Book Review: Radical, Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream

***Update 4/16/2012*** I’d like to preempt this book review with one of the best sermons I’ve heard.  David Platt at T4G 2012 – Divine Sovereignty: The Fuel of Death-Defying Missions. 

What is radical faith?  Is there a prescriptive plan to follow?  Does “radical faith” assume something above true faith?  These are the questions that should be asked when reading just the title of David Platt’s book, Radical.  While the subtitle, “Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream” fits perfectly with what we’ve been studying this week in Consumerism, The Stumbling Block of a Generation and The Century of Self, the question arises of how does one go about “reclaiming” their faith from the American Dream?

In his book, David Platt, Pastor of an Alabama mega-church, attempts to challenge readers to “leave behind security, money, convenience, even family” for Christ.  While his goal is admirable and scriptural support abounds for this worldly separation, his methods of using personal experiences, guilt, and several extreme stories to stimulate this lifestyle change falls short.  Don’t get me wrong, this is a message that the churches in America need to hear, but in my opinion there is a more direct, perhaps even more biblical avenue to take.   

Platt’s approach begins with a comparison of his own church and his role as the “youngest megachurch pastor in history” with his experiences found in the underground churches of Asia.  Likewise, Platt asks if his own church model is something that Scripture supports, namely in Jesus’ earthly ministry.  While no doubt there are night and day differences between churches in America and those in countries hostile to the Gospel, it really isn’t a fair comparison.  No matter how hard someone tries they cannot replicate the persecution, hostility, and often times even brutal murders of Christians in other countries.  It simply isn’t a reality here, so the question for Platt, and subsequently other pastors is “How then do you reach your congregation given the distractions of materialism and consumerism that this country faces?”  This I believe is a question Platt wants to answer, but his approach of developing a “Secret Church” (p. 27) at his own church in an attempt to replicate his Asian experience falls short.  However, Platt’s method of stripping down church to nothing but the Gospel has its own merits. 

There are some strong points in the first 2-4 chapters that if expanded on could prove very beneficial to the American church, however Platt stops short of developing these ideas further.  Examples include:

  • “We are settling for a Christianity that revolves around catering to ourselves when the central message of Christianity is actually about abandoning ourselves.” p.7
  • “Fundamentally, the gospel is the revelation of who God is, who we are, and how we can be reconciled to Him.  Yet in the American dream, where self reigns as king (or queen), we have a dangerous tendency to misunderstand, minimize, and even manipulate the gospel in order to accommodate our assumption and desire.” P. 28
  • “We prefer to sit back, enjoy our clichés, and picture God as a Father who might help us, all the while ignoring God as a Judge who might damn us.” p. 29
  • “The modern-day gospel says, ‘God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.  Therefore follow these steps, and you can be saved.’  Meanwhile, the biblical gospel says, ‘You are an enemy of God, dead in your sin, and in your present state of rebellion,  you are not even able to see that you need life, much less to cause yourself to come to life.  Therefore you are radically dependent on God to do something in your life that you could never do.’” p. 32
  • “So how do we respond to this gospel?  Suddenly contemporary Christianity sales pitches don’t seem adequate anymore.  Ask Jesus to come into your heart.  Invite Jesus to come into  your life.  Pray this prayer, sign this card, walk down this aisle, and accept Jesus as your personal Savior.  Our attempt to reduce this gospel to a shrink-wrapped presentation that persuades someone to say or pray the right things back to us no longer seems appropriate.” p. 37
  • “If you were to ask the average Christian…on Sunday morning to summarize the message of Christianity, you would most likely hear…’The message of Christianity is that God loves me.’…or ‘The message of Christianity is that God loves me enough to send His Son, Jesus, to die for me.’  …is it biblical?…God loves me…Me…Christianity’s object is me.  This is the version of Christianity that largely prevails in our culture. “ p. 70

While these points are certainly valid (and there are others, i.e. Chapter 7 presents strong reformed theological ideas, See J.I. Packer’s Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God for a more thorough study), Platt could’ve used additional development of these ideas because each in its own way is symptomatic of the problems in today’s church.

