Thursday, October 8, 2015

An email I wrote about Rick Warren

Oh my, a blog post after so long! Yes, I am still alive.

The following is an email I sent to a woman, who had discovered my reservations with Rick Warren, and was curious for the reason. I decided to share it here, since it covers a lot of material. Nothing personal about the individual I was writing this to is in the email itself.
Herein are my thoughts regarding Rick Warren. For the sake of organization, I've actually divided this email up into sections. I know this might seem too formal, but you know I'm a stickler for organization, and it helped me put my thoughts together.


Before I begin, I'd like to establish two things.

First, while I know you've told me a thousand times over you want me to be honest with you about this, I've still had too many experiences with people in the past to do this too openly and honestly. So please understand these are simply my findings (from Biblical study and my time doing discernment research) in regards to Rick Warren, his ministry, and his peers. This is not a personal attack against you, or your family, or even your home worship. As I've told you on Twitter, I have the utmost respect for you, you've been a major influence on my authorship, and I consider you a friend. I'm doing this because you've asked me to do it, but I believe in speaking the truth in love (Eph 4:15). If at times I get passionate, it's because of my passion for God and His word.

Second, let me make it clear that, obviously, God is sovereign over salvation (as attested to by John 6, Ephesians 1-2, etc.). I don't deny that God can make a flower grow out of dirt, or draw a line with a crooked stick, or whatever metaphor we can use for turning something bad into something good. I knew someone who was saved reading the Jehovah's Witness translation of the Bible (which is one of the most corrupt translations out there). However, let's likewise recognize that God's use of a crooked stick doesn't redeem the crooked stick itself. That God can save people by using the Jehovah's Witness translation doesn't make it a good translation, or one Christians should use. God used the murder of innocent children in Bethlehem (Mt 2:16-18) to give legitimacy to Christ's position as Messiah - that doesn't excuse what Herod did.

With all that established...

Use of Scripture

I'm going to open up this part of the email bluntly. Rick Warren is, perhaps, one of the worst expositors of God's word I've ever come across. Maybe he's not the worst, to be fair, but he definitely ranks among all those I've read or listened to. I actually own a copy of The Purpose Driven Life, and have tried to get through it, but I've been unable to finish it so far. Some reasons for this:

1) He placed all his scripture references at the end of the book. To be fair, he's not the only one to have ever done this (Josh McDowell does this too), but it's annoying as heck for those of us that want to be good Bereans and examine our scriptures to see if the teachings are correct (Acts 17:11). I eventually scanned the reference pages and used them to bookmark the book, so that way I could go back and reference it.

2) Every single time he uses a passage of scripture, I have to pause and review the context. I generally do this for everybody, but I have to do it with him especially...because virtually every single passage of scripture he cites or quotes is mishandled.

Obviously, the charge of misusing God's word is a serious one, so I have provided some examples from the book itself (I could use examples from sermons/speeches he's given, but I use the book as a grounding). Below are three examples.

Ephesians 3:20: On page 31, while promising that "wonderful changes are going to happen in your life as long as you begin to live it on purpose," Warren later adds "you may feel you are facing an impossible situation, but the Bible says"...and then proceeds to cite Ephesians 3:20 from the Living Bible, which reads: " able to do far more than we would ever dare to ask or even dream of - infinitely beyond our highest prayers, desires, thoughts and hopes." His obvious connection is that, despite what life throws at us, God is going to bring us anything we so desire to make us happy again.

The first problem is that the Living Bible is a paraphrase, not a translation, and the original wording (and full sentence) is: "Now to Him who is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us, to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen" (Eph 3:20-21; NASB). Paul is praying, not giving a statement. In fact, Paul is giving a prayer to God at the tail end of a long Gospel message to the Ephesian believers. He has just gone into detail about how God's plan of salvation was carried out from eternity (Ephesians 1), and how it was done sovereign act of God upon Jews and Gentiles, not on the basis of works but by the basis of faith gifted by Him (Ephesians 2), and is how summing up he hopes the Ephesians understand the glory and majesty of their salvation (Ephesians 3). Verse 20 is not about how chipper God can make us after a bad day - Verse 20 is part of a praise by the apostle Paul towards God for this wonderful salvation gifted to us. Paul is talking about salvation, not a therapeutic fortune cookie message, which is what Warren transformed it into.

Philippians 3:13: In one of the most amazing uses of scripture in the book (and one which made me literally scream "WHAT?!"), Warren writes: "...the apostle Paul almost single-handedly spread Christianity throughout the Roman Empire. His secret was a focused life. He said, 'I am focusing all my energies on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead.' [Php 3:13; NLT]" To understand just how badly Warren mishandled this passage, we need to review the full context of the chapter.

