The Purpose Driven Life: An Assessment
“Make sure you’re not missing the point of your life – read this book! The Purpose Drive Life will drive you to greatness – through living the Great Commandment and the Great Commission.” Thus enthused Billy Graham and his son Franklin. It is an example of the many glowing recommendations for the book The Purpose Driven Life, or as it has come to be popularly known, PDL. Lee Strobel, author of The Case for Christ, said, “If you only read one book on what life is all about – make it this one! This book is life-changing. Rick Warren is absolutely brilliant at explaining our real purpose on earth and stating profound truths in simple ways. Give this book to everyone you care about. Believe me, you’ll never be the same after reading this! What a gift!”
A book that has provoked such enthusiasm among Evangelical stalwarts must offer something much above the average Christian literature. The Purpose Driven Life (hereon PDL) is a monumental publishing success. Rick Warren, the author, is the pastor of Saddleback Valley Community Church in California. Previous to PDL, be had written The Purpose Driven Church. This was also a bestseller, but more limited among evangelicals. The PDL has become very popular across a wide spectrum of people crossing denominational divide. From the book, a program has been developed for group dynamics, and this is being adopted by many churches and Christian groups around the world. Many testimonies can be collected to the benefits the PDL has furnished various lives.
Should not the Reformed community join in hailing this book? In fact, many are already doing so. Indeed, issuing a critique of this book makes one feel like a party-pooper. But one cannot be true to his Reformed commitment without subjecting to the touchstone of the Scriptures even the most popular product in the market.
It is a testimony to the popularity of this book that in its short history, it has gone through various reprinting. For the purpose of this article, the edition published by Zondervan, reprinted by the OMF Literature in 2003 will be used.
The introductory question is splashed right on the cover: “What on earth am I here for?” The question is the ultimate classic. It sets the tone of the whole book. The question heads the opening section of the book containing seven days of meditations. Each chapter of PDL is equivalent to a day of meditation. The question is then answered by Five Purposes, with each purpose containing several days of meditation. In summation, there are in all forty (40) days of meditations. Warren attaches significance to the number. He describes the book as “a guide to a 40-day spiritual journey . . . that will reduce your stress, simplify your decisions, increase your satisfaction and most important, prepare you for eternity.” [p. 9].
The following are Warren’s Five Purposes:
1.You were planned for God’s pleasure… Isa 61:3 (Worship)
2.You were formed for God’s Family… John 15:5; Rom 12:5 (Fellowship)
3.You were created to become like Christ… Col 2:7 (Maturity)
4.You were shaped for serving God… I Cor 3:5-6 (Ministry)
5.You were made for a mission… Provs. 11:30; 2 Cor 2:14 (Missions)
Rick Warren has that outstanding ability of employing language of contemporary relevance while discoursing on a theme of eternal concern. He connects very well with his readers. He knows their line of thinking, their day-to-day struggles, and he speaks to those realities. The challenge of the book is to think of eternity. The best chapter for me is the sixth – Life is a temporary assignment, he exhorts the reader with telling impact:
“It is a fatal mistake to assume that God’s goal for your life is material prosperity or popular success, as the world defines it. The abundant life has nothing to do with material abundance, and faithfulness to God does not guarantee success in a career or even in ministry. Never focus on temporary crowns . . . In God’s eyes, the greatest heroes of faith are not those who achieve prosperity, success, and power in this life, but those who treat this life as a temporary assignment and serve faithfully, expecting their promised reward in eternity. [50-51]
Many preachers discourse on eternal themes, but with very little impact on their hearers. It is not for lack of orthodoxy, or biblical faithfulness to doctrine, that they are without impact. It is their inability to speak with relevance that is their failure. Under their treatment, heaven and eternity sound to their hearers like “there and then” issues, instead of “here and now.” If anything, Warren’s PDL is a challenge to us preachers to mold that ability to employ relevant language that connects to people’s here and now, as we discourse on eternal themes.
