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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‘But we have the mind of Christ.’ — 1 Corinthians 2:16 A Pew Research poll,1 released on December 16, 2015, asked the question, ‘Should homosexuality be accepted by society?’ The percentage who are ‘okay with that’, in all denominations, not just historically liberal ones, but also conservative ones, is very large, and the trend continues […]
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As we long for the spiritual recovery that is so much needed in the Church and in the nation, it seems at times that we are living in two parallel worlds. In the one world there is a great output of zeal and energy and some advances are being made; in the other world there […]
A Wesleyan Companion to “The Purpose Driven Life.”
By John W. Boley
© August 2004
Saddleback Valley Community Church, in Lake Forest, California, is a mega-church which has shown phenomenal growth under the pastoral leadership of Rev. Rick Warren.Warren is a Southern Baptist preacher’s kid, educated at Southwestern Theological Seminary (M.Div.) and Fuller Theological Seminary (D.Min.), who planted this congregation in the rapidly growing, largely unchurched south Orange County suburb.
Since its beginning in 1980, under Warren’s gentle, warm, visionary leadership, Saddleback Church has grown into a phenomenon rarely seen under the big umbrella of American Protestant Christianity.The number of baptisms, members, constituents, and weekend worshipers is staggering.The Spirit is moving – lost souls are being found, worship services are vital and relevant, and the Saddleback staff is pioneering new ideas and methods for their servant leadership at Saddleback, and now around the world.
Like Willow Creek Church in the suburbs of Chicago, Saddleback has become a world leader in methods, materials, marketing, and making disciples.With the publishing of “The Purpose-Driven Church” in 1995, Warren provided a huge gift to Christendom by putting in writing much of his vision and method.The focus is as the name implies – God is calling churches and disciples to be “purpose driven” – to go about the call of Christ in very intentional ways, recalling our central purpose of making disciples for Jesus Christ, breaking out of the mold of “church as usual” in our comfortable American Protestant way.
Acting on the advice of others, and following his own hunches – or perhaps as led by the Holy Spirit – Warren realized that he skipped a step – he wrote about what churches are called to do before writing about what individual Christians are called to be.So, he took time off from his duties at Saddleback and went back to the desk and Bible and wrote a “prequel” to “The Purpose Driven Church,” in 2002 publishing “The PurposeDriven Life.”
This book, now a New York Times best-seller, does for individuals what his previous effort does for churches – it asks people to focus on the purposes for their lives.It uses as the launching question, “What on earth am I here for?” From this existential query, he answers the question by stating that all human beings are to have five basic purposes:
1. You Were Planned for God’s Pleasure
2. You Were Formed for God’s Family
3. You Were Created to Become Like Christ
4. You Were Shaped for Serving God
5. You Were Made for a Mission
These five purposes, then, correspond to the five functions of the Christian life –Worship, Fellowship, Discipleship, Ministry, and Evangelism:
1. Bringing pleasure to God is called Worship.
2. Experiencing life together in God’s family is called Fellowship.
3. The process of becoming like Christ is called Discipleship.
4. Using my SHAPE to serve others is called Ministry.
5. Fulfilling my mission is called Evangelism.
Warren has done a superb job of focusing in on the basic joys/responsibilities/ purposes of being a follower of Christ.For millions of people, particularly lukewarm Christians, Christians on the periphery of organized faith, Christians who question the orthodox doctrines, and Christians who are static in their commitment, Warren provides a compelling vision of the life driven by the purposes of Christian living.
“The Purpose Driven Life” has been translated into a program for use by local churches called “40 Days of Purpose.”The Saddleback folks are brilliant programmers and marketers, and have provided this program to anyone who would desire to bring the basics of the purpose driven life to their local church.Any local church in the world can obtain a multitude of materials to help promote this campaign for their own use, and thousands of churches of all types and shapes have done so and are doing so.
40 Days of Purpose is designed to follow along with “The Purpose Driven Life.”For a 40 day program, including corresponding weekend worship services, small groups and Sunday School classes, a local church can read a chapter of the book each day, use video curriculum to introduce it and expound on it, and use small group settings to bring it to life and create fellowship at the same time.It is a program of great success that can bring new life to the call of being a disciple of Jesus Christ.
First United Methodist Church – Mt. Pleasant
The congregation I serve, First United Methodist Church of Mt. Pleasant, Michigan, decided to conduct the 40 Days of Purpose in the fall of 2004.To that end, we developed a pilot group to go through the program and make plans for the fall.The group began reading the book in the spring of 2004.And something became very clear to all of us – that while there was much great material in this book, there was much in the book that made us squirm.This pilot group of faithful United Methodists, as it began the book, felt that something was amiss – there were serious problems with parts of the book.
Fortunately, for once in my life, I was ahead of them.Possessing a Duke University seminary education and having lived in western Michigan for many years (a center of the reformed movement in North America), I knew that what caused them to squirm, but what they could not articulate, was the Calvinist theology underlying the book.Needless to say, the pilot group had some fruitful discussions about Calvinism and our Wesleyan roots.Out of these discussions came the realization that if we were going to do 40 Days of Purpose, we would have to come up with a mechanism to provide our congregation with an explanation for what they were reading, where we United Methodists might agree, and where we might disagree.Hence, this paper.
