Can I Be Spiritual If I Still Have My Own Teeth? A Review of Francis Chan’s Crazy Love

I don’t often review books, but occasionally a title will capture the imagination of the evangelical world, and will find itself elevated to Sunday-morning-text status. I am not sure why, but it still surprises me that churches which typically speak of the sufficiency of Scripture will substitute a trendy title for the word of God.

In such cases I appeal to churches to consider Paul’s exhortation in 2 Timothy 3:16-17. His word is useful and sufficient. Sure, books are often helpful, but we should always remember to judge them in the light of Scripture.

One recent title that is increasing in its influence is Francis Chan’s dynamic appeal to discipleship, creatively titled Crazy Love. Many churches are taking their people through Crazy Love, in services, Sunday schools, book clubs, and “Bible” studies.

For those with little time to suffer through the whole review, I will offer the following brief summary at the outset:

 

Brief Summary (at the outset)

I truly appreciate what Francis Chan was attempting with this book. He wants to challenge people to commit more of themselves (all, in fact) to the Lord. Though I haven’t met him and haven’t researched his theology beyond what is presented in Crazy Love, I expect that Chan is a delightful brother in Christ. I hope to meet him and discuss these matters with him one day.

Still, I cannot judge a book based on the benevolent intentions of the author. I must judge a book by the words on its pages, and I must test them in the light of Scripture. The following are my observations. While I cannot recommend the book, if one was to read it, I would encourage them to judge it not based on my assessment, but based on how it agrees or disagrees with Scripture.

My findings are that, while it contains many commendable statements and is well intentioned, it makes at least three fatal errors – errors that make it fairly useless for promulgating truth.

(1) It seems to be written on the framework of an empirical rather than Biblical epistemology. There is significant emphasis on emotion and experience, and little on Biblical exegesis.

(2) Where there is attention to Biblical passages, they seem often badly handled (even incoherent at times), and certainly not with any careful exegesis.

(3) The soteriological framework is a reformed platform that places believers under the law, and at least flirts with works salvation (if not proclaiming it implicitly). Those who hold to MacArthur’s Lordship salvation, while facing severe challenges to consistency and exegetical integrity, will find much in this book to agree with. I would describe the book as an emergent version of MacArthur’s Gospel According to Jesus. Same message, different epistemological framework, and appealing to a postmodern generation. The book takes on a definite generational and at times divisive tone. (e.g., American Christianity [What is that, exactly?] is condemnable and boring. The book offers an alternative of adventure and risk.) It proposes a radical kind of Christianity, in which you can’t get to heaven unless you love Jesus and obey Him faithfully, and if you aren’t living radically as the book proposes, then you may not even be a Christian.

If you are up for more…read away.

 

Review

 I can understand the popularity of the book. In the preface Chan appeals to those who are bored with American Christianity, and who “want more Jesus.” (21) He criticizes his early understanding of Christianity as “fight your desires in order to please God.” (20) He describes the end result of his process of discovering a new kind of Christianity, saying he has never “felt more alive.” (20). He also tells the reader that “by surrendering yourself totally to God’s purposes, He will bring you the most pleasure in this life and the next.” (21)

 

There are two problems introduced here:

(1) The early appeals to emotion show an imbalance – the book communicates more on an emotional level rather than it focuses on propositional truth. The epistemological tendency of the book is empiricist rather than Biblical. In other words, despite observing that experience is not determinative (167), he writes often as if it is. Specific examples will be given later.

(2) The reason given here for surrender to God is lasting pleasure. It seems as if the book is borrowing from secular hedonists to justify moral action (Aristotle, for example, would be proud. He taught that all human activity was grounded in self-interest, and that happiness was the highest good. Aristotle grounded morals (for his take on virtue ethics, see Nicomachean Ethics) in the person’s ultimate good – happiness. Jeremy Bentham might also enjoy this book’s moral grounding. Bentham illustrated in his hedonic calculus that we should make choices by weighing what would bring us the most pleasure overall.

While these two imbalances might make the reader suspicious of what follows in the book, the author offers several purpose statements for his project. These statements are very helpful in understanding the focus of the book:

“God put me in Simi Valley, California to lead a church of comfortable people into lives of risk and adventure.” (21) Here the author offers relief from the monotony of life as a Christian in America. (The author says he doesn’t want to bash the American church, but…he does anyway. Apparently, there is little or nothing to commend in the American church.)

