This article discusses the Christian life as we find a certain kind of commentary on it in Rick Warren's The Purpose Driven Life.

Source: Lux Mundi, 2006. 7 pages.

Rick Warren’s "The Purpose Driven Life" Characteristics of a Christian Life

Rick Warren

Many will have read it and have seen their faith encouraged by it: Rick Warren’s best seller The Purpose Driven Life. Others have their objections to Warren’s Purpose driven movement. In this article, I want to look at the way in which Warren describes Christian life in The Purpose Driven Life.

“Test all things, hold fast what is good”, Paul tells us (1 Thess 5:21). I want to do both things. To “Test”, and that will bring criticism with it, but I also want to hold fast to what is good in the book!

There are many good things in this book. Too many to mention. Two examples: “Understanding can wait, but obedience can’t (...) in fact, you will never understand some commands until you obey them first. Obedience unlocks understanding" (72). A sentence to think about for a while and to talk about! A correct warning: “today many equate being emotionally moved by music as being moved by the Spirit, but these are not the same” (102).

Use of the Bible🔗

There is much which could be said about the use of the Bible in The Purpose Driven Life. Hundreds of Bible texts are scattered throughout the book, but the use of these texts has been criticised by many. And rightly so. If you check his use of the Bible, time and time again Warren uses texts to say something slightly different to what they were intended to say.

I mention one example, concerning God’s purposes:

  1. “The Bible says, ‘God’s wisdom ... goes deep into the interior of his purposes ... It’s not the latest message, but more like the oldest – what God determined as the way to bring out his best in us” (20). This claim is supported by a reference to 1 Corinthians 2:7: “But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God ordained before the ages for our glory.” Sharing in God’s glory is surely not the same as ‘bringing out the best in us’.
  2. “You, LORD, give perfect peace to those who keep their purpose firm and put their trust in you” (32). By this reference, Warren says: See how the Bible supports my purpose driven life ‘philosophy’. It is about Isaiah 26:3 “You will keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you”. Is this the same ‘keeping their purpose firm’? Or has Warren secretly smuggled this (his own) thought into it?
  3. Paul writes in Phil.3:13-15: “One thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (NIV). There you have it, says Warren, there you see an example of a man who has a goal in his life, a purpose to strive for. That is how the apostle Paul almost single-handedly spread Christianity throughout the Roman Empire. “His secret was a focused life ... Paul said, ‘Let’s keep focused on that goal, those of us who want everything God has for us’” (32-33, with a quote from Phil. 3:15 in the The Message version). A subtle shift! For Paul, the goal for which he strove was the heavenly prize. Warren makes of this: the goal for which Paul strove was the spreading of the gospel through the Roman Empire. In that way Paul fits nicely into Warren’s concept of the ‘purpose-driven life’.

I don’t have room here to demonstrate this point more (you can check out my articles in De Reformatie for more evidence).

Bible and magnifier

Now you could say: Warren’s Bible use is not convincing, but his message is Biblical. The rest of this article looks at his message. I will discuss three characteristics of the way in which Purpose Driven Life describes Christian life.

1. ‘Experienced Needs’🔗

Rick Warren stands in the so called Church Growth Movement tradition, which came into being in the sixties of the last century in the United States. One characteristic of this movement is the desire to want to hone in on the needs people have. It is a sort of marketing technique: if you know which needs your potential customers have, then you play to that.

Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life concept does so too. The five aims which he formulates are in fact, five needs which (according to him) people have. Warren’s message is: look guys, the gospel (my message) is just what you need!

This appears to be clear when Warren talks about the church.

God’s purposes for his church are identical to his five purposes for you. He created the church to meet your five deepest needs: a purpose to live for, people to live with, principles to live by, a profession to live out, and power to live on. There is no other place on earth where you can find all five of these benefits in one place.p. 136

Warren uses this word ‘benefits’ more often (82, 143, 190): you will experience all sorts of benefits if you do what the gospel asks of you! This brings a very positive message: inviting, attractive. Come with us; you miss out if you ignore the gospel!

And is that not true?! Isn’t the gospel, and God Himself, what people need? Yes, absolutely. “And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3). The thing is, is this a need which people feel?

There is none who understands; there is none who seeks after God, says the Bible. Romans 3:11, cf. Psalm 14

People can certainly feel as though something is missing, a certain emptiness in purpose and the like. And you must certainly try to use this as way to reach them. But that is not to say that people are ready and waiting to accept the gospel (if you show it to them in an attractive enough way). Why not? Because the Cross of Christ is not attractive to anybody. Christ’s cross represents His death, and at the same time our sin and guilt before God.

