The Purpose Driven Life – Guidance or Misguided?
Reasons Not to Join the 'Purpose Driven Life' Movement

Marshall C. St. John

The Purpose Driven LifeŽ is the best-selling book by Dr. Rick Warren, founder and pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California, where 20,000 people attend services each weekend. Dr. Warren is a driven Christian pastor who has dedicated himself to reaching the lost with all the talents and gifts God has given to him.

The PDL book is the text for Warren's "40 Days of Purpose" campaign. Over 15,000 churches have participated in 40DP programs, and another 15,000 churches are scheduled to participate by the Fall of 2004. Warren has sold nearly 20 million copies of his "Purpose Driven Life" book, and he is recognized by many as the most influential pastor in America today.

Dr. Warren is extremely gifted. He is a marketing genius, an author and a persuasive public speaker. He has built a publishing empire, a large congregation, and led many to make professions of faith in Jesus. His PDL book is a compendium of good advice about how to lead the Christian life. All the same, I would suggest that PCA churches in particular would do well to stay out of 40-DP campaigns, and PDL study groups for the following five reasons:

1. The PDL book is permeated with an Arminian approach to theology. In the PCA we believe in the doctrines of grace. We believe in Calvinism. We believe in election and predestination. We believe in irresistible grace. We believe in the sovereignty of God over salvation. These doctrines are contradicted by the PDL book.

2. There is an emphasis on human works making God happy that seems strange to me. Chapter 9 is called "What Makes God Smile?" Warren says that "the smile of God is the goal of your life." I thought the smile of God was already shining brightly on me, not for anything I do, but because of what Jesus did for me on the cross. Warren says that God chose Noah because Noah made God smile ("this guy brings Me pleasure"). I thought God chose Noah out of His unmerited grace. Did Noah earn his place on the ark? Warren says we can make God smile by "loving him supremely...trusting him completely...obeying him wholeheartedly...praising and thanking him continually...using our abilities..." It is true that Christians should try to please God in their daily lives. However, there is a disturbing flavor of legalism in this chapter.

3. The PDL book plays fast and loose with Scripture by relying heavily on paraphrases instead of translations. If a particular paraphrase supports what Warren wants to say, he uses it, in spite of what the scriptural text actually says. For example, the PDL book "dedication" (on page five) includes a quotation of Ephesians 1:11 from a paraphrase called The Message:

"It's in Christ that we find out who we are and what we are living for. Long before we first heard of Christ ... he had his eye on us, had designs on us for glorious living, part of the overall purpose he is working out in everything and everyone."

Contrast the NIV translation of Ephesians 1:11:

"In Him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will."

What happened to being "chosen?" The Bible doesn't say we "find out who we are and what we are living for." What happened to "having been predestined?"

Misguided quotations from loose paraphrases are an integral feature of the PDL book. PDL study groups are thereby unconsciously taught to treat the Bible with less reverence and integrity than should be afforded the verbally inspired Word of God.

4. The underlying premise of the book is false. Warren writes on pages nine and ten: "Whenever God wanted to prepare someone for his purposes, he took 40 days: Noah's life was transformed by 40 days of rain. Moses was transformed by 40 days on Mount Sinai...David was transformed by Goliath's 40-day challenge...The disciples were transformed by 40 days with Jesus after his resurrection...The next 40 days will transform your life."

It is silly to say that Noah's life was transformed by 40 days of rain. Noah spent over 100 years building the ark, and was a believer and follower of God long before that time. Moses became God's man long before his 40 days on Mount Sinai. David was formed more by his years as a shepherd boy, trusting in God to deliver his flock from bears and lions, than he was by anything Goliath did for 40 days. The disciples were transformed by three years with Christ and by the descent of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.

5. Perhaps more troubling than any of the details of the PDL book (which does have much good advice for Christian living) is Warren's ultimate agenda. It is his stated purpose to transform the American church world. (Please note: I am not questioning the genuineness of Warren's Christian faith, nor his good intentions. But I strongly question the wisdom of PCA churches in particular accepting Warren's leadership. I don't think his guidance is appropriate for the PCA.)

The 40DP nationwide campaign is not just another of our annual evangelical fads (WWJD bracelets, the Prayer of Jabez, the Passion movie, etc.) Warren has carefully created a movement to bring about a "new Reformation" featuring the "Church Growth Movement" paradigm for local churches.

