Brian McLaren and the Gospel of Here & Now
In Brian McLaren’s book New Kind of Christian, the wise, penetrating, and affably Jamaican “Neo” says to his younger, less enlightened protégé: “OK, you asked for it. Dan, I don’t think that most Christians have any idea what the gospel really is” (105).
If ever a gauntlet has been thrown down, McLaren has done it here. This is an astonishing claim—”most Christians have no idea what the gospel really is.” At first glance, McLaren does not seem like the kind of guy given to throwing down gauntlets. He writes in a smooth and engaging style, and the smiling avuncular face on the back cover-flaps of his books sticks with you as you read. His style and manner is hypnotizing in a way. Perusing his books, you almost forget that you’re reading, and you begin to think you’re sitting with McLaren over lattes on a sunny day, talking, conversing, questioning, and thinking. For all his off-the-cuff casualness, however, McLaren’s corpus of writing is nothing if not deliberate. He has an agenda, and it’s to reset altogether the church’s understanding of the gospel.
Essentially, McLaren believes that the church, considered as a whole, has misunderstood and misapplied the gospel of Jesus. It has traded Jesus’ “gospel of the kingdom” for a gospel of “getting into heaven after you die.” Instead of being concerned with matters of justice and injustice, good and evil around the globe, the church has been hamstrung by the idea of “getting your butt into heaven,” as one of McLaren’s characters puts it. McLaren wants to replace that gospel with a gospel that calls Christians to join Christ’s mission of working for “God’s dream” for the world. In other words, he wants Christians to be less concerned about heaven and hell, and more concerned about working in this life toward what God intends the world to be.
Frankly, much of what McLaren presents is compelling. As I read the story of Millie, a Latina woman in New Jersey who invaded a rundown neighborhood in Camden, planted a church, and stuck out the disappointments to minister to her neighbors, my heart jumped. I know it’s fiction. There may not even be such a place. But who will argue that the vision is not good? A gospel that gets its hands dirty in the process of loving the unlovable is good and right, and McLaren is right to point out that very real side of the kingdom of God as Jesus and the apostles preached it.
For all that, McLaren’s explanation of the kingdom of God is only half right—or at least he has paid miserably insufficient attention to the other half. If he has gotten the social and political aspect of the kingdom right, he has vastly understated its spiritual dimension. And if he has gotten right the here-and-now side of the kingdom, he has woefully understated its eschatological “there-and-then” element.
Those are not insignificant deficiencies. They finally leave McLaren with a gospel so nearly emptied of eternity, so tethered to the here-and-now, that it really has no ability at all to offer a full and lasting hope. Indeed, his gospel has no obvious place even for the cross.
MCLAREN’S VIEW OF THE KINGDOM
According to McLaren, the gospel of the kingdom is not primarily a message about salvation from God’s wrath against sin and future blessedness with Christ. Rather, the gospel is the good news that God has invaded this dark world and, in the face of its exclusionary systems and cruel powers, has called out a people who will lead lives marked by love, compassion, and acceptance. Most Christians, he says, have missed Jesus’ point entirely. They have made the gospel into a religion, when Jesus meant it to be a revolution. “What if Jesus’ secret message reveals a secret plan?” he writes. “What if he didn’t come to start a new religion—but rather came to start a political, social, religious, artistic, economic, intellectual, and spiritual revolution that would give birth to a new world?” (Secret Message, 4).
McLaren believes that where the church has gone wrong is in abstracting Jesus’ gospel from its first-century context. The “secret message of the Kingdom,” he argues, only makes sense when it is seen in the political and social situation into which Jesus proclaimed it.
At the time of Jesus’ life and ministry, the nation of Israel was under the foot of Roman oppression. It was Caesar’s rule, not God’s, which dominated the daily consciousness of the people. The prophets’ hope of God establishing his lordship in a renewed Israelite kingdom with a new Davidic king seemed remote. To make matters worse, the Roman Caesars regularly referred to themselves as divine, and the peoples under their domination were expected in most cases to revere them as gods.
Several different responses to this Roman oppression eventually arose among the Jews. First, the Zealots believed that God’s people were being dominated because they were weak and spineless. They proposed rising up, fighting and killing the Romans, and establishing the promised and hoped-for kingdom of God by force. The Herodians (including a group of religious leaders known as the Sadducees) thought this was madness. In the face of imperial strength, they argued, the only safe course was for Israel to keep its head down, cooperate with the Romans, and survive. Another group, the Essenes, thought the best course was to seek spiritual enlightenment by stealing off into the wilderness and establishing spiritual communities. Finally, the Pharisees believed that Israel had fallen under oppression because of sin. “If we could only make our lives pure and sinless,” they thought. “If we would only obey the Law of Moses more fully, God would deliver us from the domination of Rome. Our oppression is the fault of the sinners—the drunkards, gluttons, prostitutes, and Sabbath-breakers.”