The claim that I have made to this pilot group, when some questioned whether we could even do this in a United Methodist Church, proceeds along these lines:
1. That “The Purpose-Driven Life” is a superb work providing great focus and direction for Christians everywhere;
2. That Warren’s five purposes are right on target and that there are few Christians anywhere who could argue with them; Warren’s work is amazingly ecumenical in spirit and understanding;
3. That the lenses (as in eyeglasses) that Warren wears in everything he thinks and writes and sees are based in his Baptist / Calvinist roots and education;
4. That our United Methodist congregation can still read this book and do this program and that it will be most beneficial;
5. That we can read this work through the lenses of Wesleyan thought without detracting from the idea of the purpose driven life;
6. That the purpose driven life and Wesleyan thought are just as compatible, if not more so, as the purpose driven life and Baptist / Calvinist thought;
7. That this is a golden teaching moment for our congregation to obtain the benefit of the 40 Days of Purpose while at the same time solidifying our Wesleyan beliefs.
I mentioned to a few of my United Methodist colleagues that we were going to use 40 Days of Purpose, but that I was going to write a companion to it to raise Wesleyan concerns.Most were supportive of the program.But some questioned whether 40 Days of Purpose should be done at all in the United Methodist Church.All were supportive of the idea of a Wesleyan Companion. Some were especially concerned that our Wesleyan distinctiveness will get overrun by Calvinist/Baptist theology.As an ecumenical church, we United Methodists are open to differing theological understandings as possessing their own truth under the broad umbrella of Christian thought, but we must also protect and defend our own Wesleyan distinctiveness and its particular form of truth.
One colleague in particular, Rev. Chris Momany, Chaplain at Adrian College, offered an image that seems appropriate.He likened the 40 Days of Purpose to a Trojan Horse – a seemingly attractive package that is brought into our midst, but which potentially has the power to undermine our beliefs and convictions.With the release of the movie “Troy” this summer, it is an especially powerful image.Warren’s Baptist version of Calvinism brought into our local congregations is in many ways contrary to our Wesleyan understandings, and it would be tragic indeed if we United Methodists lost what is ours.
Note:It is difficult to talk about “Baptist” theology.The broad movement called “Baptist” is based on a few primary and common truths relating to believer’s baptism, the authority of Scripture, congregational polity, and individual conscience in Christ.Beyond that, there is much freedom of thought in the Baptist world – different conventions and congregations and individuals can go their own way.In contrast, there is much freedom of thought in Wesleyanism as well, but its “connectional” nature, its Arminian theology (see below), and the ongoing presence of one powerful personality, John Wesley, make it more identifiable.
This paper is an attempt to explain in plain yet critical language where we differ from “The Purpose Driven Life,” based on the distinctions between Wesleyaninsm and Calvinism.To reiterate, there is much in “The Purpose Driven Life” that all Christians can affirm, and we would not be doing this at Mt. Pleasant First UMC if we could not enthusiastically endorse the total benefit of the book and the program.But for those who have evolved from the Methodist Movement of the Wesley brothers, some correctives and explanations must be made.This paper is one person’s version of a companion (it is not a “response” or a “rebuttal”) to “The Purpose Drive Life” – to offer a basic level theological discussion of Calvinism and Wesleyanism, in hopes that participants will be edified and grow in knowledge and love of their roots, and in the knowledge and love of Jesus Christ.
Disclaimer:Having not been immersed in the complexities of Calvinist thought as I have been in the complexities of Wesleyan thought, I freely admit that what may follow may not be a full, or nuanced, representation of Calvinist or Baptist thinking.As always, I will pray for and seek further enlightenment.
Now you have a choice.If you want the Short Version, go for it.However, if your interest is peaked and you desire to wade through some pretty heavy theology, go straight to the Long Version on page 5.
How much of our lives here on earth is controlled by God?Does God control our actions?Our thoughts?Or how about events?Or, does God control nothing – leaving it to us to think and act on our own?Does God predetermine our salvation?Or can we “earn” our salvation?
One school of thought can broadly be labeled Calvinism and stands for the proposition that God has maximum control of our thoughts and actions here on earth.The fancy label for this is called “theological determinism.”With respect to salvation to eternal life, determinism is called “predestination” and “election.”Calvinism stands for the proposition that God determines thoughts and actions and events, elects some for salvation and others for damnation, and predestines it all to happen.
Another school of thought can broadly be labeled Arminianism.Arminianism stands for the proposition that God exerts little control over human thoughts and actions and does not elect or predestine some for salvation or damnation.Salvation is still a gift from God, but it is measured by God’s judgment of human faith or actions.Human beings operate with a maximum amount of free will and ability to choose, and then live with the consequences of their thoughts and actions.
Wesleyanism is understood to be within the Arminian world, but with a particular emphasis on grace.John Wesley’s principle contribution to the world of theology is his belief in “prevenient grace,” the grace that “goes before” to give people a basic level of conscience and to give people the ability to say “yes” or “no” to God.Prevenient grace provokes a response in human beings, and if the response is “yes,” then the path of salvation continues.
In Wesleyanism, human beings are saved by “justifying grace” and then attempt to lead a holy life with the help of “sanctifying grace.”In Wesleyan thought, with the ongoing gift of prevenient grace, human beings call upon free will to live life on this earth in ways that are not determined, and with the hope and trust that salvation is at life’s end.
Now, if you do not want to read the Long Version, please turn to page 14 for the discussion about “The Purpose Driven Life.”
God’s Providence - Free Will and Determinism
One of the principle questions facing all religious faiths in all times and places is the extent to which God actually controls events on this earth.In Christianity, every belief imaginable exists, from an understanding that God controls nothing, to an understanding that God controls everything. This discussion largely takes place under the rubric of God’s “Providence.”
