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Book Review - Rick Warren's The Purpose Driven Life

Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life is a runaway bestseller, having already sold over ten million copies, making it one of the best-selling Christian books of all time. Thousands of churches have committed to leading their congregations through the Forty Days of Purpose program. I decided to spend forty days journaling my way through this book to try to determine what they hype is all about.

The Purpose Driven Life proclaims itself to be “more than a book; it is a guide to a 40-day spiritual journey that will enable you to discover the answer to life’s most important question: What on earth am I here for?” We see that the author is setting his sights high; he is going to attempt to answer the greatest question we can face – that of our meaning and purpose. He promises that at the end of the journey “you will know God’s purpose for your life and will understand the big picture – how all the pieces of your life fit together.” The results of this will be amazing. “Having this perspective will reduce your stress, simplify your decisions, increase your satisfaction, and, most important, prepare you for eternity.” It is a courageous man who would write a book that claims it will do all of that. Of course these lofty standards help us realize why this book has attracted such great attention!

The format of the book is simple. The book is divided into six parts: an introduction followed by a section for each of the five purposes Rick Warren has discovered. Each day’s reading is only a few pages long and is followed by a verse of the Bible to memorize, a point to ponder and a question to consider. The book is packed with over 1200 quotations from the Bible.

There are many positive aspects to this book. The author obviously loves the church and views the local church as a beautiful institution. He speaks of the value and necessity of Christian community that can only be gained through the local church. He is firm on this point, stating that there is no such thing as a lone Christian. He has many good things to say about worship and how so many people view worship as being about themselves rather than being an outpouring of praise and obedience towards God. He speaks of the value of identifying and utilizing our spiritual gifts.

I believe Rick Warren is a godly man who truly wants to reach the world for Christ. In interviews I have read I can see that he certainly has an understanding of the Reformed tradition and has affirmed his belief in the “five solas” of the Reformation. When with Reformed people he certainly can talk the talk, so to speak. Though I do not doubt his faith or his intentions, I find that the book itself deviates from Reformed doctrine on many points.

There are literally hundreds of reviews of this book that focus on the positive attributes of the book. Many of them are written very well and there is little I can add to them. For that reason I am going to focus on some of the concerns I have with this book.

Problems in the Introduction

As I pointed out, this book makes great promises. Though there is nothing wrong with setting high standards, what is the measure of these standards? It seems that all of these standards are based on experience. There is nothing here about having a closer walk with God. As a matter of fact, there is little promised that would not be found in a secular book about finding purpose. Experience will be the ultimate measure of whether this book has succeeded. It does not promise to change the heart or mind.

One of the primary goals of the Christian life is to learn more about God and how He wants us to live. We are then to become more and more conformed to His will. This book has little to say about this process we know as sanctification.

The book is based on a false premise that there is supernatural value to a 40-day study. The author says that “whenever God wanted to prepare someone for his purposes he took 40 days.” This is simply not true. Though the 40 day time period is used quite often in Scripture, we should not be superstitious about it. There are many examples of God taking different amounts of time to prepare people. Having to force the book to a length of forty days leads to a lot of repetition, especially in the last four or five chapters.

Thesis

Page 25 seems to summarize the thesis of the book. It says “We discover that meaning and purpose only when we make God the reference point of our lives.” This seems to say that if the reader finds God he will also find himself and his purpose. This is not the gospel!

Multiple translations

Rick Warren quotes the Bible over 1,200 times in the text of The Purpose Driven Life. To do so, he uses fifteen different translations and paraphrases. Appendix 3 contains his rationale for this and he provides two reasons for the number of translations. The first is that in any single translation “nuances and shades of meaning can be missed, so it is always helpful to compare translations.” The second is “the fact that we often miss the full impact of familiar Bible verses, not because of poor translating, but simply because they have become so familiar.” (author’s emphases) He believes this will “help you see God’s truth in new, fresh ways.” (author’s emphasis)

The author’s logic is faulty as the two reasons he provides contradict each other. If a translation introduces something in a new and fresh way it will necessarily introduce new nuances and shades of meaning. The way to remove nuances and shades of meaning is to use as literal a translation as possible so that the words are God’s alone and are not interpreted by the translator. The author can then exposit the text, clarifying what might require clarification. This is nothing more than the traditional means of teaching what the Bible says.

