In his book The Purpose Driven Life, Rick Warren has offered readers an easy-to-read volume of unreserved encouragement. Line after line seems designed for simplicity, inspiration, and warmth. Even the font and length of the book seem to be aimed at heartening the reader. The print was large and the pages many, meant to give the reader a sense of covering a lot of ground in just over a month. Warren obviously intended this book to be a pleasant and welcoming introduction to the purposefulChristian life.
Christians are likely to enjoy many features of this book – even theologically-minded and carefully-reading kinds of Christians. In fact, many people have read and celebrated The Purpose Driven Life, so I want to spend a little time highlighting some of the probable reasons it has been so highly acclaimed. However, there are also significant disappointments in this devotional book. Therefore, I’d like to ultimately present a couple of reasons why Christians should look elsewhere for quality Christian living material.
The Book Tastes Good
Warren began his book with the abrasive statement, “It’s not about you” (17). Such a statement is surely a good one for people to read and to think about. It is objectively true (and even intuitively true), but we do not naturally live as though we believe it is. American Evangelicals seem especially interested in accommodating self-centeredness within the Christian worldview. Because of this obvious dichotomy – either life is ultimately about me or God, it cannot be centered on both – Warren’s opening words are probably a little stinging and then undoubtedly quite refreshing for many Christian readers. And Christians are right to be glad that life is really and ultimately about God.
In line with this kind of thinking, Warren pressed his readers to “begin with God” and to discover “[God’s] purpose” for their lives (17). Warren also tried to help the reader understand that “God’s purpose took into account human error, and even sin.” Assuring the reader, Warren wrote, “God never does anything accidentally, and he never makes mistakes” (23). Again, the Christian reader is likely to enjoy and even benefit from such words. Christians know that God is the starting point (Gen. 1:1), and they also know that God’s purposes stand behind all things, even bad and sinful things (Ps. 135:5-12). Warren’s words here are likely welcomed truths for many Christian readers who may benefit from the reminder that God is always at work in our lives, even during hard and bitter times.
Throughout the book, Warren repeatedly wrote of the need to believe in Jesus, to obey Him as Lord, and to demonstrate love for God by acting on love for others. Christian readers are probably happy to see such calls to know and follow Jesus in meaningful ways. I know I appreciated these calls as I read the book. Warren also wrote about the importance of Christian fellowship, the value of genuine community, and the intentional effort needed to participate in a local church. Being a pastor, I thought Warren’s statements were often full of good admonishing words, useful for some of my own church members.
It was easy to see why many Christians find The Purpose Driven Lifeto be a great resource for their own spiritual growth and development. As a matter of fact, just as I was finishing the book, I met a Christian young man who said that this book was the most impactful book he’d read on Christians living. And yet, there were also some very troubling and disappointing features of Warren’s book. Let me mention a couple of the biggest reasons I think this book is actually quite bad.
But the Book is Poisonous
There are more than a few reasons to place this book in the category of “bad books.” I don’t mean it should never be read, and I’m no book-burning fanatic, but I want to sound a word of warning to those who might be interested in thinking sensibly about this book. We should be level-headed about all that we read, and this book is no exception. As a matter of fact, I have some readers especially in mind as I write these words of warning. I imagine young and immature Christians reading this book, not realizing the juice is mixed with cyanide. Worse yet, I imagine non-Christians reading this book, not realizing they’re being inoculated against the gospel of Jesus Christ, their only hope in life and death.
Let me outline two overwhelmingly bad features of The Purpose Driven Life. I hope you’ll consider my warning and then spend a little time thinking about the validity of such arguments. I also hope that you’ll consider the state of your own soul, and that you’ll give effort to knowing the gospel and the God who saves. Warren’s book is bad, first, because the gospel is absent. Second, Warren assumes his reader is a Christian from the beginning. These two combined qualities make this book awfully poisonous. Ingesting either one is dangerous, but the combination is eternally lethal. Let me explain.
Nonexistent gospel. Not every book should be expected to include the gospel of Jesus Christ. I want to be clear on this point. But any book on Christian living, especially one that targets non-Christians, and even more particularly one that aims to define the “Good News” of Christianity, should absolutely include the substance of the Christian gospel. The gospel is the “Good News” after all. The gospel is the message of God’s plan to save sinners through the person and work of Jesus Christ.
On day three of his forty-day devotional, Warren finished his brief chapter by telling the reader that God will one day “do an audit of your life, a final exam, before you enter eternity” (34). It was at this point that Warren seemed to begin his appeal for the reader to become a Christian. He wrote, “From the Bible we can surmise that God will ask us two crucial questions: First, ‘What did you do with my Son, Jesus Christ?’ …Second, ‘What did you do with what I gave you?’” Warren went on to say, “The first question will determine where you spend eternity. The second question will determine what you do in eternity.” It was later, on day seven, when Warren seemed to urge his reader toward an evangelical response to the gospel.