At one end of the spectrum is an understanding that God is absent from the universe, even though God created it.God created, laid down some natural rules, and then left town.God is not present and active, God never controls events, and God leaves human beings to their own devices at all times and places – God gives human beings maximum free will to carry on their lives as they see fit.Natural events, like tornados and rain, and human events, like car accidents and malicious activity, are just a part of the collision of thoughts and molecules that result with such freedom in creation.God wound up the clock of creation and lets it unwind by itself.Many of the “founding fathers” of the United States, including Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, were “Deists,” and believed in God along these lines.
At the other end of the spectrum is an understanding that God is in control of everything, in nature and in humanity.Tornados and rain are sent by God, and the actions and thoughts of human beings are all a part of God’s pre-determined design for creation.In this understanding, there is no human free will.God directs all movement and choice.This understanding is usually called “theological determinism.”
Note:Determinism is widely accepted in other areas of science and philosophy.Most agree that such things as genetics, culture, upbringing, economics, chemistry, biology and physics support deterministic understandings – that thoughts and actions are caused by pre-existent factors.The statement of Riff in “West Side Story,” “I’m depraved on account I’m deprived” might be an example.Theological determinism is the particular understanding that God specifically controls events.
Most Christians exist somewhere on this spectrum – few operate at its ends.Most Christians believe that God at some level is present and active through the power of the Holy Spirit, and so they cannot abide with ideas of complete free will in humanity or in nature.On the other hand, most Christians believe that God has granted humanity free will at least to some extent and cannot abide by the thought that all events are programmed – that human beings are merely puppets on God’s strings.Here is a visual that may make some sense.
God’s Activity on Earth
Maximum ControlNo Control
Determinism ←-------------------------------------------------------------------------→ Free Will
(The tendency of Calvinism)(The tendency of Wesleyanism)
At the heart of Wesleyan “squirming” over “The Purpose Driven Life” is the Methodist propensity to move toward free will on this spectrum, and the propensity ofCalvinism to move toward determinism.
Note:In the Christian faith, free will is always understood to be diminished by sin.For some, like Augustine, writing in the 4th century, human beings are in such bondage to sin that they exercise very little free will at all.Determinism here is based on sin, not on God’s control.In contrast to this, Pelagius, a 4th century British monk living in Rome, believed that sin held little bondage over humanity and human beings could operate in complete free will, achieving salvation on their own power.The raging debate between Augustine and Pelagius at that time lays the groundwork for the ongoing debate between Calvinism and Wesleyanism.
In its variations, determinism has as a root idea that there is an inevitability or necessity in events, that events are all planned out, all scripted, and are being played out according to the script.This understanding is implicit in the Bible as God is seen as being in control of everything and nothing happens but for the will of God.Many Biblical events are attributed to God in this determinism, not the least of which is our common understanding that Jesus went to the cross as part of a pre-written script that was merely played out by everyone as if they were puppets acting without their knowledge that it was all scripted.To place it in the context of our friend and foe, Judas, determinism would say that Judas’ betrayal of Jesus was a necessary part of the script – Judas was a puppet with no individual will.Jesus’ foreknowledge of Judas’ betrayal certainly suggests this understanding.
Determinism is usually described as being either “hard” or “soft.”“Hard determinism” is used to indicate the view that all events are rigorously determined and that even moral and ethical thoughts are controlled.This renders such things as “ought” and “guilt” meaningless.So, Judas was just playing his part, and also had no real culpability because he had no real choice in the matter.“Soft determinism” also holds that all events are determined, but claims that moral and ethical thoughts are more independent, and are still meaningful in society.So, Judas was just playing out his scripted role, but he was sort of guilty, or at least we should treat him as guilty because society must operate with justice.
Determinism is often understood in everyday language under the definition of “fate” and “fatalism,” or “destiny.” In common parlance, people say, “Oh well, what will be, will be,” or “Well, it was meant to be,” or “It was destined to happen,” or “His days were numbered,” or “I guess it was just God’s will,” or, “God took your baby.”Much language seeking to explain otherwise unexplainable happenings is deterministic language.We human beings have a special tendency for determinism in the face of tragedy and death.In more positive situations, people will say, “It was only by God’s grace that we avoided that oncoming truck,” or, “Receiving that check in the mail was ‘providential,’” or “God let me come to church today,” or, “My guardian angel was looking out for me.”
Most determinism is believed and verbalized out of respect for God’s sovereignty (ruling independence), omniscience (all-knowing), omnipotence (all-powerful), and omnipresence (ever-present) – God is the union of absolute power and goodness; God is the maker, controller, redeemer of the universe; God cannot be limited; God is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow, etc.If we believe these things, then any effort to throw free will into the mix is a limitation on God’s sovereignty, power, knowledge, or presence.This is not acceptable or possible for some, who believe that in order to give God God’s due, out of respect for God, everything must be attributed to God.
John Calvin and Determinism
John Calvin was the great French pastor and theologian who lived and worked primarily in Geneva in the mid 1500’s.A younger contemporary of Martin Luther, Calvin was often thought of as the brains of the Protestant Reformation, while Luther was the brawn.Calvin’s “The Institutes of the Christian Religion” in its final state, is a definitive work for much of Reformation thought, and what thereafter became what is known as the Reformed church.Calvin wrote the “Institutes” in 4 volumes – a massive work that still lives.
Calvin approved of determinism for the reasons stated above relating to God’s sovereignty.For instance, Calvin said in Volume 1, Chapter XVI, 5 of the Institutes, “Not a drop of rain falls without the express command of God.”Calvin’s overall attitude was that there is a direct cause and effect between God’s will and events on earth – nothing happens on earth that is not God’s will, and everything that happens is God’s will.
