On Purpose


by Jeremiah Johnson

This week we’re putting into practice some of the principles we covered last month in the Being a Berean series by comparing The Purpose-Driven Life and Slave, two books that speak to key facets in the Christian life. We’ve already looked at what each has to say about the issue of identity and salvation; today we’re considering what each teaches about purpose.

Questions about the meaning of life are virtually cliché in our culture—many of the answers even more so. But discovering life’s purpose isn’t merely the stuff of vision quests and self-help brochures. Countless readers—including many who claim to already know and love the Lord—have sought biblical purpose and direction in the pages of Rick Warren’s bestselling book, The Purpose-Driven Life.

Warren addresses the issue head-on, explaining why the question of purpose is so vital in the first place.

Knowing your purpose simplifies your life. It defines what you do and what you don’t do. Your purpose becomes the standard you use to evaluate which activities are essential and which aren’t. You simply ask, “Does this activity help me fulfill one of God’s purposes for my life?” [1]

Pleasing God

Throughout the book, Warren highlights some big-picture purposes for the believer’s life—foremost among them is simply bringing pleasure to God.

Bringing enjoyment to God, living for his pleasure, is the first purpose of your life. When you fully understand this truth, you will never again have a problem with feeling insignificant. It proves your worth. If you are that important to God, and he considers you valuable enough to keep with him for eternity, what greater significance could you have? You are a child of God, and you bring pleasure to God like nothing else he has ever created. [2]

He later encourages the reader to adopt that sense of purpose by highlighting the potential return on their spiritual investment: “Will you make pleasing God the goal of your life? There is nothing that God won’t do for the person totally absorbed with this goal.” [3]

He’s right that the believer’s life brings glory and pleasure to the Lord (Psalm 149:4), and that believers are to make God’s glory the focus of their every activity (1 Corinthians 10:31). But we need to see God’s glory as the end in itself—not a means of obtaining further blessing for ourselves. The man-centeredness of Warren’s book is hard to escape, even when the topic isGod’s pleasure and glory.

You see the same skewed emphasis earlier when he explains the dangers of being motivated by guilt:

Many people are driven by guilt. They spend their entire lives running from regrets and hiding their shame. Guilt driven people are manipulated by memories. They allow their past to control their future. They often unconsciously punish themselves by sabotaging their own success. When Cain sinned, his guilt disconnected him from God’s presence, and God said, “You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.” That describes most people today—wandering through life without a purpose.

We are products of our past, but we don’t have to be prisoners of it. God’s purpose is not limited by your past. He turned a murderer named Moses into a leader and a coward named Gideon into a courageous hero, and he can do amazing things with the rest of your life, too. God specializes in giving people a fresh start. [4]

Warren is right when he says God’s people should not wallow in the guilt of forgiven sins (Psalm 103:12). But his overemphasis on the reader means he misses an opportunity to affirm the value of guilt and the role of conscience as our spiritual warning system.

Furthermore, in his effort to soothe the reader’s conscience, he muddles an important lesson from Scripture. It wasn’t Cain’s guilt feelings that separated him from the Lord, but his sin. The Lord cursed and banished Cain because he murdered his brother (Genesis 4:8-12)—his sense of guilt was merely a byproduct of his sin; and an appropriate one, at that.

It seems like a minor detail, but confusing that point could potentially encourage readers to ignore their consciences and the pangs of guilt, cutting them off from one of the primary means the Spirit employs to reveal sins we have not yet confessed and repented of (Psalm 32:3-4; Romans 2:15).

Growing in Christlikeness

That same thread of man-centeredness shows up again as in Warren’s discussion of another primary purpose for the believer’s life—growing in Christlikeness.

Spiritual growth is not automatic. It takes an intentional commitment. You must want to grow, decide to grow, make an effort to grow, and persist in growing. Discipleship—the process of becoming like Christ—always begins with a decision. Jesus calls us, and we respond: “‘Come, be my disciple,’ Jesus said to him. So Matthew got up and followed him.” [Matthew 9:9, New Living Translation]

When the first disciples chose to follow Jesus, they didn’t understand all the implications of their decision. They simply responded to Jesus’ invitation. That’s all you need to get started. Decide to become a disciple. [5]

Again, he’s right that spiritual growth is not a passive activity. Especially in the modern church, too many professing believers expect to develop their Christlikeness through osmosis, and instead linger in spiritual stasis and self-deception.