Critique 1: Misuse of the Scriptures
It may sound grossly unfair to those familiar with the PDL to offer this critique of the book. After all, the book is brimming with biblical quotations page after page. Warren himself estimates, “This book contains nearly a thousand quotations from Scripture.” [p. 325]
It is notable that the references are put in the endnotes, rather than the usual way of right after the citation. Most readers will simply assume that the citation is really biblical, rather than diligently check the actual reference. It leaves the impression of a convincingly biblical basis for the material. However, two characteristics of Warren’s citations deserve indictment, rampant paraphrasing and unexpounded citations.
A paraphrase is a restatement of the original material using other words in the interest of simplicity. A paraphrase version has its place; but it must not be considered a translation – but only subordinate to a real translation. In Warren’s PDL, almost like a policy he sets out to follow is to opt for very loose paraphrases. And the paraphrases chosen often lost the message of the original. The depth of the original meaning becomes shallow, and the objective sense becomes subjective, in the interest of sounding relevant, the truth is being sacrificed.
Chapter twelve of the book is entitled, “Developing Your Friendship with God.” As the main supporting verse, Warren has the statement He offers his friendship to the godly. This is the New Living Translation (NLT) of Proverbs 3:32. Now, there is nothing wrong with the concept of friendship to God in its biblical sense. In our current usage, however, it has a subjective and sentimental sense, as in a buddy. We may give Warren the benefit of doubt in preferring this translation in order to connect to his readers. But the real issue is whether this concept is present at all in the text he cites. Here is Proverbs 3:32 in the more straightforward translation of the New King James Version, For the perverse person is an abomination to the LORD, But His secret counsel is with the upright.
On what account did Warren, or the NLT, justify the use of friendship in this verse? Note that the first side of the text was omitted, the one calculated to generate a serious, if negative, reaction. But perhaps the warning on the perverse, and the idea that there is something the Lord abominates, are not too welcome to the ears of the readers that Warren wants to reach. But in a structure of parallel lines, as in Proverbs, to establish the meaning of one line, it is essential to see the comparison or contrast of the parallel line. As serious as the warning about the Lord abominating a type of people, would it be in keeping with that gravity to set the contrast of offering friendship?
Then, consider the words that were changed. His secret counsel is with the upright. The Lord’s secret counsel becomes an offer of friendship in NLT, and Warren brings into PDL. Is this valid? God’s secret is a reference to His revelation, as in Amos 3:7, Surely the Lord GOD does nothing, Unless He reveals His secret to His servants the prophets. To know the Lord’s secret counsel is to have the privilege of knowing His Word. This meaning will not be apparent in the version chosen by Warren. Lost are the gravity of the warning, the depth of the privilege, and the objective nature of the revelation.
Consider another. In the very first chapter, “It All Starts with God,” Warren uses The Message paraphrase (which appears to be his favorite), God’s wisdom . . . goes deep into the interior of his purposes. It is not the latest message, but more like the oldest – what God determined as the way to bring out his best in usi [p. 20]. That sounds like a good inspirational pep talk. But one will never have the slightest idea that this is supposed to be a biblical quotation of 1 Corinthians 2:7. Here is that text in the NKJV: But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery the hidden wisdom which God ordained before the ages for our g1ory. Some of the more important and weighty concepts in the Bible have just been changed to fit Warren’s mode of relevancy. Paul is giving a sustained contrast between the wisdom of God and the wisdom that was popular in the Hellenistic world. Mystery is a technical term for God’s plan that can only be known by revelation. It is that revelation which now the apostles are able to speak. The wonder here is that we are now hearing from the apostolic proclamation the divine plan that already existed before there was any time.
Here is another. In chapter eight, “Planned for God’s Pleasure” Warren cites from The Message, Take your everyday, ordinary life – your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life – and place it before God as an offering [p. 67]. This is another pep talk inspirational. But it is actually that old favorite Romans 12:1! This is the NKJV: I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. Where has gone the mercies of God? That is there to remind us that we only are enabled to do the things we should be doing in the Christian life as a beneficiary of God’s many mercies. And where has gone the concept of holy, acceptable to God? In its original setting, the statement is totally God-centered. This is lost in Warren’s favored paraphrase.
