McLaren’s fifth question, addressed in chapters 14 and 15, deals with the content of the gospel. As we might expect by now, he picks up some aspects of the gospel and leaves others out. The problem is that the part he leaves off is crucial. McLaren only mentions justification when he sets it against the concept of the kingdom of God. He doesn’t see the gospel as dealing with the problem of sin and human rebellion. Rather, for McLaren, the gospel is the message about God’s peace-making kingdom of liberation. It is, of course, a false “either/or” to set the Pauline doctrine of justification against the good news of the kingdom in the gospels. They work together and do not contradict. McLaren seems to miss this, though.
He likes to speak of entering the kingdom and of the gospel as bringing a new birth. The problem, once again, is that there is no clear reason why new birth is needed. If a person is not naturally a sinner, then why do they need to be born again? If they are not dead in sin and tresspasses, why do they need regeneration.
McLaren is using traditional language, but he is using it with new meaning, which he reveals when he says,
“No wonder Jesus called people to repent: if the kingdom is at hand we need to adjust our way of life and join in the joyful, painful mission of reconciliation right now, ASAP!” (140).
In this scheme, repentance and regeneration are not elements in a divine work of grace to transform spiritually dead sinners to spiritually alive and justified believers. For McLaren, repentance and regeneration involve getting one’s act together by adjusting one’s way of life. This, of course, is not Christianity. Christianity has never been a matter of simply getting our acts together and joining Jesus in his mission. Christianity has always been about the reality that we are incapable of getting our acts together. We cannot make him the object of our allegiance unless he makes us the object of his redemptive, covenantal, bringing the dead to life, justifying, sanctifying, and God-glorifying love in his substitutionary death and resurrection. McLaren’s gospel is no gospel at all. It is not news about something that has happened; it is advice about how to live. But the heart of Christianity is not how we live. The heart of Christianity is what Jesus has done for us and in our place. McLaren has moved himself in theological liberalism and historic Pelagianism, neither of which are authentic Christianity. McLaren’s new kind of Christianity is nothing new; it is old-as-the-fall moralism.
I don’t want to be misunderstood. The message of the kingdom of God in the Lordship of Christ is essential to the gospel. But half a gospel is no authentic gospel. The way into the kingdom is through the grace of justification accomplished on the basis of Christ’s death and resurrection in our place and for our sins. McLaren rightly emphasizes the theme of kingdom, but when he sets the kingdom against justification, he neuters the gospel and walks away from Christianity.