It was into this cultural and political milieu that Jesus came preaching, “Repent! For the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” Against the Roman imperial claims, this was not a non-confrontational message. It was a declaration of revolt. “This kingdom throws down a direct challenge to the supremacy of the empire of Caesar centered in Rome, for in the kingdom of God, the ultimate authority is not Caesar but rather the Creator” (Secret Message, 17). But it was not the kind of revolution the Zealots would have wanted. This was a revolution of peace, love, and compassion. Those who joined this kingdom would not fight the Romans, but walk an extra mile with them when forced to carry the legionnaires’ packs. They wouldn’t resist when the Romans struck them, but would turn the other cheek. And they would make it their mission to care for the poor, the outcast, and the afflicted in kindness, mercy, and grace (Generous Orthodoxy, 91). In short, they would launch a cultural, social, and political revolution that would confront the oppressive, dominating structures of the day and seek to replace them with a kingdom more in line with what God intended in the first place.
Of course, this message of a new world, a new kingdom based on love instead of dominance, was actually foretold by the prophets centuries before Jesus. So what’s so radical about the message of Jesus? It is that Jesus was not merely proclaiming a kingdom that is coming, he was proclaiming a kingdom that has come! “The kingdom is at hand, available to be grasped, knocking at the door—not just someday in the future, but here and now. Here and now!” (Secret Message, 24)
Here is where this secret message of the kingdom confronts our own understanding of the gospel today. As the character Neo puts it to Dan,
We hear “kingdom of heaven” and we think “kingdom of life after death.” But that’s the very opposite of what Jesus is talking about. Remember—he says repeatedly, the kingdom of God, the kingdom of heaven, has arrived! It’s near, here, at hand, among you! It’s not just about after you die; it’s about here, now, in this life! (New Kind of Christian, 107)
Rather than focusing on salvation in the afterlife, McLaren says, Jesus calls us to live a radical new life in sync with this radical new kingdom.
In the same way, too, most of us have misunderstood the phrase “eternal life,” McLaren says. It does not mean “life after you die,” but rather something like “life of the ages” in contrast to “life as people are living it these days.” Thus when Jesus tells the rich young ruler what he must do to inherit eternal life, he tells him to sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor. All those locutions—”eternal life,” “life to the full,” even just “life”—give us another picture of what it means to live in a way that is radically different from the way the world lives: “a life that is full and overflowing, a higher life that is centered in an interactive relationship with God and with Jesus.” Eternal life is kingdom life, and kingdom life, in turn, is the good news of the kingdom that Jesus proclaimed (Secret Message, 37).
PROBLEMS WITH MCLAREN’S VIEW OF THE KINGDOM
As I said before, much in McLaren’s telling of this story is commendable and exciting. Surely Jesus’ message did explode into a social and political context, and surely the message of Jesus will have social, political, cultural, artistic, economic, and intellectual ramifications in our own context. On top of that, what Christian’s heart does not long to invade a world of darkness and hopelessness with Jesus’ message of love and compassion and salvation?
But McLaren’s view of the kingdom of God is not sufficient. He has sold it short. And in doing so he has missed out on a good part of what makes the gospel of the kingdom so glorious. A determined critic could literally write a book compiling all the errors and misfires that run through McLaren’s books. In the interest of brevity, however, let me offer what I think are the two overarching problems (one might say meta-problems) that beset McLaren’s understanding of the kingdom:
(i) McLaren’s emphasis is overwhelmingly on the kingdom as present, to the relative neglect of the kingdom as eschatological.
(ii) McLaren’s emphasis is overwhelmingly on the kingdom as social and political, to the relative neglect of the kingdom as spiritual.
Before proceeding to consider these two problems, however, let me first point to two factors that make the attempt to critique McLaren’s views unendingly frustrating, both of which make it necessary to word any criticism with exceeding care, for fear that a sentence or two could be produced from one of six or seven books to challenge the critique. First, a good deal of McLaren’s writing is fictional, and his theological views are placed in the mouths of characters with whom McLaren himself sometimes agrees and sometimes disagrees. In fact, he carefully warns that the total viewpoint of any one character should not be taken as his own. Sometimes he even has a character say something with much assurance, and then only in the notes at the back of the book McLaren says something like, “Things are actually a bit more complex than Neo realizes” (see, for example The Last Word, 189).