Paul is taking a moment to attack the Judaizers (the "false circumcision," as per verse 2) who believed that in order to be saved, you had to become Jewish and follow the Jewish ritualistic and ceremonial laws. Paul says that if anyone has confidence in the flesh, he should, because he meets all the criteria of that time for what amounted to a "perfect Jew" (verses 4-6). However, all those things Paul mentions, which the Judaizers would have greatly envied, he considers nothing - in fact, he literally considers them, as per the original Greek, "crap" (the NASB says "rubbish"), if losing them means knowing Christ, his salvation, and the resurrection promised through faith in him (verses 7-11). To Paul, it's not how great your lineage or standing before the Jewish Law was - it was knowing Christ and the eternal promise the Good Shepherd had for his sheep.

Not we get to verse 12, where Paul says: "Not that I have already obtained it or have already become perfect, but I press on so that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus." Meaning that Paul hasn't already obtained the resurrection of the dead or anything like that, but he's striving forward so that he may one day see Christ in all his glory. Now we get to verses 13-14, which show an even fuller context for what Warren quoted: "Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus."

So immediately, let's talk about what Paul is saying here. Is he speaking about how he made Christianity so big in the Roman Empire? No, not at all; he's talking about focusing on faith in Christ. Warren's application of Php 3:13 in this scenario is therefore irrelevant. Furthermore, is Paul talking about how much "focus" he has in his day to day life? No. Paul is saying that he puts all his faith in Christ, and he looks forward to the day when there shall be a resurrection of the dead, and the saints shall be glorified with their king. As you can see, Rick Warren completely mangled this verse to try to teach people to stop living crazy lives. He blatantly used it out of context.

Jeremiah 29:11: He quotes this on pages 31 and 78 of the book, but he's actually used this verse a couple of times in other sermons. In fact, a lot of people use this verse, and always in the same way: as if God has some wonderful, super duper plan for their current life, like he's going to make our earthly time better. AND THEY'RE ALL DEAD WRONG. Every time I hear this verse misquoted, it's like nails on a chalkboard for me. If you go to the beginning of Jeremiah 29, you see that it's addressed to the Jews living in the Babylonian captivity. If you look at chapter 10, you see that God is promising to fulfill His word that the exiles will be restored back to the holy land after the seventy years of captivity are up. It has nothing to do with us. In fact, to be perfectly blunt, I find the misuse of this verse insulting to Christian men and women of the past. What were the "plans for welfare and not for calamity" that God had for the apostle Paul, who was beheaded under house arrest? What was the wonderful plan God had in store for the early Christian martyrs who were torn apart by lions? What was that wonderful plan which God had for Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the great Lutheran theologian who was hung naked in a Nazi concentration camp? See, Jeremiah 29:11, ripped from it's original context, may look great on a bumper sticker you can buy at Lifeway, but it loses all meaning when you look at the original context, or you try to apply it to Christians throughout history.

One of the most common problems I see with Warren's use of scripture is he interprets it therapeutically. He's even openly said that when you read a passage of scripture, your first motive should be to think on how to apply it to people's daily lives. Um, no. That's not how I would want someone reading my books, so why would I read God's book that way? A passage of scripture teaches what it teaches. Yes, it could be made applicable, but within the context of which it speaks, not in a spiritualized understanding that removes the original context. We saw this already in the passages I examined before.

Another major problem with Warren's use of scripture in the book, and one which has often been lodged against him by critics, is his erratic use of multiple translations. In Chapter 9 alone, for example, he uses excerpts from the NLT, the Message (which is a paraphrase), the Living Bible (again, paraphrase), the NIV, TEV, CEV, the KJV, and the GWT. That's eight translations used in just one chapter

Now, I'm fully aware that his excuse is, "It's good to review different translations in regards to nuance of language." The problem is, I never see him doing that in the book. I've done that before, where I might use the NASB, but I'll say, "The Hebrew word means this, which is better rendered in the NET," etc. Warren, however, doesn't do that. It's quite obvious that the reason he uses so many translations is he's trying to get a certain wording out of them in order to prove his point - in fact, if you look at the original language or a better translation, his point suddenly runs into problems. 

