The Purpose Driven Life’s 164 steps to sanctification

I’ve been reading a Lutheran Critique: Rick Warren’s The Purpose Drive Life (PDF, or see an HTML version), following Chris Rosebrough’s glowing recommendation. It really is an incisive review, even if I have yet to be persuaded from Scripture of the Lutheran view of infant Baptism that it espouses at one point. But it would be churlish to fault a Lutheran minister for proclaiming Lutheran doctrine.

The author, Steven R. J. Parks, contrasts the Biblical view of sanctification with that presented by the Purpose Driven Life. He writes:

Thus, man cooperates in his sanctification, but only insofar as he is involved in it. God begins, continues, and completes His work in the redeemed. We do not take the initiative, nor are we even equal partners in the endeavor. Instead, our cooperation is passive, inasmuch as “it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13).

For Warren, however, man-initiated obedience is the key to fellowship with our Lord: “However, Jesus made it clear that obedience is a condition of intimacy with God.” It is important, according to Warren, “Because it proves you really love him.” So the biblical saints, such as Mary, act as examples for us: “God chose Mary to be the mother of Jesus, not because she was talented or wealthy or beautiful, but because she was totally surrendered to him.” Thus, we are told, if we want God’s blessing on our lives, we must likewise be obediently surrendered, manifesting the beatitudes: “If you want God’s blessing on your life and you want to be known as a child of God, you must learn to be a peacemaker.” Failure to do so may result in judgment: “I lose fellowship with God…I set myself up to be judged by God.”

Steven Parks goes on with a devastating (and carefully footnoted) indictment of the guidance given in the Purpose Driven Life to would-be godly Christians:

So Warren presents readers with the following “simple” instructions: discovering the three insights into your purpose, ascertaining the five reasons to live a purpose-driven life, applying the three metaphors of God’s view of life, learning God’s five purposes for your life, living God’s five plans for your life, enacting the five acts of worship that make God smile, uncovering six secrets of friendship with God, developing the four characteristics of the kind of worship that pleases God, performing the three important truths of fruitful fellowship, six reasons for being committed and active in a local fellowship, discovering the four principles of real fellowship, learning the four steps to cultivating community, creating a covenant using the nine characteristics of biblical fellowship, following the seven steps to restoring broken fellowship, promoting six ways to ensure unity, following the three steps to conflict resolution, uncovering the three responsibilities in becoming like Christ, practicing the three activities necessary to abide in God’s Word, carefully following the three specific steps in overcoming temptation, learning the four keys to defeating temptation, avoiding the five impediments to growing in Christ, enacting the four steps to cooperate with God in the process of Christian growth, participating in the six types of experiences God uses in molding us, discerning the three steps to clarifying what God intends you to be and do, finding the six steps to becoming a true servant, developing the five attitudes of a true servant, taking the four steps to allowing God to work through your weaknesses, establishing the six steps to discovering the importance of your mission, discerning the four parts of your life message, discovering your seven life lessons, implementing the four principles for thinking like a world-class Christian, participating in the four important activities for purpose-driven living, learning the five vital signs of worship, realizing the five steps to discovering your purpose statement, and remembering life’s five greatest questions. By following these one hundred and sixty-four simple steps, readers may initiate their own sanctification and live purpose-driven lives.

Phew! I’m so glad that Pastor Warren has simplified and distilled the Law for us in this way so that we may now keep it.

But there’s just one little nagging doubt: didn’t St. Paul have something to say to the Galatians about this sort of thing?

O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you that you should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed among you as crucified? This only I want to learn from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now being made perfect by the flesh? Have you suffered so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain? (Gal. 3:1–4, NKJV)

Indeed, Steven Parks makes precisely this point. He goes on:

The law, of course, has no power to sanctify, whether it be Warren’s home-spun practical wisdom, or even God’s commandments themselves. In fact, the law primarily serves to reveal sin, always convicting its hearers of their shortcoming (lex semper accusat—Rom. 7:7). Thus, Warren’s one hundred and sixty-four simple steps to living a purpose-driven life, if taken seriously, will only aggravate sin and make matters worse: “But sin, taking opportunity by the commandment, produced in me all manner of evil desire. For apart from the law sin was dead” (Rom. 7:8). For this reason, the Formula of Concord testifies: “For the Law says indeed that it is God’s will and command that we should walk in a new life, but it does not give the power and ability to begin and do it.” Indeed, this power is given by the Holy Spirit only through the gospel, precious little of which is found in The Purpose Driven Life.

Go ahead and read the whole review – I suspect you’ll find it thought provoking and Gospel-focused, even if you are not quite of one accord with one or two of its Lutheran emphases. (And if you are, you’ll love it.)

19 thoughts on “The Purpose Driven Life’s 164 steps to sanctification”

  1. I read it and thought it was well, excellent save the baptize your baby and they’ll be saved heresy. It was very distracting and marginalized an otherwise pristine soteriology. It did make we wonder if I’ve got it all wrong abt baptism tho. That’s what thoughtful writes who write authoritatively do. Enter Warren.