Second, McLaren occasionally drops into his text a sentence or two that will cut the feet out from under his critics. I’m not denying this or that, he says, and then he spends an entire book talking about how the thing he’s supposedly not denying is in fact a horrible and ungodly misunderstanding of the gospel. Yet right there, at the bottom of page 142 or whatever, is that one sentence, plain as day, denying that he’s denying it. The stone upon which critics stumble.
This is true of the two statements I make above about McLaren’s view, and it’s only right that I point that out. In terms of the first statement, for example, McLaren includes a chapter in The Secret Message of Jesus about the Christian’s final hope being the resurrection of the dead and the full establishment of God’s kingdom. “The ultimate hope beyond death,” he writes, “is the hope of resurrection, which is the hope of sharing in the ‘renewal of all things.’ All we have been desiring all our lives, all we have been reaching for . . . will finally and fully come to us” (Secret Message, 193). In terms of the second, he has a wise character say at one point, “It’s not just personal and eternal, as the conservatives say, and it’s not only social and historic, as the liberals tend to say. The Kingdom of God integrates both sides—personal and social, private and public, secret and visible, spiritual and political, historic and eternal, earth and beyond” (The Last Word, 149). And in another place, he has Neo explain that “More conservative Christians tend to focus on the eternal dimension—saving one’s soul from hell. More liberal Christians tend to focus on the historic dimension—saving the human race and the planet from destruction. The biblical view of salvation was comprehensive of both, and we need to keep both alive—not only the ‘getting of individual butts into heaven’ but also ‘saving the world’” (New Kind of Christian, 83). In another place, Neo assures Dan, “And don’t worry, Dan, at some point I’m sure we’ll talk about justification by grace through faith too, along with the atoning death of Christ and all the other doctrines our good evangelical brothers and sisters think constitute the whole gospel. Because obviously they are important parts of the story” (New Kind of Christian, 108).
All this is why I put my critique in terms of “emphasis” and not outright denial. To be sure, that blunts the force of the critique somewhat, but it is also more honest and leaves the critique less vulnerable to collapse at the hands of a single sentence pulled out of a single book. Nevertheless, I believe that in the context of McLaren’s corpus of writing, these statements remain relatively isolated and insignificant. His emphasis is overwhelmingly on the kingdom as social, political, and present, to the relative neglect of the kingdom as spiritual and eschatological. That this is so will become clear, I think, as we take a closer look.
MORE ALREADY THAN NOT YET
First, McLaren’s emphasis is overwhelmingly on the kingdom as present, to the relative neglect of the kingdom as eschatological. Certainly McLaren is not wrong to point out that the kingdom of God has a present, here-and-now dimension. Part of the shock of Jesus’ message was that the kingdom of God was at hand. This was not something that the Jews expected. Based on their reading of the prophets, they expected that the kingdom of God would come in one explosive cataclysm at the end of time, when God himself would descend from heaven, establish his rule in the person of a restored Davidic king in Jerusalem, and subdue all nations of the world under his dominion. Yet here was Jesus preaching that all those prophecies and expectations of the coming kingdom were fulfilled in him (Luke 4:16-21; Matthew 11:2-6). No cataclysm; no explosive descent from heaven; no end of the world. And yet the kingdom was here—now!
This is where McLaren plants his flag. This is his agenda—to convince Christians to turn their eyes to this world, and to realize that the kingdom is already here and that its purpose is to confront the evil, injustice, hate, and oppression in the world. It would take a book to catalogue all the places in McLaren’s work where this focus on the here-and-now is obvious. But such a catalogue is not really necessary if one reads his books honestly. The storyline and tenor of every one of them is that the church has messed up by focusing on the future, and it ought to realign its gaze to the present. Nor is he subtle in making that charge. The present, here-and-now dimension of the kingdom, he says at one point, is “more significant” than the eschatological, and he even goes so far as to say that as good as Jesus’ work of atonement and redemption is, it is “not terribly important” in terms of this present world and the status quo (The Story We Find Ourselves In, 116; Secret Message, 33). Even if we acknowledge Neo’s jibe as good-natured ribbing, how else but pejoratively are we to take his characterization of the evangelical gospel as “getting your butt into heaven?”