Many Christians of course see problems with this, despite its Biblical basis.How can human beings be genuinely free and responsible?How can we say that God is good when everything is planned in advance?If God doesn’t trust us with anything, then why were we created?Making me a puppet means that God does not love me; if God really loved me God would give me freedom of choice and action.How do we deal with evil?Does God control all bad things that happen too?Etcetera.
Free Will, Determinism and Salvation
Calvinist theology is deterministic to its core because of the central belief in the sovereignty of God.But it is in the arena where determinism is specifically applied to salvation that Calvinist understandings have made their greatest impact.
Prior to looking at Calvin’s particular contributions to Christian understandings of salvation, let’s look generally at the different possibilities relating to God and salvation:
1. Election.The first possibility is that God elects some to salvation.Election is a thoroughly Biblical concept.For example, Israel was elect through the covenant of Abraham to be a light to the nations.The Old and New Testaments are full of language and examples of God’s election.God makes these elections in God’s sovereignty, and that is ok, because God is God and we are not.That some are chosen and some are not is just part of the way that God set things up.
2. Universalism.At the other end of the spectrum is universalism – that all human beings are ultimately saved.Everyone is included because the grace and forgiveness of God overwhelms any activities here on earth.This is not a particularly Biblical concept, but it is popular (especially at funerals) and based in the belief in God’s overwhelming mercy and forgiveness.
3. Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism.A middle ground between these two extremes is called Pelagianism, after our friend the British monk.Election says that God chooses some and rejects others.Universalism says that God chooses all and rejects none.Pelagianism, says that whomever God chooses depends on the faith and actions of the individuals here on earth.
a. Pure Pelagianism.Pure Pelagiansim says that human beings are saved if they obey God’s commandments by what they do and believe.God has made a blanket grant of salvation based on works and beliefs here on earth – that human beings can “earn” their salvation based on their goodness.You are automatically saved, or better yet, you are entitled to be saved, if you are a “good” person, or do good things, or if you believe the right thing (about abortion or politics, for example).This is equivalent to “self-salvation” based inentitlement.It is based on an understanding of the basic goodness of humanity and is not weighed down by original sin.Interestingly, this understanding has been considered a heresy in the Roman Catholic and the Protestant church, yet it is widely believed in both branches.
b. Semi-Pelagianism.Semi-Pelagianism, on the other hand, suggests that all are unworthy in God’s sight because of original sin/the fall.No one is entitled to salvation, but all can make the right choice by saying “yes” to God, and acknowledging our need for grace, placing our faith and trust in Christ, and seeking to love God and be in reconciliation with God and neighbor.Then, God, in God’s sovereignty, grants salvation as a gift.
Calvinism is very explicitly based in election.As we shall see, John Wesley rejected election as it is combined with predestination.But he also rejected universalism.And oh by the way, he also rejected Pelagiansim.Hmmmm?Let us turn to the specifics of Calvinist and Wesleyan thought related to salvation.
Calvinism and Salvation
As with all thoughts and movements, Calvinist thought has gone through much revision and evolution.A central part of the discussion revolves around understandings of election (the act of God selecting some) and predestination (the fact that this is all done ahead of time, even before birth, perhaps even at the beginning of time.)Ideas of election and predestination did not originate with John Calvin.These concepts are thoroughly Biblical and have been the subject of much discussion and writing within Christendom from the earliest days.Augustine, Anselm, Luther, and others have thrown their faith and brains into the discussion.Calvinist thinking, however, as it has evolved, has brought to us the chief focus and discussion of the beliefs and practices of election and predestination.
Central to the discussion of election and predestination is the understanding of the sovereignty of God, omnipotent and omniscient.Since all of life is based on grace, and faith and salvation are a gift from God, then it logically follows that God selects who will receive faith, and therefore God elects who will be saved.A principle Biblical passage that supports understandings of election and predestination is Romans 8:30, “For those whom he predestined, he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.”Romans 8:30 (NRSV)
Major schools of thought developed around positions taken on the complexities of what was becoming known as Calvinist thought.Does God foreknow everything, or does God base God’s decisions in other immutable understandings?Does God grant salvation to some (single predestination), or does God grant salvation to some and condemn others to damnation (double predestination)?Is there a difference?Is election related only to salvation, or to all of our actions and thought (determinism)?
One of the principle players in these debates about the nuances of predestination and election was a Dutch scholar, pastor, and teacher named JacobusArminius.Arminius, while believing in predestination, believed that predestination was based on God’s foreknowledge, not based in God’s sovereign choices and decrees, the position of a stricter Calvinism.In other words, in God’s omniscience, God indeed foreknows everything, but that does not remove humanity from its free will – salvation is based in the foreknown faith of human beings, not in the prior to birth decree based in God’s sovereignty.
As the controversies raged, a consensus emerged in the Reformed church that could be called “orthodox” Calvinism.It reached its culmination at the Synod of Dort in 1618-1619, which decreed the definitive answers.Stricter Calvinism prevailed, and Arminian Calvinism was defeated.Out of these decrees came an easy way to remember what orthodox Calvinism stands for under the rubric TULIP.TULIP stands for the following (notice the Dutch connection):
T – Total Depravity – All humans beings are sinful and stand helpless before God, and are totally dependent on God for grace and salvation;
U – Unconditional Election – God, in God’s absolute sovereignty, decrees that some are elect for salvation and some are elect for damnation; this has occurred prior to the birth of an individual, is not based on works, and is not based in God’s foreknowledge;
L – Limited Atonement – Christ died not for all humankind, but only for the elect;
I – Irresistible Grace – Those whom God has elected cannot resist this grace or backslide out of it;
P – Perseverance of the Saints – Those whom God has elected will persevere to salvation and eternal life.