People have needs and desires that they usually don’t feel. And thus they have no desire for the One who fulfils their needs.

Jesus said to the Pharisees and the scribes: 'it is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance'Luke 5:31-32

The problem is that, left to themselves, people do not want to know that they are sick!

2. Hold on to Your Life?🔗

No Christian will deny that the Bible contains a positive message; it is good news! That does not take away the fact that following Jesus brings difficult aspects with it. When Jesus began to make clear to his disciples that he would have to suffer much (Math. 16:21) he said to them: “if anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it” (Math. 16:24-25) and,

He who loves his life will lose it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves Me let him follow Me and where I am, there my servant will also be.John 12:25-26


This side of the Christian life is hardly mentioned in The Purpose Driven Life. The emphasis lies elsewhere. Jesus’ words about ‘taking up your cross’ and self-denial are made by Warren into: “Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to finding yourself, your true self” (19). This self-sacrifice, is for example, that you help others (232). Christian life does not cost you yourself, on the contrary, it brings out the best in us (20, 177). That last word is supported by a reference to 1 Cor. 2:7: “we speak of God’s secret wisdom, a wisdom that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began” (20). Here ‘our glory’ is made one and the same as ‘bringing out the best in us’. This example of irresponsible use of the Bible appears to be within the framework of an optimistic message: Christian life is a life of maximal self-development!

In a certain way you could say that a Christian life brings somebody to his goal. He or she becomes a person as God meant him or her to be. There is some recovery, and indeed man is better for it – in the double sense of the word. But the Bible makes clear that this is accompanied by ‘demolition’. You can say ‘yes’ to the new nature in you, but simultaneously ‘no’ to the old nature which is still in you. And Christian life also knows trials and tribulations and suffering. Paul and Barnabas pointed out to the Christians that “we must, through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22).

‘Discovering your true self’ is profit for this life (a benefit, Warren would say), but Jesus talks about losing your life. Maybe you will never ‘discover your true self’. Maybe by believing, you will lose much in your life. Relationships; work; self-development; yes, maybe even life itself. Faith does not only bring ‘benefits’ if you only look at this life. It has many disadvantages as well (seen from the perspective of this life). If you become a Christian, you often also have more problems (ask a Christian who does not live in the free western world).

3. Must🔗

More than once it has been pointed out that according to Warren there are many musts. Take chapter 12 for example: ‘Developing your friendship with God’ (92-99). “You are as close to God as you choose to be” (92). In this first sentence of the chapter, Warren lays the responsibility directly at my feet. Can I bear it? Must I bear it? Four instructions follow; four ‘I musts’: I must choose to be honest with God; I must choose to obey God in faith; I must choose to value what God values; I must desire friendship with God more than anything else.

Warren wants to teach us to be a ‘great Christian’. In order to be that I must join a house group, I must regularly check my spiritual health, I must record my spiritual advances in a diary and I must share what I learn with others. “These are four important activities for purpose driven living” (306).

Warren’s book breathes an atmosphere of positive optimism. On the one side that attracts me, it stimulates. It creates desire in me: if only we could all be such Christians! On the other side: in my life as Christian (and that of many other sincere Christians) I also recognise other aspects. Victory, but also defeat. And thus in any case, struggle. Am I no good Christian? Or is Warren’s description of Christian life one-sided?

In the second article, I would like to look at the common background of these three aspects of Warren’s description of Christian life: the place of the cross in the life of the Christian.

Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life: Cross Centred Life🔗

In the first article I looked at three aspects of the way in which Rick Warren describes the Christian life in The Purpose Driven Life: he plays to the gallery of the ‘needs we have’; Jesus’ teaching about cross bearing is not represented; and there are many ‘musts’. These three aspects have a common background: in Warren’s description of the Christian life, the cross of Christ is not central.


In Warren’s book the cross of Christ is the entrance to a Christian life. Warren is no liberal theologian! He preaches that Christ died on the cross for our sins and that we are saved through this. You may and must believe that God wants to forgive you no matter what you have done. And you must accept this forgiveness and receive it (58). But once you have gone through that entrance, the perspective shifts. “You are now ready to discover and start living God’s purpose for your life”, writes Warren (59). From now on we move optimistically forward. The sound of victory of Purpose Driven Life leaves insufficient room for the struggle in the Christian life which the New Testament presents to us. According to the New Testament, in your life you come up against your ‘old nature’ time and time again. You do not leave this behind when you enter the Christian life via the cross. On the contrary, that Christian life is characterised for an important part by that struggle against the old nature. Our brother Paul describes that struggle penetratingly in Romans 7.