In all of this, McLaren seldom engages and never truly integrates in his program the other major dimension of the kingdom—the “not yet.” Even with Jesus’ declaration that the “age to come” had broken into the present age, the expectation of an eschatological consummation of the kingdom remained. Both Jesus and the apostles preached this constantly. Even leaving aside the debate over whether Jesus’ words in Matthew 24-25 refer to the eschaton or to the destruction of the temple in AD 70, the fact remains that Jesus told of a final, consummative judgment that would take place sometime in the future. In John 5:28-29, for example, he says, “for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.” In Matthew 25 he tells of the separation of the sheep and the goats. This separation is based on their works in this life to be sure, but it’s still a picture of a final, eschatological judgment. And how else but eschatologically can his words to the Pharisees be understood? “But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Matt. 26:64).
The apostles also look forward to a future resurrection and judgment. When Paul reminds the Corinthians of “the gospel I preached to you,” he talks about the death and resurrection of Christ and then turns immediately to the resurrection of the dead in eternity (1 Cor. 15). After singing a hymn of praise to God for the gospel, he tells the Ephesians they have been sealed by the Holy Spirit “who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it” (Eph. 1:14). A chapter later, he says God has saved us “so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Eph 2:7). Peter speaks of a “salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” and hopes that the genuineness of his readers’ faith will be “found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:5-7). The author of Hebrews tells his readers that they are “strangers and exiles on the earth,” and that they should look forward to “the city that has foundations” (Heb 11:10). And then there is the Revelation given to John that, despite McLaren’s attempts to pull it into the present, remains a testimony to Christ’s final coming in power, the final judgment before the White Throne of God, and the consummation of the kingdom at the end of time.
Now again, I don’t expect McLaren would deny anything in those last two paragraphs. He does look forward to a final judgment, to a resurrection, and to a final consummation. But this eschatological dimension of the kingdom is vastly underemphasized in his books. McLaren’s attention, energy, and focus is all but exclusively on the kingdom as present, and the result is that he ends up with a gospel of the kingdom that is at least as emaciated as he would charge other Christians’ eschaton-focused gospel of being.
MORE POLITICAL THAN SPIRITUAL
Second, McLaren’s emphasis is overwhelmingly on the kingdom as social and political, to the relative neglect of the kingdom as spiritual. Any fair reading of McLaren’s books will confirm that he sees the gospel of the kingdom primarily in political and social terms. Over and over again, Neo puts it like this: “I think what Jesus was about, and really, what all the apostles were about at their best moments . . . was a global, public movement or revolution to bring holistic reconciliation, a reconnection with God, with others, with ourselves, with our environment. True religion, revolutionary religion. That’s what got them in such trouble” (New Kind of Christian, 73). In other words, McLaren’s gospel is a “historically rooted, politically engaged approach” in contrast to the “timeless truths approach” that dominates most of evangelicalism today (Secret Message, 236).
Again, McLaren is right to say that the gospel has social, political, economic, intellectual, cultural, and artistic dimension. But it seems to me that he has actually downplayed what is truly astonishing and revolutionary about the kingdom. What the Jews expected was a social and political kingdom. Had they gotten that, there would have been nothing much astonishing about it at all. What they got instead was a Messiah who went out of his way to make it clear that his kingdom was not of this world (John 8:23; 18:36)! He avoided language that would reinforce this-worldly thinking among the Jews, seldom for instance using the term “Messiah” because it held so many this-worldly associations. He knew that if the people started thinking in terms of Messiah, they would try to make him king by force (John 6:15). So he used a term with less political baggage—”Son of Man.” Whatever else it might be, Jesus’ kingdom was a spiritual one.
This is made even clearer when we consider that both the Old Testament prophets and Jesus himself preached that the kingdom confers certain benefits on its members. I appreciate McLaren’s emphasis (learned apparently from Lesslie Newbigin) that Christians are elected to service, not privilege (The Last Word, 103). But the fact remains that both the prophets and Jesus taught about several benefits that are given to the people of the kingdom. The gift of eschatological salvation is one major benefit (see Ezek. 34:16, 22; Matt. 5:8; 25:21, 23, for example). Forgiveness of sin is another (see Isa. 33:24, Jer. 31:31-34; Ezek. 18:31; 36:22-28; Mark 1:4; 2:10; Luke 7:48, for example) and righteousness another (see Matt. 5:6; Luke 18:14, for example).
