. Not many evangelicals (a term I am growing increasingly uncomfortable with) would espouse such a radical view regarding Christ's death, but the accompanying view of His life as merely a pattern or example, has clung on with tenacity in the best of circles.
A common incarnation of this view can be seen in the WWJD crowd. "What Would Jesus Do?", comes, as an idea, from Sheldon's book In His Steps. The fictional story imagines a small church wherein the minister challenges everyone to ask this question before they do anything. The whole town is revolutionized as a result, and everyone lives happily ever after. If I sound sacrcastic it is because I bristle at such a empty view of Christ's life and death. If anything is plain from the Gospels, it is that Christ acted and lived a natural life. His holy, blameless life was the natural life of the God-man. It was not a legalistic, moment-by-moment succession of decisions based on the question: What is the right thing to do in this situation. Before I raise anyone's ire, let me hasten to say that I believe Christ did leave us an example of a holy life. But we are gravely mistaken if we think that His life and death were merely an example. Christ showed us what a perfect and holy life looks like, but not so that we could knock ourselves out imitating it and thereby earn brownie points with God. Christ's life must never be unconnected or disconnected from the price He paid and the ransom He offered.
George Smeaton, discussing this view of Christ's life, says, "It never brings off the mind from legality, from self-reliance, and self-dependence. It perverts the spiritual life and example of the Lord to be a ground, if not a boldly avowed argument, for fostering a certain self-justifying confidence. That is the vortex, within the attraction of which every school is drawn irresistibly, that offers no objective atonement, or perfect plea on which the soul can lean. Nothing so effectually carries off the mind from self-dependence as the atonement, - nothing so exalts grace and humbles the sinner; and on this account, God appointed that acceptance and forgiveness of sin should not be given without a Mediator, and without a dependence on His merits."