Since this time, “Calvinism” has become the term that loosely describes an understanding of determinism, election and predestination, in its various forms.“Arminianism” has become the term that loosely describes an understanding of “free will,” in its various forms (even though Arminius himself believed in predestination, butbased in God’s foreknowledge, not God’s immutable decrees).
The Methodist Movement
With the rise of the Methodist movement in the 1700’s, Calvinist understandings of election and predestination found a new venue for vehement discussion.Calvinism had jumped the English Channel in the 1500’s and 1600’s in natural ways.With the normal flow of people and ideas and literature, Calvinism did not stay in its Rhine River basin, but spread over all of continental Europe and the British Isles.For instance, John Knox, a student of Calvin, took Calvinism back to Scotland where it took hold in the Presbyterian Church.
In the Church of England there was no uniform position taken.In the 1500’s and 1600’s, the Church of England struggled with the vestiges of Roman Catholicism and new understandings of the Protestant Reformation.As Protestantism slowly won out over Catholicism, a further struggle existed between Calvinist thought, held primarily by the Puritans, and the Arminian position, taken by non-Calvinist Protestants and the vestiges of Catholic thinking.It was in this struggle that the broad movement called “Baptist” emerged.And later, it was in this struggle that the Wesley brothers advanced what became known as the Methodist Movement.
John Wesley, 1703-1791, founded the Methodist Movement as a way of bringing reform to the Church of England.It was an evangelical movement, designed to bring the masses back to Christ and back into the Church of England, which had de facto excluded them in its support of the aristocracy.Wesley preached some 40,000 sermons, traveling the length and breadth of England on horseback until his dying day.Brother Charles Wesley wrote some 6000 hymns.Together, their reform movement transformed England by bringing hope to the masses in an ugly industrial time. Upon John’s death, this Methodist Movement naturally split from the Church of England.
John Wesley agreed with much of Calvinism.He agreed with the doctrine of “total depravity” and was thoroughly Protestant in his understanding of “justification (salvation) by faith through grace.”But he was adamantly opposed to the doctrines of “unconditional election,” “limited atonement” and “irresistible grace.”Wesley believed that unconditional election also meant unconditional damnation, an idea that he saw as contrary to Biblical truth.And his blood boiled when Calvinists suggested that Jesus Christ died only for the elect, and not for all.And he believed that “irresistible grace” led to either quietism, the belief that suggests that no action on this earth is necessary, or antinomianism, the belief that once salvation was assured, there was no moral restraint - anything goes.
In Wesley’s words, the doctrine of predestination, “makes revelation contradict itself.For it is grounded on such an interpretation of some texts (more or fewer it matters not) as flatly contradicts all the other texts, and indeed the whole scope and tenor of Scripture.” Works, VII 379-380. (Emphasis added).
Even though some of his friends, notably George Whitefield, were basically Calvinist in their thinking, John Wesley exercised such force of personality that Calvinism never gained a serious foothold in the Methodist Movement, even though the Church of England still contained both Calvinist and Arminian elements.
Wesley was a strong believer in the free will of human beings, but he could not be Pelagian because of his belief in original sin.He offered a way of looking at things that has supported human belief in free will, while still being faithful to the Protestant understanding of “total depravity,” and “salvation by faith through grace.”
Wesley was not a systematic writer like Calvin.His theology has been discerned from his sermons, his journals, his letters and his other public writings.Many have systematized Wesley since his time. The collective theology of John Wesley is often called his “order of salvation,” or ordo salutis.
Wesley’s principle contribution to the world of theology is his emphasis on grace: “prevenient grace,” “justifying grace” and sanctifying grace.”He is most noted for his focus on “prevenient grace.”He believed with Calvin and Luther in the “total depravity” of humankind, but with “prevenient grace,” God begins the work of redeeming each individual with the goal of salvation to eternal life.
Prevenient Grace is the grace that “goes before.”It is grace given “free to all and free in all.”Prevenient grace basically does two things.It provides every human being with a basic level of conscience and with the ability to respond to God.Generally, all human beings have deep within them the need and desire for a spiritual life – we are all seekers, in every culture and land and time.This is a direct result of God’s prevenient grace.Specifically, every human being, as a result of prevenient grace, has the ability to say “yes” or “no” to God.God leaves this choice to us, and we make it at our peril.The choice would not exist but for prevenient grace.
In the ordo salutis, Wesley takes us through other stages on the path of salvation.If in response to prevenient grace, we say “no” to God, then our choice has been made, at our risk.But if we say “yes” to God, then we begin to be convicted of our sin and seek reconciliation with God.It is through justifying grace then that we are pardoned from our sin and salvation may be granted.After being “saved” through justifying grace, we can, with the power of the Spirit, be “regenerated” and receive “reassurance” of our worth in God’s eyes and our salvation to eternal life.
Unlike many of his Protestant colleagues, Wesley moved way beyond the understanding of justification by faith alone, to an understanding of the important role of sanctification in the life of the believer.Through sanctifying grace, God helps the believer lead a holy life, with the hope of moving on to perfection in love in this life.Sanctifying grace is God’s gift, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to help us become “holified” as a life-long process.Wesley was heavily influenced by Roman Catholic understandings of sanctification much more than his Protestant counterparts, who were mostly concerned with justification by faith alone as a corrective to the medieval Roman Catholic system of penance.
