Michael Horton on Rick Warren, Modern Reformation, and Desiring God

Thursday, 01 Apr 2010

Update II: More from Modern Reformation

Update: comments closed.

It is not our usual course at Modern Reformation or White Horse Inn to comment on the invitations of other organizations for their conferences.  However, we’re starting to receive questions about our views of Rick Warren’s professed adherence to Reformational theology because an interview in Modern Reformation was posted by Justin Taylor and cited in the comments of his blog as supporters of John Piper wrestle with his recent decision to invite Rick Warren to an upcoming Desiring God conference.  So our team felt that some clarification was needed.

In 2004, Rick Warren graciously accepted our invitation to respond to some Modern Reformation questions in our “Free Space” section, where we engage with various voices, often outside of our usual circles.  We do interviews like this regularly, encouraging conversation, asking questions that we know our readers are wondering.  It’s in our feature articles where we analyze trends and arguments, and I among others have challenged Pastor Warren from time to time.  Our magazine is not just a platform for a few voices or churches.  We’re trying to spark conversation—and, yes, to guide conversation toward a modern Reformation.  Part of that means that we let others speak for themselves.  Yet I think it’s pretty clear to everybody where we land on the main issues.

Speaking first for myself, I admire Rick Warren’s zeal for reaching non-Christians and concern for global challenges.  I respect him for giving away much of his income for charitable purposes.

At the same time, I believe that his message distorts the gospel and that he is contributing to the human-centered pragmatism that is eroding the proper ministry and mission of the church.  Judging by The Purpose-Driven Life, Pastor Warren’s theology seems to reflect run-of-the-mill evangelical Arminianism, especially with its emphasis on the new birth as the result of human decision and cooperation with grace.  There are also heavy traces of Keswick “higher life” teaching throughout the book.  None of this disqualifies him from being an evangelical statesman.  After all, much the same can be said of Billy Graham.  After pointing out how difficult it is to define an evangelical theologically, historian George Marsden famously surmised that it’s “anyone who likes Billy Graham.”  Today, perhaps, it’s anyone who likes Rick Warren.

Obviously, Rick Warren believes that he is simply translating the gospel in terms that the unchurched can understand.  However, the radical condition of sin is reduced to negative attitudes and behaviors and the radical redemption secured by Christ’s propitiatory death and resurrection are reduced to general and vague statements about God giving us another chance.  His central message seems to be that you were created for a purpose and you just need to fulfill it.  Even at Easter he can say, “…And of course, that purpose now becomes greater — and in fact, I think that’s really what the message this week of Easter is, is that God can bring good out of bad. That he turns crucifixions into resurrections. That he takes the mess of our life, and when we give him all the pieces, he can — God can put it together in a new way” (“Larry King Live,” CNN, March 22, 2005).  I heard him say on a network morning program last Christmas that Jesus came to give us a mulligan, like in golf—a chance for a “do-over” in life.

While I applaud his concern for social justice, I am concerned that he confuses the law with the gospel and the work of Christians in their vocations (obeying the Great Commandment) with the work of Christ through his church in its ministry of Word and sacrament (the Great Commission).

His best-selling book, The Purpose-Driven Life, begins by announcing that it’s not about you, but about God, and then the rest of the book is about you.  There seems to be a contradiction between the God-centered theology that is professed and the basically human-centered orientation that dominates much of his message and methods.  Some time ago, my wife discovered a letter that Rick Warren wrote to me way back in 1998, in which Pastor Warren mentioned the impact of my first book, Mission Accomplished, and his intention to write a book that highlighted the point that God made us for his purposes, rather than the other way around.  Since then, we have corresponded periodically, but that has not kept either of us from offering occasional critiques of each other’s views.  In fact, we will be together for a panel discussion at Saddleback in June, sponsored by the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization.