One example I can give of Rick Warren's picking-and-choosing of translations (another one, even worse, will come later) is on page 48, when, speaking of us living here temporarily, he quotes the GWT rendition of 1 Peter 1:17 with: "If you call God your Father, live your time as temporary residents on earth." However, any Greek equivalent to "temporary residents" is nowhere to be found in the text. A better translation of the verse is: "If you address as Father the One who impartially judges according to each one’s work, conduct yourselves in fear during the time of your stay on earth" [NASB; "on earth" is in italics because it's not in the original Greek, but is put there for translation clarity]. Peter's point was that, if we are true Christians, we should live our lives as holy before the Lord. Peter was in no way trying to emphasize, "We're only here temporarily, so make it worth it!"


Also concerning for me is Warren's general theology. He comes across as Semi-Pelagian, in that we must either work for our salvation somehow, cooperate with God for our salvation, or (speaking generally, not soteriologically) we must do something in order to get God to do something. In fact, a lot of his teachings (like a lot of megachurch sermons) are just pure Law. Even if he doesn't come out and say it's Law, it's still a matter of "God wants to do this, but first we must do this." Any time we create our relationship with God into a tit-for-tat, we bring in works, and we place ourselves under the Law. Warren, and those who follow his teaching style, continually fall into this trap. "If you do this, then this will happen." "If you do this, God will start doing this for you." Everything is works. Nothing is Gospel. In fact, sometimes the Gospel gets muddled in there.

One example of this is when Warren says in his book, "Every time you pass a test, God notices and makes plans to reward you in eternity" (pg. 44). That is blatant works; you do something, God gives you a reward. Worst still, Warren follows this up with a quote from the GWT version of James 1:12, which reads: "Blessed are those who endure when they are tested. When they pass the test, they will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him." 

Two problems with this:

1) James is not speaking about those who "pass a test," but rather the one who "perseveres under trial" (NASB). He's talking about enduring temptations (as verses 13-15 go on to show). Notice another example where Warren grabbed a translation that said what he wanted it to say.

2) The "crown of life" is not a reward we earn. Rather, it is a symbol of our eternal salvation, hence it's similar use in 1 Pet 5:4 and Rev 2:10. This is given to us by Christ, who earned it for us on the cross.

Hence, Rick Warren took a passage about our salvation being realized after enduring temptations, and turned it into a special rewards program with God, as if God is a divine credit card company. I could cite other examples from his book and lectures/sermons he's given, but that is one such example of how he transforms the message of the Bible into a quid quo pro thing that people have to do.

This is where it's important to understand where our deeds come into place. When I do good, I do good out of honor to the Savior who bought me with his blood - not because I believe I will get anything out of it. I have already received what I need from Christ. The only thing I contributed to my salvation is the sin that sent God the Son to the cross. When we are regenerated by God's grace, we are made new creations (2 Co 5:17), and that new creation will perform as a new creation should. That doesn't mean we're perfect and sinless, but the heart set to God does not look at the flesh the way the old heart used to (Rom 8:5), and hence acts accordingly.

A good example of our works flowing from Christ's work (rather than our works seeking to obtain benefits of Christ's work) is seen in the Epistle to the Colossians: because we have been raised up, we should seek the things above (Col 3:1); because we are the chosen of God, we should put on a heart of compassion, kindness, etc. (Col 3:12); because Christ has forgiven us, so should we forgive (Col 3:13). In our salvation, we always have the indicative before the imperative - not the other way around.

In short, we do not say "baa" because we want to be sheep; we say "baa" because we are sheep. A person born of God will behave like a person born of God, just as a person born of sheep will behave like a sheep. If we do things, it is from that nature God has granted us in our heart. In fact, this was the nature of the new covenant under Christ:

“Behold, days are coming, says the Lord, When I will effect a new covenant With the house of Israel and with the house of Judah; Not like the covenant which I made with their fathers On the day when I took them by the hand To lead them out of the land of Egypt; For they did not continue in My covenant, And I did not care for them, says the Lord. “For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel After those days, says the Lord: I will put My laws into their minds, And I will write them on their hearts. And I will be their God, And they shall be My people. And they shall not teach everyone his fellow citizen, And everyone his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ For all will know Me, From the least to the greatest of them. For I will be merciful to their iniquities, And I will remember their sins no more.” [Heb 8:8-12; quoting from Jer 31:31-34]


Another problem with Warren is his soft-handed approach towards dealing with other groups. He has a bad habit of attempting to appeal to everyone he wants to speak to, and acting as if he's one of them. While it's alright to talk to people as social equals, it's another to act as if you are theologically similar, or you're exactly what they would expect someone to be. Salesmen call this "mirroring" - you sense what the other person wants to hear, or what they think like, and you attempt to mirror it back to them in conversation. Critics of Warren have pointed out instances in conversations and interviews (for example, his softball interview with John Piper) where Warren is clearly demonstrating this kind of tactic.

