Response to Rick Warren's Christmas sermon: God's love demonstrated at the Cross
The most troubling statements from Warren in regard to Gospel proclamation were given near the beginning of his sermon, under the first point of his outline, entitled “God loves you.” The following is a transcription of his exact words from the sermon:
The Bible says, ‘God is love.’ It doesn’t say He has love, it says He is love. And He’s filled with love, and love isn’t worth a whole lot unless you bestow it on somebody. And the Bible says God made you to love you. The whole reason the universe was created– God created the universe– so He could create the earth, so He could create the human race, so He could create you– so He could love you.
I don’t know who you are, where you’ve been, what you’ve done, or who you’ve done it with– God is not mad at you, He’s mad about you. He’s mad about you! He loves you so much, and that’s what Christmas is all about! He didn’t come to condemn the world, He came to save it!
It’s interesting to me that the very first thing that the angel said was this, ‘Don’t be afraid.’ That’s typical. Did you know that’s usually what God says first to people in the Bible? In fact, there are over 365 ‘fear nots’ in the Bible. That’s one for every day of the year. God says, ‘I want you to get the message– don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid of me! I am here, not to scare you, but to save you.’ Now, you lose your fear when God is near and if God is for us, who can be against us? It’s like this: If God likes me, and I like me– you don’t like me, what’s your problem?
There are three points that I would make about the statements quoted above. These points correspond to 3 aspects of the message of the Bible that we must present to sinners before we can properly tell them the Good News of the Savior. Each one of these points stands in direct contradiction to the message of Rick Warren. Though these points do not always need to be expressed as bluntly as I have articulated them below, each one of these points is crucial in doing biblical evangelism. The points are:
- You are not the center of the universe, God is.
- If you are not in Christ, then God is (justly) mad at you.
- You should be afraid of God, especially if you are not in Christ.
You are not the center of the universe, God is.
Warren said, “The whole reason the universe was created– God created the universe– so He could create the earth, so He could create the human race, so He could create you– so He could love you.” By this statement, Warren exemplified the major failure of modern evangelicalism, which can be summarized as ‘an abandoning of a God-centered worldview for a Man-centered worldview.’ In Warren’s presentation, all of God’s actions are conducted with the benefit of Man as His highest consideration. This is in stark contrast to the God-centered view of Scripture presented in passages such as I Corinthians 15:23-28:
But each in his own order: Christ, the firstfruits; afterward, at His coming, the people of Christ. Then comes the end, when He hands over the kingdom to God the Father, when He abolishes all rule and all authority and power. For He must reign until He puts all His enemies under His feet. The last enemy He abolishes is death. For He has put everything under His feet. But when it says "everything" is put under Him, it is obvious that He who puts everything under Him is the exception. And when everything is subject to Him, then the Son Himself will also be subject to Him who subjected everything to Him, so that God may be all in all. (HCSB)
The Bible begins in Genesis 1:1 with the proclamation of God as the Sovereign Creator of all things. In the verses quoted above, we get a glimpse of how time as we know it will end, with all those who have rebelled against the sovereignty of God vanquished and with the glorious presence of God manifest as “all in all.” This is truly a God-centered view of existence.
In practicing evangelism, the temptation is great to abandon the God-centered worldview as presented in the verses above because so few people have any interest in hearing a message about the majestic glory of a holy, sovereign God. In fact, without a specific work of God no one will be interested in hearing the truth of who He is, what He commands, and what He has done to save those who have broken His commands. This is what the Apostle was indicating when he wrote, “But the natural man does not welcome what comes from God's Spirit, because it is foolishness to him; he is not able to know it since it is evaluated spiritually” (I Cor. 2:14 HCSB). Will Metzger, in his excellent handbook on personal evangelism Tell the Truth, elucidated the origin of the problem of Man-centered evangelism when he wrote the following:
Non-Christians’ desires are me-centered, revolving around their worthiness, abilities, and surface needs. They shrink God and identify faith with reforming their lives by self-effort. The Christian can end up presenting a what’s-in-it-for-you gospel, to which the non-Christian will readily respond.
