Does “I am the way…” Teach Universalism?

This appears to be the essence of Brian McLaren’s claims concerning John 14:6 in one of the chapters of his upcoming book A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions that are Transforming the Faith (to be released in February 2010).

On his blog, Mr. McLaren writes the following in response to a comment received from a reader concerning John 14:6:

I reworked that material into an important chapter in my upcoming book, A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions that are Transforming the Faith. The passage is often used to answer the question, “How do we relate to people of other religions?” But a careful reading of the verse (“I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me”) in its immediate and broader context shows that its most likely meaning is almost the opposite of the way it’s commonly used. Who is Jesus speaking to? What specific question is he answering? What does “come to the Father” mean? What do way, truth, and life mean? What’s the dramatic setting for the statement? (If people think the answers to those questions are either immaterial or self-evident, I don’t think they’ve really struggled with the text, nor have they taken seriously what is for John an extremely important statement – namely, John 6:63 in relation to 6:55 (John 6:55) … Jesus speaks on a “spirit” level and people hear/read him on a “flesh” level. This theme goes way back to 3:6 (John 3:6).) What a fascinating gospel we have in John! Working on a close and comprehensive reading of John for that chapter in the book constantly moved me to wonder, amazement, and worship.

McLaren notes that the “most likely meaning” of John 14:6 “is almost the opposite of the way it’s commonly used.” He is apparently referring to the way this passage has been generally understood within conservative evangelicalism, which is that Jesus is stating that salvation is found exclusively in and through him. And in the broader context of New Testament teaching concerning salvation, it would be understood that Jesus is affirming that salvation comes only to those who have explicit knowledge of him and who have explicitly placed their faith in him. In other words, conservative Bible students have historically understood Jesus to be teaching that salvation is found exclusively in him personally and not that there is universal salvation for all through his work on the cross in a general way.

However, McLaren suggests that a study of the verse, “in its immediate and broader context,” reveals that Jesus is teaching universal salvation. So, let’s consider the contextual issues and the questions he says we should be asking.

When: It is at the end of the passover meal that Jesus has just shared with his disciples on the night he was betrayed. And now, Jesus has just sent Judas away, saying, “What you are about to do, do quickly.” (John 13:27)

Who: Jesus speaks to the remaining eleven disciples.

What: He speaks of the glorification of the Father and the Son (John 13:31-32), his departure (John 13:33), the significance of their love for one another (John 13:34-35), and Peter’s denial (13:36-38).

After he tells Peter of his impending denial, Jesus then returns to the issue of Peter’s concern about his soon-departure. Jesus tells them that their hearts should not be troubled because he is not only going to prepare a place for them, but that he will also return to take them back to be with him (John 14:1-4).

Jesus concludes by saying, “You know the way to the place where I am going.”

Thomas then responds, “Lord, we do not know where you are going…” and then poses the question, “…how can we know the way?”  It is to this question that McLaren directs our attention as the immediate context of Jesus’ statement: “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

And then, very importantly, Jesus says, “If you had known me, you would have known my Father also; and from now on you know him and have seen him.” This is important, because, among other things, it gives insight into the exclusivity of the “I am the way” statement. Note that Jesus did not say, “If you had known the Father, you would have known me.”

Jesus was speaking to those who already had a personal relationship with him. And it is because of this relationship and through this relationship that his disciples were able to know the Father (have a relationship with him). Jesus said that it was only through the Son that they could have this relationship to the Father.

McLaren then directs our attention back to John chapter 3 – to the discussion between Jesus and Nicodemus – so that we can be sure to understand the “broader context.” Good advice.

Nicodemus would have been the equivalent of what we would consider a seminary-trained, conservative, theologian – a scholar who not only thoroughly knew the Hebrew Scriptures, but someone who worked hard to live consistent with what he knew to be the demands of those Scriptures. And it is armed with this knowledge that Nicodemus addresses Jesus: “We know that you are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” (John 3:2)

Nicodemus was right. But neither his knowledge nor his apparent acceptance of this truth was enough to establish a relationship with the Father or secure him a place in the kingdom of God – which is precisely why Jesus then told him, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3: 3) And, of course, later in the conversation Jesus said, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”

From this conversation and the one in John 14, it is clear that being born again and possessing eternal life are directly and inseparably connected to having a personal relationship with Jesus, which one enters into by faith. In John 14, Jesus spoke of preparing a place and the way (or pathway) to that place. This place was the Father’s house, his kingdom.

In summary: Jesus unequivocally states that there is only one way to the Father and into the Father’s kingdom. Jesus unequivocally states that he is personally that one way. The disciples knew the way and were on that way only because of their personal relationship to Jesus. Salvation is not applied universally to all on the general basis of Christ’s work on the cross and definitely not because of some general belief in God as taught in any given religious system.

As always, the context does provide the correct understanding of John 14:6.

  1. Very good blog and graciously presented. Thank you!

  2. The Bible also states that God is love and to know God is to know love. I believe this means if one knows love, they do go through Jesus, because Jesus represents love (God).

    • I’m not exactly sure what you mean. If you’re suggesting that those who don’t know about Jesus by name and haven’t heard the gospel can be saved on the basis of love, then I don’t think this is a biblical view. No one can truly love until they have been born again. It is not the act of loving that causes someone to be born again. The only way to be born again is to explicitly hear the gospel, to have God draw that person to Christ through the Holy Spirit, and for that person to then place their faith in Christ as Savior.

  3. Dan,

    Perhaps it would be helpful for you to consider the article I wrote here:

    Then I would be glad to engage in a discussion on the topic.

    Apart from this, however, we’re starting at two completely different points – with mine being that each book of the Bible is equally and fully inspired, without error and authoritative. Therefore, I don’t accept the premise that it is appropriate to set one gospel against the other three.


  4. I like what John Murray once said: “God is love, but love is not God.”
    The interpretive process here seems confusing and inconsistent. It almost sounds like he’s saying: if i am sitting down to a quiet dinner at a restaurant with my wife and i look across the table and whisper “i love you,” what i really was doing was telling the crowd how much i love them and I want them all to know it.
    maybe i’m just not as deep as all these guys….

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