Fortunately there is another side: the reality of a new life in the Spirit (Rom.8). Not only a possibility, but a reality! But it is this combination of Romans 7 and 8 which brings so much struggle in the life of a Christian. You are ‘crucifying yourself’, as Jesus said. If you represent that, as Warren does, with ‘finding your true self’ (19), you give the impression that you have not understood Jesus’ teaching. This ‘crucifying yourself’ is absent in Warren’s book. This creates a distance between Christians who really have discovered the reality of new life in the Spirit, but who, at the same time, know only too well that the new life is not without a struggle. The Christian life knows a struggle in which victories take place alongside setbacks.


In Purpose Driven Life, ‘believing’ is something present especially at the beginning of the Christian life: believing that God loves you and that He has made you for His purpose. To put it in a bit of an exaggerated way: ‘believing’ in Purpose Driven Life is especially a means to something else, a means to enter the Christian life. In the Bible, ‘believing’ is much more. It is a relationship in which I may live with Christ. A constant relationship in which I trust myself to him, have my all in Him and expect everything from Him.

This is my rock in the tempest of my Christian life, also when I suffer setbacks. I can keep going back to Christ. He is my righteousness, not only at the start of my Christian life, but continually. He knows my struggle. He encourages me, and again and again He lets me celebrate the Lord’s Supper. He wants to start with me anew, time after time.

Having all in Him – that is forgiveness but also renewal! Through Christ we become righteous and holy (1 Cor. 1:30). If the cross of Christ moves to the margins (and is only central at the entrance to the Christian life), not only my justification becomes something of the past but my sanctification becomes separated from Christ. Then the Christian life becomes a lonely adventure. The requirements are high, the ‘must’ remains, but who can possibly attain it?

This is the problem with the ‘must’ activism in The Purpose Driven Life which many people have noticed. Does Warren not speak of the Holy Spirit who wants to change us so that we take on Jesus’ image? Yes, he does. Receiving Jesus is also receiving His Spirit “who will give you the power to fulfil your life with purpose” (58). But in Warren’s view, this also comes down to the right choices that we must make.


We must cooperate with the Holy Spirit’s work ... The Holy Spirit releases His power the moment you take a step of faith ... Obedience unlocks God’s power.p. 174

We choose to do the right thing in situations and then trust God’s Spirit to give us his power, love, faith and wisdom to do it.p. 174

Spiritual growth is a collaborative effort between you and the Holy Spirit. God’s Spirit works with us, not just in us.180; Warren's emphasis

This last comment is an attempt to understand Philippians 2:12-13: “Continue to work out your salvation ... for it is God who works in you to will and to act...” The surprise in Paul’s words, that we can work because God works in us, is not found in Warren because he puts forward ‘a collaborative effort between us and the Holy Spirit’: the Spirit works in us and we work. A collaboration thus, between God and man. Warren’s theology appears to have a high Arminian calibre!

All in Christ🔗

That tiresome ‘must’ in The Purpose Driven Life has its origin here. When the cross of Christ no longer stands at the centre in the Christian life, sanctification fundamentally changes its character: once you have entered the Christian life, you will have to work on your goals yourself. You can use the power of the Holy Spirit which is available to you, but you will first have to make the right choices yourself! This is the restlessness of activism.

In contrast, how rich and deep are those words of Paul to which I referred: “It is because of Him (God) that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God – that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption...” (1 Cor.1:30). In Christ I have all, and everything comes to me from Him. The Spirit ensures that Christ dwells in me and rules my life from inside out (Eph.3:16-17). That is believing: not only an entrance to Christian life but the reality of a Christian life. Life in an ongoing relationship with Him who is my life, so that you can even say, with Paul: “I no longer live but Christ lives in me” (Gal.2:20).

That I am actively involved in that Christian life is beyond dispute (how else could that be possible, if Christ lives in me through the Spirit?). But that is the case because it is God who works the will and the deeds in me (Phil.2:12-13).

Right Desire🔗

How is it possible that a book in which the cross of Christ is not central, nevertheless appeals to so many Christians? I think that it has to do with a good desire; a desire to which we, with our Reformed spirituality, have paid too little attention for a long time.