Metzger also offered a solution for this problem when he wrote,
Our evangelism needs to stress a God of holiness, not just a God who exists to give us good times and pleasant feelings. We gained redemption through a sovereign Savior rather than through the relationship of a mere friend. The life of a Christian is to be radically different from, not relatively similar to, the world.
The real key to destroying Man-centeredness in favor of God-centeredness rests in a biblical proclamation of the meaning of the Cross. Though modern evangelical methods mention the Cross, they do not do so in a truly biblical fashion. Decades ago, A.W. Tozer commented on both the problem of how the Cross was being distorted by Man-centered preachers and the solution to this great problem of Man-centeredness when he wrote:
The new cross does not slay the sinner, it redirects him. It gears him into a cleaner and jollier way of living and saves his self-respect. To the self-assertive it says, "Come and assert yourself for Christ." To the egotist it says, "Come and do your boasting in the Lord." To the thrill seeker it says, "Come and enjoy the thrill of Christian fellowship." The Christian message is slanted in the direction of the current vogue in order to make it acceptable to the public.
The philosophy back of this kind of thing may be sincere but its sincerity does not save it from being false. It is false because it is blind. It misses completely the whole meaning of the cross.
The old cross is a symbol of death. It stands for the abrupt, violent end of a human being. The man in Roman times who took up his cross and started down the road had already said good-by to his friends. He was not coming back. He was going out to have it ended. The cross made no compromise, modified nothing, spared nothing; it slew all of the man, completely and for good. It did not try to keep on good terms with its victim. It struck cruel and hard, and when it had finished its work, the man was no more.
What does this mean to the individual, the condemned man who would find life in Christ Jesus? How can this theology be translated into life? Simply, he must repent and believe. He must forsake his sins and then go on to forsake himself. Let him cover nothing, defend nothing, excuse nothing. Let him not seek to make terms with God, but let him bow his head before the stroke of God's stern displeasure and acknowledge himself worthy to die. [From “The Old Cross and the New”]
If you are not in Christ, then God is (justly) mad at you.
Warren’s assertion that, “God is not mad at you,” is only justifiable if he believed everyone watching his sermon to already be a Christian; so that the declaration of Romans 8:1, “Therefore, no condemnation now exists for those in Christ Jesus” (HCSB, emphasis added) would be understood to apply to the entire viewing audience of Fox News Network this past Christmas Day. Otherwise, if Warren intended this statement to be heard by persons outside of faith in Christ, then he was, quite simply, lying.
Though this word “lying” may strike some readers as harsh, I can think of no other term for making a statement that is so clearly a contradiction of Scripture. When a person tells me the Bible teaches that Jesus is not God, I tell them that they are lying and I refer them to John 1:1 and 14: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us...” (NKJV). When I read someone’s comments on the Internet claiming the Bible teaches that repentance is not a necessary part of the Gospel call, I tell them that they are lying and I refer them to Mark 1:14-15: “Now after John was put in prison, Jesus came to Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the gospel’” (NKJV). And when I hear a preacher telling sinners the Bible teaches that God is not mad at them, I can only conclude that he is lying based on Psalm 7:11-12: “God is a just judge, and God is angry with the wicked every day. If he does not turn back, He will sharpen His sword; He bends His bow and makes it ready” (NKJV).
But why is God angry with sinners? The answer to this question, again, is found in the biblical revelation of who God is. As we have already noted, God is the Sovereign Creator of all things. As the Sovereign Creator, God has a very specific design for how affairs in His universe are to be conducted. When creating Man, God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness…” (cf. Genesis 1:26 NKJV). Human beings, therefore, were designed to be representative of God to the rest of creation. But as we come to understand this truth, we are confronted with the question, ‘How are we to know if we are accurately reflecting the image of God?’ God has answered this question by giving us the moral law, written first within the heart of Man and then clarified in His Word, the Holy Bible. The moral law is a revelation of God’s holy character. This moral law convicts us with the knowledge that we are misrepresenting the character of God the Sovereign Creator and breaking the commandments of God the Holy Lawgiver. For each one of us has lied when we know we should have told the truth; each of us has, at some point, disobeyed our parents when we know we should have honored them; each one of us has lost our temper and given in to anger towards others when we know we should have been kind and merciful; each one of us has looked on a woman or a man with selfish lust rather than with the love and care for them as a person that we know we should feel.
