David Platt | Review by: Owen Strachan
Louisville, Kentucky, USA
David Platt, pastor of the Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham, Alabama, is one of the brightest lights in Christian circles and the author of the best-selling Radical (Multnomah, 2010).Radical Together, published a year later, zeroes in on the need for gospel-driven sacrifice in the life of the gathered church.
Platt unfolds his prophetic call to the church in six short, readable, biblically based chapters. Chapter 1, "Tyranny of the Good," explores how buildings and programs can get in the way of meaningful ministry. Chapter 2, "The Gospel Misunderstood," refigures evangelical motivation for activism and mission. "The gospel," says Platt, "is the key to-and the only sustainable motivation for-sacrificial living" (p. 36).Chapter 3, "God Is Saying Something," grounds such sacrificial ministry in the Word of God. The Word, in Platt's mind, is his methodology (pp. 53-54).In Chapter 4, "The Genius of Wrong," Platt seeks to enfranchise every member for meaningful ministry."[T]he ministry of making disciples was not intended for professionals alone," Platt argues, but "was intended for the whole people of God" (p. 68).
The book turns into a flame in Chapter 5, "Our Unmistakable Task": Platt urges his fellow believers to pursue the Great Commission with abandon. He closes the book by reminding the reader in chapter 6 that we are serving "The God Who Exalts God," and thus our ultimate catalyst is the glory of our Lord, not a pragmatic result or numerical statistic.
Radical Together has many strong points. I will focus on just two, both of which are foundational.
First, Platt wisely grounds human action in the sovereignty of God. There has been a great deal of discussion in certain circles over whether certain strands of theology kill missions. Is embracing God's comprehensive sovereignty like a nail gun to the head when it comes to evangelism and discipleship? Not if Radical Together has anything to say about it. As the Bible does (see Job 38-41, for starters, or Isa40-48), Platt exalts a massive, awesome, authoritative, majestic God in his book. But he doesn't end there. He knows that God is great and also good and so desires to extend his goodness to sinners. Platt therefore calls for holistic personal commitment to the Great Commission (see ch. 5).
Theology does not kill mission for Platt. Theology drives mission, just as it did for John Calvin (who sent out church planters to Brazil and all across France), George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards (who himself served as a missionary for several years!), David Brainerd, William Carey, Luther Rice, Adoniram Judson, Lottie Moon, C. H. Spurgeon, Amy Carmichael, and too many other figures to count.
A second strength is the focus on a church's use of its money and resources in fulfilling the Great Commission. Platt seeks to rouse sleeping churches in Radical Together. He wants churches to "drastically change our spending to better align with the will and ways of God" (p. 16).This means, in his view, being willing to downsize buildings, cut programs, and generally sacrifice in any necessary area in order to funnel more money and energy to the global (and local) spread of the gospel. Ironically, though created for the good of the broader world, the church can easily become a world unto itself. In doing so, it loses the world-no longer weeping over it and striving to reach it.
Our churches need to realize that we exist for the glory of God shed abroad through evangelism and discipleship. That's it. Consequently, our prayer meetings, Bible studies, Sunday Schools, associational meetings, weekly gatherings and calendar of activity should be centered on this end. We should be deeply doxological Christians, powered and infused by passion for God, who then express our love for the crucified Christ by promoting the Word of Christ. Platt gets this. I hope that we will too.
In these ways and more, Platt's book is rich and wise. Yet while there is much to receive and appreciate in Radical Together, I do want to tackle briefly one matter that could be problematic: What level of radical is radical enough? The strength of "radical" faith is that it is world-denying. It reminds us that our churches are fundamentally bands of "strangers and pilgrims" on the earth, gatherings of citizens of a greater kingdom (1 Pet 2:11).Our purpose in life, as mentioned above, is to give glory to God with every atom of our being. This will naturally mean that we individually and corporately renounce comfort, wealth, and material things as ultimate pursuits. It will also surely entail that we give not merely the minimum to financially support the local and global promotion of the gospel, but that we give sacrificially.