But while these are symptoms, we must ask what then is the remedy?  This is where the fundamental flaw in Radical lies.  Platt’s focus shifts toward radical discipleship and overseas mission work, culminating in his 5 challenges over the next year for the reader: 1) Pray for the entire world. 2) Read through the entire Bible. 3) Sacrifice money for a specific purpose. 4) Spend time in another context. 5) Commitment to multiplying community (a.k.a. discipleship).  This book places a heavy, perhaps overemphasis on the Great Commission and it’s for that reason that this last challenge of discipleship should have been more developed.  In reading Radical it feels as though Platt makes a strong push toward discipleship, but never gives a clear presentation of what’s involved or how to do it (see other recommendations below).  This likely leaves readers questioning the “next step” after completing the 5 challenges and would have them wondering where do we go from here.

While these are important fundamentals in the life of the believer, they are more secondary in nature.  Here’s what I mean.  Any effort to convince people to live more for God and separate themselves from the world has to begin with their heart, soul, and mind (Matthew 22:37-38).  A list like what Platt builds up to and provides in the final chapter of Radical becomes nothing more than a moral checklist if the person’s heart, soul and mind is not completely surrendered to God.  This list is an external practice when what people really need is an internal exam.  This internal system check begins with knowing who God is.  This is why a balanced gospel presentation is so important.  Not only is it critical for a person to know the love of God and His grace and compassion, but to equally know the wrath of God to better understand His mercy and justice.  A person can only have a relationship with someone they know.  You cannot claim to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ if you do not know Him.  Just because you see a famous person on T.V. and may have knowledge of who they are does not mean you have a relationship with them. Jeremiah 9:24 says “but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth.  For in these things I delight, declares the LORD.” 

Knowing who God is on a personal level results in a relationship with Him and a relationship with God has to coincide with a new relationship with sin.  A lack of discussion on sin is perhaps the weakest area of Radical.  It doesn’t matter how many times you can say you’ve read the Bible, how much money you give, or how much time you spend in a “another context”; the Bible calls believers to a life of holiness (Leviticus 11:44, 1 Peter 1:16).  A person’s relationship with God will always be hindered if they have not dealt with sin in their life (2 Timothy 2:20-21).  All the external activity of the “5 Radical challenges” becomes nothing more than a Pharisaic outward cleansing of the cup, while inside the cup is filthy (Matthew 23:25-26) unless sin is addressed.  Finally, people today need to know what it means to love and fear God and that stems from knowing who He is and it is the catalyst to a new relationship with sin (Proverbs 1:7, 8:13, 9:10, Romans 3:18, 1 John 2:1-17, 4:7-21).              

Overall the book is decent, with a few stretches to make a biblical passage fit what often feels like a social agenda (e.g. pg. 138 Matthew 19 and pg 164 Matthew 10), though he is firm to assert that the social agenda is powerless to save, he does state that those who ignore it are not truly saved themselves (pg. 115).  The subject Platt attempts to address in Radical is commendable and there are some strong points, however he falls short in his argument.  Platt probably accomplishes what he would least hope and that is to shift people from a life of licentiousness and pleasure through materialism to a life of legalism, lists and obligation, though maybe not to the extent that some feel Francis Chan did in his similar book Crazy Love.  It’s a fine line, one that believers must walk daily, but it begins not with a checklist and doing, but with knowing, loving, and fearing God and through that, working toward personal holiness through the power of the Holy Spirit.  With that ongoing process of sanctification, faith becomes not radical, but true and people are no longer motivated by guilt, but through a willingness to obey and serve their King.

I recommend reading J.I. Packer’s Knowing God, R.C. Sproul’s Holiness of God, John Owen’s On the Mortification of Sin, and for a comprehensive look at biblical discipleship Marshall and Payne’s The Trellis and the Vine.

