Michael Horton on Rick Warren

I learned of this article from my friend Ken Silva at Apprising Ministries. It is a blog post by Dr. Michael Horton, J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary CA and host of the radio program The White Horse Inn.

Speaking first for myself, I admire Rick Warren’s zeal for reaching non-Christians and concern for global challenges.  I respect him for giving away much of his income for charitable purposes.

At the same time, I believe that his message distorts the gospel and that he is contributing to the human-centered pragmatism that is eroding the proper ministry and mission of the church.  Judging by The Purpose-Driven Life, Pastor Warren’s theology seems to reflect run-of-the-mill evangelical Arminianism, especially with its emphasis on the new birth as the result of human decision and cooperation with grace.  There are also heavy traces of Keswick “higher life” teaching throughout the book.  None of this disqualifies him from being an evangelical statesman.  After all, much the same can be said of Billy Graham.  After pointing out how difficult it is to define an evangelical theologically, historian George Marsden famously surmised that it’s “anyone who likes Billy Graham.”  Today, perhaps, it’s anyone who likes Rick Warren.

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).

His best-selling book, The Purpose-Driven Life, begins by announcing that it’s not about you, but about God, and then the rest of the book is about you.  There seems to be a contradiction between the God-centered theology that is professed and the basically human-centered orientation that dominates much of his message and methods.  Some time ago, my wife discovered a letter that Rick Warren wrote to me way back in 1998, in which Pastor Warren mentioned the impact of my first book, Mission Accomplished, and his intention to write a book that highlighted the point that God made us for his purposes, rather than the other way around.  Since then, we have corresponded periodically, but that has not kept either of us from offering occasional critiques of each other’s views.  In fact, we will be together for a panel discussion at Saddleback in June, sponsored by the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization.

Pastor Warren tailors his appeals to his audience.  To Calvinists, he stresses his support for the “solas” of the Reformation.  Yet he tells prosperity evangelist David Yonggi Cho, “I’ve read your books on Vision and Dreams – speak to pastors about how you hear the voice of the Holy Spirit?…What advice would you give to a brand new minister?…Do you think American churches should be more open to the prayer for miracles?” (“Breakfast With David Yonggi Cho And Rick Warren,” Pastors.com).  In a June 2006 article in JewishJournal.com, editor-in-chief Rob Eshman reported on a speech that Warren gave for Synagogue 3000, after Rabbi Ron Wolfson became involved in the Purpose-Driven pastoral training seminars. “Warren managed to speak for the entire evening without once mentioning Jesus — a testament to his savvy message-tailoring.”  When USA Today asked him why Mormon and Jewish leaders are involved in his pastoral training programs, Rick Warren reportedly said, “I’m not going to get into a debate over the non-essentials.  I won’t try to change other denominations.  Why be divisive?” (USA Today, July 21, 2003).  Rick Warren endorses a host of books, from New Age authors to Emergent writers to conservative evangelicals.  So why not include Calvinists?

The first Reformation was about God and the gospel of his Son.  It centered on the justification of sinners by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.  Robert Schuller wrote Self-Esteem: The New Reformation in the 1990s.  And in 2005 Rick Warren announced at the Baptist World Alliance meeting a new Reformation based on “deeds, not creeds.”  As he explained in an interview,

I’m looking for a second reformation. The first reformation of the church 500 years ago was about beliefs.  This one is going to be about behavior. The first one was about creeds. This one is going to be about deeds. It is not going to be about what does the church believe, but about what is the church doing (beliefnet.com/faiths/Christianity/2005/10/Rick-Warrens-Second-Reformation.aspx?p=1).

He has also said he is working toward a Third Great Awakening, which seems like the better comparison, since the basic message is more in step with Charles Finney and the Second Great Awakening than it is with the Reformation.

I agree wholeheartedly when Pastor Warren argues that Christians can work with non-Christians—even agnostics and atheists—on the global challenges of poverty, racism, corrupt leadership, injustice, and disease.  However, this is precisely why his confusion of the Christian’s calling to love of neighbor with the gospel is so dangerous.  Working toward the common good is the calling of every person, believer and unbeliever alike, but it is not the Great Commission.  It is the law of love that obliges us all, but it is not the gospel.

Long ago, the evangelist D. L. Moody responded to criticisms of his message and pragmatic methods with the quip, “I like my way of doing it better than your way of not doing it.”  We can be so proud of getting the gospel right while we don’t bother to get the gospel out to those who need it.  Furthermore, we can be self-confident in our theological integrity while ignoring the Word of God when it impinges on questions of social concern.  Yet the answer is not “deeds over creeds,” but to be re-introduced to the creeds that generate the deeds that are the fruit of genuine faith.  Getting the gospel right and getting the gospel out, as well as loving and serving our neighbors, comprise the callings of the church and of Christians in the world. However, confusing these is always disastrous for our message and mission.

-Michael Horton

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6 thoughts on “Michael Horton on Rick Warren

  1. Douglas

    “Speaking first for myself, I admire Rick Warren’s zeal for reaching non-Christians and concern for global challenges. I respect him for giving away much of his income for charitable purposes.”