Many have suggested that Wesley took the best of Protestant understandings and the best of Roman Catholic understandings and put them together, into a cohesive understanding of the “order of salvation.”Here is a rough thumbnail sketch of Wesley’s thinking:
The Justification SideThe Sanctification Side
(The Work of Christ)(The Work of the Holy Spirit)
The Protestant Ethic of GraceThe Catholic Ethic of Holiness
Total DepravitySanctifying Grace
Prevenient GraceA Holy Life
Human Response Perfection in this life
Pardon / SalvationEternal Life
The key idea to understand for the purposes of this paper is the role of prevenient grace as an alternative to determinism and election / predestination.Calvinism, being thoroughly deterministic, suggests that the decrees relating to salvation are made in God’s sovereignty, and there is nothing anyone can do about it.With his understanding of prevenient grace, Wesley breaks up the logical necessity of predestination, by suggesting the means for God to offer everyone the ability to respond and choose.The choice is not to be “saved,” salvation only comes from God through God’s gift of justifying grace, but the choice is to say “yes” or “no” to God’s grace.As a result of the Wesleyan understanding of prevenient grace, election and predestination are not logically required, and determinism is just plain out of context.
As previously discussed, Calvinist understandings of salvation are based in election.But as you can see, Wesleyan understandings of salvation most closely resemble semi-Pelagianism.Wesley indeed rejected election and universalism.And he resisted Pelagianism because he did not believe that humans could in any way “merit” salvation.Although Wesley would probably not have called himself semi-Pelagian, again because it implies too much human ability and merit-demanded entitlement, the Wesleyan understanding of salvation is most closely semi-Pelagian. You knew it all along.Aren’t you glad to know this little tidbit?
In “The Purpose Driven Life,” Rick Warren never explicitly discusses the Calvinist doctrines of election and predestination.Frankly, this is somewhat curious.It is curious because, as we shall see, Warren’s thinking and writing contain many statements of determinism.But election and predestination automatically flow from determinism, even though a believe in election and predestination does not require a belief in determinism, except as to salvation.
To say this differently, contrary to popular thinking, election and predestination only apply to salvation.They do not apply to thoughts and events on this earth, even though we often casually use terms such as “preordained” or “foreordained” to mean just that.Determinism applies to events and thoughts.If events and thoughts are pre-determined in God’s sovereignty, election and predestination automatically and logically follow.But the reverse is not true.One can believe in election and predestination to salvation without believing that all events and thoughts are pre-determined.You cannot be a determinist without also believing in election and predestination.You can believe in election and predestination without being a determinist as to thoughts and actions.Whew!I hope that makes some sense, because it explains why I went through all that stuff about salvation.And it comes into play as we look at the determinism in Warren’s writing.
A Word about Proof –Texting
Rick Warren uses a method of Biblical interpretation called “proof-texting.”Proof-texting is a style which pulls out passages from the Bible to “prove” a point being made.It is very common throughout Christendom.Proof-texting is not favored in some circles because the Biblical text that is used for the proof can easily be taken out of context.The fear is that proof-texting can easily lead to dishonesty in the use of the Bible for purposes that are then inconsistent with Biblical truth.
Warren proof-texts extensively in “The Purpose Driven Life,” and he does so using many versions of the Bible, both literal translations and paraphrase translations.He admittedly picks and chooses the versions which best support his point.Not unusual.I have not examined every Biblical reference to be sure that the context and the language are consistent with the proofs that Warren is offering.My gut impression is that Warren has tried to keep contexts and texts and proofs consistent.Although this is not a style of writing and Biblical analysis that appeals to me, it does not appear, without further analysis, that Warren can be faulted.
“The Purpose Driven Life”
Most United Methodists squirm when they pick up “The Purpose-Driven Life” and read its first entry.After the title page and copyright page, before even the table of contents, the dedication page reads:
“This book is dedicated to you.Before you were born, God planned this moment in your life.It is no accident that you are holding this book.God longs for you to discover the life he created you to live – here on earth, and forever in eternity.”Warren then goes on to quote Ephesians 1:11 (Msg) supporting this dedication.
Many Methodists will read no further.Intense, driven, passionate ole’ John Wesley might have thrown the book across the room.Or at least he would have blasted Warren in writing, perhaps in his widely read “Arminian Magazine.”Few Methodists are able to articulate doctrines of determinism, election, predestination, irresistible grace, prevenient grace, etc.But there is something here that smacks us as contrary to our understanding of God.God put this book in my hands?God timed when I would be reading it?I thought I had decided to read it with my morning coffee!Is my life so controlled and so programmed and so planned that I have nothing to do with it?Is my salvation already determined?Why should I worry about anything?Can I make no moral choices?
Oh, I get it.God in God’s power and goodness and omniscience can foresee everything, so God foresaw that I would be holding and reading this book.No, that’s not what Warren suggests.He says in no uncertain terms that God planned this moment.Ouch! I guess I am a puppet after all.Does this planning go to thoughts and actions, or just actions?What part of it, if any, do I control?Hard determinism?Soft determinism?Hard to tell.
In fairness to Warren, this is the strongest statement of determinism in the entire book.Most of the rest of the book is not nearly so deterministic, in fact determinismdiminishes as the book proceeds.However, this statement creates a climate for the entire book that suggests determinism in a way that most Methodists cannot agree.We just think that there is so much more freedom in creation.And it is a gift.And it is glorious.And it doesn’t limit the sovereignty of God.
What on Earth am I here for?
Day 1:It all Starts with God.
Day 2:You are Not an Accident.
After Day 1 lays a groundwork by suggesting the rightful place of God in our lives, Day 2 is loaded with deterministic statements.Here are some of them:
“Your birth was no mistake or mishap, and your life is no fluke of nature.Your parents may not have planned you, but God did.”
“Long before you were conceived by your parents, you were conceived in the mind of God.”
“God prescribed every single detail of your body.He deliberately chose your race, the color of your skin, your hair, and every other feature.”