Pastor Warren tailors his appeals to his audience.  To Calvinists, he stresses his support for the “solas” of the Reformation.  Yet he tells prosperity evangelist David Yonggi Cho, “I’ve read your books on Vision and Dreams – speak to pastors about how you hear the voice of the Holy Spirit?…What advice would you give to a brand new minister?…Do you think American churches should be more open to the prayer for miracles?” (“Breakfast With David Yonggi Cho And Rick Warren,” Pastors.com).  In a June 2006 article in JewishJournal.com, editor-in-chief Rob Eshman reported on a speech that Warren gave for Synagogue 3000, after Rabbi Ron Wolfson became involved in the Purpose-Driven pastoral training seminars. “Warren managed to speak for the entire evening without once mentioning Jesus — a testament to his savvy message-tailoring.”  When USA Today asked him why Mormon and Jewish leaders are involved in his pastoral training programs, Rick Warren reportedly said, “I’m not going to get into a debate over the non-essentials.  I won’t try to change other denominations.  Why be divisive?” (USA Today, July 21, 2003).  Rick Warren endorses a host of books, from New Age authors to Emergent writers to conservative evangelicals.  So why not include Calvinists?

The first Reformation was about God and the gospel of his Son.  It centered on the justification of sinners by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.  Robert Schuller wrote Self-Esteem: The New Reformation in the 1990s.  And in 2005 Rick Warren announced at the Baptist World Alliance meeting a new Reformation based on “deeds, not creeds.”  As he explained in an interview,

I’m looking for a second reformation. The first reformation of the church 500 years ago was about beliefs.  This one is going to be about behavior. The first one was about creeds. This one is going to be about deeds. It is not going to be about what does the church believe, but about what is the church doing (beliefnet.com/faiths/Christianity/2005/10/Rick-Warrens-Second-Reformation.aspx?p=1).

He has also said he is working toward a Third Great Awakening, which seems like the better comparison, since the basic message is more in step with Charles Finney and the Second Great Awakening than it is with the Reformation.

I agree wholeheartedly when Pastor Warren argues that Christians can work with non-Christians—even agnostics and atheists—on the global challenges of poverty, racism, corrupt leadership, injustice, and disease.  However, this is precisely why his confusion of the Christian’s calling to love of neighbor with the gospel is so dangerous.  Working toward the common good is the calling of every person, believer and unbeliever alike, but it is not the Great Commission.  It is the law of love that obliges us all, but it is not the gospel.

Long ago, the evangelist D. L. Moody responded to criticisms of his message and pragmatic methods with the quip, “I like my way of doing it better than your way of not doing it.”  We can be so proud of getting the gospel right while we don’t bother to get the gospel out to those who need it.  Furthermore, we can be self-confident in our theological integrity while ignoring the Word of God when it impinges on questions of social concern.  Yet the answer is not “deeds over creeds,” but to be re-introduced to the creeds that generate the deeds that are the fruit of genuine faith.  Getting the gospel right and getting the gospel out, as well as loving and serving our neighbors, comprise the callings of the church and of Christians in the world. However, confusing these is always disastrous for our message and mission.

-Michael Horton



  • 01 Apr 2010
    Mike Riccardi says:

    Very helpful, Dr. Horton. Thank you for your careful thoughts.

    And it was great meeting you last week at the Christless Christianity conference at Grace Community Church. Thanks for taking the time to speak with us.

  • 01 Apr 2010
    Mark says:

    Dr. Horton,

    Thank you for your perspective.

  • 01 Apr 2010
    Richard says:

    Thank you Dr. for a well reasoned critique. So many criticisms of Rick Warren are filled with distain, character assassination, enuendo and down right hate. I wish some of my Reformed brethern would be a little more charitable. But your arguments are well thought out and kind. You are tough, but not condescending. I agree with you. Warren appears to me to sometimes be talking out of both sides of his mouth. It doesn’t surprise me the Piper has invited Warren. Piper and his desciples like Mark Driscoll seem to embrace some of the mystical practices that Warren seems to enjoy. This decidedly Catholic practice seems to be a uniter with these folks. It remains to be seen where this will go. I like Piper and hope he can pull Warren more into the Reformed camp, but I think it will be only so far.

  • 01 Apr 2010
    John D. Chitty says:

    I listened to a recording of Piper’s announcement and explanation of his decision to invite Warren. It is clear that he is interested in encouraging Warren’s efforts to understand where Calvinists are coming from. I would stop short of assuming Piper has any real hopes or expectations of Warren somehow becoming persuaded to become Reformed, nor do I expect him to suddenly begin becoming even more pragmatic as a result of hosting Warren (Piper seems at time more pragmatic than I can often appreciate).

