Getting to the Root of Radical: A Review and Response
I really like David Platt. We’ve spoken at the same conferences a couple times and run in some overlapping circles. My personal interactions with him have always been encouraging. David, the pastor of The Church at Brook Hills (a four-thousand member congregation in Birmingham, Alabama), is humble, down to earth, funny, a devoted student of the Scriptures, and a gifted preacher.
And if you’ve heard him speak, you may have noticed that he is kind of passionate.
I’m glad David is one of the good guys because I expect the Lord will give him an increasingly large platform in the years ahead in his city, the Southern Baptist Convention, the broader evangelical world, and the global church that he loves so deeply.
His first book, Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream (which I read first and later decided to review when TGC Reviews asked me to) is not for the faint of heart. Radical is an all-out assault on cheap grace, easy-believism, consumer Christianity. Writing as a megachurch pastor leading a congregation in a leafy suburb of Birmingham, David admits this is hard to reconcile with his present situation “with the fact that my greatest example in ministry [Jesus Christ] was known for turning away thousands of people” (2). David hits hard, but never claims to have it all figured out.
David’s honesty and wide range of experiences (from teaching houses churches in China to fleeing Hurricane Katrina) make him an accessible and engaging author. Combining real-life examples from his congregation, his travels abroad, and his own personal wrestling, David has written a provocative book that will serve as a wake up call to many Christians who are ignorant of their own cultural captivity and indifferent to the needs of the poor and the plight of lost.
There is much to like about Radical. I applaud David’s call for serious discipleship. I love his bold words about counting the cost and pursuing something better and riskier than the “good life.” I am grateful he never shies away from the hard edges of God’s sovereignty and God’s wrath. I especially appreciated Chapter Seven (“There is No Plan B”) where David walks through the book of Romans and makes a strong case for why non-Christians must hear the gospel and put conscious faith in Christ in order to be saved and why Christians must make it a priority to reach those who have never heard.
Radical is a stirring book that will help many Christians.
A Few Concerns
But not everything here is helpful. Let me highlight a few concerns I have with the book and with the some elements of the larger “get radical, get crazy Christianity” that is increasingly popular with younger evangelicals. I hesitate to mention these concerns because there is so much in the book I agree with and because David does provide caveats here and there to soften the blow of his rhetoric. But people tend to hear what we are most passionate about, and I’m afraid the take-home message from Radical for many people may reinforce some common misconceptions about what it means to be sold-out for Jesus.
Here are a few concerns in increasing order of importance.
First, I think David’s context sometimes leads him to overstate his conclusions. For example, David is very negative about church buildings, calling them “temples,” “empires,” and “kingdoms” (118). I can’t help but feel that David’s own struggle with preaching “in one of these giant buildings” has forced him to speak too sweepingly about the way most churches in America (which are small) approach their facilities (119).
Second, we need a better understanding of poverty and wealth in the world. The Christian needs to be generous, but generous charity is not the answer to the world’s most pressing problems of hunger, inadequate medical care, and grinding poverty. Wealth is created in places where the rule of law is upheld, property rights are secured, people are free to be entrepreneurs, and there is sufficient social capital to encourage risk-taking. We can and should do good with our giving. But we must not lead people to believe that most of human suffering would be alleviated if we simply gave more.
Third, there is an implicit, underlying utilitarian ethic in many “radical” streams of Christianity that makes faithfulness to Christ impossibly daunting. To his credit, Platt says we don’t need to feel guilty for everything that is not an absolute necessity (127). But earlier we are made to feel bad for the money we spend on french fries (108). It is easy to stir people to action by relating how little everyone else has and how much we have in America, but we are not meant to have constant low-level guilt because we could be doing more.
