By Bruce Bauer
Francis Chan is the senior pastor of Cornerstone Community Church of Simi Valley, California. He is a graduate of Master’s College and Seminary, both founded and presided over by John MacArthur. Chan has also established a school called Eternity Bible College, having the goal of making Bible education affordable. The college meets at the church and at satellite facilities.
The church’s website contained a standard evangelical statement of faith. The school’s statement was more extensive, having strong Calvinist (TULIP) doctrines subtly interwoven.1
In addition to his duties as a pastor and college president, Francis Chan speaks regularly at conferences, particularly youth gatherings, nationwide. Chan maintains a website with videos introducing each chapter of Crazy Love (crazylovebook.com).
Since its release in May 2008, Crazy Love has climbed the sales charts worldwide. It ranked ahead of such top-sellers as, The Purpose Driven Life, 90 Minutes in Heaven, and the perennial favorite, My Utmost for His Highest. An old saying goes, “Never argue with success!” However, I question such wisdom when referring to a book which may be proffering unsound doctrine.
After reading Crazy Love and after viewing several of Chan’s online sermons, I believe that he is sincere in wanting Christians to experience radical living for God. Chan claims to model such a lifestyle:
We ended up moving into a house half the size of our previous home, and we haven’t regretted it. My response to the cynics, in the context of eternity, was, am I the crazy one for selling my house? Or are you for not giving more, serving more, being with your Creator more? (136).
Chan is fond of using the word “crazy.” He often employs it in his writings and sermons. Usually, he means all-out devotion to God. On at least two occasions in the book he uses “crazy” to disparage his critics. It’s as though he is sending out a warning to any who might dare to challenge his extreme theological stances. Chan even created a brief online video to stave off criticism called, “When You’re Too Popular.” In it he quotes Luke 6:22, 23, 26 in saying that false prophets were praised while true prophets of God were scorned. “If I am really saying everything that God would have me to say, there will be plenty of people who are against me.”
As much as I may admire the author’s apparent sincerity, good intentions, or convincing style, I nonetheless will always take content over delivery, substance over style, actual words over intentions. If the chief goal of the author in writing the book is to stimulate committed Christian living, who could argue with that? But, at what price? If the objective is accomplished by promoting a works-oriented “gospel” which destroys many Christians’ assurance of salvation, has the cost been too great?
Lordship Salvation Taken to the Extreme
There is no question that Crazy Love advocates a teaching called Lordship Salvation. I identify Francis Chan’s variation as extreme, primarily because Crazy Love dwells heavily on condemnation to a severe level that I have not witnessed personally in the writings of other Lordship Salvation proponents, e.g., John MacArthur, John Piper, and J. I. Packer. It appears that in Chan’s thinking, only a tiny minority of professing Christians will be counted worthy to make it to heaven.
As the title Crazy Love suggests, Chan focuses overwhelmingly upon obsessive living for God (especially chapter eight, “Profile of the Obsessed”), apparently even to abandoning balance in areas of personal safety and financial security.
I found no allowances for what I call, “what about” situations: What about someone who is a believer but has fallen into sin? What about differences in background, personality, age or spiritual maturity? What about Biblical cases of those who could be labeled lukewarm? Lot was a backslider his entire adult life, yet Peter calls him a righteous man in 2 Pet 2:7. Samson was a womanizer and David was a murderer, yet both are listed in the Hebrews 11 hall of faith. The Corinthian church was filled with worldly, spiritual babes, much like the Laodicean church of Revelation 3. Yet Paul refers to them often as brothers. For these reasons, I call Crazy Love extreme.
Creating a Culture of Uncertainty
As with all Lordship Salvation teaching, Crazy Love muddies the distinction between justification and sanctification, melding them together while distorting the simple message of salvation by faith in Christ Jesus. The Lordship camp says that it’s not good enough to become saved by trusting Christ for salvation, one must also promise a lifetime of commitment to Christ, then follow through with that commitment or else be in danger of not making it to heaven one day. Charlie Bing calls it a “front-loading” of the gospel:
Well, the Lordship Salvation camp says that we should front-load the gospel and raise the ante. Let’s raise the standard so that we make sure that only those who are committed to going on can really become Christians to begin with, they would say. Is that the answer? Doesn’t that breed legalism and insecurity which never produces spiritual maturity and Christlikeness? (“Why Lordship Faith Misses the Mark for Discipleship,” JOTGES [Autumn 1999], 1).
