The Purpose Driven Life
This review originally appeared in the January 2005 9Marks newsletter. We are grateful for their permission to republish it here
Books on living the Christian life are a dime a dozen. The shelves of Christian bookstores bow under the weight of myriad titles promising freedom from bondage, secrets of debt free living, keys to loving other people, and a whole host of other practical matters. But the one that has weighed in most heavily of late is Rick Warren's recent release The Purpose Driven Life (
II) Summary of the Book
The Purpose Driven Life is designed as a forty day spiritual journey - one chapter a day - with the goal of answering the question "What on earth am I here for?" (p15). The question is broad enough to address both believer and unbeliever alike, which may in part explain the width of its appeal.
- "Love God with all your Heart": You were planned for God's pleasure, so your purpose is to love God through worship.
- "Love your neighbor as yourself": You were shaped for serving, so your purpose is to show love for others through ministry.
- "Go and make disciples": You were made for a mission, so your purpose is to share God's message through evangelism.
- "Baptize them into...": You were formed for God's family, so your purpose is to identify with his church through fellowship.
- "Teach them to do all things...": You were created to become like Christ, so your purpose is to grow to maturity through discipleship (all emphases his).
Worship is not about what pleases us, but about what makes God smile. God smiles when we love, trust, obey, and praise Him, and when we use our abilities for His glory (pp70-76). "The heart of worship is surrender.... Offering yourself to God is what worship is all about" (p78, citing Rom 12:1-2). Since "God wants to be your best friend",
Fellowship is symbolized by baptism, and designed to teach us how to love (pp117-129). Since the life of a body is contained in the cells, "every Christian needs to be involved in a small group within their church....This is where real community takes place, not in the big gatherings" (p139). Real fellowship is characterized by authenticity, mutuality, sympathy, and mercy (p143). But cultivating this kind of community takes honesty, humility, courtesy, confidentiality, and frequency (pp145-151). It also takes an ability to restore broken relationships and protect the unity of the church (pp152-167).
Discipleship is about "taking on [God's] values, attitudes, and character" (p172). We grow by making good decisions (p174), by allowing God to transform the way we think through His Spirit and our repentance (p182), by abiding in God's word (pp185-192), and by persevering through trouble and temptation (pp192-223).
Ministry is our service to believers (see p281). It is not an optional extra of the Christian life (p233), and it is in large part what gives our lives meaning and significance (pp228, 232). We begin to understand how God means for us to serve when we understand our SHAPE: our Spiritual gifts, Heart, Abilities, Personality, and Experience (p236-256). Yet mature Christian servant-hood realizes that God often calls us to secondary ministries based on "wherever [we're] needed at the moment" rather than on our SHAPE (p257-270).
Evangelism is our service to unbelievers (p281). Fulfilling the evangelistic mandate God has given you will require abandoning your life agenda for God's (p286). But failing to do so will mean wasting your life (p285). Personal evangelism, then, is to be accomplished by sharing your life message, which includes your testimony, your life lessons, your godly passions, and the good news (pp289-295); and it should be accompanied by an increasingly global concern for the unsaved, which is ideally caught by going on a short term missions trip (p304).
Balancing these five purposes is the key to persevering and succeeding in the Christian life. "Blessed are the balanced; they shall outlast everyone" (p305). To achieve that balance, we need to discuss these ideas with others, record our life lessons through the discipline of journaling, and write out a specific life purpose statement that includes each of these five biblical purposes (pp305-319).
III) Helpful Insights
But there are some points of vulnerability, a few of which could prove dangerous to the reader or damaging to
A. Interpretive Difficulties
To start at the beginning, we need to read
David dedicated his life to fulfilling God's purposes on earth. There is no greater epitaph than that statement! Imagine it chiseled on your tombstone: That you served God's purpose in your generation. My prayer is that people will be able to say that about me when I die. It is also my prayer that people will say it about you, too. That is why I wrote this book for you. This phrase is the ultimate definition of a life well lived. You do the eternal and timeless (God's purpose) in a contemporary way (in your generation). That is what the purpose driven life is all about" (p318).
