A Review of “The Purpose Driven Life”
There are probably few people left who have not heard of the book The Purpose Driven Life, by Pastor Rick Warren. It can be found not only in Christian Bible book stores, but also in many major department and grocery stores. This book was also brought into the national news almost a year ago by the woman who turned in Brian Nichols after his courtroom shooting here in Atlanta. Many of our own members have been exposed to this book by friends or family members, and have wondered if it is useful or dangerous. Hopefully this study will help you to answer that question for yourself and give you a foundation through which you can also witness to others who may bring up the book.
The author, Rick Warren, is the pastor of one of the largest “mega-churches” in the United States, Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, CA (his church is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention). He has developed an entire curriculum of ministry principles under the “Purpose Driven” premise, which has been and is being used by hundreds of thousands of churches world wide, and in nearly every denomination.
The Purpose Driven Life is divided up into 40 chapters with the idea that one chapter be read each day, taking the reader on what Warren calls, “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). This question is taken up in the first seven days of reading and is followed by five more sections in which Warren focuses on what he believes are God’s purposes for our lives: 1) You Were Planned for God’s Pleasure; 2) You Were Formed for God’s Family; 3) Your Were Created to Become Like Christ; 4) You Were Shaped for Serving God; 5) You Were Made for a Mission.
At the end of each day of reading, in order to review and reinforce what has been read, Warren includes: A Point to Ponder; A Verse to Remember; A Question to Consider; and also includes Discussion Questions for each section in an appendix at the back of the book.
It is easy to see why this book is so popular. It is very easy to read, and for the most part it is easy to understand. Warren does a good job of explaining many Biblical truths with Scripture passages, illustrations, and quotations. In addition, the one-chapter-a-day method of the book makes it very “digestible” and easy to finish even in our era of short attentions spans. His one sentence “points to ponder,” the Bible “verse to remember,” and the “question to consider” at the end of each day’s reading help the reader to reflect and absorb the message of the book. All of this helps to make the book very easy to read.
When Warren begins the book, he starts in the right place. On the very first day he writes: “It’s not about you... God is not just the starting point in your life; he is the source of it. To discover your purpose in life you must turn to God’s Word, not the world’s wisdom” (p.17,20).
It is also clear that Warren holds the Word of God in high regard. He says, “The Bible must become the authoritative standard for my life: the compass I rely on for direction, the counsel I listen to for making wise decisions, and the benchmark I use for evaluating everything” (p.186-187). He also has a good understanding of the power of God’s Word: “The Bible is far more than a doctrinal guidebook. God’s Word generates life, creates faith, produces change, frightens the Devil...” (p.186).
There is Gospel to be found in The Purpose Driven Life. Though he does not refer to the specific Gospel (that is, the message of Christ’s saving work for sinners) as much as he should have, he does often refer to God’s grace in Christ and the forgiveness He won for us. In one of the fullest descriptions of the Gospel found in the book Warren writes: “If God never did anything else for you, he would still deserve you continual praise for the rest of your life because of what Jesus did for you on the cross. God’s Son died for you! ... Jesus gave up everything so you could have everything. He died so you could live forever. That alone is worthy of your continual thanks and praise. Never again should you wonder what you have to be thankful for” (p.112,113).
Though the Gospel is presented in his book, it is not presented as often as it should be. Instead of holding onto the thought he presented at the very beginning of the book (“it’s not about you...”) that is exactly were Warren usually steers his readers. He directs them to what they have to do, rather than to what God has done for them. His focus, like most reformed material, is on sanctification rather than on justification. While Warren does at times write about the correct motivation for us to live for Christ, and where the power comes from to do this, he completely undermines this with his emphasis on “decision theology.” Warren insists that you must “receive Jesus into you life as your Lord and Savior. Receive his forgiveness for your sins. Receive his Spirit, who will give you the power to fulfill your life purpose” (p.58). Again: “God will give you what you need if you will just make the choice to live for him” (p.58). In another place Warren states, “Obedience unlocks God’s power. God waits for you to act first” (p.174-175).
What Warren fails to point out consistently is the Scriptural truth that our “choice” to live for God and even our “efforts” as redeemed Christians to produce fruits of faith are empowered by the Holy Spirit. Our efforts and even our choice to grow spiritually is the work of the Holy Spirit working in us and through us - it is never something that we do apart from Him and His help.
One of the most disappointing aspects of the book is the way Warren turns earning heavenly rewards into part of the motivation for living out God’s “five purposes” in our lives. He writes: “Every time you pass a test, God notices and makes plans to reward you in eternity” (p.44). He also states: “At the end of your life on earth you will stand before God, and he is going to evaluate how well you served others with your life... The Bible warns unbelievers, ‘He will pour out his anger and wrath on those who live for themselves,’ but for Christians it will mean a loss of eternal rewards” (p. 231-232).
Is there anything we can do to add to what Jesus has done? Because of Christ, God is as pleased with us as He is ever going to be.
Warren also has a misunderstanding of the Sacraments which comes out clearly in his book. Warren says that baptism merely “symbolizes ... participation in the fellowship of God’s eternal family... symbolizes your death to your old life... represents what happened the moment God brought you into his family” (p.120). Clearly Warren doesn’t believe baptism has the “regenerating” (Titus 3:5) power to give our dead souls “new birth” (John 3:3-5), offer us “forgiveness of sins” (Acts 2:38), and thus “saves us” (1 Peter 3:21). Instead of a life giving, faith creating means by which God makes a commitment to us by His grace, Warren describes baptism as a “symbol” of our love and an expression of our “commitment” to God.
One last comment: In his book, Warren quotes over 1000 different Bible verses and uses over 15 different Bible translations. Warren gives two reasons for this in Appendix 3: Why Use so Many Translations: First, because every translation has its limitations, and it is always helpful to compare translations. Second, because we miss the impact of some Bible verses because they have become so familiar. Warren concludes: “Therefore, I have deliberately used paraphrases in order to help you see God’s truth in new, fresh ways” (p.325). While it is good to compare Bible translations, seeing God’s truth in “new, fresh ways” is only helpful if the translation you are reading is a good one, and one which is faithful to the Spirit intended meaning.
But the paraphrases Warren quotes from most often do not bring out the spirit intended meaning of the passage, but make it say something which is not found in the context at all. One of the paraphrases which is especially disturbing is “The Message,” which unfortunately has become one of the most popular Bibles in recent years. Compare the following familiar Bible passages found in “The Message”:
Most of the book focuses on practical advice towards the application of God’s commands in our faith life. While Warren has some good insights on how to put faith into action, the reader must beware of the subtle and confusing nature of many false teachings, and its improper emphasis on the work of man as opposed to the work of God. Rather than study a book that tries to explain God’s purpose for us, let us go to His inspired Word, where He has told us all that we need to know!
Note: This study was prepared for the Bible Class at Zion Lutheran Church, Lawrenceville, GA by Pastor Nathanael Mayhew
and is a summary of a more detailed study with the same title which was written by Pastor Luke Bernthal.
If you would like more information about this study,
please contact Pastor Mayhew