“Radical”: Two and a Half Caveats

David Platt’s Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream (1) is admirable in its intentions. And the book is bold in challenging American Christians’ complacency and love of comforts. Perhaps the fact that I found myself arguing, on almost every page, testifies to the effectiveness of Platt’s presentation. Still, I object to his articulation of Biblical priorities and a Biblical program at three main points.

Issue 1: What Does Radical Abandonment to Jesus Look Like?

This is the “half” caveat. I commend Radical for insisting that we cannot have Christ and self-fulfillment. Yet somehow, as I read it, the emphasis seemed to fall on all the wrong notes. To be blunt, there is a great deal in the book about what one must abandon in order to follow Christ, and much less about the Christ who calls.

I can demonstrate this best by contrasting Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s approach in the opening chapters of his classic work The Cost of Discipleship.(2) Bonhoeffer takes up, in turn, four Gospel texts, each of which issues a challenge, and each of which reveals Christ.(3)

  1. Jesus’ call to Levi in Mark 2:14 is simply, “Follow me” (COD 57); in Mark 1:17 and John 21:22, He issues the same call to Peter (45). This word “gives us no intelligible program for a way of life, no goal or ideal to strive after” (58). There is only Jesus: “When we are called to follow Christ, we are summoned to an exclusive attachment to his person” (59). His call is always this stark and this uncompromising.
  2. In Luke 9:57-62, after Jesus has resolutely set out for Jerusalem and the Cross, He converses briefly with three would-be disciples, none of whom ends up following Him. Because Jesus is God incarnate, He is able to speak a word that is a call, a word that makes faith possible. But faith must obey (60-63).
  3. Similarly, when the rich young man approaches Him with an academic question (Matthew 19:16-26; Mark 10:17-31), Jesus challenges him to make an irrevocable break with his present life, and to embrace “adherence to the person of Jesus Christ and fellowship with him.” He calls him to “spontaneous obedience” (70-76, 84-85).
  4. These passages prepare us for Mark 8:31-38, the invitation to take up our cross and follow Jesus. He “is Christ only in virtue of his suffering and rejection,” and we must join Him there: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” The specifics are different for each of us; indeed, the call makes us individuals: “Every man is called separately, and must follow alone” (86-94).

Platt, who cites Bonhoeffer (Radical 14), quotes the same four passages (7-11). But he takes them in a different order, and passes quickly from one to another. Because he is concerned about American materialism, he spends the most time on the rich young man, even though eventually he must admit that Jesus’ words on this occasion are not a literal command for everyone (119-20). In an impatient and distracted age, it is tempting to be more concise than Bonhoeffer, but the difference is striking. In The Cost of Discipleship, we meet a suffering and majestic Christ, who makes His way to each of us to speak an empowering word, a call that is personal and different for every hearer. We hear Him call others, and consider; at last, inescapably, He calls to me. In Radical, we go quickly to the bottom line: we read about abandoning everything and “risking it all.”

Another way of stating this is to recall a point made well by Watchman Nee: that Christians must sit, rest, before they can walk. “For Christianity begins not with a big DO, but with a big DONE. Thus Ephesians opens with the statement that God has ‘blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ’ (1:3) and we are invited at the very outset to sit down and enjoy what God has done for us; not to set out to try and attain it for ourselves.”(4)

Bonhoeffer sees this: “Discipleship is bound to Christ as the Mediator, and where it is properly understood, it necessarily implies faith in the Son of God as the Mediator. Only the Mediator, the God-Man, can call men to follow him” (COD 59). Though it may seem paradoxical, though it may occur in a moment of time, the resting of faith precedes the step of following. And the resting of faith may entail a certain amount of letting go.

But Platt does not dwell on the Christ who calls. His discipleship has no sitting and resting, only walking and striving.

There is a tension in Bonhoeffer: although Christ’s call makes one an individual, “It is impossible to become a new man as a solitary individual” (COD 242). One must become a member of Christ’s Body, the Church. (And so Bonhoeffer would go on to write Life Together.) With his less individuated call, Platt might have more to say about corporate discipleship, right from the start. Yet, as we shall see, he presents, not so much a Body in which diverse members work together, but a likeminded fellowship in which individuals march in lockstep. Even his closing challenge, the Radical Experiment, asks one to decide how to give and where to serve before committing to a church (Radical 218-19).

Issue 2: Does God Exalt Our Inability?

Again, I am in sympathy with the main thrust of Radical’s third chapter: that believers must depend on the power of God instead of trusting in our own wisdom, strength, and resources. Jonathan Edwards placed a great emphasis on the Christian’s (and the creature’s) “absolute dependence” on God; this doctrine was a cornerstone of his theology, his preaching, and his devotional life.(5)

Unfortunately, Platt shapes his discussion as a response to a definition of the American dream by James Truslow Adams, which, paraphrased, assumes that “our greatest asset is our ability” (46). So the chapter’s thesis becomes: “In direct contradiction to the American dream, God actually delights in exalting our inability” (47).