True, David served God's purpose in his generation. But the point of the passage is not "David was good, so be like him." The point is Christ's supremacy over David as shown by His resurrection, which proved that Jesus is the Messiah - the true and eternal King of Israel. The application, then, is not that we should emulate David; it's that we should exalt Christ. The motivating verse is misinterpreted as a moralism.
B. Evangelistic Difficulties
1. The audience is ambiguous.
The most significant difficulty has to do with the ambiguity of
2. The Gospel is presented unclearly.
The Gospel presentation on pp58-59 serves as the fulcrum of the book, where
Believing is expounded in the following terms: "Believe God has chosen you to have a relationship with Jesus, who died on the cross for you. Believe that no matter what you've done, God wants to forgive you" (p58). Yet no clear connection is made between Christ's death and the reader's forgiveness. Indeed, there has been no explanation of why the unbeliever would even need forgiveness. Granted,
Receiving Christ is expounded like this: "Receive Jesus into your 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 [quoting John 3:36 MSG]" (p58). Here sin and forgiveness are verbally mentioned, which is great; but there still has been no clear explanation of who Jesus is, nor of why our unrepentant sin offends God and makes relationship with him impossible (i.e., because of His holiness), nor of the righteous anger that our unrepentant sin elicits from Him, nor of death as the outworking of that anger and as the penalty for our sin, nor of the relationship of Christ's death to the forgiveness of another person's sins and their reconciliation to God.
With the Gospel left vague and no repentance required, the rest of the book is built on the precarious assumption of the reader's conversion. "You are a child of God, and you bring pleasure to God like nothing else he has ever created" (p63).
At this point someone may very well object: "Give the brother a break, will you?! He told them Jesus died for them! What else do you want him to do, sit the non-Christian down in a seminary class before he can be converted?" Maybe our outspoken friend has a point. After all, no one really understands the full implications of deciding to follow Christ the moment they repent and believe. Yet the person and work of Jesus Christ are the very objects in which the unbeliever is to place his faith. Saving faith is not blind. No, in fact it is a kind of faith that has its eyes wide open - opened by the Holy Spirit to the uncompromising holiness and unbending justice of God; to the reality and offensiveness of my sin in God's sight; to God's righteous and terrifying anger at my sin; to the need for an eternal Other to suffer my eternally damning sentence that I might be forever acquitted; and to my need to repent of my sins and trust in Christ's death as God's provision for my forgiveness and reconciliation to Him.
3. Assurance of salvation is encouraged prematurely.
Wherever you are reading this, I invite you to bow your head and quietly whisper the prayer that will change your eternity. 'Jesus, I believe in you and I receive you.' Go ahead. If you sincerely meant that prayer, congratulations! Welcome to the family of God! You are now ready to discover and start living God's purpose for your life" (pp58-59).
The rest of the book, then, assumes that the unbelieving reader prayed the prayer, and that praying the prayer ensures that the reader is now a bona fide Christian.
Even if the Gospel and its required response had been sufficiently explained, the unbeliever is now told that his internal assurance of salvation and the affirmation of his conversion by others are dependent on the mere sincerity of his prayer. "If you sincerely meant that prayer, congratulations! Welcome to the family of God! You are now ready to discover and start living God's purpose for your life" (pp58-59). But we are never told in Scripture that if we pray a prayer once, we should feel assured of our own salvation (this is not what 1John 1:9 teaches). Nor are we ever told that one prayer will "change our eternity." The praying of a prayer is not what we should be encouraging people to rely on for assurance of salvation. We will know others, and ourselves, by our fruits (Matt 7:15-27; 1John 2:3-6; James 2:14-26; 2Peter 1:10-11). Genuine conversion is only discerned by the fruit that true repentance bears over time.
