Further reflections on his book Everything Must Change
[First I am inclined to remind you, reader, that I write these reflections as a former “disciple” of McLaren and having now read all of his books save two. What I share in this post is a consistent issue in all of his writings, some more obviously than others. I also write with much empathy and compassion for his position and his passion that has drawn him away from what can be most accurately described as orthodoxy. Thus it is not out of malice, but with a heavy heart that I write.]
About six years ago I first read the book More Ready Than You Realize by Brian McLaren. At the time I was very discouraged with the church, finding that the theology taught encouraged apathy about the problems in our community and for sharing the love of Christ with our neighbors. It seemed that something was desperately wrong and McLaren’s book came as not just a whiff of fresh air, but more like a wormhole had opened into a whole new world where the inspiring message of Jesus bore the power that it should having come from the Son of God.
Chapter 10 caught my attention more than any other in the entire book. McLaren recalls an interaction he had with George, a man who for a few months had attended the church where Brian was pastor. After a few conversations George asked what sounded like a very basic question: “Why did Jesus have to die?” McLaren found himself completely stunned by the question. He asked for two weeks to come up with an answer at which point he pulled down his books of theology and could not find a single author address this question, at least the way it sounded to him. With time ebbing away and no answer, he found himself talking to his brother Peter:
“Okay,” I said, “except that a couple of weeks ago I realized that I don’t know why Jesus had to die.”
Then Peter, without skipping a beat, without even a moment’s hesitation, said, “Well, neither did Jesus.”
This was the answer that he brought back to George. My first reaction was to cheer! Finally someone who is in church leadership who is willing to admit that they are not sure. I thought about how courageous it was that someone in his position would be willing to ask even the most basic questions with innocent and be willing to reinvestigate the fundamentals of our faith. As if it were the first reactions fraternal twin, I also had another more sour response: why, then, is McLaren even a Christian?
If Everything Must Change, Some Things Have Already
In the five years between the release of More Ready Than You Realize and Everything Must Change, McLaren seems to have found an answer to George’s question. In my review of Everything Must Change [review here], I showed how McLaren has essentially taken the message of Christ and turned it into a new set of laws that he hopes will turn the collective consciousness of the world so that there will be an earthly establishment of the rule of God. To state it simply: McLaren perceives the message and mission of Jesus as the delivery of a new way of living. He overtly criticizes any judicial and redemptive understanding of the gospel and reinvents the concept of original sin.
At least three times in Everything Must Change, McLaren expresses variations on this idea:
Jesus will use a cross to expose the cruelty and injustice of those in power and instill hope and confidence in the oppressed (p 124).
Jesus uses the cross to expose Roman violence and religious complicity with it, while pronouncing a sentence of forgiveness on his crucifiers (p 158).
According to McLaren, Jesus died to make a point. Christ was a good teacher, one who passionately laid out a plan to heal the world’s social ills, and then died to make a point. Why, then, do we follow Jesus and not Socrates, also a great teacher of wisdom who died rather than compromise on his beliefs. One could easily conclude that either man would be worth following if the message of both was a new and better way of living.
In the book of Romans, the Apostle Paul beautifully describes how the sacrifice of Christ was to pay the penalty of death that we deserved for our sins. He explains that we are “justified by his blood” and that we are therefore set right with God. It is Christ’s life and death that frees us from our sin and gives us his righteous life as our inheritance.
Frankly, that is the end of the story. We can do nothing to satisfy God, but everything is done on our behalf. Paul states this again very vividly in Galatians, challenging his readers to shed their condemnation of one another based on the law. However, even having used strong language to make his point that salvation is by grace alone through Christ alone he says this:
I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
(Galatians 2:20 ESV)
There is no contradiction here, but rather it expresses the longing that McLaren and all Christians share. When we are saved by the work of Christ and the Holy Spirit invades our lives, we cannot help but be different. What Paul says here is essentially this: because of the amazing way you have given up your life for me, Jesus, I promise to live my life as if it were you living it. We become image bearers of our Lord, a light to those we come in contact with. Our every word and deed therefore should point to our Savior [see also].
Which makes me wonder about “Christians” who attend church each week and do no more and no less.
Jesus did not come to expose the cruelty of the Roman penal system, but the devastating corruption of sin and the enormity of its final penalty. And in exposing the sin of the world at it lay on his shoulders, he took it to hell, paid the ransom, and return victorious. We, as his brothers and sons, are heirs to his victory. What better news is there?
More to Say
I am sure that this conversation is not over. In fact, the “emerging” view is centered around narrative and conversation. I have yet to read his newest book A New Kind of Christianity, but would be happy to discuss that clues McLaren leaves about what he thinks the gospel is in that book. Meanwhile, I charge you to live in the hope and assurance that Christ has done all the work for you. And pray, do not keep that news to yourself, but find every opportunity in word and deed to tell of the wonders of our Lord.