Now let us reverse the process. Let us begin with the straightforward text and see what Warren does with it. 2 Corinthians 5:21 is an important text that teaches the substitutionary significance of Christ’s atonement. He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. This statement can only be understood against the backdrop of the law. Christ stood in the legal account of sin, so that He took its legal punishment, and His righteousness in turn becomes the believer’s own in terms of legal standing. Here is what this text becomes in PDL using Today’s English Version: Christ was without sin, but far our sake God made him share our sin in order that in union with him we might share the righteousness of God[p. 113]. This statement leaps the borderline of heresy. In using share our sin, Warren has changed the legal sense into that of experience. But Christ has no sin in experience. He did not share our sin. He took the place of our sin in the eyes of God’s law That is substitution. Also, we did not share the righteousness of God in the act of believing, it was imputed to us , that is reckoned as ours in the judgment of the law Warren’s paraphrase has ignored completely the careful way such distinctions were observed in the history of theology.
Here is another instance. There is a very serious warning in 2 Corinthians 13:5, Examine yourselves as to whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Do you not know yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you? – unless indeed you are disqualified. A statement like this is calculated to generate holy trembling. This is what Matthew Henry wrote of this verse:
What the apostle here says of the duty of the Corinthians to examine themselves, etc., with the particular view already mentioned, is applicable to the great duty of all who call themselves Christians, to examine themselves concerning their spiritual state. We should examine whether we be in the faith, because it is a matter in which we maybe easily deceived, and wherein a deceit is highly dangerous: we are therefore concerned to prove our own selves, to put the question to our own souls, whether Christ be in us, or not; and Christ is in us, except we be reprobates: so that either we are true Christians or we are great cheats; and what a reproachful thing is it for a man not to know himself, not to know his own mind!
But that holy trembling is altogether lost as Warren uses The Message for this verse: Test yourselves to make sure you are solid in the faith. Don’t drift along taking everything for granted. Give yourselves regular checkups . . . Test it out. If you fail the test, do something about it. Solid in the faith? But this is not just an issue of maturity. The issue is genuineness of faith. That is much more serious. Regular checkups? That sounds like a visit to the doctor that most of us conveniently find excuse to postpone. If you fail the test, do something about it? It is almost saying better luck next time. But to be disqualified in Paul’s description means to be not in the faith; to prove that Jesus Christ is not in them – in brief, to prove to be false believers.
Every chapter in PDL is headed by Scripture text(s). This, at least, should signal that the text forms the basis of the chapter. The very least that we should expect of Warren is to give an exposition of the text, to set out before his readers the meaning of the words as originally intended, and apply the meaning to our present generation. But there is none of that. The text headings merely give the impression that the chapter is solidly biblical. The impression often becomes an unjustified assumption.
For his Purpose # 1: You were planned for God’s pleasure, Warren uses Isaiah 61:3 of the Living Bible: For God has planted them like strong and graceful oaks for his own glory. There is no accompanying exposition of the text. But can this be used as a text that applies indiscriminately to all his readers? See the text again in the NKJV: To console those who mourn in Zion, To give them beauty for ashes, The oil of joy for mourning, The garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; That they may be called trees of righteousness, The planting of the LORD, that He may be glorified. Here, it becomes clear that this is not meant for indiscriminate application. It has to do with the people of God whose character is described in terms of their contrition. This is not a text that can willy-nilly be used to spell out a universal purpose of God for everybody.
On his meditation for Day 11: Becoming best friends with God, Warren heads it with Romans 5:10 of the NLT: Since we were restored to friendship with God by the death of his Son while we were still his enemies, we will certainly be delivered from eternal punishment by his life. We are back to the concept of friendship to God, which, in itself, is not wrong. But this is the sense of the original: For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. The theologically significant concept of reconciliation is changed into the more ordinary and likeable term of friendship. But reconciliation is not mere friendship. Friendship refers to one’s emotional ties with another person. But reconciliation is not an emotional, but a legal status. Friendship is subjective. There are times when you feel closer to, or alienated from, your friends. Reconciliation is objective. It is outside our feelings and internal condition. It is an objective blessing of salvation. All true believers are equally reconciled to God. That makes this blessing of salvation a tremendously important basis of assurance. This is absent in the concept of friendship. But the lack of exposition has just made Warren’s concept sound like Paul’s.