“Because God made you for a reason, he also decided when you would be born and how long you would live.He planned the days of your life in advance, choosing the exact time of your birth and death.”
“God also planned where you’d be born and where you’d live for his purpose.”
“Nothing in your life is arbitrary.It’s all for a purpose.”
“Most amazing, God decided how you would be born.Regardless of the circumstances of your birth or who your parents are, God had a plan in creating you.It doesn’t matter whether your parents were good, bad, or indifferent.God knew that those two individuals possessed exactly the right genetic makeup to create the custom ‘you’ he had in mind.They had the DNA God wanted to make you.”
“God never does anything accidentally, and he never makes mistakes.He has a reason for everything he creates.Every plant and every animal was planned by God, and every person was designed with a purpose in mind”.
Day two oozes with determinism.It is hard to tell whether this is hard or soft determinism, but tends toward hard determinism because attitudes and thoughts as well as physical events and actions are controlled by God.Rev. Warren does not discuss salvation, but you can see how this determinism must, repeat, must, spill over into election and predestination.
Rev. Warren’s attitude is one of extreme gratitude.His love of God pours off the page.His respect for God’s sovereignty is profound.This attitude leads to a desire for worship, and that is Warren’s point.Warren appears also to be trying to raise the reader’s self-esteem by proving that God loves each and every one of us and that we have a special place in God’s creation.Ok, now I can move on to find out my purposes.
In Wesleyan terms, we would certainly not disagree with the general purpose behind creation – that God is a lover and a creator – or for God’s love of each human being.But all of that is possible without such profound determinism.Wow!I didn’t know that I was so pre-programmed.I didn’t know I had so little say in my life, once it was indeed started.I didn’t know that my specific purpose was chosen for me.
Perhaps we can affirm all of this in a general sense, but not in a specific sense.Certainly God has a general plan for God’s creation.Certainly God loves humanity and wants humanity to fulfill God’s desires for a purposeful creation.Certainly God loves each human being and has a general desire/plan for each life – a life filled with love and meaning.And certainly God created a diverse humanity filled with all sizes, shapes, colors and abilities.But does general understanding of God’s sense of purpose for creation and its individuals require that there be specific plans for everything, everyplace and everyone?
With his understanding of prevenient grace, Wesley proclaimed the love of God in a new way.Out of love, God grants each human being a measure of grace to create that basic level of conscience and to give each human being an ability to respond to God with a “yes” or “no.”Then, we go on our way depending on our answer.God’s prevenient grace never goes away – God is knock, knock, knocking – and if the answer to God is “yes” then God’s justifying and sanctifying grace will follow.
In Wesleyan understanding, the measure of love that God has for humanity is reflected in the freedom that we are given.Free will, not determinism, is a greater measure of the love of God.For the Wesleyan, the trust and freedom granted by God to humanity is much more worthy of worship than is the possibility that we are merely puppets on a string.
Is this a limitation on God such that it has no place in the respect and love forGod?No!As an eagle pushing the eaglet out of the nest, as a parent launching her children into the world, God has chosen to limit God’s total control of everything in creation out of respect and love.It is not an inherent way of diminishing God’s basic power and goodness.Rather, God has chosen self-limitation in order to grant full humanpotential.This is greater love than can exist in determinism.
Warren’s determinism also calls into question God’s justice.If all my days are planned, and my death is planned, why is God so arbitrary?So the death of the child who is killed in the car accident was planned long before the child is born?Is there any justice in that?A Wesleyan would much prefer to say that the death of that child in the car accident was not planned by God, and God’s heart was the first to break, but that God did not intervene because the freedom built into creation is too valuable to be tampered with.Accidents are the price of freedom.God’s love will be shown toward that child when she is received into God’s loving arms in the eternal realm.
Rev. Warren seems to suggest that because there is a God who created the universe, every jot and tittle of that universe was prepared and planned for a purpose, and that without God there would be no purpose at all.Agreed on the last part, without God there is no purpose in the universe, however, would it be possible to say that there is a God who created the universe, but that a huge amount of freedom has been built into creation as a gift from God, so that creation itself can evolve into the greatest that it can be.The grant of freedom combined with prevenient grace gives humanity maximum potential.It is the result of maximum grace and maximum love.
Day 3:What drives your life?
Between Day 2 and Day 3, Warren makes an interesting shift.Gone are the severe overtones of determinism, and ahead are the serious challenges of free will.I must confess, the abrupt change in tone and focus makes me think I’ve missed something and have not analyzed Day 2 correctly.
Warren goes through a discussion of the possibilities of what drives people; guilt, resentment and anger, fear, materialism, need for approval.Certainly this discussion is right on target and truthfully depicts the human condition.What is confusing is that in Day 2 we just learned that at least some things are planned out to the smallest detail.Now we are going through the things that provide challenges to human choice.What gives?
All of this writing on what drives people is perfectly consistent with the Wesleyan understanding of original sin and prevenient grace.I’m not sure it is consistent with Warrens’s understanding of determinism.Perhaps I have missed something.Perhaps we’re learning that Warren is a soft determinist, but not a hard one; that our origins and actions are determined, but not our thoughts and choices.Or perhaps Warren’s understandings of the various shades of determinism in Baptist thought are too subtle and sophisticated for this Wesleyan to understand.
Warren then launches into a discussion of the benefits of knowing your purposes in life – that it gives meaning to life, that it simplifies life, that it focuses and motivates life, and that it prepares us for eternity.Right on! All of those things are indeed byproducts of the purpose driven life.Our only statement would be that these things are so much more beneficial and effectual if they are the result of free will intentionality than as the result of determinism.