    Piper seems to want to engage Warren in “conversation” as Horton has here expressed how he, too, has done just this. I don’t think it goes much further than this. I’m not really surprised by Piper’s decision to invite Warren (his almost “loose-cannon” style is probably part of his wide appeal–you never know what to expect!), nor do I see it as a whole-hearted endorsement of Warren’s methods, nor compromise therewith.

    The planet earth will probably remain in its orbit, and God will most certainly remain on his Throne.

  • 01 Apr 2010
    Ken Silva says:

    I, for one, think Rick Warren is sincere; however, Dr. Horton is right that Warren is chamelion-like: “Pastor Warren tailors his appeals to his audience.”

    And this is a major reason why Rick Warren is essentially a Bill Clintonesque figure, and sincerely wrong.

  • 01 Apr 2010
    paul bortolazzo says:

    “Now the Spirit expressly says that in latter times some will depart from the faith, giving heed to deceiving spirits and doctrines of
    demons.” (1 Tim. 4:1)

    Only those abiding in the doctrine of Christ have the Father and the Son (2 John 1:9). The Holy Spirit is warning us of apostasy in these last days. Depart means to reject, sever, or fall away. Christians are departing from their faith in Jesus by believing in doctrines of demons being spread by deceiving spirits. Yet, Pastor Charles Stanley teaches falling away is never about losing one’s salvation. [3. Charles Stanley: Can You Recognize False Teaching 1, T. 6:30-7:27] He insists a Christian cannot be lost; they simply become useless. Is useless mentioned in this verse? And how can a useless believer heeding doctrines of demons serve Christ? Dr. Stanley claims only unbelievers can fall away. Seriously, how can unsaved people fall away from a faith they never had? A partaker of Christ is someone saved by grace through faith (Eph. 2:8). One cannot continue to receive grace if they choose to deny their faith in Christ (2 Tim. 2:12, 2 Pet. 2:1).

  • 01 Apr 2010
    David Hovis says:

    The following is taken from “Brothers, We Must Not Mind a Little Suffering: Meditations on the Life of Charles Simeon” by John Piper, April 15, 1989:

    Simeon to John Wesley:

    “Sir, I understand that you are called an Arminian; and I have been sometimes called a Calvinist; and therefore I supposes we are to draw daggers. But before I consent to begin the combat, with you permission I will ask you a few questions. Pray, Sir, do you feel yourself a depraved creature, so depraved that you would never have thought of turning to God, if God had not first put it into your heart?”

    “Yes, I do indeed.”

    “And do you utterly despair of recommending yourself to God by anything you can do; and look for salvation solely through the blood and righteousness of Christ?”

    “Yes, solely through Christ.”

    “But, Sir, supposing you were at first saved by Christ, are you not somehow or other to save yourself afterwards by your own works?”

    “No, I must be saved by Christ from first to last.”

    “Allowing, then, that you were first turned by the grace of God, are you not in some way or other to keep yourself by your own power?”


    “What then, are you to be upheld every hour and every moment by God, as much as an infant in its mother’s arms?”

    “Yes, altogether.”

    “And is all your hope in the grace and mercy of God to preserve you unto His heavenly kingdom?”

    “Yes, I have no hope but in Him.”

    “Then, Sir, with your leave I will put away my dagger again; for this is all my Calvinism; this is my election, my justification by faith, my final perseverance: it is in substance that I hold, and as I hold it; and therefore if you please, instead of searching out the terms and phrases to be a ground of contention between us, we will cordially unite in those things wherein we agree.” (Moule, 79f).

  • 01 Apr 2010
    Frank Turk says:

    I find myself in the uncomfortable place of disagreeing with Prof. Horton and many of my friends about this. I share a lot of the concerns about PDC/PDL and the pragmatic view of the church which these books/franchises propagate in the larger English-speaking evangelidom, but I wonder if it’s entirely fair to paint Rick Warren as a Social Gospel guy, and his effort to make a modern reformation “to be about deeds” to be somehow a-theological or anti-gospel.