Beyond all this, McLaren misses what is perhaps the most astonishing surprise of the New Testament story: that Jesus filled the roles of the Davidic Messiah, the Suffering Servant of Isaiah, and Daniel’s Son of Man, all at the same time! That McLaren does not see this, or at least does not hint at it in his books, is all the more surprising because he is so careful otherwise to situate the story of Jesus in the narrative of the nation of Israel. The Suffering Servant of Isaiah and the Son of Man of Daniel 7 are not insignificant themes in the Old Testament, and neither were they insignificant ideas in the Jewish mind of Jesus’ day. How McLaren could ignore them so completely—not to mention the startling role they play in Jesus’ own self-understanding—is nothing short of a mystery.
At least twice, McLaren accuses the church of imposing on Jesus a message of eternal, spiritual salvation. In his telling, Christians have misinterpreted Paul and John and then used those misreadings to silence the true message of the kingdom found in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. “Basically, it’s a conspiracy theory about Paul and John ganging up against Matthew, Mark, and Luke—well, not really them, but people who interpret them” (The Last Word, 149; see also Secret Message, 91). But it was no misinterpretation of Paul and John that injected eternal and soteriological meaning into the story of the kingdom. It was Jesus. It was Jesus who declared himself to be the fulfillment of Israel’s messianic hopes (that is, the head of the kingdom), and it was this same Jesus who constantly referred to himself as the divine “Son of Man” from Daniel 7. Further, it was Jesus who said of the Son of Man that he “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45)—an allusion to the Servant’s being made an offering for sin in Isaiah 53:10. With that, Jesus “took over a term that appears in Daniel but that was not widely used in contemporary Jewish hopes, but radically reinterpreted it. . . . Jesus poured the content of the Suffering Servant into the Son of Man concept.”
The Jews had hopes for a kingly Messiah and also for a Servant of the Lord; they even had a vague expectation of a divine “son of man” who would appear at the end of the age. But no one ever pulled the three together, at least not until Jesus. Jesus took the divine nature of the Son of Man, joined to it the substitutionary and vicarious suffering of the Servant, and finally incorporated it all with his Messianic role. By the time Jesus finished gathering together all the threads of Jewish hope, the Head of the kingdom was infinitely more than an earthly revolutionary; he was a divine Messiah-King who would suffer and die for his people to win them spiritual salvation, not least so that they would be able to live the life of the kingdom on earth. In that light, it is no wonder that Jesus made one’s response to his person and message the single determining factor in whether one would be included in the kingdom. The only way into the kingdom was through the blood of the king.
When we begin to grasp that part of the New Testament narrative, we realize that McLaren is simply missing a huge part of the plot. His gospel of the kingdom is so focused on the kingdom’s political and social ramifications that he seems blind to this entire astounding storyline.
Indeed, McLaren also seems blind to, or at least relatively uninterested in, the most central moment of the entire Christian faith—the cross. One of the most consistently puzzling things about McLaren’s books is how little space or time he has for Christ’s work of atonement. McLaren asks for the benefit of the doubt in one of his books, saying, “I know you will find weaknesses to point out. For example, you may wish I had said more on particular dimensions of Jesus’ message or life that are of special importance to you” (Secret Message, xiii). He gets more specific in a footnote: “For example, the theological meaning of Jesus’ death is central to all streams of Christian thought and life, but since this is a book about Jesus’ message, I limit my reflections on his death here to how it relates to his primary teaching theme. Emphasizing one theme is not meant to minimize the other” (Secret Message, 226).
The reassurance is appreciated, but the lack of attention McLaren gives to the cross across the whole of his corpus cannot be explained away so easily. As always, there are the one-off sentences, as when Neo assures Dan, “And don’t worry, Dan, at some point I’m sure we’ll talk about justification by grace through faith too, along with the atoning death of Christ and all the other doctrines our good evangelical brothers and sisters think constitute the whole gospel. Because obviously they are important parts of the story” (New Kind of Christian, 108). But when the moment finally arrives to talk about the cross, it amounts to a conversation between several characters about six different theories of the atonement, each of which, someone observes, has its own serious problems. When penal substitution is mentioned, for example, one likeable character named Kerry says, “I know that’s supposed to mean something to me, and I suppose I can see it, but it raises so many questions. . . . For starters, if God wants to forgive us, why doesn’t he just do it? How does punishing an innocent person make things better? That just sounds like one more injustice in the cosmic equation. It sounds like divine child abuse” (The Story We Find Ourselves In, 102). That objection—commonly wielded by feminist theologians—is never answered. It’s allowed to hang in the air of the story, as if it were valid or even unanswerable.