The result of this is plain. In some instances, Warren completely avoids bringing up the Gospel (for example, his TED Talk speech, which even Billy Graham used to give the Gospel). In other instances (such as when he spoke to Muslims), he completely minimizes doctrine so that he gives a very inclusivist presentation. You can likewise see this in how he's often unable to properly pronounce or use words; for example, when he was speaking to John Piper, and tried to come across as Reformed by using the word "monergist," but mispronounced it as mah-ner-gist rather than the correct way of mah-ner-jest. Now, no one's going to hell for mispronouncing word, but my point is that someone who is a passionate member of something would at least be able to pronounce their words right - I wouldn't expect a die-hard Communist to mispronounce Vladimir Lenin's name wrong. Warren mispronouncing "monergist" shows he's not familiar enough with the word to know how it's pronounced; which shows he's not a real monergist, he's just trying to pass himself off as one to please the monergists.

I once got in a discussion with a brother in Christ about who was more dangerous: Rick Warren, or Joel Osteen. We agreed that Warren was the worst of the two. The reason behind this was that Osteen is fairly blatant about what he is - he's a Word of Faith, Prosperity Gospel heretic. Warren, on the other hand, tries to be everybody. He's chameleonic. You can't say what he is because he doesn't want to use labels or set in stone what he is, and hence straddles both sides of every fence. He reminds me of an old fable about a bat and the war between birds and beasts: when the birds went to him, the bat said, "I'm a beast!" and when the beasts came to him, the bat said "I'm a bird!"; when the war was over, no one wanted him on their side because no one trusted him.

Part of this you can even see in Warren's book, where he can be incredibly vague with his language. Warren will talk about how Jesus, in the garden, surrendered to "God's plan," but he never really elaborates what that plan was. He talks about friendship with God, but sometimes seems to confuse it with both sanctification and justification. He talks about problems and issues facing us, but never refers to sin or elaborates on how sin affects our relationship with God. He writes just enough of something so that an undiscerning or innocent Christian might read his work and think, "Okay, orthodox enough," but a lot of what he says can be taken in a secular way as well. A lot of it is just theological fluff, and is dangerously vague.


After reading and listening to Rick Warren over the years, I have no doubt that he is a dangerous false teacher. I wouldn't want my wife listening to him unless I was there to help her discern, and I certainly wouldn't want my daughter listening to him.

I don't necessarily believe that a lot of what he says or does comes from malicious intent. I don't think he's up in a castle on a hill, cackling away while lightning strikes. I've heard that in his early days, he was actually pretty orthodox, and pretty learned in his bible study. I'm sure, in his mind, he thinks he's helping people, or teaching what people want. The problem is, most heresies start out with good intentions. Warren probably has a lot in common with the late-fourth century heretic Pelagius, who initially just wanted to encourage people to follow God's commands of holiness but went too far. What we must remember is that the saying is "the road to hell is paved with good intentions," not "the road to heaven."

Of course, all this can be a lot to take in. What I always tell people when I write or speak on this is to simply be good Bereans, and examine the scriptures. Hold everything up to the light of scripture. Don't just take my word for it - see who is honestly handling the word of God. A pet peeve of mine is when I exegete something, and I'm promptly told, "Well, that's YOUR opinion!" or "Well, that's just YOUR interpretation." My response is, "Alright, then please show me how I'm wrong." 99% of the time, I never receive a response back, because the person is making bluster, not substance. But again, I always tell people simply this: I've gone to the original languages, I've looked at the context, and I've looked to see if Warren has taught scripture faithfully. I've found, nearly every time, that he hasn't. If he has, then that should be proven from the verses he's citing.

I've mentioned authorship and misquoting before. We're both authors. It's possible to be misquoted. It's possible for people to misinterpret words. However, these aren't the words of fallible man - these are the holy words of God. They should be treated with much more reverence and honor than any other printed word. Someday we will all stand before God, and we will be judged rightly for what was in our hearts. If what came forth from our hearts was therapeutic nonsense, or words we claimed belong to God that weren't, then God is going to judge us rightly. The Old Testament is riddled with examples of those who spoke falsely in God's name, or taught falsely in God's name, and were judged harshly. Christ himself warned of those who would claim to know him and claim to do miracles in his name, and yet be cast into judgment at the end (Matt 7:22-23).

The fact is, we must be discerning sheep. We must listen for the voice of our shepherd. If we do not hear our voice, or we hear someone trying to imitate his voice, then we must flee from him. Believe me when I say Warren is someone to flee from.

I hope this email has been informative and gracious.