The Purpose Driven Life
(By Nathan Busenitz)
Copyright 2003, All Rights Reserved.
A best-seller before it was even published (with some 500,000 prepublication sales), The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren has become an overnight sensation. Endorsed by the likes of Billy Graham, Bruce Wilkinson, Max Lucado, and Lee Strobel, the book was listed as the number one bestseller by the New York Times last April (in the “Hardcover Advice” category), having already been number one on the Christian Book Association list for five consecutive months. With countless churches joining his “40 Days of Purpose” campaign, and numerous “Purpose Driven” products for sale beyond the book, Warren’s self-proclaimed “ground-breaking manifesto on the meaning of life” (back cover) certainly warrants a closer look. Is it a book to be embraced and espoused or is it best left on the shelf?
The Purpose Driven Life claims to be “a guide to a 40-day spiritual journey that will enable you to discover the answer to life’s most important question: What on earth am I here for?” (p. 9). Arguing that a forty-day period is the biblical precedent for life-change (p. 10), Warren answers the question “Why am I here?” by giving his readers the following five life-purposes:
Correctly asserting that “it all starts with God” (p. 17), Warren begins by denouncing any type of “self-help” approach to Christianity, arguing instead that only God’s Word can reveal what the true purpose of life is. “You must build your life on eternal truths,” the author argues, “not pop psychology, success-motivation, or inspirational stories” (p. 20). With this as the foundation, Warren systematically moves through his five areas of purpose—consistently showing his readers the benefits of living with those aims in mind.
From this vantage point, Warren’s book sounds pretty good. After all, few would deny the importance of worship, fellowship, or evangelism in the Christian life. And most, at least in conservative circles, would applaud Warren’s appeal to God’s Word as the final authority on how life should be lived.
Nevertheless, a closer investigation of The Purpose Driven Life reveals several areas of weakness—areas in which the book proves to serve up more fluff than feast.
1. Shallow & Incomplete Doctrine
From a theological perspective, The Purpose Driven Life fails more in what is not said, than in what is. Key doctrines are sometimes altogether ignored, explained incompletely, or discussed without adequate scriptural support. The gospel, for example, is presented without mention of repentance, the reason Jesus died on the cross, or the eternal consequences of sin. Instead, the reader is simply asked to “whisper the prayer that will change your eternity: ‘Jesus, I believe in you and I receive you’” (p. 58). Warren continues by writing, “If you sincerely meant that prayer, congratulations! Welcome to the family of God” (p. 59). His definition of the “Good News” later in the book goes no deeper—emphasizing the benefits of grace without explaining man’s desperate condition or God’s command to repent (see pp. 294-95).
Other doctrines are given similar treatment. God’s love is emphasized, while God’s wrath is conspicuously absent (on page 294 Warren writes, “God never made a person He didn’t love”). Church unity and membership are highlighted, yet key verses such as Hebrews 10:25 are missing, and no mention is made concerning doctrinal purity. Temptation is discussed, yet the blame seems to be always placed on Satan, and the Christian’s response largely reduced to Warren’s advice—including “refocusing your thoughts” (p. 210) and joining a “support group” (p. 212). In fact, patterns of sin are reduced to “a repeating cycle of good intention-failure-guilt” in which people need “to be healed” because they are “sick” (pp. 212-13). Topics such as the holiness of God, the cross, man’s sinful flesh, absolute truth, God’s sovereignty, His commandments, and others are exchanged for those that promote a good self-image: such as love, family, spiritual success, unity, and personal fulfillment. No wonder Warren admits that three of the four intended results of his book are to “reduce your stress, simplify your decisions, [and] increase your satisfaction” (p. 9).
In contrast, the teaching of Christ and the apostles placed proper emphasis on the full counsel of God—not just its most popular parts. Jesus, for example, talked more about hell than heaven, demanded that his followers repent (Matt. 4:17; Luke 5:32), insisted that believers take radical steps to deal with sin (Matt. 5:29-30; 18:8-9), and argued that true discipleship may cost a person everything (Matt. 10:32-39; Mark 8:34-38). The apostles, too, emphasized repentance (Mark 6:12; Acts 2:38; 20:21), highlighting the importance of doctrinal purity (Gal. 1:6-10; Jas. 3:17), theological depth (Heb. 5:11-14), and total obedience (1 John 2:3; 3:24). While Warren does not necessarily deny these themes, he fails to give them the weight and explanation that Scripture indicates they deserve—especially in a discussion on the overall purpose of life.