    Let me put it this way: it is impossible to paint Augustine as a deeds-not-creeds guy — for a reasonable person. But the Augustinian order was established to do what? Over and against other monastic orders which were focused on a sort of nascient individualism where the individual practiced a stoicism and a self-neglect to rid himself of the stain of the world, Augustinians were called to live together in love as a function of the love of God toward them, yes? I realize this is a massive simplification, but it seems to me that this is itself a call to live not but some creed — even if one believes all of it — but to live as if the acts of God in creation are /real/.

    It is anti-gnostic is a way which us reformed types try to say is true about our worship services, but it is what happens to believers /away from the worship service/.

    I bring it up, to try to be brief here, to say that perhaps we large-headed reformed types need to see Rick Warren as a guy who is not the end of all religion and the end of solid faith, but the beginning. Given that Prof. Horton, Prof. Riddlebarger, Ken Jones, Rod Rosenblatt, and -me- all share the same testimony — that is, that we grew up in churches which served the milk of the word and now how to build churches that will feast on the meat of the word — we cannot get all angry-eyebrows over a guy like Rick Warren who brings many people in.

    Somehow in his hands, the Gospel brings many people in. is it the power to save in your hands, dear reader? Can you show it to be the power to save? That’s a tough question, and I think we should ask it before we make Rick Warren into a downgrader.

  • 01 Apr 2010
    Stephen says:

    I agree completely with Dr. Horton’s critique of Warren and PDL. That said, I don’t understand the furor over this invitation. Since when has John Piper or the Desiring God conference been bastions of Reformed orthodoxy? As far as I know Dr. Piper doesn’t subscribe to the Three Forms or the Westminster Standards. I see this as one Calvinistic evangelical extending an olive branch to one less so. I’m not about to anathematize either man.

  • 01 Apr 2010
    Missy says:

    When I read this whole article, I am literally nauseous.

    I was raised Methodist. Therefore, even in a conservative, evangelical southern church, I was never taught any theology, and almost no bible beyond the flannel board. Yet somehow, I guess via Wesleyan osmosis, I came out of that denomination the strongest Arminian ever made.

    The problem with being an Arminian aside from the obvious error is that one’s life is wrought with confusion. Scripture says one thing about sovereignty, yet I feel this insatiable need to do good works to please God. The tug of war and the constant knowledge that I am not quite measuring up – well, it leads to indigestion.

    As a woman who is incredibly burdened with a desire for social justice, I am inspired and humbled by RW’s commitment to that end. Saddleback is doing far, far, FAR more for the Kingdom in this area than my own theologically sound PCA church, and that greatly saddens me.

    But, bless his heart. He may well be reformed in his head, but he is a rock solid Arminian in his heart. Trust me, as a former member of Works Based Anonymous, Pastor Warren is sorely in need of some Tums.

  • 01 Apr 2010
    PK says:

    “Yet the answer is not “deeds over creeds,” but to be re-introduced to the creeds that generate the deeds that are the fruit of genuine faith.”

    If this is the motto of the current reformed movement, why does it seem like it’s just creeds? Are the current resurgence on creed really leading to more deeds? I am also reformed but I think that the reason people like Rick Warren are so popular and has a large evangelical following is that people are a little weary of a lot of talk and very little walk.

  • 01 Apr 2010
    Mike Ratliff says:

    This is in response to Frank Turk’s comment.

    Hi Frank, it’s been a while. I do see your point, however, I think it is a mistake to view numbers and say, “See, he brings a lot of people in.”

    Into what?

    I do not see the gospel preached by Warren and his emulators as being the real gospel. It is man-focused and incomplete. I, like you, came from a not so hot church background and I rejoice that God was gracious to remove me from that and give me the knowledge and all to know Him correctly. I am reformed so I believe that all of the elect will be saved. However, if these people are being told they are Christians when they are simply signing on to what is going on at Saddleback or whatever, that is not salvation. Sigh…

    Also, the damage done to the local churches that have become PDC affiliates is tragic. I am a fugitive from two takeovers by their transitioning. It is traumatic I assure you. In any case, what we are asking for is more discernment here not “angry eyebrows.”

