The Purpose Driven Life - Part I: A Review

The Purpose-Driven Life (Rick Warren, 2002) has become a phenomenonally popular book in recent times. Heading the blurb is an endorsement by Billy and Franklin Graham: "Read this book!" - and plenty have. Over 20 million copies were sold in less than 3 years - that's more than the The Da Vinci Code. Pastors all over the globe are giving the book their unreserved recommendations. The book is even creating a movement of its own. A quick brouse of, and you may find yourself ordering The Purpose-Driven Life Video Curriculum, or any number of other resources to help you during your 40 Days of Purpose. And its appeal has gone beyond the Christian scene. It rose to become #1 New York Times Bestseller. What are we to make of The Purpose Driven Life?


In Rick Warren's own words, "This is more than a book; it is a guide to a 40-day spiritual journey that will enable you to discover...God's purpose for your life".The promise is to know the answer to life's most important question, "What on earth am I here for?" And knowing this will "reduce your stress, focus your energy, simplify your decisions, give meaning to your life, and most important, prepare you for eternity" (p. 9).

The central emphasis of the book is that the Christian life should be purpose-driven. By purpose Warren means God's purposes for your life, as he has defined them. By driven he means "guided, controlled and directed" (p. 30). In specifics, 'purpose-driven' life is one guided, controlled and directed by worship, fellowship, discipleship, ministry and evangelism (p. 55-57).

The Purpose-Driven Life contains a lot of darn good calls. The clear way that Warren appeals to Christians to devote themselves wholeheartedly to the purpose of glorifying God is very challenging. In this regard the book is spot on. Purpose is the right place to start, and the purpose of glorifying God is the right point to arrive at. However, the book contains at least two significant problems.


The first problem with The Purpose Driven Life is that its central message is not that of Scripture. This becomes clear when people are invited to become Christians at the end of the first section:

"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." (p. 58)
These brief mentions are the first we've heard of Jesus' death. Sin has certainly not been explained adequately and judgement has certainly not been explained. And this is as close as the book takes us. Notice the repetition of the word 'you' in this formula. Notice also that Jesus' death is mentioned in passing only as a way of identifying who he is. Notice the use of the word 'believe' to mean giving assent to a list of facts about us and what God wants for us, rather than placing our trust in God and his mercy. Warren has not brought us to God's revelation of himself in the gospel, instead, he has brought us straight to ourselves and our lives. The purpose-driven gospel is not primarily concerned about God and what he has done for himself. Yet, as we'll see, it is only when we focus on God's goals for his own glory that we can really understand our own lives properly.

As a result, the book leaves us with a gospel that is trying to fix the problem of ignorance. This comes through in the book's essentials list for Christians. The central cry is that the absolute driving force in anyone's life should be the purposes of God for our lives, as it outlines them:

"Nothing matters more than knowing God's purposes for your life, and nothing can compensate for not knowing them...The greatest tragedy is not death, but life without purpose." (p. 30)
Since human ignorance is assumed to be the problem, it is not surprising that knowledge is puported as the solution. That's why, after outlining 'God's five purposes for your life', Warren thinks you're ready to be converted. But our problem is not a lack of purpose, but having the wrong purpose. It's what the Bible calls 'sin': willfully glorifying ourselves rather than God. Since the fall of mankind, the solution for humanity has never been mere information but salvation; people need rescue.


The second problem with The Purpose-Driven Life follows from the first: the central message of Scripture has been omitted. Jesus makes it explicit that the central message of the Bible it is the gospel about himself:

"'Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?' And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, [Jesus] explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself." (Luke 24:25-27)
Once again, the Apostle Paul, wanting to remind the Corinthians of the gospel he preached to them, summarised it this way:

"For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared..." (1 Corinthians 15:3-5)
This shows that the gospel does involve a list - but it's not the five things God wants for your life. Rather it's the past events concerning Christ and what they mean. As well being history, the gospel is God's explanation of history. The gospel is a declaration that Christ's death was for our sins. It necessitates an explanation of sins and of Christ's death as substitution.

According to Rick Warren,

"Jesus modeled a purpose-driven life, and taught others how to live it, too. That was the 'work' that brought glory to God. Today God calls each of us to the same work." (p. 310)
That's what Jesus must be on about if you believe that "life without purpose" is the heart of the problem that Jesus fixed. But the heart of the gospel is not Jesus' 'life modeled to us', but his 'death offered for us'. It's sad that RickWarren can write with confidence, "Welcome to the family of God!" (p. 59), to a worldwide audience who have read nothing of Christ's death for their sins.

There is another aspect to Paul's gospel in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 worth picking up on: Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures...he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures. The gospel involves an explanation that the Scriptures are fulfilled in Jesus' death and resurrection. That is, they happened according to the eternal purpose of God.

Warren's view of the purposes of God is too narrow. For if by God's 'purposes' we mean, as Warren does, God's end-goal for our lives then we need to look behind good things such as worship, fellowship, discipleship, ministry and evangelism. The reality is that God's glory shown in the gospel of salvation is the great overall purpose of God. And this is not different to his purposes for our lives. That is the remarkable thing: God's purposes for us are to be found within his gospel purpose for himself from all eternity.

In part 2 of this article, we will go on to explore how the gospel actually can and should drive, control and dictate our lives, for God's glory.

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