(Peels back the lid of a big can-o’-worms, and watches more worms fall out and start slithering across the floor, spewing slime …)
Surely it’s time to talk about the much-ballyhooed issue of evangelical megachurch leader and author Rick Warren, being invited by John Piper to speak at the 2010 Desiring God conference.
For Christians who want to speak the truth in love, balancing grace and truth the way Jesus did1, Warren is a tricky case. Yes, he does a lot of the “unity, unity” stuff,2, but he does seem to truly believe the Gospel. There was a lot of talk when Piper said he had checked out Rick Warren, saying he’s sure Warren is a truly deep guy who believes in repentance and faith and adheres to strong Christian orthodoxy.
I’ve no cause to doubt that. But does Warren preach what he practices?
A while ago I read some of Warren’s The Purpose-Driven Life3, and I found very shallow. Christians who were eating it up as “deep” made me sad. (It was like those who said they read The Da Vinci Code and said they didn’t buy all the heresy stuff, but that it was “a great story”!)
But even for “baby” Christians, oughtn’t they hear more along the lines of Warren’s correct and famous “It’s not about you” statement at the front? Instead, the rest of the book ended up being all about you after all: God and the church as a means to your Purpose-Driven™-ness.
Let’s imagine a famous preacher who’s built a church, written books and so on. He actually does get almost everything right about the Gospel: even the repentance-and-faith parts. He doesn’t minimize sin. He dares to mention Hell and manages to do so lovingly.
But — what if he rarely if ever mentions the hope of Heaven, and much less the promised New Earth?
Maybe it’s not intentional. Maybe I as this hypothetical famous preacher simply assume it’s not part of his unique presentation of the message. Maybe he believes people will pick up that part elsewhere. And it’s true that technically, one can be saved without being taught about the hope of Heaven, and the New Earth, and how they fit into Christ’s eternal plan to redeem His saints and His creation as well.
But why keep skipping over that part? It’s important! And especially if he’s all famous and leaderly, people will follow his example and base their preaching and programs on the leaders, likely also ignoring that part of the truth!
That’s similar to the issue with Warren: only with him, it’s not that he doesn’t emphasize Heaven.4 The worse problem is Warren doesn’t talk about the seriousness of sin and how it’s an offense to God. Without comprehending that truth on a heart level, more people will be filling churches, thinking themselves saved because they “asked Jesus into their hearts,” but did not repent of sin.
This isn’t meant to promote a “fire insurance” idea, believing in Jesus as a means to get out of Hell. That’s an equally questionable motivation to profess faith in Christ, though someone who has that motivation can be truly saved and grow out of it. Instead, I’m talking about believing in Jesus as a means to Himself. You see Him as incredible, kind and loving, and your sins as disgusting. You want Him. Your sin is in the way. So the sin has to go.
Someone who wants personal or community morality as an end, and Jesus as the means, might also be saved. But why preach as if unaware of this danger? I’m afraid that’s what Warren does. He may believe in right doctrines, but if he doesn’t teach them, live them, what’s the use?
Heard round the ‘sphere
Phil Johnson does a good job here, graciously of addressing Piper’s invitation of Warren to speak at Piper’s conference.
The massive problems with Warren’s ministry philosophy are well documented. The same with his practice of softening, omitting, or denying key gospel truths about sin, judgment, the wrath of God, and the necessity of repentance. A preacher doesn’t have to affirm heresy or overtly deny truth in order to be dangerous. It is entirely possible by one’s behavior to distort or obscure the gospel message. All Peter did to earn a public rebuke from Paul was change seats at the dinner table (Galatians 2:11-14). But in context, that seriously compromised the gospel. Deliberately and repeatedly giving short shrift to the greatest truths of the gospel is at least as serious an error as Peter’s hypocrisy.
Warren’s private reassurances to John Piper shouldn’t trump the fact that he does not actually preach the gospel plainly, boldly, thoroughly, unashamedly, and in a way that is faithful to the Word of God. If he privately believes something other than what he has said in his books and sermons, that makes him more culpable as a hypocrite. His belief is better than his practice? Let’s not make that sound heroic.
Dr. Michael Horton remarks, with similar grace-and-truth-balanced style, God bless him:
Obviously, Rick Warren believes that he is simply translating the gospel in terms that the unchurched can understand. However, the radical condition of sin is reduced to negative attitudes and behaviors and the radical redemption secured by Christ’s propitiatory death and resurrection are reduced to general and vague statements about God giving us another chance. His central message seems to be that you were created for a purpose and you just need to fulfill it. Even at Easter he can say, “…And of course, that purpose now becomes greater — and in fact, I think that’s really what the message this week of Easter is, is that God can bring good out of bad. That he turns crucifixions into resurrections. That he takes the mess of our life, and when we give him all the pieces, he can — God can put it together in a new way” (”Larry King Live,” CNN, March 22, 2005). I heard him say on a network morning program last Christmas that Jesus came to give us a mulligan, like in golf—a chance for a “do-over” in life.
While I applaud his concern for social justice, I am concerned that he confuses the law with the gospel and the work of Christians in their vocations (obeying the Great Commandment) with the work of Christ through his church in its ministry of Word and sacrament (the Great Commission).
The Gospel: don’t condense it.
Plead with people who say they know it not to keep it to themselves.
Christian pastor, don’t assume your followers will simply look elsewhere to fill in the plot holes you leave open.
For God’s sake, tell the whole story.
- John 1. ↩
- For example, Blair courts controversial US pastor Rick Warren in bid to unite faiths, The Observer, March 14, 2010. Warren is already on the organization’s council of advisors, the UK-based publication notes. ↩
- How many times does this happen to you: you’re a member of a family that relatives see as “religious,” so you are eventually given multiple copies of the latest greatest Christian™ hit-of-the-week? ↩
- Warren once endorsed Randy Alcorn’s book Heaven, but I haven’t heard him speak publicly about the New Heavens and New Earth. ↩