Concerning the moral law, the theologian John Calvin wrote the following:
The true knowledge of God constrains us to worship Him, and the true knowledge of self leads to genuine humility and self-abasement. The law is the instrument which the Lord uses to bring about both these results: by asserting therein His right to command, He calls us to pay Him the reverence due to His majesty; and by setting before us the standard of His righteousness, He shows us our unrighteousness and impotence. Moreover, the things which are taught in the tables of the law are also taught by that inward law which is written on the tables of every man’s heart; for our conscience does not allow us to sleep an unbroken sleep, but inwardly testifies to us the claims of God and the difference between right and wrong. But since this inward law is insufficient, through our ignorance, pride, and self-love, God has also given us the plainer and surer testimony of the written law. From the law we learn that God, being our Creator, justly claims all that is due to a Father and a Master, namely, honor, reverence, love and fear: that we are not our own masters, at liberty to follow the desires of our own mind without regard to His good pleasure: finally, that He loveth righteousness and hateth iniquity, and that we therefore must follow after righteousness in the whole course of our life unless we would be guilty of impious ingratitude to our Maker. Nor can we rightly excuse ourselves by alleging our inability to keep His law, seeing that the glory of God must not be measured by the extent of our powers, and that the sin which causes our inability lies within our own heart and is righteously imputed to us alone. [Quoted in Ernest Reisinger, Today’s Evangelism.]
Again, the real key to understanding God’s righteous anger against those who have broken His law rests in a biblical proclamation of the meaning of the Cross. For the Cross magnifies the justice and holiness of God’s law and reveals His wrath toward sinners. As Ernest Reisinger explained in his wonderful book concerning a biblical Gospel witness, Today’s Evangelism:
Probably the verse in the Bible that best describes the work of Christ is Isaiah 42:21: “…he [Christ] will magnify the law and make it honorable.” Christ magnified the law in His life by keeping it perfectly, and in His death by suffering its penalty for His people. The very base of the cross is Christ satisfying divine justice (the righteous demands of a Holy God) for sinners. At the cross, God the Father sheathed the sword of divine justice in the bosom of His Son in order that sinners may have an honorable pardon: not just sin overlooked, but sin paid for; not only expiation, but also propitiation.
You should be afraid of God, especially if you are not in Christ.
The realization of God’s anger against lawbreakers should certainly motivate those outside of Christ to fear God. Warren pointed to the multitude of ‘fear not’ statements in the Bible in order to assert that God “want[s] you to get the message– don’t be afraid.” But we must look to the context in which God tells people not to fear. Take, as an example, the witness of the Apostle John in Revelation 1:17. John saw a vision of Jesus in His glory and consequently he testified:
When I saw Him, I fell at His feet like a dead man. He laid His right hand on me, and said, "Don't be afraid! I am the First and the Last, (HCSB)
This is typically how the ‘fear not’ scenarios play out in the biblical text: An individual catches a glimpse of the holy and is thus incapacitated by the realization of the vast distance he or she falls short of this holiness– when an individual encounters the holy, his or her spirit cries out in self-condemnation, as demonstrated by the prophet Isaiah, who upon seeing a heavenly vision testified,
Woe is me, for I am ruined, because I am a man of unclean lips and live among a people of unclean lips, [and] because my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts. (Is. 6:5 HCSB)
God, having thus brought the person to such a state of humility, graciously strengthens his or her spirit by His Word, saying ‘fear not,’ granting promises, and revealing further aspects of His character.