Having raised all the historic understandings of the atonement and found them wanting—except perhaps the moral influence theory, about which Kerry says, “I think I like that one best”—McLaren offers his two theories of the atonement. Though he separates them from moral influence, they certainly bear a lot of resemblance. The first he calls the “powerful weakness” theory of the atonement: by becoming vulnerable on the cross and dying at the hands of the Romans, Jesus shows the world that violence is not the answer, that God wants not retaliation and revenge, but kindness and forgiveness (The Story We Find Ourselves In, 105). The second theory he offers is based in Neo’s experience of being betrayed by his wife and subsequently forgiving her. This theory might appropriately (if awkwardly) be called the “pain-of-forgiveness-made-visible” theory (similar to Jürgen Moltmann’s crucified God explanation, perhaps?). “When I think of the cross,” Neo says, “I think it’s all about God’s agony being made visible—you know, the pain of forgiving, the pain of absorbing the betrayal . . . It’s not just words; it has to be embodied, and nails and thorns and sweat and tears and blood strike me as the only true language of betrayal and forgiveness” (The Story We Find Ourselves In, 107; also, Secret Message, 69-71). With these words, predictably, Neo’s conversation partners fall into a stunned, contemplative silence.
Reverent silence notwithstanding, it’s worth pointing out that both of these theories of the atonement make the cross an audio-visual spectacle and not much else. In the first case, the cross is merely a picture of weakness. In the second, it’s merely a picture of God’s pain. But in neither case does the cross actually accomplish or do anything. How does a mere display of weakness or of God’s pain do justice to Paul’s statement that we are “justified by his blood” and “reconciled to God by the death of his Son” (Rom. 5:9-10)? The cross was not just a means for God to show the world something, whether weakness or pain or love. It was a saving act. It accomplished something. As the apostle John puts it, “The blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7).
The explanation for this weakness in McLaren’s thought must lie finally in his deficient view of the kingdom. McLaren’s gospel is so socially and politically oriented, so focused on the present, and so unwilling to address the reality of eternity, that it has no obvious place for concepts like substitution, justification, atonement, sacrifice, or propitiation. Yet those are the concepts and themes that come together in the Bible’s narrative to give meaning to the cross. The fact is that the kind of kingdom McLaren wants Jesus to have preached—one where each person simply decides to live a life of compassion and love in an effort to redeem the world in the here-and-now and bring about “God’s dream” for it—doesn’t have any real use for a cross. The fact is, McLaren’s two favored theories of the atonement, the only ones not riddled with objections by his characters, are simply not integral to his story. At best, they both make the cross a superfluous illustration of the kind of life the kingdom would call us to live.
The irony of all this is that McLaren seems to think that, by reducing Jesus’ message of the kingdom to its present, social, and political dimensions, he has thereby discovered a better gospel. Several times in his fictional books, he writes his characters into wide-eyed amazement at Neo’s words. “Astonishing!” they say. Or “Neo, that’s stunning.” And Neo for his part is always quick to point out that this new gospel is better than the old one. I believe Neo is wrong.
As I read and think carefully about McLaren’s books, I do not find his understanding of the kingdom to be astonishing or stunning at all, except perhaps in its smallness. In fact, I find it a rather pedestrian imitation of the kingdom Jesus actually declared. What Jesus brought to the world is more than “Follow my example and live better, more tolerant, less oppressive lives.” It is rather that, having been reconciled to God by Jesus’ blood, we will live in joy with him forever; and therefore we live by his Spirit to his glory in the here-and-now.
The bottom line is that McLaren’s gospel is too focused on the here-and-now. He charges evangelical Christians with putting too little emphasis on the world, but it is hard to avoid the conclusion that he himself winds up putting too little emphasis on God. The fact is, McLaren does not sufficiently call human beings to grapple with and exult in what God did for us in Christ. Put another way, he does not place concern for the here-and-now in the context of the eternal. That is a grievous error, for it is only when we have a deep understanding of our eternal relationship with God, won by Jesus Christ, that concern for the present world is placed in its proper perspective. The Bible could not be clearer about this. Good works apart from Christ’s saving work are nothing. But good works springing from a heart that has been changed by God’s regenerating power are the sweetest of fruit. To be sure, McLaren’s gospel calls us to action, and that’s good. But it does not well enough call us to worship. The true gospel, on the other hand, does both. It calls us to action, but only after it has called us to adore the One who acted on our behalf.