What religion would Jesus belong to? This was the question posed by Nicholas Kristof in an op-ed piece published in the New York Times on September 3, 2016. Kristof argues that if Jesus were alive today, he would not endorse the type of Christianity reflected in many conservative evangelical churches—a Christianity that emphasizes the importance of theological convictions and doctrinal clarity. Instead, Kristof suggests that the Jesus we meet in the Gospels was less concerned with a “system of beliefs” and more concerned with compassion and service to the needy. Kristof appeals to Brian McLaren’s new book, The Great Spiritual Migration where McLaren argues that modern-day Christianity has migrated away from the religion founded by Jesus:
“No wonder more and more of us who are Christians by birth, by choice, or both find ourselves shaking our heads and asking, ‘What happened to Christianity?’” McLaren writes. “We feel as if our founder has been kidnapped and held hostage by extremists. His captors parade him in front of cameras to say, under duress, things he obviously doesn’t believe. As their blank-faced puppet, he often comes across as anti-poor, anti-environment, anti-gay, anti-intellectual, anti-immigrant and anti-science. That’s not the Jesus we met in the Gospels!”
Just who, then, is the Jesus we meet in the Gospels? According to Kristof and McLaren, the Jesus we meet in the Gospels is—like other religious founders—a “bold” and “charismatic” visionary who inspires with “moral imagination.” The Jesus Kristof and McLaren meet in the Gospels does not concern himself with doctrine, but embodies compassion and a “loving way of life.” Kristof continues:
“What would it mean for Christians to rediscover their faith not as a problematic system of beliefs but as a just and generous way of life, rooted in contemplation and expressed in compassion?” McLaren asks in “The Great Spiritual Migration.” “Could Christians migrate from defining their faith as a system of beliefs to expressing it as a loving way of life?” That would be a migration away from religious bureaucracy and back to the moral vision of the founder, and it would be an enormous challenge.
This “loving way of life” divorced from doctrine is the type of religion Kristof finds compelling and the type of religion that Jesus would applaud. He concludes his essay with these words:
It is not the bureaucracy that inspires me, or doctrine, or ancient rituals, or even the most glorious cathedral, temple or mosque, but rather a Catholic missionary doctor in Sudan treating bomb victims, an evangelical physician achieving the impossible in rural Angola, a rabbi battling for Palestinians’ human rights — they fill me with an almost holy sense of awe. Now, that’s religion.
What are we to make of Kristof and McLaren’s argument? Should we abandon doctrinal convictions and focus only on social justice? After all, doctrine divides and love unties, right? Wrong. Kristof’s essay is nothing less than a rehash of the same agenda espoused by protestant liberalism in the 20th century. In their view, Jesus is a moral exemplar who inspires us to live a life of sacrifice in service to others. For the record, I do not deny that Christians are to imitate the type of compassionate, sacrificial service exemplified in the life and ministry of Jesus. But was Jesus more than a moral exemplar? Has Christianity missed the boat for the last 2,000 years by prioritizing doctrine and defining itself with a theologically robust system of beliefs (think of Nicaea and Chalcedon)? I suggest that it is not Christianity that has migrated away from its founder, but people like Brian McLaren who have abandoned the biblical Jesus.
The Jesus we meet in the Gospels was not merely an inspiring revolutionary. He is the Son of God incarnate (Mk. 1:1; Jn 1:1—3). This Jesus self-consciously identified himself as the central component of a redemptive story that had been unfolding for thousands of years. In the synagogue he stood up and read the great messianic prophecy of Isaiah 61:1–2, claiming that it was now fulfilled in him (Lk 4:21). Before the high priest, he quoted Daniel 7 and Psalm 110 in reference to his own exaltation (Mk. 14:62). He entered Jerusalem as the messianic Son of David riding on a donkey (Mk. 11:1–11). As a new and better Adam, he overcame Satan’s temptation in the wilderness by remaining faithful to God and his mission to endure the cross as the path to glory (Mat. 4:1–11).
More could be said, but the point is that we will not understand who Jesus is and what he came to do if we divorce his life and ministry from the context of the Scriptures. Upon his resurrection, Jesus told his disciples that everything written in the Law, Prophets, Psalms had to be fulfilled in his ministry (Lk. 24:44). The Jesus we meet in the Gospels simply cannot be reduced to a great visionary who inspires the moral imagination. Instead, he is presented as the Davidic king, the true prophet, the true priest, the messiah, and the Son of God. With this understanding of his identity, his mission takes on greater significance. And just what was that mission? Jesus himself stated it clearly in Mark 10:45
Mark 10:45 (ESV) — 45 For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
He gave his life as a ransom. In other words, he endured the cross to ransom a people from the bondage of slavery—slavery to sin, slavery to death, and slavery to Satan. Jesus knew the nature of his mission. He knew the meaning of the cross he was going to endure. He knew in the garden of Gethsemane that he was about to endure the cup of God’s wrath on behalf of sins not his own (Mk. 14:36; cf. Isa 51:2). Surely we cannot emulate Jesus’ example here! We cannot drink the cup vicarious suffering for the sin of the world. But that is exactly what Jesus did. He told his disciples that the blood he would shed for them was the blood of the new covenant (Lk 22:20). Through his shed blood he fully satisfied the penalty of the law (old covenant) and simultaneously purchased all of the blessings of the new covenant—forgiveness of sin, eternal life, the gift of the Holy Spirit, an eternal inheritance. By enduring the cross for his sinners, Jesus experienced his own exile from the presence of God. On the cross he was forsaken of God and endured the full fury of the righteous wrath of God for sin.
This is the Jesus we meet in the Gospels. This is the only Jesus who can bring true and everlasting transformation to the world.
Of course, Kristof and McLaren would not accept much of what I have written here. They even admit that we need not worry about the historical accuracy of the events described in the Gospel narratives. However, if we take the claims of the Gospels seriously, and if we agree that Christ did indeed die on a bloody cross, then there is only one question that follows: What does it mean? To answer such a question will require doctrinal clarity and doctrinal conviction; you cannot escape it.
As the great J. Gresham Machen said in his book Christianity and Liberalism,
“’Christ died’–that is history; ‘Christ died for our sins–that is doctrine. Without these two elements, joined in an absolutely indissoluble union, there is no Christianity.”
What religion would Jesus belong to if he were alive today? This is simply the wrong question. The more important question is, do we believe in the Jesus of the Bible? You can show me the most virtuous acts of mankind the world has ever known. The missionary treating bomb victims in Sudan, the physician achieving the impossible in rural Angola, the rabbi fighting for Palestinians’ human rights and I will be inspired—oh yes they are inspiring! But when I stand before the cross and see the Son of God hanging as a cursed spectacle under the wrath of God, and tell me that he died for my sin, then and only then will I be filled with a holy sense of awe. Now that’s religion. No that’s more than religion. That’s the gospel. And this gospel alone is the power of God unto salvation.