As for verses losing their full impact, this may happen to some Christians, but rather than use poor Scripture translations, the author should help the reader focus on the fact that as a Christian he should love the Bible. As with David, God’s Law is to be our delight day and night and not something we grow tired of.

There is a serious impact to Warren’s use of so many translations. It shows his view of the inspiration and sufficiency of Scripture. It seems that he does not believe that the Bible as God wrote it is sufficient for people today. He must believe that a very loose paraphrase like The Message can impact people in a way that the real translations cannot. He shows that he is not a faithful expositor of the Bible.

Audience

The author aims this book at two distinct audiences – believers and unbelievers. He shows that he is, initially at least, writing for unbelievers by inviting them to pray a short prayer, asking them to say “Jesus, I believe in you and I receive you.” He then welcomes them to the family of God. I fear, though, that he uses too many Christian terms and phrases to really connect with unbelievers. Similarly, if he is hoping to reach new Christians, I think the same holds true – the “Christianese” terms and many of the Biblical references may alienate them. On the other hand, if he is hoping to reach mature Christians, much of the book will be too simplistic for them.

We know from the Bible that there is a vast difference between believers and unbelievers. Those who have come to a saving knowledge of Christ have had their very natures changed. They have become adopted children of God and have become heirs to His promises. They have special privileges and they have knowledge and faith that unbelievers do not. This is not to say that a book can or should not be written that attempts to reach both audiences. What it does mean is that an author must be sure to distinguish between audiences, being careful not to mislead either audience.

Warren often fails to differentiate between audiences. For example, in the second chapter he quotes Ephesians 1:4 which reads “just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him.” The context of this verse shows that the author is referring to only Christians, yet Warren makes no distinction.

The Gospel

The author does not at any time provide a clear explanation of the gospel message. On page 58 he says, “Real life begins by committing yourself completely to Jesus Christ” but never comes closer than that. He never writes about such crucial doctrines as man’s sinfulness and need for a Savior or the work of Jesus. He never mentions the importance Christ’s life, the cross or the empty tomb. Yet on page 58 we find him leading the prayer of “Jesus, I believe in you and I receive you” and then saying “Welcome to the family of God!” How can a person become a Christian without any understanding of his own sinfulness or of Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf?

The author paints God’s relationship with humans as being nothing but love. On page 294 he says “God has never made a person he didn’t love.” Yet we know that God expressed hatred towards Esau and Pharaoh. It seems that the author would have no explanation for such displays of hatred.

Warren’s gospel seems to be one of purpose. He teaches that man’s greatest problem is purposelessness and this book will remedy that situation by helping the reader discover his purpose. Needless to say, this is not the gospel as taught by the Bible. The Bible teaches that man’s greatest problem is that he is a sinner and is alienated from God. Purposelessness is insignificant compared to the possibility of an eternity in hell.

Life Application

The aim studying the Bible is application. We are to study the Bible so we can apply what we learn to our lives, with the ultimate aim of conforming ourselves to the image of Christ. Application, though, depends on proper teaching and sound knowledge. It stands to reason that a person cannot apply to his life something he does not understand. Teaching stands as the foundation that application is built upon.

Since Warren does not explain the gospel and the real means of salvation, how can people truly apply what he teaches? If everything is application, what do they really believe in?

Purpose

The Purpose Driven Life is premised on the teaching that only Christians can live with purpose. It follows, then, that unbelievers have no real purpose to their lives. Yet the Bible teaches that they do! Proverbs 16:4 says “The Lord has made everything for its own purpose, even the wicked for the day of evil.” Unbelievers do have a purpose, though it is not the same as the purpose God has for those who believe in Him. Interestingly, in chapter seven the author quotes this passage but omits the second half of the verse.

Bible Use

We have already seen how the author has used multiple translations as well as his justification for doing so. Of even greater concern is his carelessness in his use of the Bible. He continually removes Scripture passages from their proper context in order to make them suit his purposes. He carelessly applies promises to the reader that clearly do not apply. He also distorts or changes the meanings of certain passages to make them say what he wants them to say.