    In Christ

    Mike Ratliff

  • 01 Apr 2010
    Ingrid Schlueter says:

    In Rick Warren’s hands, the Gospel is unrecognizable. It certainly was for the Jews who sat under his Purpose Driven talk in Los Angeles and learned how to be better Jews. It certainly was unrecognizable in Davos with the world’s movers and shakers. It was unrecognizable to the Muslims at his speech on good works to their convention. The Gospel certainly wasn’t there when Rick Warren joined Tony Blair’s Faith Foundation on the Advisory Council, the same foundation which is, as of last week, seeking Warren’s help to “united all faiths.” http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2010/mar/14/tony-blair-faith-foundation-america

    You can pitch the term pharisee at those of us who continue to point out the unbiblical nature of the Purpose-Driven message, (as you did on Twitter today), but you cannot change the facts of what Rick Warren has taught. No amount of spin, wishful thinking, or desire to find a kinder, gentler approach is going to change the testimony of Rick Warren’s own mouth. John Piper is wrong. By doing this he is sowing enormous confusion among his young followers who no longer know who or what to believe on something as basic as ‘what is the gospel?’ The trumpets are all issuing uncertain sounds. Rather than be a steady beacon of biblical truth in the darkness, Piper has only added to the chaos.

  • 01 Apr 2010
    Eric says:

    Didn’t WHI host a program with Elaine Pagels?

  • 01 Apr 2010
    Ed Meza says:

    I am very confused about Mr. Rick Warren. Some say he’s right, some say he’s wrong, and some say don’t be too quick to judge him because he’s preaching the gospel. The power to save is not in my hands. FOR SURE! But is preaching to the unsaved ok if there is “some” error or how might some say “not violating the essentials?” Are we going to stick to what was said once, “Just because it’s in the bible does not mean that we have to preach it.”


  • 01 Apr 2010
    Paul says:

    Could someone tell me if (and where) I can find an article or book where Dr. Horton expounds on the difference between:

    “…the work of Christians in their vocations (obeying the Great Commandment) with the work of Christ through his church in its ministry of Word and sacrament (the Great Commission)”?


  • 01 Apr 2010
    Hugh McCann says:

    Piper said Warren doesn’t get limited atonement. Of course not; the Arminian (even Prez Obama) can say “Jesus died for my sins,” since he believes Christ died for everyone.

    But then the Arminian must do something to access, actualize, or activate the salvation: decide, pray, submit to, walk an aisle, get baptized, etc.

    The gospel is Christ’s work for his people (Mt. 1:21; 2 Co. 5:21, etc.) received by faith alone.

    Sorry Rick, the “L” is not negotiable.


  • 01 Apr 2010
    Ed Enochs says:

    Dr. Horton, I have very found memories of attending your CURE meetings in the early 1990’s first at St. Luke’s Reformed Episcopal Church and then at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Orange California. I attended several of these Friday night meetings and there I learned the essentials of the Reformed faith. I and a whole generation of young Evangelicals are greatly indebted to you for attempting to bring the light and truth of the Protestant Reformation to contemporary American Evangelicalism.

    I am equally appreciative of Dr. John Piper’s zeal for the Reformed faith, but in recent years I have been very disappointed in some of his decisions to invite speakers with suspect theological views to participate in his annual “Desiring God” Conferences.

    I am especially disillusioned with Piper for inviting Rick Warren to be a featured speaker at Desiring God this year. Rick Warren has done nothing but promote theological and methodological pragmatism through his “Purpose Driven” books and ministries which is entirely antithetical to his professed sympathies with classic Reformed theology. As Jesus said in Matthew Chapter 7, “You’ shall know them by their fruits” and the only “fruit” I see coming out of Rick Warren’s books and theology is theological reductionism wherein the essential core doctrines of the Christian faith have been distilled down to the point where they are almost indistinguishable from “self-help” motivational ideology.

    Thanks for making these comments about Rick Warren and thank you for standing for the essential truths of the historic Christian faith.

  • 02 Apr 2010
    Jesse P. says:

    April Fools!

  • 02 Apr 2010
    Mark Spence says:


    You have valid points.


  • 02 Apr 2010
    Michael says:

    Thank you for being gracious, Dr. Horton.

    As Richard wrote, too many Reformed brethren are not charitable. In fact, it is as if being contentious is now part of what it means to be Reformed. Sadly it was not always that way. Not every Reformed brother is a Luther and not every non-Reformed brother is an Erasmus or a Servetus.

  • 02 Apr 2010
    Lou Martuneac says:

    I appreciate the issue is being addressed here.