But it is possible to be so zealous for this ultimate end of our lives that we debase the good things God has given us. Platt grounds his call in God's sovereignty and kindness, but there are a few places in which he comes close to endorsing asceticism and faulting the church for the world's problems, thereby making it possible to ground our motivation for radical living in false guilt. For example:
As I write this, more than five hundred million people in the world are starving to death. They lack food, water, and basic medical care. Children are dying of diseases like diarrhea; many who live will suffer lifelong brain damage from early protein deficiency. Others will be sold into forced labor or trafficked for sexual exploitation. Nearly one hundred fifty million children are orphans. Yet judging by what we hang on to in our churches, convenient programs and nice parking lots are still more important than such children and their families. (p. 15)
Platt moderates his tone in places, referencing programs and material things that "were good things" in themselves (p. 22).But I am concerned that Platt places the world's problems at the church's feet. This is at best an incomplete conclusion.
Don't misunderstand. There are major steps that many of our congregations and denominations could take to be more missional, more gospel-driven. I am all for those steps. But our theology of hope and our doctrine of evangelism must take into account human depravity. We cannot singlehandedly overturn the curse. We can do great good for God in the world, and it is entirely right to try. But we cannot end disease. We cannot stop global poverty. We cannot end sexual abuse. As individuals and churches, we can and must address these and other effects of the curse. But fighting sin is like playing a cosmic whack-a-mole. You strike at one form of evil, and another pops up. Until Christ returns as rightful heir of this world, this awful pattern will persist.
It is not wrong, furthermore, for churches to have "nice parking lots." It's not necessary, of course. But it is not wrong for us to have a building in which to worship God any more than it was wrong for the Israelites to have a temple in which to do so (see 1 Kgs 6-8, for starters).It is not wrong for Christians to build houses and buy cars and have investment portfolios any more than it was wrong for Job to be fabulously wealthy. In the same vein it is not wrong for churches to have vans and air-conditioned rooms and savings accounts. Such things do not necessarily subvert the work of the gospel.
Furthermore, global evangelism is not our only duty as Christians. There is a sizeable place in our individual and corporate lives for steadiness, normalcy, and the "ordinary means of grace." Much of life and ministry is not sensational.
I don't think that Platt would disagree with this. But church leaders should not necessarily feel guilty if we are not able despite our best efforts to visibly see sudden transformation happen as Platt has. Some pastors will want to implement many of his good ideas, but will have to patiently teach their congregations over time on matters of sovereignty and action. It could be a mistake for a young pastor, for example, to read Radical Together and its moving story of Great Commission effectiveness and then throw down a gauntlet of reform overnight.
A crucial passage in this larger conversation, it seems to me, is in 1 Tim6, which my sharp-eyed wife kindly pointed out to me.
As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life. (1 Tim 6:17-19 ESV)
It is remarkable what Paul says and does not say here. He does not condemn the rich. He does not castigate them for their wealth. Instead, he does two things. He charges them firstly to remember the ultimate end of life, God and his glorification. Secondly, he calls them to be positively sacrificial in the way they live, to be "rich in good works," which would surely, we can estimate, involve a good deal of generous financial support of gospel work.
So Paul does not, in this passage, malign wealth, possessions, or even what you might call a "nice lifestyle." We are tempted to look down upon such things, but it seems fairly clear to me that the biblical authors did not do so. In fact, as Richard Bauckham has shown in his book Gospel Women, wealthy women connected to the imperial court and possessing mind-bending wealth provided major funding to the apostles. It is not always right, then, for the wealthy (and, globally speaking, relatively wealthy folks like the American middle-class) to sell their homes and cars, or for churches to sell their buildings and end sports leagues. It might be. We want to feel that tension, in accord with Prov 30:8 ("give me neither poverty nor riches").
But tension does not a rule make. It leaves us to trust God and to search our hearts, to pray as individuals and corporate bodies of the living Christ to the Father and ask him for guidance in these areas. Our exact course of life is not spelled out. The Spirit must graciously guide us and our churches. What does this mean practically? Some of us must renounce every last dime and go to the mission field. Some of us must down-size as Platt and Brook Hills did (see pp. 15-20).Some of us should be investment-bankers and CEOs and entrepreneurs and make loads of money and give sacrificially (though not necessarily to the extent of asceticism).Some of us should be solidly middle-class and give whatever we can. All of our churches should be supporting Christians in these and many other situations. Whatever practical steps we take, our collective heartbeat should mirror 1 Tim6.
In conclusion, Radical Together is a helpful and prophetic work. It is filled with good theology, good exposition of Scripture, moving and even funny stories, and a biblical call to action. Its one flaw is that it treats a complex matter rather narrowly. This should not stop churches from reading and being challenged by the book, however, and I hope that many will do just that.