“I believe He wants us to be known for giving…In so doing we can alleviate the suffering in the world and change the reputation of  His bride in America.” (21) Here the author makes two bold assumptions: (1) that it is the responsibility of the church to alleviate the suffering of the world, and (2) that it is the responsibility of the church to correct the reputation of the church (particularly in America – again, a critique of the American church, the third critique in the preface.)

So, what if the church took up this first mantle and was successful in alleviating the suffering of the world? What Biblical mandate would we be following? Isn’t suffering somehow related to sin? Doesn’t Jesus offer the solution for sin? Of course, I am not suggesting we should not meet needs where we find them, but the author’s purpose here seems more grounded in social gospel, emergent morality, and even liberation theology than in Scripture.

As for the second result, the church is never called to embark on a PR campaign to repair its reputation – after all, its Head was rejected by the world and crucified as a common criminal. The church proclaims foolishness to those who don’t believe. The church’s “reputation” seems of little concern to Paul. Of course the NT speaks of personal holiness, but never of a corporate reputation. I sense some hints of replacement theology here.

The author continues: “We need to stop giving people excuses not to believe in God.” (21). I appreciate what the author seems to be attempting, but I wonder if he realizes that people are not lining up to believe, only to be dissuaded by hypocritical Christians. (Rom. 3:10-18 makes it clear there is no such line.)

It is clear that the author intends well, and sometimes a charitable reading can alleviate some of the difficulties. The problem lies in that one can only judge the words that are written, not the words that might have been intended. Theological precision, then, is important, and it seems to be lacking here.

The author identifies his outline and methodology, stating that the book would “address our inaccurate view of God and, consequently, of ourselves.” (22) This is an excellent order of consideration, and the book moves in that direction. Unfortunately, the book never addresses “ourselves,” instead, it tells what we should do. Imagine omitting Ephesians 1-3 and moving right to chapter 4. This is a key mistake made by this book. It does address commendably the nature of God, but then moves to prescription of behavior and control of action without ever mentioning sanctification or the process of spiritual maturing. It is quite telling that (to the best of my recollection) the Holy Spirit is not even mentioned until the last few pages of the book (page 171 to be exact). How can we discuss who we are and what is our responsibility in Christ without discussing the Holy Spirit and His work within us? Well, apparently for 170 pages it’s pretty easy.

As the preface concludes, the reader’s suspicion might increase. There seems enough to question in the preface alone.

 

Chapters 1 & 2

Did I understand correctly that the book is encouraging us to stop praying? (25) The book misapplies Ecclesiastes 5:1-7 as if to imply that Solomon was talking about prayer, and suggesting we should not be too quick to talk to God. He wasn’t. He was talking about offering sacrifices and making vows (things OT saints certainly should not do hastily and cavalierly). The book implies that we should correct our understanding of God before we pray. Sounds interesting. But not correct (e.g., 1 Thess. 5:17). In fact, prayer is an important part of understanding who God is (e.g., Eph. 1) This issue is emblematic of much of  Crazy Love – ideas and concepts that sound very appealing, but are not based on the word of God.

To its credit, the book recognizes the importance of the fear of God (a recognition that seems later to be undone in an odd discussion of reverent intimacy…more on that later).

The book uses an interesting technique of directing the reader to a website to watch a video “to get a taste of the awe factor of our God.” (26) The author says “after I saw those images, I had to worship.” (26) Interesting that the author make an appeal to the senses to evoke a response of worship. Psalm 19:7-14, for example, illustrates worship as a response to God’s word, not sensory stimulation. Even the creation as described in Psalm 19:1-6, though it is a profound declaration of God’s glory, it is not the thing which causes the Psalmist to worship God.

Of course, I do not suggest it is wrong to respond to sensory stimulation with worship, I simply question why the author focuses on the sense, experience, and the emotional rather than on the word of God. It seems a common pattern in the book.

These issues notwithstanding, the remainder of Chapters 1 and 2 do point us to the Biblical God, and make some excellent statements, including:

“When I am consumed by my problems – stressed out about my life, my family, and my job – I actually convey the belief that I think the circumstances are more important than God’s command to always rejoice.” (41)

and

“From start to finish, this movie is obviously about God. He is the main character. How is it possible that we live as though it is about us?” (43)

and

“All that matters is the reality of who we are before God.” (50)

While this last statement is a very good one, unfortunately, the book never discusses who we are before God, it only discusses what we are to do. The book fails to consider the believer’s position in Christ, the role of the Holy Spirit (until page 171), and the process of discipling that the Father takes all His children through.