It is the duty of every Bible teacher to use his text responsibly. And responsible teaching is not just citing a text, rephrasing it to attain a connection with the audience, and moving on to one’s own ideas. Paul puts it this way in 2 Corinthians 4:2 But we have renounced the hidden things of shame, not walking in craftiness nor handling the word of God deceitfully but by manifestation of the truth commending ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God. It must be manifestation of the truth already resident in the text of Scripture. To fail to do so, no matter how cleverly one connects with his audience, is to handle the Word of God deceitfully.
One may counter that it is in fact Warren’s outstanding contribution in PDL that he manages to get the message across without the necessity of exposition that is precisely what is boring in today’s preaching. That many today do their expositions in a boring fashion is indisputable. But that is not to say that exposition should be undone. It is a challenge for us to make our exposition more alive and relevant. Bryan Chapell has it right:
Expository preachers and the people who sit before them each week are convinced that the Scriptures can be mined to extract God’s wisdom and power for daily living. Poor preaching may cast some occasional doubt, but preaching that truly reveals what the Bible means has kept this conviction alive for a hundred generations. Our goal as expository preachers is to keep this faith alive by demonstrating week after week what the Word of God says about the daily concerns we and our listeners face. This goal reminds us that most people do not want or need a lecture about Bible facts. They want and need a sermon that demonstrates how the information in the Bible applies to their lives. Expository preaching does not merely obligate preachers to explain what the Bible says, it obligates them to explain what the Bible means in the lives of people today.
Critique 2: Unbiblical Thrust of the Message
The assumption throughout the book is that all people without distinction have the same purpose from God which is theirs to decide freely by an act of will. This is the classic Arminian position. But it is not biblical.
God’s offer of salvation extends to all people. Truly these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent (Acts 17:30). However, God’s purpose of salvation is by His sovereign election (Eph 1:4ff, 11; Rom. 9:15ff, 2 Thess 2:13ff. While PDL sounds very centered on God, it has actually disoriented the key teachings of the Bible from God’s sovereign character. Let us ask three key issues.
What happened to sin?
One reason for the huge popularity of PDL is simply that it makes everyone feel good about themselves. The reason for this is because sin is hardly touched. In PDL, sin is connected to the failure to adopt God’s purpose for one’s life. The most that Warren came close to really denouncing sin is with these words:
All sin, at its root, is failing to give God glory. It is loving anything else more than God. Refusing to bring glory to God is prideful rebellion, and it is the sin that caused Satan’s fall – and ours, too. In different ways we have all lived for our own glory, not God’s. [pp. 54-55]
This is true, of course. But it does not say enough to prepare one for the gospel of salvation. What is lacking is the issue of guilt, of violation of God’s law, and therefore liability to condemnation and punishment. In PDL, the sense of guilt is even considered unhealthy. Warren warns:
Many people are driven by guilt . . . guilt-driven people are manipulated by memories. They allow their past to control their future. They often unconsciously punish themselves by sabotaging their own success. [pp. 27-28]
But that is not how the Bible uses the concept of guilt. Romans 3:19 speaks of What the law says… that all the world may become guilty before God. Guilt is our standing in the law of God. We are already guilty whether we feel guilty or not. It is the understanding of our guilt under the law that prepares for the good news of justification by faith. But we can only make sense of the good news when we realize that we arc in a much worse condition than PDL would represent it.
In our desire to connect to our audience, and make them feel good, it would be a terrible mistake to fail to give them the real issue of sin. Only by acknowledgement of the gravity of sinfulness does the love of God become truly amazing. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that lie loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins (1 John 4:10). This leads to the next question.
What is the gospel of grace?