    I really was profoundly well, embarrassed and kinda wow’d by the 164 paragraph He didn’t need to make the point. It made itself. I’m glad I read it all. I hope Rick reads it. He’s a godly man who does not intend to lead men astray. I believe he would receive it with joy.

    Thx for the comment. I trust for you that Rick is an icon of a slippery slope that we the church are on and that I have been on also. I hope he is not just your favorite target or that you truly love him as I do. If you do, you wold be very helpful to him as you have been to me.


    1. Hi Bobby, let’s not go as far as heresy on the infant Baptism thing – a difference of Biblical interpretation, certainly.

      As I currently understand it, the Lutheran position is really rather nuanced. I hope that one day I shall have some face-to-face time with some Confessional Lutherans and they can help me understand the subtleties of the arguments a little better. There are still some things I know I am not getting.

      With regard to RW, no, he’s certainly not my favourite target (I actually don’t like having targets at all, believe it or not!). It is most definitely a case of ‘there but for the grace of God go I’ on the doctrinal underpinnings here – my background was thoroughly semi-Pelagian Arminianism, although I nevertheless heard the Gospel of Christ crucified for my sins clearly proclaimed while I was growing up.

      I hesitated even to make this blog post, as I’ve written about RW far too much already. But, as you said, there was great soteriology in the review, and I thought it was worth sharing for its clarity there, as well as for the whole 164 point thing.

      Still, your observation is taken, and I shall therefore try very hard to lay off RW for a bit 🙂 And wouldn’t it be great if one day RW were to start proclaiming an adorned Gospel? I dare to hope and pray for such a thing.

      1. Hi Daniel,
        You wrote: “As I currently understand it, the Lutheran position is really rather nuanced. I hope that one day I shall have some face-to-face time with some Confessional Lutherans and they can help me understand the subtleties of the arguments a little better. There are still some things I know I am not getting.”
        Well, if you are serious about it, I would be willing to Skype with you. I know it is not as good as a personal meeting, but I living in the middle of the Canadian prairies so I think a personal meeting would be difficult at best. 🙂 I would be willing to answer any questions you may have (as best I can) about the confessional Lutheran view of Baptism. From my limited knowledge of Calvinism, it is interesting to note how the Calvinist may see Lutheran teaching of Baptism as a minor difference, whereas a Lutheran seems it as a major difference. Just send me an email if you want to talk over Skype some day.
        In christian love,
        Michael Sullivan

        1. Hi Michael, I’d love to take you up on your generous offer to chat, thank you! I am rather snowed-under with work right now, so perhaps I can email you when things have slackened-off a little?

          Peace and grace,

          1. Hi Daniel,
            You are welcome to email me at any time: later or sooner, which ever fits your schedule. In a few months I will be literally snowed-under, but those are usually the days it is best to stay inside with a warm cup of tea and read or chat theology.
            In Christian love,
            Michael Sullivan

    1. Oh yea, while I’m at it. He mentions that Rick gets it right but doesn’t explain it:

      “While Warren repeats various traditional formulas (by grace, through faith, etc.25) he never expounds upon the meaning of such phrases (something a book attempting to spell out the meaning of life should definitely be concerned with) and readers are simply left to fill in the soteriological gaps on their own.”

      … wow, didn’t know ‘by grace though faith’ was a “various traditional formula” thought it was Ephesians 2:8 ” For by grace you have been saved through faith.

      That type of argument (the ‘well you said it and believe it but you didn’t say it like I want you to’) distracts from an otherwise thoughtful critique.


  2. Well done Daniel. I’m not Luthern, but I consider the Orthdox Lutherans like Chris to my brothers and sisters in the Lord. I am a Calvinist and we take Ephesians 2:1-10 literally. That means that we are saved unto good works. We are not saved by works, but as James said, “I’ll show you my faith by my works.” Genuine Christians will manifest good works as God sanctifies them. They are not saved by them, we, like the Lutherans, believe that we are saved by Grace through Faith. We are justified by faith alone, not by merit or works, et cetera. But, you can’t ignore Ephesians 2:10.

    On the other hand, what Rick Warren has come up is just a bunch of man-made works of man-driven sanctification or man-centered sanctification. Our sanctification is God working in us as we cooperate with Him through it by walking in repentance. R.W.’s plan is ridiculous. He isn’t God.

    In Christ

    Mike Ratliff

    1. Thank you, Mike. And like you, I consider my Confessional Lutheran friends to be be true and dear brothers and sisters in the Lord. The debt I owe them for the clarity they have brought to me concerning the Law and Gospel is one that I shall never be able to repay. I am so grateful to the Lord for them.

      May He grant that we all walk worthy of the calling with which we were called, to the glory of His name.

  3. Hi Daniel:
    Very good article. I am unable to locate Steven Parks “Lutheran Critique” article that you reference. Would you by any chance have it? If so would you email it to me? Thank you.

    1. I’ve also updated the article with a link to an HTML version of the article that Paula has made available. I’ve left the PDF link there in the hopes that it will be resurrected at some point…

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