I didn’t know what the American Dream was until a few years ago, and then I kind of forgot about it until I picked up Dr. David Platt’s book Radical, which is subtitled “taking back your faith from the American Dream.” In his book, Dr. Platt looks at Jesus’ calls to discipleship and how they’re so different from the American Dream, and even the most prevalent form of Christianity. He mostly speaks of it in America, but I know it’s infiltrated the whole world.
I read the book, and then read a couple reviews on it, and then re-read it. There’s a lot of controversy surrounding Radical. With any book of Radical’s type, there’s going to be a lot of controversy (I read comments on Amazon. And looked up some other books to see what people said about them. Piper’s Don’t Waste Your Life gets similar comments. It’s been a few years since I read that book, but it runs along a similar line to Radical). It’s well… radical. Kevin DeYoung has some helpful comments, some that I agree with, others I don’t so much. A lot of the negative reviews come from people having a false idea of what the book is supposed to be about. Dr. Platt’s aim isn’t to deal with every falling short of Christianity today. It’s not a step-by-step along-the-way working through how to change it. It can’t be separated from the rest of Christian teaching or taken as the only problem and the only answer. It’s more of a call to wake up and obey the Lord who has saved us. It’s not a perfect book, but that doesn’t mean God won’t and isn’t using it – because He very obviously is. You could pull out all sorts of little issues, but a lot of that is really specific, nit-picking certain phrases, and has a lot to do with presuppositions. I recommend his sermons more than his book, but the book is still good.
I’ll walk through a quick review and then some of the cautions/balances I have for it. And I’ll try not to be long-winded. My first attempt at a review was 4 pages long. These are my thoughts, opinions, and cautions. If it piques your interest, you should read it – and then let me know what you thought.
Dr. Platt contrasts the American church with the persecuted church and Jesus’ calls to discipleship. Jesus spoke of dying to self, not living for self. He calls us to abandon our stuff because He is greater. I kept thinking of something Mr. Neal asked us once – “If [Christians were still persecuted like they were in Rome] how many Christians would there be today? How many of us would be willing to shoulder our crosses every day and suffer for Christ?” It’s a wake-up call we need to hear.
In the second chapter (which is my favorite), Dr. Platt focuses on the beauty of the gospel: that God comes to us, His enemies, and saves us. He speaks of our helplessness and His power, and how our hearts are changed so we can bear fruit and obey. On the other hand, as Dr. Platt points out in chapter three, the American dream exalts our ability. Even in the church, the focus is often on programs (most of which aren’t even IN scripture!) by our power instead of prayer (Acts 2!). The Spirit is what empowers us, brings fruit, and makes us able to do His Work. All that we do is by God’s power, and not ours.
And so in the next chapter, Dr. Platt picks up on a blind spot in Christianity – the Great Commission – to GO, for God blesses us so His glory is declared, not for our comfort. The Great Commission is a command for all, not a calling. Place is calling, obedience is NOT. Are you consumed with making His glory known?
In chapter five, Dr. Platt goes into more details about the great commission – what does it mean to make disciples? This streams over into chapter six, where he talks about demonstrations of faith and gospel in giving to the poor. Jesus spoke of sacrificial giving – and if He is Lord, we can give it up, because He will provide.
In chapter seven, Dr. Platt walks through Romans looking at how all men have rejected God and are under condemnation and how Christ brings us back. But our obedience to God in telling others and obeying Him in general isn’t without risk – Jesus says the world will hate us – but we’re not to fear. The worst that can happen is death – which to the Christian, is greater life.
Dr. Platt closes with chapter nine, which walks through five starting points for applying the book.
Perhaps you can see the potential for controversy there. I think a lot of it doesn’t have to do so much with content but the foundation, presuppositions, and heart of the reader. As one commenter on the Gospel Coalition said,
“people who need to read “Radical” because they are caught up in the americanization of christianity (which i think Platt…for the most part…accurately portrays) truly benefit from Platt’s convictions and directives…His call to be Disciples and not just “hangers on” is right on…
however, those who already have a propensity towards being “holier than thou”, judgmental and sectarian… walk away from reading “Radical” and use it’s message as a verbal bazooka on any and everyone, letting them know that they are the “real” Christians and everyone else is a fake-wannabee…”
Even with that, though, there are a few comments I want to make.
1. Giving to the Poor. One of the biggest challenges Dr. Platt calls us to is giving to the poor. This is something commanded and commended in scripture (countless references, but three I stumbled upon in the past few days are Ezekiel 22:7, Proverbs 28:27, and Daniel 4:27). Helping the poor is a mark of repentance and loving Him – because we were poor and He helped us. It’s obedience, and a mark of true religion (see James).