In fact, God delights in exalting human weakness; as He says to Paul, His power is made perfect in our weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9). Some weaknesses are inabilities, but many are not — the youth of Samuel and Jeremiah and Timothy, Paul’s thorn in the flesh, the lowly status of the shepherds who were witnesses to the Incarnation and of the women who were witnesses to the Resurrection, and Christ’s offensive death (“crucified in weakness,” 2 Corinthians 13:4) are all examples of Biblical weakness. Weakness can coexist with great ability; the same Paul who rejoices that God chooses the foolish and weak and lowly (1 Corinthians 1:27-28) is himself a brilliant thinker, preacher, writer, teacher, and leader; and similar claims could be made for Moses, David, Solomon, and others.

This may seem like a quibble over words, but words matter. If every natural ability is a spiritual hindrance or an idol, no one should go to seminary, or even to school. There is no reason for “training” to become “equipped” (2 Timothy 3:16-17); we are better off helpless. Such ideas have surfaced from time to time in church history, never with good results.

In the Bible, we find that God is graciously pleased to give His people abilities, from “the ability to produce wealth” (Deuteronomy 8:18) to the New Testament gifts of the Spirit, which are entrusted to us like abilities for us to steward or administer, though of course “with the strength God provides” (1 Peter 4:10-11). So far from leaving us helpless, He makes some among us “competent as ministers” (2 Corinthians 3:6, NIV) and “qualified to teach others” (2 Timothy 2:2, NIV).(6)

Platt quotes the words of Jesus in John 15:5: “Apart from Me you can do nothing” (46). By themselves, though, these words invite passivity, quietism, even testing God by demanding that He act for us. Therefore, Christians typically balance this text with another one, Philippians 4:13: “I can do everything through Him who gives me strength” (NIV; RSV has “in Him”; Amplified “I have strength for all things in Christ Who empowers me [I am ready for anything and equal to anything through Him Who infuses inner strength into me; I am self-sufficient in Christ’s sufficiency]”).

As pastors know, there is a creative tension between these two texts. When I am proud and overconfident, I need to hear John 15:5, and recognize afresh my absolute dependence on the Savior. But when I am crushed and in despair (or, like Paul in prison, tempted to discontentment and fretfulness), Philippians 4:13 reminds me to persevere — and perhaps even to take godly initiative.

We desperately need the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, more than all the talents and gifts imaginable. But because God is good, He doesn’t glory in our inability. He is the loving Father who teaches us to walk (Hosea 11:3). He makes us able, qualified, and competent, even as He exalts and fills our weaknesses.

Issue 3: Is Every Christian Commanded to Go to the Nations?

The bulk of Radical is concerned with the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19-20: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (RSV).

It is an important focus, ever timely. But after a horrific story about a church that dismisses the unsaved (or at least any who are overseas), Platt makes this statement: “Jesus commands us to go. He has created each of us to take the gospel to the ends of the earth, and I propose that anything less than radical devotion to this purpose is unbiblical Christianity” (64).

If Matthew 28 were the whole of the New Testament, this conclusion would be inescapable. As it is, we have the Book of Acts and the epistles, which help us understand what “radical devotion” to Jesus’ words looked like soon after they were spoken, and what it might look like today. What do we find? Paul doesn’t urge his converts to go on to the next city, but to lead quiet lives and work with their hands (1 Thessalonians 4:11). Writing to his fellow missionaries Timothy and Titus, he focuses on elders in each congregation to provide stability.

According to Platt, “Jesus himself has not merely called us to go to all nations; he has . . . commanded us to go to all nations. We have taken this command, though, and reduced it to a calling — something that only a few people receive” (72-73).

Yet in Acts 13:2, while the church at Antioch is worshiping and fasting, the Holy Spirit says, “Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Already, perhaps 20 years after the Great Commission, it is a calling. Moreover, the calling comes to two individuals through the whole congregation. The Holy Spirit doesn’t rebuke everyone else for not following suit; their job is to hear, commission, send off, support, and pray. Not everyone goes, just as not everyone baptizes. The Great Commission is corporate, addressed to the entire Body of Christ; within each congregation, some are called to go, and some to send. Not for nothing does Scripture record David’s edict that the soldiers left behind, taking charge of supplies, would share equally in the reward with those who bore the heat of battle (1 Samuel 30:21-25).

Anyone who has lived on a mission field has observed the consequences of “All must go” teaching: uncalled, ill-equipped missionaries who crash and burn, harming themselves and the work.

Chapter 7 of Radical adds another element: the terrible urgency of missions work, because people are dying and going to hell. Platt writes, “We are the plan of God, and there is no plan B” (156).

