The purpose-driven life

Gary Gilley Dr Gary E. Gilley has been the pastor of Southern View Chapel since 1975. Along with his preaching and teaching ministry, he is the author and editor of the monthly contemporary theological issues p
01 June, 2005 5 min read

By now every Christian and most unbelievers have heard of Rick Warren and his runaway bestseller, The purpose-driven life. This promises to be ‘a guide to a 40-day spiritual journey that will enable you to discover the answers to life’s most important question: What on earth am I here for?’

‘By the end of this journey’, he continues, ‘you will know God’s purpose for your life and will understand the big picture – how all the pieces of your life fit together’ (p.9). This is an ambitious promise and one that has gone down well with the masses.

Not only has the book been on all the bestseller lists for months but thousands of churches have taken Warren’s ’40-days of purpose’ spiritual journey, and thousands more are gearing up to take his ’40-days of community’ journey. How should Evangelicals view all this?


There are similarities between this book and Warren’s earlier work, The purpose-driven church.Both offer some good sound advice, helpful biblical insight and practical suggestions – and both are also riddled with errors. The discerning reader can perhaps separate the wheat from the tares and make a good loaf of bread, but most readers, I fear, will swallow the chaff along with the substance.

This leads me to ask, ‘What is Warren’s audience?’ I was bewildered as to whom the author was trying to connect with. If it is a book for the unsaved then he fails, for the gospel is never at any time clearly presented. The closest he came was when he wrote, ‘Real life begins by committing yourself completely to Jesus Christ’ (p.58).

While he mentions sin, repentance and the cross, they are not the heart of his ‘gospel’. Rather, to Warren, the good news offered is the ‘real life’ – life with a purpose.


The thesis of The purpose-driven lifeis stated, I believe, on page twenty-five: ‘We discover … meaning and purpose only when we make God the reference point of our lives’. Warren’s message is this – find God and you will find yourself (purpose).

We agree that meaning and purpose will be a reality to the Christian, but they are not the aim of the gospel itself. The gospel declares that, as rebellious sinners enslaved to sin, we have offended a holy God, are dead in our sins, blinded by the devil and under the wrath of God.

But God, rich in mercy, sent his Son to die as our substitute, to redeem us from our lost condition and give us eternal life. We receive this gift by grace through faith, as we turn fromsin toChrist (Ephesians 2:1-10).

That our life takes on new purpose at that point is absolutely true. But we do not come to Christ because we sense a lack of purpose, but because God has opened our eyes to our need for forgiveness and a relationship with him.

Seeker-sensitive flaws

Here lies the fatal flaw. The seeker-sensitive church calls the unbeliever to follow Christ in order to receive any number of earthly benefits – fulfilment, self-esteem, improved marriage, a thrilling lifestyle, or purpose – rather than freedom from sin, reconciliation with God and the gift of eternal salvation.

Nevertheless, I give credit where credit is due. Warren has some good sections on subjects such as worship, community, the church, truth and spiritual gifts. If this material could be isolated from the main body, it would make helpful reading. But when interspersed with erroneous ideas, distortions of Scripture, and plain false teaching, it is of little value and could prove dangerous.

Pop psychology

I found the problems so numerous that I began marking errors. I found 42 biblical inaccuracies; 18 out-of-context passages of Scripture supposedly used to prove his point; and another 9 distorted translations.

I found other things disturbing too.Even though he denies it, Warren is obviously a disciple of ‘pop’ psychology, examples of which litter the book.

Just because an author denies teaching something, it does not mean he is not doing so! The proof is not in the denial but in the substance. While professing repeatedly to reject psycho-babble, Warren nevertheless immerses his reader in it.

For example he claims that ‘most conflict is rooted in unmet needs’ (p.154) – an idea that owes more to Rogers and Freud than to Scripture! He quotes favourably a wide variety of dubious authors – from Aldous Huxley and Albert Schweitzer to George Bernard Shaw and St John of the Cross (Catholic mystic).

He apparently believes that practising Roman Catholics are true believers, mentioning monks and nuns as Christian examples and, of course, making the obligatory references to Mother Teresa.

But if faithful Roman Catholics, who believe in sacramental righteousness, are born-again Christians, what does Warren mean by the gospel? Do we receive the gift of salvation by faith alone, or by faith plus works and sacraments? This is no minor issue, especially in a book that never clearly spells out the plan of salvation.

Torturing Scripture

Many concerns have by now been documented about Warren’s understanding of the Christian life. They have exposed his psychological approach, his roots in Robert Schuller’s teaching, his links with mysticism, and much more.

But to me the most alarming thing is Warren’s abuse and misuse of Scripture. He distorts the message of the biblical text on a regular basis, setting a horrific example for his legion of followers – who will in turn employ the same methods in their lives and pulpits.

Not everything he says is wrong. The irony is that Warren will often state something that is biblically correct, but rather than use proper scriptural support he chooses to twist the meaning of some inappropriate passage to prove his point.

This is a dangerous trend that will lead to problems unless it is recognised, challenged and rejected by the people of God. We have space for just a couple of examples.

Matthew 16:25

In denying pop psychology (p.19), Warren quotes a paraphrase of Matthew 16:25 from TheMessage: ‘Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to finding yourself, your true self’.

The Messagechanges the meaning of Jesus’ words, proposing that ‘sacrifice’ is a means by which a person realises his potential. But Jesus is not speaking of the modern concept of ‘finding yourself’ but rather of finding eternal life (as v.26 makes clear). Warren deflects such ‘Christian life’ passages from their Christ-centred emphasis and makes them serve the human self. The focus becomes us rather than Christ.

Genesis 6:8

Warren’s chapter nine considers the kind of person who ‘makes God smile’, and is based on the Living Bibleparaphrase of Genesis 6:8: ‘Noah was a pleasure to the Lord’. The New King James translates this verse, ‘Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord’.

The Hebrew word translated ‘grace’ can mean ‘favour’, but when used of God the word always means unmeritedfavour or grace. When Noah found grace, he was the recipient of undeserved divine favour.

By changing the words ‘found grace’ to ‘was a pleasure’, the Living Bibleturns the true meaning of the passage on its head. Now Noah is spared due to his goodness – he is the kind of guy that makes God smile – and you can be such a person too!

But then grace is no longer grace; it has been transformed into a work that pleases God. This is not a minor error – it strikes at the root of the Christian faith.


Ironically, Genesis 6:9, which tells us that ‘Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his time’,and’Noah walked with God’,could have been used to support Warren’s chapter, so keep in mind where our concern lies.

We are not saying Warren is wrong in everything he says, but that he is guilty of distorting Scripture. He undermines the Word of God by changing its meaning to suit his purpose. In this case the marvellous doctrine of grace takes the hit.

In these examples, and numerous others we could cite, Warren’s use of Scripture is just close enough to be confusing. But we look in vain for a sound contextual interpretation.

This is not a minor issue. Once we believe we have the right to change the meaning of God’s Word to suit our agenda, there is no limit to the misrepresentation of God’s truth. This is exactly how cults and heresies get started.

While I am not suggesting that Warren has fallen to this level, it should greatly concern us to see him adopting this perverse approach to Scripture. And it should disturb us even more that so few professing Christians care.

Dr Gary E. Gilley has been the pastor of Southern View Chapel since 1975. Along with his preaching and teaching ministry, he is the author and editor of the monthly contemporary theological issues p
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