First we will examine promises Warren says apply to all Christians. One clear example of this is Jeremiah 29:11 which he uses multiple times in the book. On page 31 we read “Wonderful changes are going to happen in your life as you begin to live it on purpose. God says “I know what I am planning for you…’I have good plans for you, not plans to hurt you. I will give you hope and a good future’.” When read in context we see that this verse is not written to apply to all Christians. It is a promise given specifically to the Israelite exiles. By Warren’s logic Jeremiah 44:27 should also apply to all Christians. It reads, “I am watching over them for harm and not for good, and all the men of Judah who are in the land of Egypt will meet their end by the word and by famine until they are completely gone.” A pastor once told me “that verse wouldn’t sell as many plaques at the Christian book stores.”

A second example is Isaiah 44:2. This is used in the heading of the second chapter and is rendered “I am your Creator. You were in my care even before you were born.” The author chooses to quote only the first part of the verse. The second part, we see, goes directly against what he wants to say. It reads “Do not fear, O Jacob My servant; And you Jeshurun whom I have chosen.” When viewed in the proper context we see that this verse applies only to a specific group (which is, once again, the Israelites).

There are some passages where Warren uses the Bible extremely carelessly. The clearest example of this is in chapter 10 where he discusses the blessing of surrendering to God. As support he quotes Job 22:21 as saying “Stop quarreling with God. If you agree with him, you will have peace at last, and things will go well for you.” When we look at the larger context of this passage we see that these are the words of Eliphaz, one of Job’s infamous friends. We see that Eliphaz is giving Job poor advice which God later condemns. Warren knows better than this!

Thomas Jefferson once said “The moment a person forms a theory his imagination sees in every object only the traits which favor that theory.” The author seems to fall into a trap where he sees teachings about purpose in parts of the Bible that simply are not about purpose. For example, on page 30 he talks about the hopelessness of a life lived without purpose. In discussing this under the heading of “the benefits of purpose-driven living” he quotes the book of Job where Job says “My life drags by – day after hopeless day.” Of course familiarity with the book of Job will show that to say Job was bemoaning lack of purpose is ridiculous. A man who has had everything he owned and everyone he loved taken from him and is covered in sores is not likely to be upset by a lack of purpose in his life. In the same chapter the author quotes Genesis 4:12 which says of Cain “You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.” Again, this is made to sound like it has something to do with purpose. And again, this is a ridiculous assertion.

There are at least fifty similar examples where the author uses Scripture outside of its context or assigns a foreign meaning. When Scripture is not used in the way God intends, this sort of inconsistency is inevitable.

Sources cited

The author quotes a number of sources other than the Bible. Many of these are quoted as if they are authorities on an area of the Christian life. Among many others, he quotes Mother Teresa, St John of the Cross, Brother Lawrence and Henri Nouwen. None of these people should be considered trusted sources of Christian advice and wisdom.

Conclusions

There are several conclusions we can draw. This book does contain some valuable teachings. Unfortunately it also contains a large amount of false teachings. Most alarming is the author’s blatant disregard for the proper use of Scripture. He continually uses Bible passages out of context and assigns them false meanings. He seems to view Scripture as a tool to be used and abused as he sees fit rather than seeing it as God’s holy, perfect, unchangeable standard that must be used carefully.

As for the premise of living a life driven by purpose, I remain uncertain as to whether this is really what the Bible teaches. It is interesting to examine the word “driven” in the Bible. We see that the word generally has negative connotations in Scripture. It most often denotes an active force pushing and controlling a passive subject. For example, a ship is driven by the wind and the enemies of the Israelites were driven out of the land. On the other hand the word “led” most often speaks of a believer choosing to follow God’s ways through knowing Him better. For instance the Israelites were led by a pillar of cloud which they chose to follow and Jesus taught us to ask “do not lead us into temptation.” So perhaps we are not to be driven by purpose but should instead be led by God.

I can recommend this book only to discerning readers. There is certainly some value in the book, but in my opinion the bad outweighs the good. I would certainly not use this as an introduction to Christianity or as a means of reaching unbelievers.

I am interested in seeing whether this book stands the test of time or if it is only another fad. The Christian world loves to find the “next big thing” (ie The Prayer of Jabez) but very few stand the test of time. I expect this book will have very little long-term impact in the Christian world.


The Purpose Driven Life
by
Rick Warren