True repentance, says the Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 33, consists of the old nature dying and the new nature coming to life. The putting to death of the old nature involves having sorrow for our sin, hatred of it and running away from it. In the Reformed faith experience, these are no unfamiliar terms. Can the same be said of the coming to life of the new nature? That is: heartfelt joy in God through Christ, desire and love to live according to the will of God in all good works? Perfection is certainly reserved for later, but there is truly a beginning now. Happiness, enthusiasm, dedication to live in God’s love, with God and with each other, to give some shape to this – could it not be desire for this reality which leads people to turn to a book such as Warren’s?

Dead with Christ in order to be raised with Him – that is the secret of the Christian life. All in Christ! That Christ, in the continuation of the redemption by His blood, wants now to be continually busy renewing us through his Spirit, so that we become the same sort of people as He was on earth – I think that for a time this has received too little attention.

Alongside this comes the realisation that there is much which is shallow and lukewarm within the churches. Indeed, sometimes there is regretfully little enthusiasm for that new life in Christ. All in all I could well imagine that people turn to a book such as The Purpose Driven Life. How to be a concrete, practical Christian – that is what the book is all about, and that is what it is for. Who would not want to go along with that?

dead sunflower

Let’s not lose sight of the good in Warren’s book. Let’s place it in a more Biblical framework.

With the words of Paul:

...that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ – the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.Philippians 3:8-11

‘Cross centred life’ – that is what it is all about. Sharing in Christ’s suffering and in the power of his resurrection. The one cannot exist without the other, and whoever thinks that this is possible, does not yet know Christ well enough. In practice, that can be true both of Evangelical Christians and Reformed Christians. Let us all as Evangelical and Reformed Christians learn, also from each other, that we have all in Christ!

Management and Biblical Wisdom🔗

When I read The Purpose Driven Life, I thought to myself: where have I read this before? And suddenly I remembered: in a book that has been just as much of a best­seller in the management sector as Warren’s book on church territory: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, by Stephen R Covey (Simons & Schuster, 1999). Covey begins with: make choices; be proactive, do not be dependent upon your circumstances. And the first one is: make goals. Where do you want to finish? Begin with the end in mind. Make an image in your mind of where you want to go. That image determines how we furnish our lives.

Warren writes: “The way in which you look at life, forms your life” (42). If you do not keep your goal in front of you, you are not being effective. Keeping your goal up front prevents you from coming up against unused possibilities, unnecessary tension and an empty life (30). Four of the five ‘advantages’ of leading a purpose driven life which Warren names (30ff), could have been lifted out of Covey’s management book:

  1. your life takes on meaning;
  2. your life is simplified;
  3. you have direction in your life;
  4. it forms your life motivation. Only the fifth advantage is directly Christian:
  5. it prepares you for eternity (whereby the danger arises that earthly life receives insufficient value; according to Warren you are only here on earth to prepare for eternity).

At the end of the book Warren recommends that his readers make a Life Declaration (321ff). In this you summarise what God’s aims are for your life, and you indicate what you will do and not do, in order to reach these goals. You write what your values are and what your tasks are, and how you are going to serve God in a way which suits how He has created you. You can also read this in Covey. He calls it a ‘personal statute’. In this you write down what you want to be and what you want to do, and what your values and principles are.

In The Purpose Driven Church Warren writes about forming goals: in order to make a goal effective, it must not only be Biblical but also specific, transferable and measurable (96f). The last three requirements do not come from the Bible but from what Warren requires of a goal.


Is it not allowed to benefit from the wisdom of management theories? Of course it is! There you find human wisdom, which you could reach using your common sense. And you can also connect these to the Bible! Naturally it is Biblical to say that God has created us with an aim (see for example, the Heidelberg catechism, Q&A 6). A Purpose Driven Life could be typically Christian. Common sense and Biblical wisdom do not oppose each other. The wisdom to be found in the Bible book Proverbs, for example, really does not oppose common sense! In this connection, it is also noticeable that in a personal note at the end of his book, Covey points to God as the source of all good principles.

To the degree to which we align ourselves with correct principles, divine endowments will be released within our nature enabling us to fulfil the measure of our creation.319

In principle, there is no problem if Warren wants to describe the Christian life using management methods and Biblical goals (for the church and for every Christian) worked into the establishment of aims. There is only a problem if that means that real Biblical elements are lost.

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