    Yes, Rick Warren does have a zeal for reaching non-Christians but he is not reaching them with the true biblical Gospel, he is reaching them with his “Purpose Driven Life” messages which contain many portions of twisted, distorted Scriptures along with human wisdom and philosophy. The gospel Warren proclaims is no gospel at all. He uses smooth tongued flattery on people to disarm them. He charms them. He has completely bedazzled John Piper by flattering him.

    I do not respect Rick Warren for giving away much of his income for charitable purposes simply because he boasts about it every opportunity he gets. He is the one that has let everyone know what he does. Matthew 6:1-4

    “The greatest tragedy is not death, but life without purpose” – page 30 Purpose Driven Life

    That is a lie. Everybody has a purpose. For good or for evil. Pharoah had a purpose. Jesus Christ had a purpose. Judas had a purpose. Hitler had a purpose.

    The greatest tragedy is not life without purpose, but death without Christ.

    Purpose Driven Psychology and Human Wisdom

  2. Douglas

    In the introduction of “Redefining Christianity: Understanding The Purpose Driven Movement”, pages 9-11, Bob DeWaay says:

    “On September 29, 2005 Rick Warren addressed the Religion Newswriters Association’s annual conference. There he announced his bold new agenda to solve the world’s five largest problems. He told these writers, “What I am about to tell you is going to change the American church,” and went on to tell them about his P.E.A.C.E. plan–an ambitious project to mobilize 2 billion Christians to wipe out the world’s biggest problems scheduled for release in 2006. He told the newswriters, “We are going to release it to those 400,000 congregations we have trained, and I believe it will change the world.”

    The secular press has noticed. Fortune Magazine’s extensive article by Marc Gunther offers this analysis of Warren: “America’s new superstar pastor wants to re-brand evangelical Christianity. He’s got the management genius to do it.” Gunther cites a businessman who says: “Forget any opinions you have about religion and just look at the guy as a CEO, and you’ve got to be impressed.” Writes Gunther, “And his ambitions are so vast that they practically invite scorn-uniting liberal and conservative Protestants, fixing Africa, transforming the very nature of American culture.” Warren plans to change the church, and having changed it, use the church as a vehicle to solve the world’s biggest problems.

    Should evangelicals be alarmed, or should they join? I am alarmed. The entire forty-five minute speech before a mixed group of writers could be summarized as Rick Warren talking about Rick Warren. He presented no mention of the gospel, no description of the Person and work of Christ, and nothing that would lead one to believe that conversions from dead works to faith in the resurrected Christ have a place in this plan. Apparently re-branded evangelicalism is a new form of the old, liberal social gospel.

    Warren told his listeners that he has spoken before the United Nations and the Council on Foreign Relations. The apostle Paul likewise was able to speak to kings and dignitaries. His message reached the highest levels of the Roman Empire, but there is a vast difference in content. Paul always preached about the Person and work of Christ, including His resurrection from the dead.He preached the gospel. Never did Paul tell kings and rulers that he could help them solve social problems in their kingdom. He preached Christ-a message which ultimately cost Paul his life.

    The version of Christianity that Rick Warren presents to world leaders redefines the message of the first century apostles. The key difference is that the biblical version did not appeal to the world; it appealed only to those who were converted. Warren’s version is popular with the world.

    Rick Warren has designed a message that appeals to religious consumers whether or not the Holy Spirit has convicted them of their sins. He has devised a business system to mass-market this message to the world. Through his system, he has created a way for pastors to share his success. The sheer effectiveness of this system is rapidly transforming evangelicalism. This transformation is not just a transformation of practice; it is a transformation of message. The change in practice makes it transferable across a wide spectrum of denominational and theological affiliations. The change in the message makes it acceptable to a wide range of religious consumers.

    In this book, we shall examine The Purpose Driven Church, The Purpose Driven Life, and the business system that Rick Warren has developed to promote it around the world. We shall look carefully at his claims, his use of Scripture, his integration of human wisdom with Scripture, and his ability to get thousands of pastors to convert from expository Bible preaching to being Purpose Driven. In the end, we shall compare Rick Warren’s version of church health with that of Jesus Christ. We shall see how he has redefined Christianity. The world may indeed love this new version and listen, but what it is hearing is something substantially different from biblical Christianity that the world hates and rejects.

    Jesus said, “If you were of the world, the world would love its own; because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.” (John 15:19). Not even the greatest marketing genius can change this without redefining the church. Seeking the approval of the world is precisely what the Purpose Driven Movement is all about.”

  3. Douglas

    You are welcome Mike. Maybe God is using this whole sad affair to bring it out into the light of day for all to see.

    Keep up your sound defense of the Gospel, may it continue to be a blessing to many. Do not be too discouraged. I hear the genuine concen and love in your voice each time I have listened to your program. I listen off and on over the last year or two and they have always been an encouragement. My wife likes the sound and accent of your voice too. 🙂


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