“I am convinced that we as Christ followers in American churches have embraced values and ideas that are not only unbiblical but that actually contradict the gospel we claim to believe. And I am convinced we have a choice. You and I can choose to continue with business as usual in the Christian life and in the church as a whole, enjoying success based on the standards defined by the culture around us. Or we can take an honest look at the Jesus of the Bible and dare to ask what the consequences might be if we really believed him and really obeyed him.”
These are the words evangelical mega-church Pastor David Platt writes in his popular 2010 book, Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream. His aim is to provide a corrective for what he views as a terribly self-centered North American church, and he is passionate about it:
“Here we stand amid an American dream dominated by self-advancement, self-esteem, and self-sufficiency, by individualism, materialism, and universalism. Yet I want to show you our desperate need to revisit the words of Jesus, to listen to them, to believe them, and to obey them. We need to return with urgency to a biblical gospel, because the cost of not doing so is great for our lives, our families, our churches, and the world around us…
For the sake of more than a billion people today who have yet even to hear the gospel, I want to risk it all. For the same of the twenty-six thousand children who will die today of starvation or a preventable disease, I want to risk it all. For the sake of an increasingly marginalized and relatively ineffective church in our culture, I want to risk it all. For the sake of my life, my family, and the people who surround me, I want to risk it all.”
Platt is to be commended for his insight into the condition of many North America churches, as well as his boldness in calling them out. Also laudable is his insistence on lifting up the grace of God in Jesus Christ alone, as the way of salvation. “In the Gospel God reveals the depth of our need for him. He shows us that there is absolutely nothing we can do to come to him.”
However, as one reads along with him, a repeated theme and ever increasing burden begins to reveal itself. In short, though he notes it is by grace alone that we are saved, he asserts it is by this same grace that we are “required,” “commanded,” and even “demanded” to reshape our lives into radical obedience to Jesus and his command to make disciples of all nations.
“If you are serious about taking this journey I believe a couple of preconditions exist. This goes back to the two big questions I started asking myself when I realized I was a megachurch leader trying to follow a minichurch leader. First, from the outset you need to “commit” to “believe” whatever Jesus says…Then second, you need to “commit” to “obey” what you have heard. The gospel does not prompt you to mere reflection; the gospel requires a response.”
The title of his book is Radical for a reason. His premise is that if Christians had an authentic radical obedience to Jesus Christ, they would look and act a lot different than what is typical in churches today.
” And I am not alone. In the faith family I have the privilege to lead, I am joined by wealthy doctors who are selling their homes and giving to the poor or moving overseas; successful business leaders who are mobilizing their companies to help the hurting; young couples who have moved into the inner city to live out the gospel; and senior adults, stay-at-home moms, college students, and teenagers who are reorienting their lives around radical abandonment to Jesus. I’ll introduce you to many of them in the course of this book…”
This is where the burden begins to continually increase. Though he claims we are saved by grace alone, through Jesus Christ alone, the portrayal of this grace turns out to be rather confusing and decidedly legalistic.
You might think this sounds as though we have to earn our way to Jesus through radical obedience, but that is not the case at all. Indeed, “it is by grace you [are] saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.” We are saved from our sins by a free gift of grace, something that only God can do in us and that we cannot manufacture ourselves… [Yet] we want him so much that we abandon everything else to experience him. This is the only proper response to the revelation of God in the gospel.
With that last sentence all of his wonderful gift and grace language is, in the end, utterly destroyed by assertions of “the only proper response” is to “abandon everything else to experience him.”
Lutheran theology is very uncomfortable with theology that says one can experience God through our own actions or behaviors. This is why Lutherans are so profoundly sacramental in our understanding of how we experience God. “Accordingly, we should and must maintain that God will not deal with us except through his eternal Word and sacrament. Whatever is attributed to the Spirit apart from such Word and sacrament is of the devil.” (SA, Part III, Article IV, 10).
True, Platt is offering God’s Word. And he is simply saying that we must be “radically obedient” to it. But the problem is that the way he speaks about God’s grace is not consistent with how he portrays God’s grace: “While the wonder of grace is worthy of our attention, if that grace is disconnected from its purpose, the sad result is a self-centered Christianity that bypasses the heart of God.” The purpose of this grace, then, is portrayed through all those whom he notes to abandon everything, go overseas, care for the poor, and give up their life for the Gospel. Though he attempts to say doing such things are not necessary for salvation, he is bold to question the authenticity of someone’s faith who does not do such things. Thus, his portrayal of grace goes from a gift of love to a demand for obedience.
However, for my thoughtful critics out there, please note. I do get it. I understand where Platt is coming from. My first congregation was a white collar, advanced degree, business oriented, suburban, (LCMS) Lutheran mega-church, that had three full time pastors and 3,300 members. So believe me when I say I get what he is saying. But even so, I cannot give up my Lutheran sensibilities that clearly disagree with making the gift of the Gospel into a law to be obeyed.
When I later became the Sr. Pastor of a mid-sized, small town congregation (800+ members) and school, filled with primarily blue collar and farming, salt of the earth folks, I question if Platt’s critique is aimed more at his own evangelical denominational affluent cultural tendencies, rather than all of North American Christianity?
Even so, I found no small amount of irony in his book. Though he wants to risk it all, I find it curious that he remains in all the comforts of his megachurch lead pastor role. Even more, it is curious that the congregational members, who he elevates as wonderful examples of responding to the Gospel, come primarily from an affluent, white collar, business oriented, advanced degree, privileged culture—the very culture he is railing against!
Yet, the farmers, the electricians, the mechanics, the construction workers, the carpenters, the factory workers, and the teachers who make up the majority of my congregation, would be made to feel inadequate in their “response” to the gospel because they do not have the skills that doctors do or the means that wealthy business owners do. Sure, they can serve the Lord, their neighbor, and their family in their vocations, and they can most certainly give witness to their neighbors, but should they read Radical, they would quickly get the feeling that what they are doing is not enough, and most certainly not “the proper response to the Gospel.”
In the end, I appreciate the corrective that Platt is trying to make upon the organizational nature of many North American churches. I also commend him in his zeal to reach out to the lost by radical means. But I cannot agree with how he portrays grace. For all of his wonderful propositional statements about the grace of God in Jesus Christ, his narrative demands of grace will leave most readers feeling unworthy and inadequate, quite possibly even despairing if they are doing enough to “properly respond to the Gospel.” For Lutherans, that is not grace. That is not the Gospel.
As always, I invite your collegial reactions and your constructive comments as we seek to dialogue about what it means to be a 21st century Lutheran who “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4).