4. The purposes degenerate into moralisms.
If all this is true, then the rest of the book is a mere moralism for the unbelieving reader, even though the purposes are clearly biblical, because the person who prayed
5. Conversion is confused with living on purpose.
Because the Gospel presentation is cloudy, conversion is easily confused with living on purpose. "There are no unspiritual abilities, just misused ones. Start using yours for God's pleasure" (p75). I am sure
Yet someone might still say, "Isn't living on purpose as
Repentance doesn't get any more treatment until page 182, as a part of progressive sanctification. "To be like Christ you must develop the mind of Christ. The New Testament calls this mental shift repentance, which in Greek literally means 'to change your mind.' You repent whenever you change the way you think by adopting how God thinks" (p182). This is certainly a more accurate picture of repentance, though still lacking the specific connection with sin. Yet is repentance only supposed to happen after conversion? No, repentance is part and parcel of conversion, which means that calling unbelievers to it is fundamental to preaching the Gospel of Christ accurately (Mark 1:14-15). The Christian pastor is therefore on dangerous ground to follow
6. Conversion is confused with a deep desire to please God.
"What God looks at is the attitude of your heart - is pleasing him your deepest desire?... Will you make pleasing God the goal of your life? There is nothing that God won't do for the person totally absorbed with this goal" (p76). This sounds great, and I agree that God does not look at mere outward appearances, but that our affections and attitudes matter to Him. But the integrity or sincerity of my desire to please God is not fundamentally what God looks at as saving - otherwise salvation would not be wholly of grace, as
Also, sometimes when God looks at my heart, He sees sin - pride, covetousness, bitterness, anger, lust - the whole nine yards, even though I am a Christian. The elements of my old nature are all still there inside me, even though I am sad and sometimes embarrassed to admit it, and even though God has dealt the decisive blow to my old nature in the death and resurrection of Christ. So, what if pleasing God isn't always my deepest desire? What does God think of me then? What God looks at in my heart cannot be only my desires. If that were the case, it would be impossible for anyone to be saved. But praise God, what He looks at is the righteousness of his own perfect Son, which He credited to my account by grace through faith so that I can be acquitted before the bar of His unbending justice (2Cor 5:21). That is what it means to be converted. Only now can we begin to think about living on purpose in the light of the gospel of God's grace in Christ.
C. Discipling Dangers
1. Only the Gospel has driving power for the individual Christian.
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there without watering the earth and making it bear and sprout, and furnishing seed to the sower and bread to the eater; So will My word be which goes forth from My mouth; it will not return to Me empty, without accomplishing what I desire, and without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it.
This passage from Isaiah is the reason that we cannot resolve the difficulty by simply equating God's purpose with the Gospel: the distinction between the two is clarified here in that God's word is what accomplishes God's purposes. The two are clearly distinct in God's own mind - God sends His word to accomplish His purposes. We see the same active instrumentality of the Gospel in the New Testament (Acts 20:32; Rom 1:16; 1Cor 1:18;
What this means, however, is that the Gospel is what enables our participation in God's purposes. The Christian life is therefore not driven by purpose; it is driven by the Gospel.
2. The primacy of the Gospel is replaced with the primacy of purpose.
The definition of the Purpose Driven Life (p30) also assumes there is nothing more fundamental by which the Christian should be guided than God's purposes as
The Gospel not only enables our participation in God's purposes; it regulates and informs our participation in them as well, determining who we seek unity with, who we are discipled by, who we cooperate with in evangelism, how we go about the task of evangelism, and the way we go about fulfilling both the Great Commandment and the Great Commission. When the primacy of the Gospel is replaced by purpose, the gospel ceases to regulate our participation in those purposes. We risk getting the kind of wrong ecumenism that comes from uniting with other churches around the purpose of evangelism without first making sure that a common, biblical understanding of the Gospel is shared, both among the cooperating churches and with the subjects of our evangelism. We risk getting worship that displeases God because it comes into His presence on the misperception of our merit rather than the recognition of our rebellion. We risk getting fellowship grounded more in common demographics or even goals than in a common understanding and experience of the Gospel's transforming power. We risk getting discipleship that teaches holiness by effort instead of grace. We risk getting love that is too tolerant to offend.