Paragraphs like this pack a punch, but on closer inspection are not as helpful as they seem:
Meanwhile, the poor man is outside our gate. And he is hungry. In the time we gather for worship on a Sunday morning, almost a thousand children elsewhere die because they have no food. If it were our kids starving, they would all be gone by the time we said our closing prayer. We certainly wouldn’t ignore our kids while we sang songs and entertained ourselves, but we are content with ignoring other parents’ kids. Many of them are our spiritual brothers and sisters in the developing nations. They are suffering from malnutrition, deformed bodies and brains, and preventable diseases. At most, we are throwing our scraps to them while we indulge in our pleasures here. Kind of like an extra chicken for the slaves at Christmas. (115)
I know David believes in the necessity of corporate worship but I’m not sure how our obligation to worship squares with this paragraph. Surely, we are not guilty for worshiping on Sundays just because the poor exist. Moreover, surely it is appropriate to hold to believe in some sort of moral proximity when it comes to the pressing needs of the world. We do have more responsibility for the boy drowning in our pool than for the boy starving on the other side of the world. The whole world wasn’t rebuked for neglecting the man on the Jericho road, but the priest and Levite were (Luke 10:29-37). The needs of the church come before the needs of the world (Gal. 6:10) and the needs of our families take on a priority that other needs don’t (1 Tim. 5:8).
Along the same lines, as evangelicals rediscover a biblical concern for the poor we must be careful our applications are tied to careful exegesis. Some passages we quickly employ, like James 5 (see p. 109), are not just about the rich, but about the ungodly rich who acquire their wealth by cheating the poor. And other passages like the rich young ruler (Mark 10, Luke 18), which David uses extensively, must be seen in their larger context. The question “Who then can be saved?”—referring to the disappointed rich man in Luke 18—is answered in Luke 19 where Zacchaeus gives, not everything away, but half of his goods to the poor (v. 8). Others in Luke are well-regarded for simply supporting the disciples “out of their means” (8:3). The point of the rich young ruler is not to make us worried that having anything might be too much, but to help us see more clearly the models of lived out faith in wealthy people like Zacchaeus and Joseph of Arimathea (Matt. 27:57; Luke 23:50-56).
Fourth, I worry that radical and crazy Christianity cannot be sustained. If the message of Jesus translates into “Give more away” or “Sacrifice for the gospel” or “Get more radical” we will end up with burned out evangelicals. Even when Jesus said his hard saying (and he said a lot of them) it was not his basic stump speech. His message was repent and believe in the gospel (Mark 1:15). When Jesus challenged the crowds to count the cost or let the dead bury their dead it was to make clear that following him was not all about miracles and wonders, it was about giving him the preeminence. The emphasis was doxological first and foremost. Worship Christ. Believe in Christ. Walk with Christ. And therefore, before you follow Christ be prepared for opposition.
I don’t worry for David’s theology, but I worry that some young Christians reading his book might walk away wondering if a life spent working as a loan officer, tithing to their church, praying for their kids, learning to love Christ more, and serving in the Sunday school could possibly be pleasing to God. We need to find a way to attack the American dream while still allowing for differing vocations and that sort of ordinary Christian life that can plod along for fifty years. I imagine David wants this same thing. I’m just not sure this came through consistently in the book.
Fifth and finally, we must do more to plant the plea for sacrificial living more solidly in the soil of gospel grace. Several times David talks about the love of Christ as our motivation for radical discipleship or the power of God and the means for radical discipleship. But I didn’t sense the strong call to obedience was slowly marinated in God’s lavish mercy. I wanted to see sanctification more clearly flowing out of justification.
Now I don’t believe that every command we ever give must include a drawn explanation of the gospel. But in a book-length treatment of such an important topic I would have liked to have seen “all we need to do in obedience to God” growing more manifestly out of “all God’s done for us.” At times the discipleship model came across as: “Here’s how we need to live. Here’s how we are falling short. Here’s how Christ can help us live the way we ought.” The gospel looks more like a means to obey the law, instead of resting in the gospel as respite from the law.
Further, I wish there was more of an emphasis on what we do when we fall short of radical obedience. How do we get balm for our stricken consciences? Where do we find rest for our sin-sick souls? Just as importantly, I would hope that as David speaks in risky ways in order to challenge us all to shake off nominal Christianity, he would also on occasion speak in such a risky way that he’s charged with antinomianism (Rom. 6:1). On the whole, I think the motivation for obedience in Radical would have been more biblical and more balanced if it landed more squarely on the greatness of God’s love for us as opposed to the nature of the world’s great need and our great failures.
In conclusion, I should say that David and I have had a chance to talk about some of these matters over the phone. His demeanor could not have been any kinder. He listened humbly and pushed back graciously. I’m happy to call David a friend and look forward to learning from him in the years ahead. To that end I’ve invited him to respond to my review and suggest any areas he thinks I’ve misread or any areas he might want to clarify.