Employing his language of the purposeful life, Warren wrote, “Real life begins by committing yourself completely to Jesus Christ. If you are not sure you have done this, all you need to do is receiveand believe” (58). Warren explained belief by writing, “Believe God loves you and made you for his purposes… Believe God has chosen you to have a relationship with Jesus, who died on the cross for you.” Then Warren went on to describe the meaning of “receive” by saying, “Receive Jesus into your life as you Lord and Savior. Receive his forgiveness… [and] his Spirit, who will give you the power to fulfill your life purpose.” Then Warren invited the reader to “bow your head and quietly whisper the prayer that will change your eternity.” And then he recommended a brief, innocuous prayer.
Later still, on day thirty-seven, Warren finally sought to define the “Good News” of the gospel. Urging his reader to share the gospel with others, Warren spent a couple of lines explaining the substance of the gospel message. He wrote, “The Good News is that when we trust God’s grace to save us through what Jesus did, our sins are forgiven, we get a purpose for living, and we are promised a future home in heaven” (294). That’s it… No explanation of sin, no clarification about who Jesus is at all, and no description of what Jesus did. Obviously, a Christian could expound on this anemic content and make the gospel clear. But throughout the full content of Warren’s book, these several lines are the whole of his supposedly gospel substance, and this is simply a non-gospel.
Who is God? What is sin? Who is Jesus? Why did Christ die? For whom did Christ die? What does Christ’s death have to do with the reader? How is Christ’s work applied to the sinner? What relationship does God’s saving work have with my effort to live for Him? These are the crucial questions of the Christian life, and Warren answers none of them. He gives no substance to a message he calls “the Good News,” and this is poisonous to the non-Christian reader. He or she may think the gospel is a vacuous message, and he or she may even think the gospel has been received and applied by reading this book. He or she may believe that heaven is assured, simply because he or she has read this book. But this would be an eternally costly presumption. A gospel message with no substance is poison to those who receive it.
Christianity assumed. A hollow gospel is bad enough, but Warren did not leave the reader to his or her own thoughts about the state of his or her soul. Warren offered complete and unreserved assurance to his reader, and this even before his hollow gospel was presented. Warren wrote his book as though every reader is objectively on their way to paradise and glory.
Ten pages and one day before Warren asked his reader “What did you do with Jesus Christ?” and five days before Warren lead his reader to “believe” and “receive” the blessings of salvation (without defining or explaining the gospel at all), Warren assured his reader of God’s special love. He wrote, “You were created as a special object of God’s love! God made you so he could love you” (24).
The Bible is clear that God’s does love the world (Jn. 3:16), and God even loves sinners (Rom. 5:8), but God’s special love is only for those He saves in Christ (Eph. 1:4-6, 2:4-10; 1 Jn. 4:10). To say that everyone on the planet (at least every one of those who will read Warren’s book) is a “special object of God’s love” is to declare a universal application of God’s special love. How, then, is the reader to understand this assured promise? Is this not a promised assurance of God’s saving love?
Warren’s book is filled with this same kind of presumptuous assurance, giving the reader every reason to believe he or she is perfectly right before God and on his or her way to eternal blessings rather than cursing. Warren wrote, “God wants a family, and he created you to be a part of it” (117). Soon after, he wrote, “The moment you were spiritually born into God’s family, you were given some astounding birthday gifts: the family name, the family likeness, family privileges, family intimate access, and the family inheritance” (119). On what basis does Warren make such family promises? On the basis that the reader is simply reading his book, I suppose?
Warren made his presumption explicit when gave an unequivocal assurance of salvation immediately after his nebulous non-gospel presentation on day seven. After urging his reader to pray an innocuous prayer, he wrote, “If you sincerely meant that prayer, congratulations! Welcome to the family of God!” (59). Warren bypassed the affirmation of the local church, supplanted any critical assessment of genuine conversion, and simply assured and congratulated his reader.
Far and away, the worst poison in this book is Warren’s intention that his reader to think that he or she has read, understood, and embraced the gospel. He intends his reader to embrace every promise God has made to those who are in Christ, without the substance of the gospel and without the benefit of critically thinking through whether or not the reader has actually understood and embraced the message of Christ.For these two reasons, I caution the reader. This book is poisonous. It could be quite lethal to the soul.
For the interested reader, I suggest the following resources as superior Christian living and devotional materials. A Little Book on the Christian Lifeby John Calvin, Mornings and Eveningsby Charles Spurgeon, Thoughts for Young Menby J.C. Ryle, and Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Lifeby Donald Whitney.
Lest I be accused of doing the same thing I am accusing Warren of, allow me to briefly layout the essence of the gospel message. God is the creator, holy and just. One day He will distribute perfect justice on all creation. Man was created in the image of God, the apex of God’s creation, but man rebelled against (sinned) God’s good authority. Humanity became God’s enemy, and people continue in rebellion by continually sinning against God in their thought and words and deeds. Despite God’s right to judge everyone for their rebellion, God showed love for sinners by sending Jesus – the Son of God who became a human – to live perfectly under God’s law and to die as the substitute for all who would trust and love Him. Through Jesus, God reconciled guilty sinners with Himself, no longer counting them as guilty but counting them as adopted and beloved children. To this glorious news, God calls everyone everywhere to repent (turn from sin and disbelief) and believe (trust and love and submit to) Jesus Christ. This is, in brief, the gospel. The whole Christian life is lived out by understanding this message more deeply and applying it more broadly and thoroughly to every area of life, normally in community with other believers (i.e. the local church) who are doing the same.