None of this is to insinuate in the least that either
3. Worship is misunderstood as surrender.
4. "Real community" is decentralized from the gathered congregation.
"The body of Christ, like your own body, is really a collection of many small cells. The life of the body of Christ, like your body, is contained in the cells. For this reason, every Christian needs to be involved in a small group within their church.... This is where real community takes place, not in the big gatherings" (p139). Yet ekklesia, the Greek word for church, means "gathering". The church is the community of God, God's program for both evangelism and discipleship. Jesus may have gathered twelve disciples, but we are never commanded anywhere in Scripture to form small groups, nor are we told that "real community" happens anywhere other than the church gathered, the ekklesia. Participation in small groups may be wise and helpful, but the small group structure is not biblically commanded. The ekklesia is where we grow, in part, perhaps, because that is where we learn to love people quite unlike us, people with whom we may share little other than the Gospel. When we break the church into cells or small groups, they are almost always affinity or geographically based. But to encourage the idea that "real" community only happens in groups based on affinity or geography ignores and almost seems to contradict the unifying power of the Gospel among people that share little or nothing in common except saving faith in Christ.
Authenticity, mutuality, sympathy, and mercy are all correctly touted as indispensable ingredients of Christian community. But accountability - confrontation and confession of known sin, along with encouragement to repent and grow - is oddly absent. We're then told that community takes commitment, honesty, humility, courtesy, confidentiality, and frequency (pp145-151); but we are never told that our fellowship is distinctively in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I could find everything from authenticity to frequency in a rotary club if I wanted to. Without the Gospel - without persevering repentance from sin and continuing belief in Jesus' substitutionary, atoning death and resurrection as that which acquits me of my sin before God - there is nothing distinctively Christian about any community - or even those who make it up.
5. Discipleship is reduced to decisions.
"We allow Christ to live through us. 'For this is the secret: Christ lives in you.' How does this happen in real life? Through the choices we make. We choose to do the right thing in situations and then trust God's Spirit to give us his power, love, faith, and wisdom to do it.... God waits for you to act first" (pp174, 175). I agree that good decisions are part of making headway in progressive sanctification. But if God waited for us to act first, He'd be waiting a pretty long time. We need grace even to make the decision, and that grace comes from God acting first in and for us. God never waits for you to act first (Ezek 36:26-27; Rom 5:8-10; Eph 2:1-6; Phil 2:12-13).
6. Ministry is wrongly identified as the path to significance.
"In God's kingdom, you have a place, a purpose, a role, and a function to fulfill. This gives your life great significance and value" (p228). "Service is the pathway to real significance" (p232).
7. Gifts are identified as guarantees of God's desires for us.
"What I'm able to do, God wants me to do... God will never ask you to dedicate your life to a task you have no talent for. On the other hand, the abilities you do have are a strong indication of what God wants you to do with your life" (pp243-244). "Using your shape is the secret of both fruitfulness and fulfillment in ministry... You will be most effective when you use your spiritual gifts and abilities in the area of your heart's desire, and in a way that best expresses your personality and experiences. The better the fit, the more successful you will be (p248). Maybe, but what about Moses and Jeremiah (Ex 3:11; 4:10; Jer 1:6)? Surely they were good at doing other things. But those things weren't what God called them to do. I understand what
8. Evangelism is separated from preaching.
Again, none of this is to disparage the five purposes that
The Gospel alone enables and informs our participation in God's purposes. Only the Gospel, then, should be proclaimed as having driving power for the Christian life, and only the Gospel should enjoy primacy in the Christian life. What we need is a Gospel Driven Life.
 In his words, he wants "to explain God's purposes for our lives in the simplest ways." ("A Purpose Driven Phenomena: An Interview with Rick Warren" [ModRef: Jan/Feb 2004, vol. 13, #1]).
By Rick Warren - Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002
Review by Paul Alexander