Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life was a phenomenon, selling tens of millions of copies and remaining on the New York Times list of bestsellers not for mere weeks or months, but for years. Tens of thousands of churches and organizations have participated in a “40 Days of Purpose” program, encouraging their members to read the book and implement its teachings. While several books bearing Warren’s name have been released since The Purpose Driven Life (which was published in 2002), none have been much more than condensed versions of The Purpose Driven Life. This year, just in time for the holiday season, comes The Purpose of Christmas, a book that is, if not entirely new, at least predominantly so.
The Purpose of Christmas is a gift book, meant to be purchased by Christians and given away to unbelievers as a Christmas gift. It is an extended tract of sorts, sharing the gospel message through the Christmas story. Warren first looks at the purpose of Christmas and then, through the rest of the book, suggests that Christmas is a time for celebration, a time for salvation, and a time for reconciliation. Much of what he shares is good and contains solid biblical truth. He affirms strongly that salvation is “not a matter of trying, but trusting. It’s not a matter of proving you deserve it, but accepting it by faith, knowing you don’t deserve it.” “All you need to do is accept what he’s already done for you! There’s nothing more to add. It’s grace plus nothing. … Your Christmas gift comes by grace and through faith.” “It’s not what you do, but whom you trust, that gets you into heaven.” These are all good teachings.
There is enough of the gospel in this book that I am convinced a person could read it and be saved by embracing the gospel message it contains. Having said that, however, I would like to offer a few reasons that I think Christians might be best-served by giving their unbelieving friends a different book. I say this because there is enough of a “non-gospel” in this book to confuse or to potentially leave an unbeliever with a false confidence that he has been reconciled to God.
The first issue presents itself in the book’s earliest pages. As he did in The Purpose Drive Life, Warren makes a kind of unfair appeal to providence or destiny. “It is no accident that you are reading this book. God planned your birth, and before you were even born, he knew this moment was coming. In fact, it may be that all your whole life up to this moment has been preparing you to receive God’s Christmas gift to you.” While strictly true, could we then extend that line of reasoning to every other situation in life? “It is no accident that you are beating your child. It is no accident that you are looking at pornography.” This kind of statement gives the reader a false sense of the role of God in ordaining that a person would read Warren’s book.
Warren continually makes rash generalizations about the nature of a person’s relationship with God. He makes no distinction between the love God has for his people and the love he has for those who are not his people. According to this view of love, Rick Warren must love me as much as he loves his wife and children (since he assumes that God loves the unbeliever every bit as much as the believer). Without distinguishing between Christians and non-Christians Warren says, “God is not mad at you. He is mad about you!” He goes so far as to apply promises made to God’s people to a general audience. For example, looking at Ephesians 1:4 he says “Before the world was created, God loved you.” He says that this love is known as choosing or electing, but fails to properly distinguish between those who have been chosen and those who have not. He says “God has a great purpose and a good plan for your life.” But again, he applies such promises even to those who have not turned to Christ.
As he did in The Purpose Driven Life Warren uses and abuses Scripture, seemingly using translations based more on what they say than on whether or not they accurately give the sense of the text. And so (as he did in The Purpose Driven Life) he quotes Eliphaz, one of Job’s infamous friends, as if his advice to Job is godly advice. He uses translations that take this, from an accurate translation—“in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” to this “It makes no difference who you are or where you’re from—if you want God and are ready to do as he says, the door is open.” Such critiques abound and have been well-documented in reviews of his previous works.
Warren presents the benefits of being reconciled to God primarily in terms of personal benefit. “Wrapped up in Jesus are all the benefits and blessings mentioned in this book—and so much more! In Jesus, your past is forgiven, you get a purpose for living, and you get a home in heaven.” But what of Christ? The best gift of all is Christ himself! It is easy enough to interest people in the benefits of a relationship with Christ. Who doesn’t want to go to heaven? But this can be done without ever encouraging an interest in Christ himself.
And as he has done often in the past, Warren turns to some awful illustrations and half-truths to emphasize what he teaches. Here is but one example: “But the baby born in Bethlehem did not stay a baby. Jesus grew to manhood, modeled for us the kind of life that pleases God, taught us the truth, paid for every sin we commit by dying on a cross, then proved he was God and could save us by coming back to life. This is the Good News. When the Romans nailed Jesus to a cross, they stretched his arms as wide as they could. With his arms wide open, Jesus was physically demonstrating, “I love you this much! I love you so much it hurts! I’d rather die than live without you!” The next time you see a picture or statue of Jesus with outstretched arms on the cross, remember, he is saying ‘I love you this much!’” Words fail me.
Ultimately, the book leads to a sinner’s prayer and Warren makes a reader’s potential profession of faith a test of sincerity. He offers a salvation prayer and writes, “When you read that, did you sincerely mean it as a prayer to God? If you did, congratulations! Welcome to the family of God!” But sincerity is an unfair test. A person may pray that prayer sincerely and still be lost and dead in sin. There must be more than sincerity; there must be a living love for Christ and an active trust in him. To welcome a person to the family of Christ, giving him assurance of his faith based only on sincerity, is to potentially promote a dangerously false confidence.
And finally, after all of this, Warren writes about his PEACE plan. As with The Purpose Driven Life we see that Warren always has a larger plan. He seeks to draw people into his programs and this book, as have all his others, serves as a gateway into Purpose and into PEACE.
And so it goes. While I applaud the idea of having a bestselling Christian author produce a book written specifically to present the gospel message and to do so in a book created specially as a Christmas gift, I am sorry that Warren did not present the gospel in its full and pure form. The Purpose of Christmas is, sadly, a wasted opportunity. It could have been so much more.