 

Chapter 3

The author tells a touching story about how he came to understand God’s love for His children. Of course the story revolves around his own fathering experience, it is a poignant story. Still, it reinforces the importance, in this book, of experience over Biblical propositions.

The author concludes that “Fear is no longer the word I use to describe how I feel about God.” (57) Instead, he says, “I use words like reverent intimacy.” (57) Then he adds, “I still fear God, and I pray that I always will.” (57) There are several problems with this statement:

(1) The term for fear used in the Hebrew OT is yiraw. The term in the Greek NT is phobos. Guess what they mean? You guessed it. Terror. Fear. Not respect. Not reverent intimacy.

(2) Fear is commanded as a response of the human will to God. It is not a “feeling.”

(3) There are more prescriptions in the NT to fear God than to love Him. That is not to say we shouldn’t love Him, of course we should, but the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge and wisdom (Prov. 1:7;9:10, etc.)

(4) The author contradicts himself saying in one sentence that he doesn’t describe his feeling for God as “fear,” but then immediately says he fears God. This is an odd paragraph, and the reader might be confused as to exactly what is to be understood.

The author seems to betray  a belief in limited atonement (not sure of the author’s views on this, but his comments are consistent only with that approach) on p. 62. He says, “…would He be loving us if He didn’t draw us toward what is best for us….If He didn’t do all of that, wouldn’t we accuse Him of being unloving in the end..?” (62) The implication is that in order for Him to love, He must draw us to Himself. God loved the whole world (Jn. 3:16), but does He draw all men to Himself (cf. Jn. 6:44, Rom. 9). The logical implication seems that God draws the elect – those whom He loves. But perhaps He doesn’t love the elect. (So goes the limited atonement argument.) Again, not sure of the author’s stance here, but he seems to be leaning that way.

The book’s emphasis on experience continues: “Do you believe that God is the greatest thing you can experience in the whole world?” (62) Experience relies on the senses, whereas we walk by faith not by sight (2 Cor. 5:7; Jn. 20:29).

The book also begins to discuss being “in love” with God. (62) This phrase has an emotional connotation, and is very different than the Biblical and oft repeated command to love God. Why the consistent use of “in love” in this book?

The author sends his reader back to the online videos for a reminder. (63) Peter sends us to Scripture to remind us (2 Pet. 1:12-13, 3:1). I am not suggesting we should not utilize technology. I just question why the word of God often seems a last resort in the prescriptions of this book.

 

Chapter 4

Another critique of American Christianity: “The goals of American Christianity are often a nice marriage, children who don’t swear, and good church attendance. Taking the words of Christ literally and seriously is rarely considered.” (68) Wow America must be an awful place. And those American Christians, apparently none of them get it. The broad brush costs the book some credibility.

The author wonders if we are “totally in love with Jesus Christ.” (68)

Pages 68-81, concluding the chapter describe what lukewarm people do. The reader will not yet know what a lukewarm person is, since a definition is not offered until the next chapter. Notice the emphasis here on what the person does rather than what the person is. The author handles this in the reverse order from what was implied in the preface.

 

Chapter 5

One of the most definitive statements in the book: “As I see it, a lukewarm Christian is an oxymoron; there’s no such thing.” (83-84)

From this statement and subsequent material building on this statement, I would describe this book simply as an emergent version of John MacArthur’s The Gospel According To Jesus. This book works from the same theological framework  (a reformed soteriology, which totally misses the Biblical concept of sanctification and equates discipleship and justification), but adds the postmodern, experiential appeal to a disenchanted generation through a process of reexamination and rediscovery (e.g., 85).

The book has taken a definite lordship salvation stance, denying that there are immature believers. What about 1 Corinthians, and Hebrews 4, 6, 10, and 13? What about the process of sanctification and spiritual maturing?

The book discusses Rev. 3:15-18 as if it speaks of unbelievers, yet the text speaks of the recipient church as those whom he loves, reproves, and disciplines (Rev. 3:19). He is discipling the church and admonishing their lukewarmness. But the author of Crazy Love asserts that their deeds prove them to be unbelieving. (85)

The book continues: “The thought of a person calling himself a ‘Christian’ without being a devoted follower of Christ is absurd.” (85) The NT provides examples of Christians failing to be devoted followers (Mt. 26; Rom. 7). The mistake made here is confusing discipleship with justification.

