This is the first response of which I am aware on Piper's invitation of Rick Warren to speak at this year's national conference in October.
It is not our usual course at Modern Reformation or White Horse Inn to comment on the invitations of other organizations for their conferences. However, we’re starting to receive questions about our views of Rick Warren’s professed adherence to Reformational theology because an interview in Modern Reformation was posted by Justin Taylor and cited in the comments of his blog as supporters of John Piper wrestle with his recent decision to invite Rick Warren to an upcoming Desiring God conference. So our team felt that some clarification was needed.
In 2004, Rick Warren graciously accepted our invitation to respond to some Modern Reformation questions in our “Free Space” section, where we engage with various voices, often outside of our usual circles. We do interviews like this regularly, encouraging conversation, asking questions that we know our readers are wondering. It’s in our feature articles where we analyze trends and arguments, and I among others have challenged Pastor Warren from time to time. Our magazine is not just a platform for a few voices or churches. We’re trying to spark conversation—and, yes, to guide conversation toward a modern Reformation. Part of that means that we let others speak for themselves. Yet I think it's pretty clear to everybody where we land on the main issues.
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.