Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower

secularTom Krattenmaker, Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower. New York: Convergent, 2016, 245 pp. $18.75

Jesus Christ stands at the very center of human history. He has inspired and transformed millions of people from the small town of Nazareth to the great cities of the world. He has revolutionized the humble and humbled the affluent. Church historian Jaroslav Pelican writes, “Regardless of what anyone may personally think or believe about him, Jesus of Nazareth has been the dominant figure in the history of Western culture for almost twenty centuries.”

Tom Krattenmaker acknowledges the influence of Jesus on our world and would like to see more people emulate his example and embrace his teachings. Yet the proposal which is advanced in the book under consideration is different than most people might expect.

A MODEST PROPOSAL

We live in an unprecedented time of secularism. A growing tide of godlessness is on the rise and the corresponding rejection of absolute truth and exclusivity are quickly fading in the dark cavern of relativism. This reality is echoed in Tom Krattenmaker’s latest book, Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower. The author rightly describes the cultural milieu and evaluates the spirit of the age with a stunning degree of clarity.

The author addresses real concerns and offers meaningful solutions. He advocates loving and valuing fellow human beings. His inclination is to be empathetic and generous. He strongly opposes violence. He encourages radical hospitality and is quick to offer a “second chance” to the marginalized and the oppressed.

As a self-confessed liberal thinker, Tom Krattenmaker will surely surprise many readers as he commends people from all backgrounds to consider the option of following Jesus. He writes, “In the end, I hope you will see the ways in which this adds up to a surprising conclusion about Jesus: that his way can be helpful and, indeed, available to non-Christians, and that no one can stop us seculars from following this ethical leader even if we do not or cannot believe the religious aspects of the story.”

The modest proposal to “follow Jesus” and accept him as “the answer” is both refreshing and perplexing. On the one hand, it is refreshing to hear an avowed progressive writer give credit to Jesus and pay homage to him in some respects. But this proposal is also perplexing because it confuses what it truly means to “follow” him. For example, while Krattenmaker is impressed with Jesus’s teaching and credentials, and even considers himself a “secular Jesus follower,” he repudiates the most important aspects of his person and work. For example, Krattenmaker does not believe that Jesus died on the cross to forgive sinners. He does not believe that Jesus is God. He rejects the resurrection of Jesus. He rejects the doctrines of hell and heaven. And he refuses to believe a “discrete set of theological propositions.”

Krattenmaker leaves no room for ambiguity. After jettisoning some of the most important aspects of Jesus’s person and work, he writes, “And despite my inability to accept the religious claims about his cosmic status, I believe Jesus is the answer, or at least a large part of it – if only we can work out what question we are asking and the language we are using to address it.” So a “secular follower of Jesus” appears to accept what one deems acceptable and rejects what goes against the grain of contemporary progressive thought.

A MEANINGFUL DIALOGUE

The modest proposal in Confessions of a Jesus Follower invites meaningful dialogue. I suspect the author appreciates a good debate and would welcome opposing views. Liberal writers are champions for tolerance so there should be little risk in opposing his views and offering humble, yet direct criticism. But first, a commendation is in order.

COMMENDATION

Tom Krattenmaker is a gifted writer whose heart for people is clear throughout the book. I thoroughly enjoy his writing style and the passion he shares with his readers.

I would enjoy the chance to sit down with Tom Krattenmaker over a large cup of coffee and discuss his book. Given that opportunity, I would seek to listen and learn. My desire would be to build a bridge of friendship with someone I have a genuine disagreement with, yet respect nonetheless. I would seek to apologize for any hurt that he has experienced at the hands of Christians. It is very clear that the author has been wounded by Christians, a travesty which needs to be reconciled. More than anyone else, Christ-followers should be quick to admit fault and seek the forgiveness of an offended party.

As a part of this exchange, I would offer several lines of thought in the hopes of sparking deep discussion and genuine response.

I would commend Krattenmaker for forcing readers to think critically. I would also thank him for his willingness to dialogue about controversial themes with grace and tact, a rare art form in a culture that claims to value tolerance and diversity but is, in the final analysis, deeply judgmental when the “chips are down.” My suspicion is that he would receive this as a great compliment, and indeed it is.

I would compliment Krattenmaker for his eagerness to “follow Jesus.” Ours is a cynical world where most secular progressives are quick to marginalize Jesus before a discussion even begins. Such an arena only breeds contempt and stifles honest conversation.

Critique

But a critique is also in order. I would challenge Krattenmaker’s worldview by pleading with him to reconsider the person and work of Jesus Christ through a biblical filter.

First, it is untenable to “follow” the socially acceptable teachings of Jesus, yet at the same time, reject his soteriological demands. The author writes, “It doesn’t matter whether you think Jesus is the true son of God, or whether you buy the Christian doctrine about his sacrificial death washing away your sins (and I wish to disabuse no one who believes it).” The truth is, however, that everything hinges on embracing Jesus’s claim to be the Son of God. Everything hinges on Jesus’s claim to be God!

Jesus spoke plainly to Pilate: “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world – to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice” (John 18:37, ESV). The credentials of the One who “bears witness” are undeniable:

  • Jesus is eternal. Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58).
  • Jesus stood face-to-face with the Father. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning” (John 1:1-2).
  • Jesus is a member of the Trinity which has been in fellowship with the Father and the Holy Spirit from all eternity. “Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world” (John 17:24).