But the fear and humility must come before the restoration. As we are taught in the book of James:
Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up. (4:10 NIV)
"God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble." (James 4:6b NIV)
But without a work of God, no one will come to a proper fear of the Lord or be truly humbled in His sight. As the Apostle Paul taught, “There is no one righteous, not even one… There is no fear of God before their eyes” (cf. Rom. 3:10, 18 HCSB). Without God’s special work of grace, people give no thought to His holiness, to their sinfulness, nor to the wrath that is to come. For this reason, God reprimands sinners throughout the Holy Scripture for not fearing Him. In fact, when Warren stated that “there are over 365 ‘fear nots’ in the Bible,” the only way he could possibly have reached this number is if he included the rebukes God pronounces against sinners for not fearing Him. Such as the following from Psalm 55:19:
God shall hear, and afflict them, even he that abideth of old. Because they have no changes, therefore they fear not God. (KJV)
For preachers such as Rick Warren, who want to speak only of God’s love while avoiding the biblical teaching concerning the fear of the Lord, evangelist Ray Comfort offered the following interrogation in his book The Way of the Master:
When they found a place of repentance, of what did they repent? It must have been sin.
When they understood that they had sinned against God, did they not fear at all? Didn’t they have enough reverence for God to produce the fear of the Lord, which is the beginning of wisdom?
When they turned from sin, how did they “flee from the wrath to come” without fear?
If they were “moved by the love of God,” seen in the sacrifice of the Cross, were they not provoked to fear by the extreme measures that God undertook to redeem them because of their sin?
As Christians, have they yet come to the point of fearing God? What do they think when they read that God killed a husband and wife because they broke the ninth commandment (Acts 5:1-10)? Do they conclude that the psalmist was misguided when he wrote, “My flesh trembles for fear of You, and I am afraid of Your judgments” (Psalm 119:20)? Have they obeyed the command of Jesus: “I will show you whom you should fear: Fear Him who, after He has killed, has the power to cast into hell; yes, I say to you, fear Him! (Luke 12:5)?
Once more, the real key to understanding the fear of the Lord rests in a biblical proclamation of the meaning of the Cross. Confronted with the Cross at the end of His earthly ministry, Jesus “began to be horrified and deeply distressed” (cf. Mk. 14:33). Jesus cried out to God, “Abba, Father! All things are possible for You. Take this cup away from Me.!” (cf. Mk. 14:36) What could possibly cause the Lord of glory to be horrified? Why would God the Son cry out to God the Father in this manner? It was only because He knew perfectly divine, holy wrath against sin. Yet through this Jesus became the picture of perfect humility as well, ending His prayer with the following faithful words: “Nevertheless, not what I will, but what You will” (cf. Mk. 14:36). On the Cross, Jesus took the punishment for our sins so that we would not have to experience God’s wrath. Through faith in Christ, we continue to fear the Lord, recognizing that He is the Sovereign, Holy, omniscient, and omnipotent God of the universe, but we no longer have to fear His just punishment against our sins. Believers have, through the grace secured in Christ’s sacrifice, been pardoned from death row.
Conclusion: God’s love is perfectly revealed at the Cross.
In his sermon this past Christmas Day– a sermon broadcast over Fox News Network into homes across the nation– Rick Warren attempted to tell people about the love of God. At the beginning of this post, you read how Warren spoke concerning the love of God. But how does the Bible itself proclaim the love of God? What is the fullest expression of God’s love? The Apostle Paul has told us in Romans 5:8– “But God proves His own love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us!” (HCSB) For this message to have its full impact, people must be instructed as to what it means to be sinners– creatures who have rebelled against the Sovereign Creator, with God’s anger burning against them for violating His holy laws with impunity. For the message of the Christ’s work on the Cross to have its full impact, people must be exhorted to fear the Lord. The message of the Cross is the greatest demonstration of God’s love because it is the message of God’s grace triumphing even through His holy wrath. I have written this post because I believe that the message of Rick Warren is not in line with this glorious message of God’s love toward sinners. Warren’s message falls short because he has undermined the biblical distinction between the Creator and His creatures, he has contradicted the Bible’s teaching of God’s anger against sinners, and he has neglected the biblical message of God’s judgment against the ungodly. Warren has retained a great deal of somewhat biblical language, but his concept of Man’s condition is far from biblical and his teaching about Man directly impacts the proclamation of the Good News concerning God’s grace.