    Rick Warren embraces deliberate pragmatism of the worst kind; routinely misuses Scripture to cover his own ideas with a veneer of divine authority; promotes extreme ecumenism; redefines ministry in terms of social activism and accepts the worst sort of evangelistic reductionism.

    Rom. 16:17 is very clear, “mark” and “avoid.” With Rick Warren’s track record of “contrary” doctrine and practices there is no subjective decision to make regarding him in light of Rom. 16:17.

    Piper, however, chooses to embrace and give him recognition, which will lend credibility to Warren and his methods. Piper also puts impressionable believers, who follow him (Piper) at risk by giving Warren another national platform, which could lead to their spiritual demise.

    There are few in Christian circles who have done more harm to the New Testament church, the cause and Gospel of Jesus Christ than Rick Warren. He replaces the Great Commission and the New Testament church as laid out in Acts and the Pauline Epistles.

    Piper’s embrace, hosting and partial defense of Warren and his methods is inexcusable.


  • 02 Apr 2010
    Chris E says:

    Ingrid –

    As Dr Horton points out “Working toward the common good is the calling of every person, believer and unbeliever alike”, so some – though not all – of Rick Warren’s work with other groups is a working out of people co-operating in the civil sphere to work towards the common good.

  • 02 Apr 2010
    Ken says:

    If it wasn’t for some Reformed that came(and ministered the word) to the independent charismatic church that I was attending and influenced one of the pastors on staff a number of us from that charismatic setting wouldn’t be in reformed churches now. So, with that said, I think it’s important for the Reformed to be loving toward those who aren’t and do what they can to bring about more Reformation in our churches and to others who aren’t. I’m not in the U.S and when the reformed in america talk like Dr. Horton make it seem like a little “me” club which guys like Warren can never be in and that’s not true. If God is sovereign(which he is), he can do anything and anything includes Rich Warren also.

  • 02 Apr 2010
    Ken Silva says:

    Well said Ingrid. In my opinion, with Rick Warren you get a Bill Clinton politician who becomes whatever someone wants him to be.

  • 02 Apr 2010
    Ken says:

    I would like to add to Ms. Schlueter’s comments.

    It wasn’t that long ago that Sean Hannity gave Rick Warren 5 minutes unedited to answer the question: “how does one get to heaven.” Millions watching. How did Warren respond? While I can’t quote verbatim I remember being disgusted because there was a lot about purpose and vision and such (all concepts from his book, of course) but no cross. Penal subsitution and depravity were nowhere to be found.

    I don’t expect Mr. Warren to use the terms of the Reformation (i.e. the Bible). But is it too much to ask to at least communicate the basic concepts of salvation in a 5 minute “gospel presentation?” E.g. our sin, Christ’s diety, perfection, substitution and resurection. I’ve heard this “second chance” language in reference to salvation from his lips several times. He actually uses the golf analogy often. Jesus died so that I could have a second chance? A muligan? Are you kidding me? This is no less heretical than the prosperity pimps telling me that Jesus died to make me healthy and wealthy. Warren may be sincere, but he is decieving millions. I pray that folks like brother Piper and Horton will be able to convince him of his error. Otherwise I fear for his soul and the souls of many who believe his “gospel.”

  • 11 Mar 2011
    Online Discernment Ministries Gone Wild « runlevel five(pointer) says:

    […] is just one little problem: Horton has specifically and decisively voiced his opposition to Warrens teachings in regards to the Gospel. For example: Speaking first for myself, I […]

  • 18 May 2011
    John Piper Interviews Rick Warren « Thoughts from a Calvicostal says:

    […] Rick Warren, his theology/ministry/thought, I would encourage you to read what Michael Horton wrote here. Also, I apologize for any discrepancy in what I wrote and what was actually said in the interview […]

  • 01 Jun 2011
    UPDATED: Are You Sure You Like John Piper? says:

    […] up to his doctrines of grace. Michael Horton writes about Warrens great tailoring […]

  • 01 Jun 2011
    Reasoned Perspective: Michael Horton on Rick Warren, Modern Reformation, and Desiring God | Shane' Blog says:

    […] Read it for yourself and come to your own conclusions. An excerpt from the article […]


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