Warren asserts: When you finally understand this truth, you will never have again a problem with feeling insignificant. It proves your worth. If you are that important to God, and he considers you valuable enough to keep with him for eternity what greater significance could you have? [p.63]
Typical of much of the downgrading of the concept of grace in our generation, PDL has overturned grace into a gospel of self-significance. God’s saving actions are reoriented to man’s worth and value. This is connected to an understanding of personality in psychological terms. For example, Warren cites the case of Gideon by saying, “Gideon’s weakness was low self-esteem and deep insecurities.” [p. 275]. This is a psychological explanation that alters the biblical analysis of the human dilemma. The problem is sin. Not that man feels bad about himself but that he is bad. It is this analysis that leads to the wonder of grace. Grace is about the holy God with just wrath against sinners whom He yet loved. His love was not won by human value or worth. His is sovereign love for sinners. God demonstrates His love toward us… while we were yet sinners Christ died for us (Rom 5:8; cf. Eph 2:1 ff). To turn God’s gracious love for men as sinners into their being valuable and significant is to turn grace on its head.
The grace of God being connected to His wrath and justice, the redemptive work had to be by Christ’s atonement on the Cross. It was this that gave satisfaction to the justice of God – so that God may be just, and yet be the justifier of those who believe in Jesus Christ (Romans 3:2411). But one will search the PDL in vain for any gospel explanation of the Cross of Christ. Nothing on justification by faith. These are central to the whole saving purpose of God. And they are nowhere to be found in a book that purports to be about God’s purpose!
<br. How do we attain Christian growth?
The PDL promotes a simplistic and inspirational approach to Christian living. This is wrapped in a language that is lively and common-sensical that one would hardly argue with. But let three lines of thought be a due warning.
1. Formula approach to spiritual success: 40-day spiritual journey
Warren’s own assessment of what he seeks to do with his book is to be “a guide to a 40-day spiritual journey… that will reduce your stress, simplify your decisions, increase your satisfaction and most important, prepare you for eternity.” [p. 9] He reckons that a special significance attaches to forty days, asserting: “The Bible is clear that God considers 40 days a spiritually significant time period. Whenever God wanted to prepare someone for his purposes, he took forty days.” [p. 9]
It is easy to demonstrate how arbitrary Warren’s assertion is. The first incident that Warren cites is that “Noah’s life was transformed by 40 days of rain” [p. 10]. The allusion is to the forty days and forty nights of rain that caused the deluge on earth (Gen 7:4, 12, 17). But surely Warren has made a capricious conclusion here. Can we not as readily conclude that forty days here represent God’s time of judgment rather than a transforming period? One thinks also of Jonah’s threat of divine judgment in forty days on Nineveh (Jonah 3:4). Surely there is more basis for taking forty as a number of judgment. In addition, on what ground did Warren conclude that it was during those forty days of rain that Noah’s life was transformed? Why not before the deluge itself when “Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord” (Gen 6:8)? Or why just the forty days? Why not include the 150 days when the flood prevailed? Why not include the ten months afterward when the ark rested on Ararat? And then further number of days followed. “It rested 40 days before the water subsided sufficiently to suggest disembarking, when a raven (which could easily find its food on the carcasses of the animals which had been destroyed) was sent forth, and did not return (Gen 8:7); but a dove sent out at the same time found no rest and returned empty to the ark (Gen 8:9). After 7 days, however, it was sent out again and returned with a fresh olive leaf (Gen 8:11). After 7 days more the dove was sent forth again and did not return. After 56 days more of waiting Noah and his family departed from the ark.” (ISBE). All these sets of time-periods were all significant to Noah’s life. They all contributed to his build-up. But when everything was back to normality, Scripture does not hide the shameful fall of Noah into sin. Definitely the mere forty days were not that transforming into complete spiritual victory!
Warren’s arbitrary conclusion of the forty days in Noah is duplicated in the other incidents of forty days that he uses. Such as his claim “The spies were transformed by 40 days in the Promised Land.” For those familiar with the narrative, this certainly is a misfit. For ten of those spies were afflicted with cowardice, and it was their weakness that prevailed among the Israelites that delayed their entry into the Promised Land. Can one really conclude that those forty days were transforming of their lives? The truth is that the assignment of spiritual significance to the number forty is a personal imposition. If one were to play this number game, there are more references in the Scriptures to events happening in seven days. Why not seven days then? Or why not three days which Jesus no less alluded to? How about the “time, times, mid and half time” of the apocalyptic references?
