A Conversation about Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christianity
Responding to Brian McLaren’s Question # 9: The Pluralism Question
Welcome: You’re reading Part 11 of my blog series responding to Brian McLaren’s book A New Kind of Christianity (read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9, and Part 10). Many have engaged Brian’s thinking by focusing on a systematic theology response (visit here for a boatload of links). My focus is on pastoral theology or practical theology. As a pastor, counselor, and professor who equips the church for biblical counseling and spiritual formation, I’m asking: “What difference does our response to each question make for how we care like Christ (biblical counseling) and for how we live like Christ (spiritual formation)?”
Salvation without Christ and Spiritual Formation without the Indwelling Spirit
In the pluralism question, Brian asks, “How should followers of Jesus relate to people of other religions?” His preferred approach envisions evangelism ceasing to be a matter of saving souls and ceasing to be a proclamation of the superiority of Christianity (p. 216).
Rather than converting people from their fallen condition of sinful human depravity, in Brian’s thinking, salvation involves inviting unconverted people “into lifelong spiritual formation as disciples of Jesus” in an uncoverted community dedicated “to teaching the most excellent way of love, whatever the new disciple’s religious affiliation or lack thereof” (p. 216).
To arrive at this novel interpretation of salvation (salvation without conversion from sin) and spiritual formation (spiritual formation without Spirit-empowered progressive sanctification through the all-sufficient Word of God and the indwelling Spirit of God), Brian spends seven pages reinterpreting John 14:6. Jesus says, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life; no one comes to the Father but by me.”
Brian has Christ saying in this verse, “Look at me, my life, my way, my deeds, my character.” And what has that character been? “One of exclusion, rejection, constriction, elitism, favoritism, and condemnation? Of course not! Jesus’s way has been compassion, healing, acceptance, forgiveness, inclusion, and love” (pp. 222-223). Rather than being a statement of faith in Christ as the exclusive way to salvation, for Brian, John 14:6 becomes a statement of universal salvation apart from faith in Christ.
Knowing the Father through the Son, Reflecting the Son through the Spirit
Brian acts as if it is the most unloving act in the world to dare to share Christ with a person of another religion, and thus to claim that their way does not lead to God. He holds Christ up as the model (as we all should). So, let’s consider what Christ has to say to those who try to relate to the Father apart from the Son.
When the Pharisees tried to have a relationship with the Father apart from the Son, Jesus dared to speak exclusive truth. He dared to tell them point blank, “You will die in your sin” (John 8:21). Why? “If you do not believe that I am the one I claim to be, you will indeed die in your sins” (John 8:24). Sounds totally exclusive to me. Jesus continues. “I have much to say in judgment of you” (John 8:25). Sounds rather…judgmental.
“To the Jews who had believed in him, Jesus said, ‘If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples’” (John 8:31). Sounds rather exclusive. He then informs them that it is truth that will set them free (John 8:32). Free from what? Slavery to sin (John 8:33-36). And only the Son can set one free from sin’s enslavement (John 8:36).
Jesus is not nearly finished. His words become increasingly exclusive. Those who do not believe in Him get the message, though they disagree with it. “‘We are not illegitimate children,’ they protested” (John 8:41). Did Jesus back down and clarify that they had misunderstood His message? Not in the least. He intensifies his proclamation of exclusive salvation. “You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desire. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him” (John 8:44).
Clearly, we can know the Father only through the Son. Clearly, knowing and personally accepting and appropriating the truth of Christ’s life, crucifixion, death, burial, and resurrection are essential to salvation.
The Divine Counselor—The Ultimate Biblical Counselor and Spiritual Director
It’s equally true that truth is essential for spiritual formation in Christ. In the same narrative where Brian wants to make Jesus’ words about being the truth simply a statement of a good moral example, Jesus repeatedly links the Spirit to truth. Because of Christ’s great love for us, He does not leave us orphaned. He prays to the Father Who gives us another Counselor to be with us forever.
And Who is this Counselor? The Spirit of truth (John 14:17). What is the truth that leads both to salvation and to sanctification? “He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him” (John 14:21). If I truly love and care about a person of another religion who does not know Christ, and if I long for that person to know the love of Christ now and forever, then unmistakably Christ calls me to share the truth of exclusive salvation in Christ with my friend.
And if I long for my newly saved friend to grow in grace, then I will want to teach my friend about the work of the Spirit—the Divine Counselor. “But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things” (John 14:26). I will mentor my newly saved friend in the progressive sanctification process of abiding in Christ—exclusively in Christ (John 15:1-8).
The Divine Counselor focuses on truth—the truth of Christ’s exclusivity. “When the Counselor comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father, he will testify about me” (John 15:26). And if I love my spiritual friend, what will I do? “And you also must testify, for you have been with me from the beginning” (John 15:27).
The Spirit of truth, “convicts the world of guilt in regard to sin” (John 16:8). And what is the core sin, the core guilt for which we remain in our sins? “In regard to sin, because men do not believe in me” (John 16:9). Could anything be clearer? Jesus is the only Way to salvation and to spiritual formation. Speaking the truth in love is the only means of evangelism and discipleship. “But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth” (John 16:13). All truth about what? About Christ. “He will bring glory to me” (John 16:14).
If the goal of my life is to glorify Christ, and if the passion of my loving heart is to see others enter into new life with Christ and abundant life in Christ, then I will speak the truth of Christ’s exclusivity. There’s nothing unloving about the truth. There’s nothing loving about hiding the truth of salvation and sanctification in Christ alone.
The Rest of the Story
In my next post, I respond to Brian’s answer to the what-do-we-do-now question. He asks, “How can we translate our quest into action?”
Join the Conversation
How should we relate in truth and love to those who do not know Christ?