Radical by David Platt is one of the books that has been enjoying lots of word of mouth among American Calvinists since its release. When I had the opportunity to get a review copy, I took it. I wanted to read it to see what the buzz was about, and the topic interests me.
“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.”
Years ago, I preached my Advent series from Revelation. One of those sermons was on the dual strategies of the Evil One to destroy the church. The Beast represents governments that persecute the church. The Prostitute represents seduction, as the world seduces the church such that she slowly becomes like the world. In some countries the church experiences persecution, but here in America we face the Seductress. It goes without saying that the message was not well received. So, that being said, I get what David Platt is trying to say in his book.
This is not a new subject. Michael Horton has written numerous books on the subject of how American Christianity has been warped by American values (instead of the influence going the other way). People like Ron Sider, Francis Chan and a host of others have tackled this subject in the 25 years since Christ rescued me. In fact, this book is part Horton (he stresses some theological ideas contrary to American thought- Calvinism), part Francis Chan (a ‘radical’ approach) and part Ron Sider (“pack your bags, we’re going on a guilt trip). Which makes this a difficult book to review.
“A command for us to be gospel-living, gospel-speaking people at every moment and in every context where we find ourselves.”
Radical is not as good as the hype nor as bad as most (poorly informed) critics make it out to be. But let me start with some good things, because there are things I appreciate about the book. There are things the American Church needs to reckon with regarding how we’ve been seduced by our corner of the world.
- Discipleship in most American churches does not reflect discipleship in the Scriptures. The Great Commission teaches us that part of discipleship is “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” Discipleship is not merely information transfer, but life transformation.
- Wealth is not the goal of life or the penultimate sign of God’s blessing. It is a resource given for many purposes. The Bible warns us of the dangers of covetousness (which is idolatry), and teaches us to use our wealth for the benefit of others. Which leads us to the next point: justice.
- Platt focuses primarily on poverty. You could plug any number of ‘agendas’ in the place of poverty in the book. Christians, supposedly marked by love, should care about and pursue the well-being of others. American Christianity, cooperating with our sinful tendency to be curved inward, is more focused on satisfying our desires (yes, Joel, you and the host of other guys/gals on TV talking about the satisfying self rather than sacrificing self). Part of the glory of Christ in his body is that we don’t have to share one another’s passions. In fact we can’t. If we all function on poverty who will work to end human trafficking, abortion, sexploitation, racism etc.
- Evangelism is another area affected by the wave of pluralism in our culture. We hesitate and disobey because we aren’t always sure it really matters.
- Community is also something that is discouraged in the American mindset. The focus is on the individual, particularly in conservative circles. We read the letters of Paul as if addressed to ‘me’ instead of ‘us’. We don’t see how much we need one another to grow, how the more mature help the less mature (Titus 2), how we see each other’s blind spots, how love requires relationship etc.
So, Platt puts his finger on a number of serious issues requiring our repentance. Yet, I still found this book so frustrating. I find that alot of that frustration has to do with the guilt factor. I felt like he was trying to put me on a guilt trip. It was not so much my ‘inner lawyer’ that protested. I think it was my inner Jesus- the Holy Spirit. Guilt does not motivate, it manipulates. Guilt is never the biblical motive to obedience. Yet, that was most often what he tried to use (they’re starving to death, going to hell etc.). Guilt focuses on us, not Jesus. It focuses on what we must do, not what Christ has done and is doing.
“The faith in Christ that frees us from our sins involves an internal transformation that has external implications.” Too bad he didn’t talk more about that.
In short, I didn’t see gospel motivations. This is a critical flaw- far more serious than most of the criticisms I hear from people who just want to cling to wealth and security. A gospel motivation looks to Christ who made himself poor that he might enrich others. This produces a grateful generosity (see 2 Cor. 8-9), not a guilt-driven one. The first is by faith (without which it is impossible to please God), and the second by fear (I might not be a real Christian if I don’t do this).
A gospel motivation looks to Christ who loved me and gave his life as an atoning sacrifice when I was his helpless enemy. This produces a love (and gospel fear) for God that leads to obedience to him and love for others resulting in evangelism. The answer he offers seems more rooted in the flesh than faith. The flesh can offer up some mighty good looking counterfeits to biblical obedience- but without the gospel motivation and empowerment it is still just flesh, worthless works adding to our condemnation.
This is why I cannot, ultimately, join so many others in recommending this book. It seems to substitute one faulty Christianity for another despite his intentions. I can overlook the other points of disagreement and weaknesses. This one seems too big, too glaring.
Instead of Radical, I think you’d be better served by reading some of these books:
- Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex & Power, and the Only Hope that Matters by Tim Keller
- The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment by Jeremiah Burroughs
- Total Church: A Radical Reshaping Around Gospel and Community by Tim Chester & Steve Timmis
I received this book for free from WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group for this review.
Steve Cavallaro is a Teaching Elder in the PCA and currently serves as pastor of Desert Springs Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Arizona. He was previously a pastor in the ARP and is a graduate of RTS Orlando. He grew up in New Hampshire and is an avid Boston Red Sox and Celtics fan. He blogs regularly at Cavman Considers where this article first appeared. It is used with his permission.