Additionally, Jesus is a loving king (Matt. 11:28-30), a saving king (Luke 19:10; John 3:17), a ruling king (John 18:36), a forgiving king (Col. 1:14), a creator king (Col. 1:16), a sovereign king (Heb. 1:3; 1 Tim. 6:15). Indeed, this king is fully God (Col. 2:9; John 10:30). This king, as Jesus testifies, is the embodiment of Truth. “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6, ESV).

The irony of the exchange between Jesus and Pilate is this: It is Jesus himself who graciously gives Pilate the breath which was used to question his identity and his kingly authority. Yet, this man has the audacity to ask Jesus, “What is truth?” (John 18:38).

Second, it is untenable to “follow” the ethic of Jesus, yet and at the same time, reject the eschatological reality of Jesus. Krattenmaker says, “If you’re like me, the notion of Jesus as your savior, as the formula to wipe out your sin and secure your ticket to heaven, leaves you unmoved.” But it was Jesus who said, “I have come into the world – to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to me” (John 18:37). It would seem reasonable, then, that we listen to and embrace everything that Jesus taught. Simply put, we do not have the option of picking and choosing what we like about Jesus. We do not have the luxury of “swallowing the meat” but “spitting out the bones.” Jesus Christ is an all or nothing proposition.

Yet, Krattenmaker is content to “cherry-pick” what he likes about Jesus and discard what he finds either offensive or unreasonable. For example, he denies the resurrection of Jesus. Yet, Scripture is clear on this matter: “And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Cor. 15:14). The apostle Paul continues, “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1 Cor. 15:17). The upshot is that if the resurrection never happened, all the other teachings of Jesus are invalid. All the teaching that the author finds so appealing collapse and are rendered null and void.

My humble appeal to Tom Krattenmaker is to fully accept and embrace the whole of Jesus’s teaching. “The truth”, writes Sinclair Ferguson, “ is that unless the significance of what Christ did at the first Christmas shakes us, we can scarcely be said to have understood much of what it means or who He really is.”1 My hope is that Krattenmaker would be moved by the notion of Jesus as Savior; that he would rest in that great reality and rejoice in the promise of eternal life!

SUMMARY

What emerges in Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower is a view of Jesus which has been inspired by theological liberalism. Stephen Wellum observes, “Classical liberalism rejected the historic position of the church in regard to Christ, but it still tried to maintain a unique identity for Jesus Christ in moral categories.”2 Liberalism creatively repudiates what appears unsavory in Jesus and replaces the biblical portrait with an imposter. Gresham Machen reminds us that the real nemesis for Christians is not secularism. The real problem is liberalism: “The chief modern rival of Christianity is ‘liberalism,’ not secularist thought, for ‘Christianity is founded upon the Bible,’ while liberalism is founded upon the shifting emotions of sinful men.” John Frame writes with similar passion: “The very nature of liberal theology, for the past three hundred years, has been to assert human autonomy.”3

While Krattenmaker’s version of a “secular follower of Jesus” is the minority report, his proposals in Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower will no doubt, appeal to some people. Indeed, the liberal “Jesus” does appeal to many people. Yet David Wells reminds us, “Their christ’s might be admired, but they cannot be worshipped.  They might inspire religious devotion, but they cannot sustain or explain Christian faith … Their appeal is not that of the biblical Christ, the One who was God with us, the means of forgiveness for our sin, and the agent of our reconciliation.  Forgiveness and reconciliation are what we need centrally.  We need to know there is someone there to forgive us, someone who can forgive and heal us, and that was why the Word was incarnate.” (David Wells, Cited in God the Son Incarnate, 91).

Like many today, Pilate was unwilling to accept the identity of Jesus and his claims. He suppressed the truth (Rom. 1:18) and exchanged the truth of God for a lie (Rom. 1:25). And in the final analysis, he refused to listen to the truth. Jesus says, “Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God” (John 8:47).

Our challenge is to fully embrace the Jesus of the Bible. That is, we not only embrace his teachings, we embrace his claims, most notably to be the God-man who came to die for the sins of everyone who would ever believe. To believe anything less fails to honor the Savior, Jesus Christ!

Plato said, “It may be that some day there will come forth from God a Word who will reveal all mysteries and make everything plain.” Jesus Christ is that Word. Christ has revealed the mystery of the Gospel. He has clearly revealed God the Father. The quest for truth ends with Jesus. Indeed, he was born in order to bear witness to the truth!

John Piper observes, “Faith is being satisfied with all that God is for us in Christ.” This is precisely what the psalmist calls us to: “Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him!” (Psalm 34:8, ESV). May we stand with millions of men and women and boys and girls who demonstrate faith in the Son of God. May we truly believe the claims of Jesus. May we turn from our sins and trust in his all-sufficient work on the cross. May we bank all our hope and future on an infinite Savior who has an infinite love for his people. Then and only then can we call ourselves followers of Jesus!

I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review.

  1. Sinclair Ferguson, In Christ Alone (Orlando: Reformation Trust, 2007), 18.
  2. Stephen Wellum, God the Son Incarnate (Wheaton: Crossway Book, 2016), 76.
  3. John Frame, The Doctrine of God (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2002), 12.
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