David’s Platt’s Response
I really like Kevin DeYoung. I am thankful to call him my friend, and I join with a multitude of evangelicals who are increasingly grateful for the grace of God expressed in his keen mind, his sharp wit, his theological acumen, his gentle spirit, and his pastoral wisdom. For this reason, I was thankful to discover that he would be reviewing the book I recently wrote entitled Radical: Taking Back Your Faith From The American Dream. I was thankful because I knew that even if I did not agree with everything Kevin might write, nonetheless his insight, analysis, and critique would serve readers well in avoiding any potential pitfalls they might encounter in processing or applying what I have written. On a more personal level, I was thankful because I know I have so much to learn as pastor, preacher, writer, and most importantly follower of Christ, and I need brothers like Kevin DeYoung to sharpen me in my own life and ministry.
While Kevin was writing his review, we had an opportunity to discuss a variety of issues, and in turn he invited me to offer a response to some of the ideas he has articulated. Kevin is gracious to give me this opportunity, and I am grateful for it. In what follows, my goal is not to respond to every single sentence he has written, but instead to express some thoughts on what I believe are the most significant concerns in his review, and in turn to address what I believe are some of the most important issues for discussion among readers of Radical.
Gospel-Driven and Grace-Saturated
Over and above everything else, I want to convey a shared concern with Kevin for gospel-driven, grace-saturated, God-glorifying obedience. The last thing I want to do is to leave people living with low-level guilt, constantly wondering, “When am I going to be radical enough? What do I need to do, how do I need to give, or where do I need to go in order to do enough for God?” These are obviously unhealthy questions, for the gospel teaches us that Christ alone is able to do enough. He alone has been faithful enough, generous enough, compassionate enough, etc. The gospel beckons our sin-sick souls to simple trust in Christ, the only One who is truly radical enough. In him, we no longer live from a position of guilt, but from a position of righteousness.
All of this to say – comments in Radical like the assertion that over 3 billion people live on less than $2 a day (they struggle to find food, water, medical care, and shelter with the same amount we spend on french fries for lunch) or the reality that multitudes of our brothers and sisters around the world are suffering with malnourished bodies and deformed brains because they have no food or water are not intended to promote guilt-driven obedience. Instead, my goal is simply to help open our eyes to realities in the world that we would rather ignore and to call us to look at those realities through the eyes of the One who “though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9; p. 113 in Radical).
Worship With Our Eyes Wide Open
Along similar lines, I certainly want to clarify any confusion regarding my comments about worshiping while approximately a thousand children in the world around us die of starvation or preventable disease. My goal is in no way to question the biblical warrant or practical need for us to gather together for worship. Instead, my goal is simply to call us to worship God in a way that opens our eyes to the needs of those who are hurting around us. Surely true worship of God compels tender mercy toward others (Is. 1:10-17; Am. 5:21-24; Mic. 6:6-8; Jas. 2:1-24). On a brief side note, and I don’t believe this is a major point for discussion here, but in light of churches spending up to $115 million on buildings in our day, I do think we need to examine our use of resources in churches of all sizes when it comes to buildings.
A Possible Point of Disagreement
All this leads to a point that Kevin and I may differ on, at least to some degree. I would certainly agree that there is a level of moral proximity that governs our response to needs in the world. Without question, I am uniquely accountable before God for needs in my physical family as well as the faith family I lead called The Church at Brook Hills. At the same time, there is clear Scriptural precedent for also helping our brothers and sisters in other churches. One of the primary examples of giving we see in the New Testament is the offering among various churches for the church at Jerusalem. I have always loved Romans 15:26, where Paul references how the churches at Macedonia and Achaia made a contribution to the poor in Jerusalem, and the word for contribution there is koinonia. The fellowship fostered by this offering was a beautiful picture of one part of the body of Christ saying to another, “We are with you. You are not alone in your need.” And it is here that I believe in our day we have missed the pattern of the New Testament church in a dangerous way. We as North American Christians have grown incredibly wealthy compared to the body of Christ around the world. If all we do is provide for one another’s needs here in the name of moral proximity, it seems that we are saying to our brothers and sisters, many of whom are literally starving, around the world, “We are not with you. You are alone in your need.”