Dr. Platt speaks some about how the greater need is the gospel, but I don’t think he emphasized it enough. When Jesus saw the sick and needy, he healed them – but more importantly, forgave their sin. If all we do is give them money, a better job, a trade to support their family, a goat for milk – the goat will die, the money will be gone, they will die. A second thing to consider is that sometimes aid does more harm than good. As a Palestinian bus driver pointed out, some Palestinians and Israelis want the conflict to continue because they’re getting foreign aid. I know political aid is different than missions aid but the same concept applies. You have to be careful how you give and who you give to, and that you’re teaching them Christ and how to get back on their feet. A ministry to homeless men I had the opportunity to help out with some this summer did a fabulous job with that. The men couldn’t be random bums but had to be looking for work (my only problem with this ministry was there seemed to be no spiritual input into their lives). Dr. Platt outlines some guidelines for giving on pages 195 and 196. He suggests giving to a gospel-centered, church-focused, tangible, trustworthy place. My other caution concerning the poor is that though we give sacrificially, we don’t give ourselves into debt. Giving is good. Trusting God for provision is good. A good resource on finances is Randy Alcorn’s “Money, Possessions, and Eternity.” I’m not saying give less – I’m saying use caution, prayer, and discernment when you DO. Also, our first duty to the poor is the poor within the household of faith.
Here’s another thought on giving. Jesus tells the rich young ruler to sell all he has. That’s a principle, not a pattern or precept. The idea here, and Dr. Platt says this, is that Jesus is exposing the man’s idols. In Luke 14, Jesus says we must renounce all we have – it’s worthless compared to Him – are you ready to give it up? The call to discipleship isn’t equivalent to a call to poverty. There are examples in scripture of rich men and women who used their money for the Lord. Joseph of Arimathea and Zaccheus are just two examples. There was a Lady in the reformation who used her money to fund a lot of the reformers. The problem isn’t money so much as it is what we do with it. For some, sacrifice might not mean you live in a tiny house. It does mean you use your house for the glory of God. We know a family who bought a house larger than their needs for ministry purposes. Excess should be used for Him, not more on us. Proverbs speaks of using money wisely – read it!
2. Go! Dr. Platt paints a very clear picture that we need to obey the Great Commission. It’s a command and not a calling. Jesus didn’t say that some of us were to go into all the world and make disciples. But one thing to remember is that America is part of ‘all the world.’ We are responsible for the here of where we are as well as the unreached. I don’t believe every Christian needs to leave their homeland and go elsewhere. But when there are unreached and we want to stay because of comfort when there are faithful churches in the states preaching the Word – maybe there’s not as many of them as we’d like, but they still have access to the Word. Some have never heard – and so how can they believe? I for one would be honored to be a part of people hearing the Word for the first time. The Great Commission means taking the gospel to the ends of the earth. But it’s not a command that everyone leaves their hometown, nor is it a command to stay. I don’t mean to pull a guilt-trip or appeal to emotions – but I feel (though feeling isn’t the basis for action) uncomfortable staying in America when there are people who haven’t heard. On the other hand, ‘going’ can also mean to your neighbors. Either way, if we’re not telling others and making disciples – we are being disobedient to Christ.
Another caution I have is about short term missions trips. Dr. Platt’s examples of international ministry are mostly in a short-term context. You can’t make a disciple and teach them all Jesus has commanded in a week. Most often it’s after years of slow, painful planting and laboring (I think of the Judsons in Burma).
3. Grace? In his article, Mr. DeYoung’s biggest concern was that Dr. Platt doesn’t emphasize grace enough. Interestingly enough, I believe Mr. DeYoung addressed that issue himself in a message he gave himself at our church. In short, it’s summarized by what Tim Keller said in Counterfeit Gods, “God’s salvation doesn’t come as a response to a changed life, a changed life comes in response to the salvation, offered as a free gift.”
In John 15, Jesus talks about abiding. And how do we abide? By keeping His commandments (but it’s been foreordained that we’ll bear fruit and abide, so it’s not our work – and it’s the “fruit of the Spirit,” not the “fruit of Kyleigh”). The root is the gospel. It’s where we get our power, but it bears fruit. If there’s no fruit, we can question the root. Once we’re saved, we don’t live however we want (we’re called to holiness, see Ephesians 1:4), because we’re fighting the sin nature that begs to live the old way, the way without Christ. The problem with the American dream is that it’s an idolatry of self and doesn’t exalt God. It’s contrary to the evidences of salvation we see and the calls to discipleship. The gospel is first and foremost, but it’s not all. The ultimate is about GOD and CHRIST. The only time I felt Dr. Platt departed from this was in the last chapter. We can’t reduce our lives and obedience to Him to a formula (but we do need a starting place for obeying these expansive commands).