According to the CGM paradigm, churches exchange Sunday morning worship for "seeker sensitive" services that appeal to non-Christians. Hymn books are eliminated in favor of contemporary music with words on jumbotron screens. Rock bands replace choirs. Bibles are not necessary because all the Scripture quotations (often from paraphrases) are shown on the screens. Sermons are transformed into monologues, or dramas, that appeal to the felt-needs of non-Christians. Expository Bible teaching is discouraged. The local church becomes a service center for the felt-needs of the community.

As you might expect, new paradigm pastors run into resistance in their churches. It's not easy being a change-agent. Pastors who have joined the movement need help, and Warren is providing help in the form of "Transitioning Conferences." These conferences are held nationwide in Purpose DrivenŽ showcase churches. Pastors are trained to transition their churches to fit the Purpose DrivenŽ model. Examples of "blurbs" of seminar descriptions read: "Learn constructive methods to deal with opposition;" and "The most pivotal moment in many transitions is when the pastor realizes when peace (war) must be waged."

You can appreciate the success and impact of Warren's movement by reading the following newspaper excerpts:

Rick Warren "chaplains" regularly with power brokers from Hollywood to Wall Street to Capitol Hill. He has devoted decades to teaching 300,000 pastors his principles for revival and renewal. Now that "all the gatekeepers know me," Warren has launched Life (the PDL book), his first mass-market book. "I've been the stealth evangelist," Warren says...Warren's pastor-training programs welcome Catholics, Methodists, Mormons, Jews and ordained women. "I'm not going to get into a debate over the non-essentials..."I've got a target," he says. "It's called the globe..." ("USA Today," July 21, 2003).

The pastor's job is to "discern where (and how) God's Spirit is moving in our culture and time, prepare your congregation for that movement, and cooperate with it... I call it "surfing spiritual waves" in The Purpose DrivenŽ Church...You don't criticize a wave; you just ride it as best you can" (Rick Warren, writing in "Leadership Journal," March 15, 2004).

In a 30 minute talk to about 70 Tallahassee-area pastors, Warren (said): “I believe we are almost at the tipping point right now in our culture. … I think we could probably hit that tipping point by the end of the year.” Noting that it takes only five percent of the people to change a culture, Warren told the pastors that 15,000 American churches in the last two years have participated in “40 Days of Purpose” emphases based on the book, with another 15,000 scheduled to launch the emphasis in the coming fall. Those 30,000 churches represent 10 percent of the churches in the United States...Warren told the pastors that his church is now focused on taking the next step in the Purpose DrivenŽ movement – a campaign this fall called, “40 Days of Community.” In 2005, Saddleback will launch its globally focused P.E.A.C.E. initiative...Warren said, “I intend to use the Purpose Driven movement to fulfill PEACE in a new reformation.” While the first Reformation of 500 years ago was a reformation of belief, this one will be a reformation of behavior...” ("Florida Baptist Witness," June 3, 2004).

The greatest danger of the PDL book, as far as the PCA is concerned, is not its obvious Arminianism, nor its openly Baptist slant, nor even its loose handling of the Bible. It is dangerous because it is an instrument carefully designed to insinuate itself into our churches, "under the radar screen," to use Warren's own phrase. It is the camel's nose in the tent. It is the tip of the unseen iceberg. It is a Trojan horse. It is the sugar that sweetens the medicine. It is the first step on a slippery slope leading to implementing Warren's other book: The Purpose DrivenŽ Church, which promotes the new church paradigm, which is inimical to Reformed Christianity.

The spiritual tide in America is flowing away from doctrine toward an undefined broad spirituality. 40DP is the strong wave of this tide in this decade. Is the PCA a firm rock that remains unmoved in the rising tide, or are we a little pebble that is being pushed and rolled along by the water? Are we maintaining and strengthening our distinctives, or are we gradually becoming just another broadly evangelical church? In a few more years, will the PCA still have a reason to exist? It is my conviction that if the PCA is to survive as Presbyterian and Reformed, she must resist the flow. We must paddle our canoes upstream. We must eschew the pressure to jump on the rapidly growing PDL bandwagon (which is really just one aspect of the spirit of our age.) Instead of joining a 40DP campaign in your city, why not start an in depth study of the Larger Catechism?

Dr. Marshall C. St. John
Wayside Presbyterian Church
Signal Mountain, TN