Now I immediately want to offer a variety of qualifications. I am, again, not denying that we have a unique responsibility to care for members in each of our local churches. I am not trying to oversimplify the complex problems (and complex solutions) associated with impoverished peoples in various countries and contexts, and I am not trying to put an unsustainable burden upon any person or church to care for every other needy church in the world. And my goal is not to cause us to feel guilty. Instead, my goal is to call us to look to Christ, as individuals and as local churches, and to ask him how we can best use the resources he has given to us to care for one another in our local churches and to provide for suffering saints in the global church. In the end, my prayer is that God would use sacrificial love for our needy brothers and sisters in other places to demonstrate the unity of the church and the generosity of Christ to a lost and watching world around us.
One Final Thought
That leads to one final thought regarding care for the poor. As Kevin noted, Scripture clearly teaches that the needs of the church come before the needs of the world (Gal. 6:10). But this obviously does not mean that we ignore the physical needs of those who are lost. While we do not have much explicit instruction in Scripture to care for the unbelieving poor, we do have the Great Commission. If we are going and making disciples of all people groups, and if the majority of people groups in the world are far poorer than we are, then we are certainly going to care for the poor while we proclaim the Gospel (i.e., if the person we are sharing the Gospel with is dehydrated and/or starving, we will give them water or food). The question then becomes whether or not we are going to people groups like these, and if we are not, then maybe we need to create a moral proximity to them. Whether in the church or among the lost, I want to avoid an unhealthy localism that disregards our brothers and sisters around the world and is detrimental to the spread of the gospel in all nations.
All of this leads back to where I believe Kevin and I wholeheartedly agree. He mentions that Jesus’ “stump speech” was, “Repent and believe the Gospel,” and I could not agree more. In fact, I think even the hard sayings of Jesus that Kevin mentions and that I reference throughout Radical all come back to this essential message: repent and believe the gospel. Whether it was the rich young man, the three prospective followers in Luke 9, or the constant crowds who surrounded him, Jesus was calling them all to turn from themselves and to trust in his grace.
Consequently, as Kevin has mentioned, the message of Christianity is not that we need to do more for God, but that we need to trust in what God has done for us. Like Kevin, I want more than anything for sacrificial living to be grounded “solidly in the soil of gospel grace.” As a part of this grounding, though, I want people not only to believe in the gospel grace that was shown to us on the cross, which is the basis for righteous standing before God, but I also want people to believe in the gospel grace that is being given to us right now, which is the power for righteous living before God. I want to shepherd people away from only thinking, “Look at all that Jesus did for me at the cross; now let me try to live for him today.” I want people to realize that Jesus’ work for us did not stop at the cross. He is working for us today, as well, and he has promised to work on our behalf in the future. That is why I try to use language intentionally and consistently throughout Radical to describe not just what Christ has done for us in the past (as if that weren’t enough!), but what Christ is doing for us in the present, at every moment, to enable us to live in obedience to him. Oh, the wonder of it. Not only have we been saved by his grace at the cross (Chapter 2 in Radical), but he has given us his Spirit (Chapter 3 in Radical), and he now lives in us to empower radical, life-changing, world-impacting obedience for his name’s sake in all nations (Chapters 4-9 in Radical).
In summary, I am deeply appreciative of Kevin’s various cautions concerning “radical and crazy Christianity.” The last thing I want to be a part of (or worse yet be promoting) is a stream of Christianity that thrives on guilt over gospel, prioritizes our work more than God’s grace, or burns out evangelicals in unsustainable efforts to do more, give more, or sacrifice more. I certainly regret any ways I have contributed to this kind of thinking or way of living. My goal has simply been to call people to believe the gospel – the gospel that not only saves us from our sins, but also compels us to lay down our lives gladly for our own good and ultimately for God’s glory in a world of urgent spiritual and physical need. This is the kind of “radical and crazy” Christianity that has characterized servants who have gone before us like George Muller, John Paton, and Jim Elliot, and this is the kind of “radical and crazy” Christianity that marks our persecuted brothers and sisters around the world who are not looking to passively sustain themselves, but who are living to passionately spend themselves for the gospel, no matter what the cost. I long to stand with them in a line of brothers and sisters from every vocation who are resting daily in the unfathomable grace of Christ while living radically for the immeasurable glory of Christ in every nation.