MacArthur does it on p. 36 of TGATJ, and Chan does it here. Discipleship has nothing whatsoever to do with justification (cf. Jn. 6:60, 64, 66). The “Great Commission” was to make disciples (Mt. 28:18-20), in part by teaching. But an unregenerate mind cannot spiritually appraise things (1 Cor. 2:14-15). Further, the purpose of teaching is to equip saints (Eph. 4:11-12).

As if the previous statements were not straightforward enough, the book continues: “Can I go to heaven without truly and faithfully loving Jesus? I don’t see anywhere in Scripture how the answer to that question can be yes.” (86)

The author has actually said we get to heaven by our deeds. His statements on p. 86 can be formulized as follows:

To get to heaven, we must love Jesus faithfully. (85)

To love Jesus is to obey His commands. (85)

Therefore, to get to heaven we must faithfully obey His commands. (85)

That is inarguably a prescription for works salvation. The author brings together the two separate aspects of justification (God’s declaration of our righteousness through the applied blood of Christ) and progressive sanctification (the process of discipleship and spiritual maturity, culminating in heaven with our glorification).

For a quick point of reference on the significance of the book’s description of salvation, consider Paul’s words in Galatians 1:9. This error alone makes this book totally worthless.

The author is very careful with his words in the following statements: “I do not want true believers to doubt their salvation as they read this book.” (87) Apparently, everybody else can, but this begs a question: How do I know I am a true believer. By Chan’s definition, I must “faithfully love” Jesus. But what if I fail? “In the midst of our failed attempts at loving Jesus, His grace covers us.” (87) Wait a minute. So if I am a true believer and I fail His grace covers us, but if I am not a true believer, His grace doesn’t, and the way I know the difference is based on whether or not I fail?

Confusing? Rather incoherent, indeed.

“Each of us has lukewarm elements and practices in our life. Therein lies the senseless, extravagant grace of it all” (87) [Wait, did he just call God’s grace senseless???]

So, let me get this straight. If I am a lukewarm person, I am not a Christian, and thus His grace does not cover me. But if I simply have lukewarm elements and practices, His grace covers me. Great. Which am I, and how can I tell? Am I a lukewarm person, or do I just have lukewarm  elements and practices.

“The Scriptures demonstrate clearly that there is room  for our failure and sin in our pursuit of God.” (87) But apparently not too much. If we cross the line which divides lukewarm elements and practices from lukewarm personhood then we are beyond His grace.

This line of reasoning is both absurd and contrary to Scripture. It represents a different gospel.

 

Chapter 6

The book tells us that the answer is love. The chapter is entitled “When You’re In Love,” and it asks, “Do you feel free in your Christian life?” (102) [Because Scripture puts a great emphasis on feeling free…right?]

Aside from the pervading emotional appeals, this is one of the better chapters, as Chan makes statements like, “I need God to help me love God.” (104) This shows a good understanding of our dependence on God.

Also, “As we begin to focus more on Christ, loving Him and others becomes more natural.” (104) Great! It seems the author is finally recognizing that there is a process involved. But how do we focus more on Christ? Colossians 3:1-4. Hebrews 12:1-2. Romans 12:1-2. There is a transformation process going on, and it isn’t complete at justification.

“ There really is a God who forgives everything and loves endlessly.” (110) Except for lukewarmness, of course. The author has already explained that one.

I also found it ironic that earlier the author asserted the movie to be all about God, and not us, and yet the model prayer on p. 110-111 uses the pronoun you (referencing the one praying) no less than 16 times. Just a curiosity to this reader.

 

Chapter 7

Here the question is posed, “Do you understand that it’s impossible to please God in any way other than wholehearted surrender?” (113) Actually, no, I don’t understand that. Hebrews 11:6 says that faith is necessary to please God, and 11:39 says that the believers listed  were approved by their faith (not their deeds or their surrender). Of course they did great things in light of their faith, but the faith (the justification and approval) came first. Wholehearted surrender is wonderful, and we should all exemplify it. But it has nothing to do with justification.

The book quotes Luke 12:33 (“Sell your possessions and give to the poor.”). It refers to this as “The concept of downsizing,” (121) and says, “We either close the gap or don’t take the words of the Bible literally.” (121)

Unfortunately, the passage is badly removed from its context (Jesus command was to an unsaved, self-righteous person who thought he had obeyed all of Moses’ law. In the Mt. 19 account of the same event, Jesus tells him if he would enter into the life, he should obey all the commandments. Is Jesus prescribing the means of eternal life, or is He making a hyperbolic point?)