Any formula approach to attaining transformation or sanctification must always be treated with suspicion. The clear principle is that we are to live a lifetime of continuous warfare. Jesus’ own time-reference for discipleship, to use his own words, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me” (Luke 9:23). It is not forty days, but all your days will be a day-to-day commitment to deny oneself in order to follow the Lord! (cf. Eph 6:10ff; Jn 15:1ff).
2. Higher Life theory of sanctification
Warren makes this appeal for Christian victory: “You let go and let God work… Stubborn temptations and overwhelming problems can be defeated by Christ when given to him… Put Jesus Christ in the driver’s seat of your life and take your hands off the steering wheel” [pp. 81 83]. It sounds so good and encouraging! But to the theologically-trained eye, this is the classic language of a theory of sanctification which, while widespread and popular, is unbiblical.
Since 1875, an annual gathering of Evangelicals has been held in Keswick in the north of England dubbed as “Convention for the Deepening of the Spiritual Life.” This became the mother of many other similar Conferences in other parts of the world. While broadly evangelical, its chief motto is “All one in Christ Jesus.” From out of this, a theory of sanctification was developed named after Keswick, and is also known as the Higher Life. The main proponents of its concept of sanctification include Robert Pearsall Smith, Evan Hopkins, and Bishop HCG Moule. It was popularized by C.I. Scofield of the Scofield Bible fame. The major notions include the following:
(a)A gap exists between justification-conversion and the life of holiness
(b)Life before the attainment of holiness is variously described as: carnal Christian; defeated life; etc.
(c)Holiness is variously described as: Spirit-filled life; victorious Christian living; Higher Life; deeper life; etc. This is portrayed as a life of consistent victory over sin without struggle.
(d)The turning point is variously described as: surrender; yielding; let-go-and-let-God; etc. This is explained as a single act of faith.
(e)Christ is supposed to do the living for the Christian. They portray this as a moment-by-moment ‘yielding’ to Christ based on Romans 6:1-14
This is not the place to give a full-blown exposition of the doctrine of sanctification. Suffice it to say that the Reformed concept of sanctification contradicts the key notions of the Higher Life theory. Biblical sanctification does not offer a single turning point that attains victory by one act of surrender. Also, holiness does not depersonalize us in order that God Himself will live through us the life that we are to live. Biblical holiness is a personal responsibility that we exercise day by day. It is self-discipline. To be sure, it can only be maintained by the grace of God; but it is the Christian himself who must pluck out right eye, and cut off right hand (Mt 5:28ff). It is not a second blessing subsequent to conversion that only a few experience. Sanctification is part of the blessing of salvation that begins on the day of one’s conversion and faith in the gospel. Paul could refer to the Christian’s span of existence as ‘from the first day… to the day of Christ’ (Phil 1:5,6). The best summary of this view is in the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith XIII. 1
They who are united to Christ, effectually called, and regenerated, having a new heart and a new spirit created in them through the virtue of Christ’s death and resurrection, are also farther sanctified, really and personally through the same virtue, by His Word and Spirit dwelling in them; the dominion of the whole body of sin is destroyed, and the several lusts thereof are more and more weakened and mortified, and they more and more quickened and strengthened in all saving graces, to the practice of all true holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord.
3. PDL as the basis of Christian Unity?
Warren demonstrates an ecumenical spirit that seeks to reach out to all affiliations of Christians. In itself, this is a good thing to counter the ugly sectarian spirit that divides evangelicals. But of necessity in this pursuit of unity is the consciousness of those tenets of faith that must be the fundamental basis of all true Christian unity.
On this issue, Warren makes a statement that sounds so plausible, but hidden in it is a startling claim. He says, “But for unity’s sake we must never let differences divide us. We must stay focused on what matters most – learning to love each other as Christ has loved us, and fulfilling God’s five purposes for each of us and his church.” [pp. 161 -62]
Warren is here suggesting that the whole new basis of Christian unity is the thesis of his book. The centuries of debate on such doctrinal issues as how to worship God – regulative or normative; the extent of the atonement – particular or universal; God’s grace – Calvinistic or Arminian; evangelism – instructional or decisionistic; baptism – Baptist or paedobaptist; all these debates should be set aside for Warren has discov
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