7 thoughts on “Book Review: Radical, Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream”

  1. All I want to say is that I commend David Platt and Francis Chan for their AWESOME depiction of what the Bible clearly says to me. I hope you all see it too. Jesus said some radical things (love that word ‘Radical’): 1. their will be a Narrow Road of people that make it and a Broad road of many that tried and failed. What did he mean? Better get serious about asking yourself that. 2. Nothing more important than Loving God with heart, mind, soul, and strength… and includes what we do with mind, strength, and our time and money. Jesus said “where your treasure is, there will lie your heart also”. 3. Jesus didn’t make discipleship easy that is why he got killed. By the way, Jesus never spoke of Christianity. In Acts 11:26, we see it was a derogatory label for disciples of Christ in Antioch (modern day Turkey). 4. Jesus said do not store up treasures where moth, rust and thief destroy or steal. If you want to live for this life (save your life) then you will lose it in the next… 5. Many verses speak out the necessity to live a life that is so impactful to making people aware of their sin and need for a savior, and that following the solution provider would call for perscution and experiencing suffering. (Romans 8:16-18, Philippians 1:29, Matthew 10:20-29)
    Bottom Line: if you have to convince yourself that what these two gentlemen are saying is going to lead to Legalism then you aren’t driven by gratitude, which should exist for what Jesus did for you. I guess you think such drive must come from obligation… which leads to legalism.

  2. Hi Brett, thanks for the comment. I think there might be some misunderstanding of my review of Platt’s book. I 100% affirm that Jesus calls believers to lay down their lives, pick up their crosses and follow Him and that this road is narrow and difficult. I don’t think that my review would be inconsistent with what the Bible says at all. If I may offer a brief summary of my review it’s this: It doesn’t matter what steps or methods we want people to employ in order to live “radically”; if their heart is not Gospel centered it becomes nothing more than pharisaical legalism. The Pharisees knew the Scriptures better than anyone. They tithed regularly, they offered prayers in public for all to see. By all accounts, they could check off every point of the 5 challenges laid out in Radical. But what did it get them? Hell. Why? Because they didn’t have their hearts in the right place. They didn’t recognize Christ as their Lord and Savior. When a person becomes born again they are new creations in Christ and fruit is the natural outworking of that new birth. My entire point is that a believer’s “drive”, as you say, should come from love for Christ and a willingness to want to serve, worship, obey, and glorify Him. That’s the bottom line. With that motivation present, legalism cannot co-exist. But in my opinion, that message is not emphasized heavily enough in this book.

    I would be more agreeable towards the message particularly laid out in Radical if it had emphasized man’s depravity and necessity for Jesus as Savior and THEN outlined a few helpful areas that would bear fruit. Quite frankly, I don’t care if the book is written by Platt, Chan, or John Owen. All of their writings (and mine) are incomplete in comparison to God’s Word. Having said that, there is value in reading the works of men, as long as they continually point to Scripture and not to their own opinions. This book review is just that, my opinion, so take it as that.

    Radical isn’t a bad book by any stretch, but the discerning reader needs to be aware of some of the difficulties presented within. I offer up my review of Crazy Love, for your consideration. I felt Chan did a better job of addressing the hearts of men than did Platt.

    In Christ,
    John

  3. Hey Skip,
    I note that in the second paragraph, you say “No matter how hard someone tries, they cannot duplicate the persecution, even brutal murders of Christians in hostile countries . . .” I think I know what you meant, but literally taken it sounds really bizarre. God bless you brother! I really enjoy the blog and this was a really good one.
    PS I was considering writing a book and calling it “Radical Faith” and then I got to thinking about Elijah and Elisha, when Elijah told Elisha “OK I tell you what, if you see me in the moment when I go, have your request for a double portion.” So I thought “Radical Faith” doesn’t come from reading books, but from paying attention at the right times! HA! Writing books is still a good thing I guess because young Christians need to be nurtured in their faith. The problem I think America is having is the church is being run out of the government by pagans. Same thing happened in Israel. Then Jesus came, then Tiberius came and the Jews are still trying to figure out what went wrong.

  4. Thanks for the comment Steve. I suppose I should’ve been more clear with the statement, ” “No matter how hard someone tries, they cannot duplicate the persecution, even brutal murders of Christians in hostile countries . . .” I simply meant that we cannot fully grasp Christian persecution in the U.S., so any effort to have an “underground church” or similar actions really pale in comparison to what our brothers and sisters are facing overseas. While I can appreciate what Platt is doing overall, it really is a minor issue I was pointing out. Let me encourage you to watch the video from Platt’s T4G message earlier this year. The link is at the top of this post.

    In Christ Alone,
    John

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