I hesitate to take issue with this point, because this sense of urgency has helped to motivate some of the greatest Christian missionaries. Amy Carmichael was haunted by an image of people streaming over a precipice, while Christians sat by making daisy chains.(7) But we must ask whether it is Biblical to make this our overriding concern.

Even though Paul was called preach “where Christ was not known” (Romans 15:20), and lived “so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22), he sometimes allowed other priorities to intrude. Instead of going on to unsaved Spain, he set sail for Jerusalem in the interests of church unity (Romans 15: 24-28). He was not deterred by the thought that thousands in Spain would die and go into eternity before he could return. Similarly, we read of the Holy Spirit preventing him from entering certain regions (Acts 16:6-7). If all that mattered were the presence of unsaved souls, such decisions would be positively immoral.

The “perishing souls” argument raises awful questions. Whey didn’t Jesus come earlier? Why didn’t He visit the large population of China? Why were Native Americans cut off from the Gospel for more than 1,000 years?

Against all such speculations, the Bible declares that God sent His Son “when the time had fully come” (Galatians 4:4, NIV), and that Christ died “at just the right time” (Romans 5:6, NIV). Jesus begins the Great Commission with these words: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me” (Matthew 28:18, NIV; compare John 17:2). He is the general, opening and shutting doors; there are times and seasons that only He understands.

So when Platt says that I don’t need to inquire concerning God’s will for my life, because the answer is the same for all (159-60), I respectfully disagree. It is more Biblical to pray that we may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will, so that we may live a life worthy of Him and know Him (Colossians 1:9-12).

I saw the consequences of overriding missionary zeal at one church, where every sermon emphasized Christians’ duty to bring their unsaved friends to church. One Sunday I brought an unsaved friend, and he listened without interest to a sermon on Christians’ duty to bring their unsaved friends to church. Meanwhile, church members struggled with addictions, failing marriages, and every temptation and trial, but no help was extended, because all that mattered were the perishing souls. In a way, that pastor cared a great deal for people — up until the moment when they joined his flock.

The Great Commission also colors Platt’s view of discipleship. Against James 3:1 (“Let not many of you become teachers,” RSV), Platt says that “Jesus’ command for us to make disciples envisions a teaching role for all of us” (100). Worse, he advises that, when I listen to a sermon, I should ask not What can I get out of this? but How can I listen to his Word so that I am equipped to teach this Word to others? (102).

This is poor counsel. The words of Jesus are spirit and life, but only as they are believed (John 6:63-64). If I do not sit under the Word and allow it to prune and change me, I am in danger of becoming one who preaches Christ insincerely or impurely, for effect (Philippians 1:17). Jesus doesn’t tell a parable of the sower and his little son, who is also learning to sow; rather, the sower interacts with soil — which, in the wisdom of God, has its own way of producing and dispersing seeds, without itself becoming a sower.

Conclusion

To present a “radical” Christian call to the modern world, it is not enough to attack wealth or comfort or even complacency. One must strike at the root of individualism, calling people into a community that is diverse and differentiated, yet intimate and deeply united. Platt ends by sketching this (204-07), but it cannot be tacked on at the end. Barnabas and Saul receive their calling to the Great Commission, or at least receive the confirmation that equips them to walk it out, as members of a worshiping community (Acts 13:2).

I repeat, Radical is written with good intentions. I hope that David Platt will write a better book one day. In the meantime, though, I urge believers to spend their time reading the radical calls of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Jonathan Edwards.

(1) Colorado Springs: Multnomah, 2010.
(2) 1937; transl. R.H. Fuller, rev. Irmgard Booth, 1959; New York: Touchstone-Simon & Schuster, 1995.
(3) Bonhoeffer also discusses the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10 (76-78), but this is largely to clarify and reinforce a point made about Jesus’ exchange with the rich young man.
(4) Sit, Walk, Stand (1957, 4th ed. 1962; Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 1977), 2.
(5) See Edwards’ first published sermon, God Glorified in Man’s Dependence (1731; full text online at http://www.ccel.org/ccel/edwards/sermons.dependence.2.html. A search for “absolute dependence” at Yale’s Jonathan Edwards Center website, http://edwards.yale.edu/, yields 36 occurrences. Within 50 years of Edwards’ sermon, American declared independence. In the 1830s, Ralph Waldo Emerson exalted “Self-Reliance,” and in 1931, just 200 years after the sermon, J.T. Adams made the statement about the American dream that Platt quotes.
(6) The Greek word in both verses, hikanos, speaks to ability: it can be translated adequate, qualified (Marvin R. Vincent, Word Studies in the New Testament, 2nd ed., 1888 [Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, n.d.], 3:175), competent, worthy (Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words [Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1984, 1996], New Testament section, 3).
(7) Any Wilson Carmichael, Things As They Are: Mission Work in Southern India (1903; London: Morgan and Smith, 1905), 41-44; Amy Carmichael, Gold Cord: The Story of a Fellowship (1932; London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1952), 339, 348.

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