2. Cavalier Use of Scripture
In light of Warren’s theological shortcomings, one is surprised to find that his book uses “over 1,200 scriptural quotes and references” (inside jacket cover). How can this be—that a book with seemingly shallow doctrine could have such extensive biblical support?
The answer to this question, in large part, is due to Warren’s flippant approach to the Scriptures. With no less than 15 different Bible translations and paraphrases, Warren offers proof-texts for much of his discussion, usually without any exegetical or contextual support. The author explains his reasons for this on page 325, contending that his “model for this is Jesus and how he and the apostles quoted the Old Testament. They often just quoted a phrase to make a point.” Unfortunately, this thinking allows Warren to pull passages completely out of context and apply them however he sees fit (using whatever loose paraphrase best fits his argument). But, unlike Jesus and the apostles, Warren is not inspired by the Holy Spirit—meaning he does not possess the authority to use God’s Word however he pleases.
Several examples will suffice (although numerous instances could easily be given):
It is also interesting to note that Warren avoids putting Scripture references into his chapters, choosing instead to make them all endnotes in the back. While some readers may actually double-check Warren’s biblical proof-texts, the book’s format (whether intentionally or unintentionally) makes doing so inconvenient.
3. Market-Driven Methodology
In light of Rick Warren’s background (within the seeker-sensitive movement), it is not surprising to find that The Purpose Driven Life reflects a similar market-driven mindset. For example, the book’s stated appeal is not that it accurately reflects Scripture or that it rightly proclaims the truth. Rather, it promises to “transform your life” (p. 10), enabling “you to discover . . . how all the pieces of your life fit together” (p. 9). As cited earlier, the book claims that it will make the lives of its readers less stressful and more fulfilling. Warren even says, “I know all the great things that are going to happen to you. They happened to me, and I have never been the same since I discovered the purpose of my life” (p. 12). The book’s back cover agrees, hailing The Purpose Driven Life as “a priceless gift for everyone who wants to know their purpose and fulfill their destiny” (Bruce Wilkinson, back cover); a work that “will guide you to greatness” (Billy Graham, back cover); and “a masterpiece of wise counsel for you” (Max Lucado, back cover). “Believe me, you’ll never be the same after reading this!” (Lee Strobel, back cover).
The marketing strategy is clear: buy this book and you’ll be happier—look at what the Christian life can do for you. Not only are such claims emphatic and inflated, but they seem somehow different than the “advertisements” of Christ and the apostles—where following the Lord had a high price, meaning that it cost everything—including relationships, comfort, and even life itself.
And then, of course, there’s the whole “40 Days of Purpose” marketing campaign. While much of this may be the brainchild of the publisher (rather than the author), there is still something a bit unnerving about a book title that includes a registered trademark. Purpose Driven is no longer just a life motto, it is a corporate slogan. Log on to Zondervan’s Web site and you’ll find a host of Purpose Driven paraphernalia—from wall hangings to Bible covers.
And how is one to measure the success of The Purpose Driven Life? According to Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Web site (www.purposedriven.com) the answer is in the numbers—whether it be numbers of new believers, numbers of new members, or numbers of increased church attenders. True to his seeker-sensitive philosophy, Warren measures success in numerical rather than spiritual terms.
The Purpose Driven Life is not outright heresy. In fact, it teaches many very biblical concepts, such as the importance of worship, fellowship, spiritual growth, spiritual service, and evangelism. At the same time, its approach is typical of contemporary Evangelicalism—fluffy, feel-good, and watered-down. Because of its shallow doctrine, its cavalier approach to Scripture, and its market-driven approach, The Purpose Driven Life should be read with much discernment—if it is read at all. Those seeking to deepen their understanding of Warren’s five categories will probably be better helped by any of the countless Christian classics that have more thoroughly addressed those topics.
In the end, The Purpose Driven Life is really just a relatively poor rehearsal of very basic Christian doctrine. As one reviewer put it, “I guess this is a good book if you’ve never heard all this before. Most of it is common sense stuff. I don’t want to take away from the good intentions behind it. God bless good intentions. I got bored reading it” (Amazon.com book review). Or, put more directly, The Purpose Driven Life is Christianity for grade-schoolers; the style is elementary, the sentences short, the print large, the chapters brief, the theology shallow, and the structure overly simplified. For those seeking a spiritual feast in The Purpose Driven Life, leave the fork at home—a straw is all you’ll need.
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