McLaren is at it again in this latest effort to promote the emergent church movement. He really did not write anything in The Secret Message of Jesus that is not in his previous volumes, although he does seem to soften his rhetoric a bit. For example, having taken a lot of flak for his previous statement that “clarity is overrated,” he now says that he has some things he wants to say “clearly” about “what Jesus’ message really was” (p. 7). But herein lies the problem. McLaren believes that the church has never understood the real message of Jesus (see Appendix 1). Very early, the church “twisted” what Jesus (and Paul) taught into a gospel of “justification by grace through faith, the free gift of salvation, Christ being a substitutionary sacrifice for…sin” (p. 91). That is not the gospel at all according to McLaren, the gospel is that “the kingdom of God is at hand” (p. 92).
McLaren reasons that believers have long misunderstood the true gospel because Jesus’ message was not given in a straight-forward manner but in a secret, codified form. The parables (pp. 39-49) were the primary vehicle Jesus used to “conceal His deepest message” (p. 4). As a result, only now have we finally unearthed the treasure that Jesus hid. The secret message revealed a secret plan having to do with His kingdom. The secret plan is not that the Lord came to set us free from sin and bring us God’s righteousness; He didn’t come to start a new religion. He “came to start a political, social, religious, artistic, economic, intellectual and spiritual revolution that would give birth to a new world” (p. 4).
The kingdom, in McLaren’s understanding, is here in some sense now yet needs to be further developed. Our agenda as kingdom people is to assist God in helping “this world become a place God is at home in, a place God takes pride and pleasure in, a place where God’s dreams become true” (p. 203). The world is not going to be destroyed and recreated (or refashioned) by God; what will be destroyed is the “dominating powers that ruin creation” (p. 190).
McLaren is sure the kingdom is populated by people from all religions, not just Christianity. It is open to all but those who actively oppose it (pp. 163, 167). As a matter of fact it is possible that some Muslims, Buddhist and Hindus might “begin to ‘take their places at the feast,’ discovering the secret message of Jesus in ways that many Christians have not” (p. 217). Of course, “there is always hope that we Christians will not be the last to rediscover the truth that could change everything” (p. 217).
This secret message of the kingdom—what does it look like? In a word, “missional.” It is a kingdom focused on injustice, poverty, education, integrity, the environment, hospitality, medical care, the healing of the earth, pollution, exploitation, greed, etc (pp. 84-89, 111, 141, 222-225). In McLaren’s view this is what the kingdom is all about, not the redemption of souls. Despite ample evidence to the contrary, both in the past and present, the people who call themselves Christians have supposedly neglected these physical/earthly concerns to focus on spiritual/heavenly matters. In McLaren’s program the spiritual barely gets a nod—the kingdom is all about saving the planet (p. 128). McLaren believes that if enough people catch on to Jesus’ secret message this planet might just be rescued (p. 128) and even war will be no more (p. 160).
With this perspective of the kingdom it should not surprise us that Jesus did not come to be a redeemer but a model, a model of love (p. 147, 153). McLaren’s well-known imitators of this model are most instructive. They include: Martin Luther King (pp. 147, 154, 157-158, 169), St. Patrick, St Francis, Teresa of Avila, Desmond Tutu, Mother Teresa, Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela (p. 78, 125, 169). Not a single one of these would meet the biblical criteria of a true Christian but they constitute McLaren’s roster of lead citizens in the kingdom of God.
It should not surprise us that McLaren lists Dallas Willard, N. T. Wright, Howard Snyder and Tony Campolo among those who have influenced his thinking (p. 209).
McLaren’s hope is, “if enough of us see the kingdom [his version]—and seeing it, rethink our lives, and rethinking our lives, believe that the impossible is possible—everything could change” (p. 204) This in essence is the gospel of the emergent movement: if enough of us become missional we can make this world a better place. What a sad substitute for the gospel message as found in Scripture.