Also, as I was thinking about it, the book Radical parallels many of the epistles. The first chapters are on the gospel and grace(orthodoxy) – and the later chapters are on how to live because of that (orthopraxy). Being gospel-centered is important, but in remembering the how of salvation, we can’t forget the why of it.
I’ve been reading “God’s Way of Holiness” by Horatio Bonar, and also reading some passages in Galatians mostly thinking on how any good in us isn’t us but Christ’s righteousness and the Spirit working in us. Bonar has some good quotes (in addition to Galatians 2:16, 20 3:3) that were helpful in understanding the idea of grace and works… but more on that coming in another post.
4. Long-Haul. Another of Mr. DeYoung’s concerns is burnout. We’re in a marathon, not a sprint. That’s very true. BUT in an era when many are walking instead of running the race – we need a wake-up call. Jesus withdrew for time alone and rest. A radical life will have the mundane. There will be times for plodding along. We need to be faithful and disciplined. But we also need beta-endorphins and adrenaline. 2 Timothy 2 talks about endurance and faithfulness. Hardship isn’t just in persecution, but also the spiritual disciplines.
Even so – the church should look different from the world, and the world is supposed to hate us. Discipleship isn’t comfortable, in the two-fold way of self-discipline and the persecution. But don’t you wonder – how different would it be if we were really obeying? If the church was living in a way that adorned the gospel and showed the world CHRIST, not a different version of the world? The church will never be perfect on earth, and it never has been perfect on earth. But they used to use money to help the poor and send missionaries, not for youth group, women’s ministry, missions trips, children’s ministry… all these things that can be good, but are often done when there’s not full obedience elsewhere. Churches used to be smaller (one question for Dr. Platt – why don’t they plant churches instead of remaining a megachurch?), the people were marked by prayer and obedience – though the early church had its troubles, too (see 1 and 2 Corinthians).
These actions and a radical life are a result of faith, love, and conviction. We can’t do it on a guilt trip or we WILL burn out. But as obedience as a response to the gospel, empowered by the same Spirit that saved us – it’s powerful.
It left me with quite a few questions about how I’m going to apply it. How much of my money should I give? How can I be more obedient to Christ (the call of Christ isn’t ‘be radical’ but ‘obey.’ I pray this kind of radical becomes normal)? How can I be more active in sharing the gospel with others?
I’ve grown up comfortable. Not American dream (though we are very blessed and by the standards of most of the world, rich), but I have a lot of American in my worldview. I live overseas, but I love my quilting fabric, food, and books from the states. I like going back and spending summers there – but I need to be willing to give that up. Comfort is not evil. It’s not wrong to be comfortable. You don’t need to think “I’m comfortable; I’m not pleasing God” because that’s not true in the least. He is our comfort, our greatest comfort. But the Judsons left America knowing they might never return. Am I willing to do the same?
Christianity isn’t about comfort, though as I just said there are times for comfort. Jesus’s call is that “if anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.”
Deny self. Take up cross. Follow Him. It’s not easy. To the world, it looks radical. But if Christ is our master, we’re His servants and becoming like Him as we follow Him – that means obeying Him. It means walking in His footsteps which is suffering. That will look different to different people. Some will die as martyrs, and it is beautiful. For others, the death is a daily death to self. For the missionary in Afghanistan, they may face more of the physical death. For the mother at home, there will be thousands of daily deaths. The missionary is also called to thousands of daily deaths – it’s the life of the Christian as we put sin to death, always carrying in the body the death of Christ so that the life of Christ might be manifest in us (2 Corinthians 4).
Radical isn’t my goal. Christ-like is. But to a dying world, Christ-like will be radical. But more than listening to Dr. Platt, I want to be listening to scripture. I see a lot of Dr. Platt’s writing coming directly from scripture, but any application of the book is because I see it’s in line with what Christ wants of me, and done by His grace at work in me, and I’m grateful to Dr. Platt for bringing those inconsistencies into light.
(And this is still four pages. Bummer).
And, to make this even longer:
Dr. Platt also wrote a sequel called “Radical Together.” I just finished reading it. Radical Together looks at what being radical according to his first book would look like as a church. It wasn’t as church-centered as I expected – still very individual, not ‘one-another’, though he did focus on what it means for church leadership (though it’s harder to apply as someone not in leadership). Mostly he talks about putting everything the church does on the table, even the good things, and asking God what He wants them to do, and building our church gatherings on scripture – not programs, professionals, performance, and places. Much of it is very familiar after reading Radical. He does clear up some of my cautions from Radical – like on short term missions, giving, and he talks more about the gospel and how the legalist especially needs to read these books. But I became even more uncomfortable as he wrote about lots of young, single women going on their own to certain parts of the world. I think Radical Together is the better of the two, but you probably need the foundation of the first for the second.