Day 4:Made to Last Forever
Rev. Warren’s point on this day is well taken and of course one of the basics of the Christian faith – Christians are saved for life everlasting.Interestingly, on p. 37 he bases this salvation on the choices that we make in this life:
“While life on earth offers many choices, eternity offers only two: heaven or hell.Your relationship to God on earth will determine your relationship to him in eternity.If you learn to love and trust God’s son, Jesus, you will be invited to spend the rest of eternity with him.On the other hand, if you reject his love, forgiveness, and salvation, you will spend eternity apart from God forever.”
There is really only one way to quibble from a Wesleyan standpoint with Warren’s statement of heaven and life everlasting.And that is, that Wesley put a much higher priority on life on this earth.Wesley of course believed in salvation to eternal life through justifying grace. However, unlike many Protestants, Wesley went way beyond salvation to sanctification and perfection, influenced by Roman Catholic thought.In so doing, Wesley placed huge emphasis on transforming life on this earth – abolishing slavery, working for child labor laws, etc.In other words, the purpose of the Christian life is not just to get to heaven, but to do God’s will on this earth, trusting that heaven will be there at the end.More on this later when we talk about the purposes of ministry and mission.
Day 5:Seeing Life from God’s View
Warren is challenging us to see life in general and our lives in particular from God’s view.This is a very good exercise for all Christians.He then suggests that our lives are both a test and a trust.Solid Christian understandings here.We Wesleyans would merely suggest that these understandings are more valid and more profound with an understanding of free will and prevenient grace than with an understanding of determinism.Warren even cites instances in the Bible, including Adam and Eve, who failed tests at times.Talking about failed tests is problematic when the understanding of life is based in determinism.Even with the nuances of hard and soft determinism, and the confusion between “foreknowledge” versus “immutability,” tests and trusts make much more sense in Wesleyan terms than in Calvinist terms.
Day 6:Life is a Temporary Assignment
Warren is suggesting that we take the long view when we make our decisions and claim our values.Again, a wonderful Christian truth.But Warren’s understanding as phrased in the “Point to Ponder” – “This world is not my home,” is a little to simplistic and “other worldly” for a Wesleyan, perhaps too “pie-in-the-sky.”It tends to lead to quietism in this life, something that Wesley flatly rejected, as evidenced by his ultimate rejection of the Moravians.Heaven is a wonderful reward, a wonderful hope, a wonderful anticipation.But it does not diminish the call to transform this world through grace and love.Wesleyans can never be quietists. I do not believe that Warren is a quietist, he wants the long view to affect changes in attitude and action here on earth.Still, his discussion tends toward quietism compared to the Wesleyan understanding of personal and social holiness.
Day 7:The Reason for Everything
This is a terrific summation of the first section of the book.Warren has such a wonderful ability to clearly delineate the joys and responsibilities of the Christian life.This is the climax of the question, “What on earth am I here for?” by providing the ultimate answer – We are here to glorify God.
My only question would be concerning Warren’s statement on p. 56 that we are to love “other believers.”Certainly this is true, and the Biblical passages support this.But there are curious omissions – Doesn’t Jesus tell us to love our neighbors (“neighbor” is defined with reference to the hated Samaritans) and to love our enemies?Wesleyans would not limit our love only to believers.While Warren is not suggesting that we hate non-believers, the distinction is indicative that Warren’s primary concern is for salvation, with other believers, while a Wesleyan understanding would again be more focused on transformation of this world, which includes love of neighbors in the Samaritan model, and love of enemies, prior to the reality of salvation.
Purpose # 1:You were Planned for God’s Pleasure.Bringing Pleasure to God is called Worship.
This is an absolutely marvelous discussion of the primary purpose of the Christian faith – worship.Few writers have ever been so direct and thorough about this primary purpose.As I read it, day by day, it brought countless smiles to my face as someone finally articulated these matters so directly and compellingly.We should all applaud Warren’s terrific and truthful work.It is this Purpose and discussion more than any other which has led me to support Warren’s work in total.
My only statement sounds like a broken record – the worship of God takes on more glory, more importance, more grandeur, more efficacy, more value, when we understand that human beings are doing it in free will in response to grace rather than in programmed determinism.Free human beings worship better than do planned puppets.And my guess is that God appreciates the worship more when human beings choose to do it in response to God’s love than when they do it as a required part of the determined program.Warren seems to understand this, and the flavor of his writing under this Purpose is the flavor of free will rather than determinism.But it doesn’t jive with his earlier determinism.
Purpose # 2 – You were Formed for God’s Family – Experiencing life together in God’s family is called Fellowship.
Warren launches into a discussion about the fellowship of God’s family.Fellowship is a universal Christian understanding, and John Wesley understood it as well as anyone in history with his use of classes and cells in the Methodist movement in England.Wesley was a forerunner of the current understanding of “smallgroup ministries!”
We Wesleyans would have one major disagreement with Warren’s discussion, and that relates to baptism.A clear doctrine of Baptists, regardless of the strand of Baptist history and theology, is that baptism must be “believer’s” baptism after a born-again experience.Believer’s baptism focuses on the choice of the individual to belong to God and place their faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.Ironically, this understanding of choice is Arminian to its core and is at odds with the kind of Calvinism that is the primary origin of the Baptist movement.It is more in line with the Anabaptist roots of the Baptist movement.
Wesleyans do not require a “born again” experience to be baptized or to be considered “saved.”Instead, Methodists talk of taking children and “nurturing them in the faith.”When children are properly nurtured, often times they cannot point to a born-again experience.And yet they are just as Christian as those who can point to a born-again experience.