But his statements above feel like an overcorrection that creates a similar problem. True, new believers need to be motivated to the pursuit of godliness and spiritual maturity. But this is another case where Warren champions spiritual and doctrinal ignorance. There’s too much emphasis on the desire for sanctification, and not enough on the truth that sanctifies.

In broad terms, when Warren discusses the life of the believer, it almost exclusively has to do with his or her immense value in God’s eyes, his or her tremendous potential to please the Lord, and the immense blessings to be gained through his or her relationship with the Lord. There’s almost no attention paid to the harsh realities of the life of faith—no calls to take up your cross (Luke 9:23), mortify your flesh (Colossians 3:5), and throw off the yoke of sin (Romans 6:6-7).

Contrast that with John MacArthur’s book Slave, which identifies the believer’s purpose in terms of Christ’s atoning work. “We have been bought with a price. We belong to Christ. We are part of a people for His own possession. And understanding all of that changes everything about us, starting with our perspective and our priorities.” [6]

Unlike Warren, John MacArthur puts the emphasis squarely on the believer’s submission and self-denial.

Jesus also used slave language to define the reality of what it means to follow Him. Discipleship, like slavery, entails a life of total self-denial, a humble disposition toward others, a wholehearted devotion to the Master alone, a willingness to obey His commands in everything, an eagerness to serve Him even in His absence, and a motivation that comes from knowing He is well pleased. Though they were once the slaves of sin, Christ’s followers receive spiritual freedom and rest for their souls through their saving relationship with Him.

Against the historical backdrop of slavery, our Lord’s call to self-sacrifice becomes that much more vivid. A slave’s life was one of complete surrender, submission, and service to the master—and the people of Jesus’ day would have immediately recognized the parallel. Christ’s invitation to follow Him was an invitation to that same kind of life. [7]

What does that life of slavery to Christ look like? John explains in biblical terms what it means to live under the Lordship of Christ.

Submission to the Lordship of Christ—a heart attitude that works itself out in obedience to Him—is the defining mark of those who are genuinely converted. First John 2:3 is explicit in this regard: “By this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments.”

As His slaves, we are expected “to obey Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:2), “to present [our] bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is [our] spiritual service of worship” (Romans 12:1), and to “keep His commandments and do the things that are pleasing in His sight” (1 John 3:22). “You have been bought with a price,” Paul told the Corinthians, “therefore glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6:20). And later, “Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31).

Those who claim to belong to Christ but persist in patterns of disobedience betray the reality of that profession. The apostle John explained: “If we say that we have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth” (1 John 1:6). [8]

That’s the true purpose of the Christian life—to live in submission to Christ, surrendered to His purposes, and sacrificing ourselves for the sake of His glory and His people. These emphases are clear and inescapable in Scripture. And as John MacArthur explains, that’s what we’re identifying with when we claim the name of Christ.

When we call ourselves Christians, we proclaim to the world that everything about us including our very self-identity, is found in Jesus Christ because we have denied ourselves in order to follow and obey Him. He is both Savior and Sovereign, and our lives center on pleasing Him. To claim the title is to say with the apostle Paul, “To live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). [9]

Epilogue

“That sounds biblical” is a dangerous phrase. Satan’s most treacherous lies often come cloaked in a disguise of truth. And the most successful false teachers are usually the ones most skilled at twisting Scripture to suit their own purposes. To survive in the war for the truth, every believer needs to be armed with biblical wisdom and careful discernment.

In short, we need to be Bereans. It’s our sincere hope that this past week has been informative and illuminating, and that it encourages you to think biblically and critically about what you’re reading and listening to. We want to help give you the tools to carefully measure the teaching you receive against the Word of God. That includes the teaching you receive from Grace to You, too—when it comes to biblical discernment, no one should receive a free pass.