Unleashing God's Truth, One Verse at a Time

This week we’re putting into practice some of the principles we covered in the Being a Berean series by comparing The Purpose-Driven Life and Slave, two books that speak to key facets in the Christian life. We’ve already looked at what each has to say about the issue of identity; today we’re considering what each teaches about salvation.

“Real life begins by committing yourself to Jesus Christ. If you are not sure you have done this, all you need to do is receive and believe.” [1] Rick Warren, The Purpose-Driven Life, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002) 58.

So begins Rick Warren’s altar call to his readers in The Purpose-Driven Life. The book is broken up into forty daily readings, and the above exhortation comes near the end of Day 7. Prior to that, he periodically touches on the question of the reader’s eternal destiny.

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. [2] The Purpose-Driven Life, 37.

Warren is right that heaven and hell are the only eternal options that await his readers. But the language and imagery he uses blur both the weight of those eternal destinations as well as the means of getting there. What does it mean to “love and trust God’s Son”? There’s not a clear indication in the context, and most of the rest of the book boils down the life of faith to the vague notion of “friendship with Jesus.” The result is that uninformed readers mistake the transforming work of salvation and sanctification as little more than a casual act of personal volition.

Warren’s description of God’s judgment is another instance where his lack of theological depth and precision leads the reader to a shallow understanding of important truth.

One day you will stand before God, and he will do an audit of your life, a final exam before you enter eternity. . . . Fortunately, God wants us to pass this test, so he has given us the questions in advance. From the Bible we can surmise that God will ask us two crucial questions:

First, “What did you do with my Son, Jesus Christ?” God won’t ask about your religious background or doctrinal views. The only thing that will matter is, did you accept what Jesus did for you and did you learn to love and trust him? [3] The Purpose-Driven Life, 34.

That makes for a nice mental picture, but it’s a woeful oversimplification of judgment, justification, and regeneration. On top of that, Warren artfully sidesteps the issues of sin and human depravity, leaving the reader with a man-centered invitation that blatantly undercuts the importance of doctrinal clarity and purity.

And what of his call to “receive and believe”? It suffers from the same kind of man-centered oversimplification.

First, believe. Believe God loves you and made you for His purposes. Believe you’re not an accident. Believe you were made to last forever. 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.

Second, receive. 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. The Bible says, “Whoever accepts and trusts the Son gets in on everything, life complete and forever!” [John 3:36, quoted from The Message] 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. [4] The Purpose-Driven Life, 58-59.

Again, there’s nothing overtly heretical or unbiblical about what Warren has written. Most Christians could casually read that and have no objections to anything Warren has said. The problem is what he leaves unsaid. With a little more careful observation, we discover several fundamental details and vital gospel truths have been completely omitted.

For example, he rightly says that each of us needs to receive forgiveness for our sins. But there’s no further clarification—instead, he jumps to what the Spirit can do for you. There’s no explanation of God’s law or how man is incapable of fulfilling it in his depravity. There’s no discussion of Christ’s righteousness and how He atones for our sin through His substitutionary death. And there’s no indication of what true, saving faith actually looks like—nothing about its nature or its fruit in the life of the believer. And don’t miss the most glaring omission of all: nothing about the necessity of repentance. Warren just casually boils everything down to receiving and believing.

By sidestepping and excluding so many vital doctrines, Warren leaves his readers with a “gospel presentation” that’s far more likely to affirm their current lifestyles than break their hearts over their sin and expose their true need for a Savior.

In his book Slave, John MacArthur warns against that very kind of theological naiveté and oversimplification, and the way it distorts the true gospel of Christ.

True Christianity is not about adding Jesus to my life. Instead, it is about devoting myself completely to Him—submitting wholly to His will and seeking to please Him above all else. It demands dying to self and following the Master, no matter what the cost. In other words, to be a Christian is to be Christ’s slave. [5] John MacArthur, Slave, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010) 22.

“Dying to self” is a notion wholly foreign to Warren’s gospel. There’s no hint of God’s transforming work in the simplicity of “receive and believe.” In fact, Warren treats faith as little more than an accessory or condiment you add to your life to accentuate, heighten, and fulfill.

That’s a sharp contrast to the radical transformation and reorientation John MacArthur describes. Rather than glossing over the aspects of gospel truth that don’t appeal to carnal minds, John emphasizes submission to Christ as the definitive characteristic of true faith.

Submission to the Lordship of Christ—a heart attitude that works itself out in obedience to Him—is the defining mark of those who are genuinely converted. First John 2:3 is explicit in this regard: “By this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments.” [6] Slave, 46-47.

In fact, he makes it clear that any gospel that skirts the lordship of Christ is no gospel at all.

Amazingly, in spite of the clear teaching of Scripture and the faithful witness of Protestant church history, most of the trends in contemporary evangelicalism actually attack the lordship of Christ over His church. Some of these attacks are blatant and theological, like the no-lordship position of the so-called Free Grace Movement. . . . The Free Grace view twists the gospel message, claiming that neither repentance from sin nor submission to Christ has any part in saving faith. By promoting a form of “easy believism,” Free Grace advocates openly deny the sinner’s need to repent of sin and to confess Jesus as Lord and Master in the biblical sense of total submission. In so doing, they teach a different gospel altogether, which is “really not another” but an obvious attempt “to distort the gospel of Christ” (Galatians 1:7). [7] Slave, 73-74

As believers, we’re not meant to merely fluff the soft pillow of God’s grace and invite sinners to find comfort and fulfillment in His open arms. We’ve not been set apart to soft-pedal the harsh and uncomfortable truths of the gospel, or lull people into casually accepting Christ as their Savior.

We’re called to wage war against satanic fortresses (2 Corinthians 10:4). And in that battle, the gospel of easy-believism is an utterly ineffective weapon. 

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