Further, if the author is taking the words of Jesus literally, then the concept is not downsizing, but no-sizing. The implication was that the rich young ruler was to sell all his possessions give to the poor, and leaving all to physically follow Jesus. This seems another example of the text being ever so gently bent to support a particular moral course of action.

The author asserts that “God doesn’t call us to be comfortable.” (124) That is not necessarily true. It seems that the author is advocating radical, risk, and adventure just to cure our boredom and allow us to feel alive. Perhaps the book should have been about bungee jumping or skydiving.

Sometimes life is comfortable. Sometimes life is “boring.” What about 1 Thessalonians 4:11? What about the person who works a 9-5 as a janitor so his wife can stay at home and homeschool the kids? Or what about the regular Joe who seeks to honor God in his career and teaches Sunday school  once a week? Should these people be ashamed of their “comfort?” Should they be disgusted or disenchanted that their lives are not radical enough?

If the grounding of this book was not crumbling before, it surely is at this point.

 

Chapter 8

After listing a paragraph’s worth of temporal needs, the author says, “ I believe that God wants His people, His church, to meet those needs.” (140) This is the foundation of liberation theology and the social gospel. In these systems, the church is responsible to fix the symptoms of sin in the world. Of course, we are to meet needs where we find them, but the church has different corporate responsibilities than to simply meet the physical needs of the world. Even in the example of the Good Samaritan, the Samaritan was on a journey, and met a need he was confronted with. He was taking care of his responsibilities – not searching for a need to meet (Lk. 10:33). That is not to say we can’t seek out needs to meet, but the author’s prescription is that this should be a primary evidence of our love. It sounds nice, but it is not Scriptural.

The author reminds us that “God doesn’t want religious duty.” (145) The appeal here is either to Kant’s ontological morality, which commends acting from duty rather than out of duty, or it is simply presenting “duty” as monotonous and even insincere. James speaks highly of religion (James 1:27), and Paul speaks highly of duty (Rom. 12:1-2). Again, I think I understand what the author means to say, but I must judge the book on the words that were put on the page.

 

Chapter 9

This chapter lists 14 examples of commendable individuals and groups that allegedly live the way the author is prescribing we should all live.

The first individual  is lauded as a missionary who while on the mission field had a tooth problem and had to leave his mission field to go to the dentist to have the tooth fixed. So that he would not ever have to leave the mission field for dental care again, he had the dentist remove all his teeth and put in false ones. The implication is that this decision proved his faithfulness. We should all be prepared to make such radical sacrifices for Christ.

This got me to thinking though (with all due respect to the individual named),  how much money and time did he waste with the dental procedures? Couldn’t he have given that money away to someone who needed it? Did he really think himself so indispensable that he couldn’t leave the mission field briefly to take care of his body (the temple of God)? Is it possible that he actually had his teeth removed because he didn’t like how they looked?

While I am sure the individual is a very godly person, I can’t ascertain that based on what he did with his teeth. And the implication is that if a person isn’t making some radical sacrifice, then they are not really living like they should.

Again, I ask, what about the regular person who is just trying to be faithful with the menial, common tasks that God puts in front of him?

The author’s means of assessment seems very works oriented, and focuses more on outward manifestations than inner growth.

 

Chapter 10

“The Crux of the Matter” Oh good. Hopefully this will clarify some things.

On p. 166 is the first admission of faithful Christians in America, though it asserts their lives as a challenge to “the status quo.” It is problematic that the status quo has been so generalized in the book. Status quo, bad. Radical, good. I wonder how many Christians read this book and concluded that their lives were not satisfactory since…they still had all their teeth. Discipleship is one thing, radical is another. While the two are not mutually exclusive, they also do not require each other.

To the author’s credit, he includes a quote from Oswald Chambers, who says, “Never make a principle out of your experience…” (167) But it is ironic that the author does not see he has done exactly that throughout the book, in focusing heavily on experience both in his appeals to the disenchanted and in his prescriptions for their lives.

Finally, on p. 171, the Holy Spirit makes an appearance. He is mentioned on 171-172, and the author does very well in his handling of the role of the Spirit in our lives, though he still neglects the process of sanctification and spiritual maturing.

It is ironic that a promotional chapter from another book is included at the end of this one. The work is called, “Forgotten God: Reversing Our Tragic Neglect of the Holy Spirit.” (190).

If it wasn’t sad, it might be a little bit funny.

— ——————–

Christopher Cone, Th.D., Ph.D

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