Chan unknowingly answers Bing’s question. In Crazy Love, he tells of many people from his congregation asking him questions like, “If I divorce my wife can I still go to heaven?” “Do I have to be baptized to be saved?” “If I commit suicide, can I still go to heaven?” (p. 86) It seems that Chan’s application of Lordship Salvation teaching to his own church has created such questioning doubts among his people.
With that in mind, here are some sample quotations from Crazy Love with my responses.
Quote: “My conclusion? Jesus’ call to commitment is clear: He wants all or nothing. The thought of a person calling himself a ‘Christian’ without being a devoted follower of Christ is absurd.” (p. 85)
Response: Chan makes an interpretation based, by his own admission, upon a superficial, childlike reading of the Gospels. He cites no specific Scripture whatsoever. To which Gospel is he referring?
It’s doubtful that he spent much time in John, for it says repeatedly that eternal life comes through believing in Christ alone for salvation (John 3:16-18, 36; 5:24; 6:28-29, 37, 40; 7:38; 10:9; 11:25-26; 14:6; 17:3). Chan must have targeted discipleship passages, spoken primarily to the apostles and intimate disciples, most of whom were already believers!
Jesus warned of troubles they would face as His followers. Indeed, all of the eleven apostles, following Judas Iscariot’s exit, would one day experience torture and/or martyrdom. Again, without Biblical reference, Chan, using the obvious argument, declares, “Jesus’ call to commitment is clear: he wants all or nothing” (p. 85). He bolsters his contention by slamming and caricaturing the opposing position of believing in Christ alone for salvation: “The thought of a person calling himself a ‘Christian’ without being a devoted follower of Christ is absurd” (p. 85). Chan would be hard-pressed to contort the verses cited from John, or Acts 16:30-31, Rom 4:5, Eph 2:8-9 and Titus 3:5 to prove his commitment salvation.
Obey to be Saved?
Quote: “Jesus said, ‘If you love me, you will obey what I command’ (John 14:15). And our question quickly becomes even more unthinkable: Can I go to heaven without truly and faithfully loving Jesus? I don’t see anywhere in Scripture how the answer to that question could be yes.” (86)
Response: In context, His crucifixion looming, Jesus was comforting and guiding His closest disciples, who were already believers! [Judas had already gone off to betray Jesus.] This verse was not a call to salvation or perseverance. Robert Wilkin comments:
The concept of obeying God’s commands does occur in John’s gospel using other terms (for example, John 14:15, “If you love me, keep My commandments”; see also 15:14). However, none of those are connected with obtaining eternal salvation or of guaranteed perseverance. There is no promise in John that those who believe in Christ will persevere in good works. In fact, there are warnings that they might not (see John 15:6; Confident in Christ, 271).
To get a sense of what Jesus meant by what I command, we must examine the immediately-preceding context. John 13:35 declares, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” John 14:1 enjoins, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me.” Following Philip’s plea for Jesus to show them the Father, Jesus charges the disciples in 14:11, “Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the miracles themselves.” Preceding John 14:15, Jesus promises the disciples: “And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.”
Summarizing, I might paraphrase John 14:15: “Whoever loves Me will keep guard over My commands to love each other, to trust the Father and Me so your hearts won’t be troubled, and to believe confidently in who I am, the Son of the living God.” In a nutshell: love, trust, and believe!
Christianity Without Discipleship?
Quote: “Some people claim that we can be Christians without necessarily becoming disciples. I wonder, then, why the last thing Jesus told us was to go into all the world, making disciples of all nations, teaching them to obey all that He commanded? You’ll notice that He didn’t add, ‘But hey, if that’s too much to ask, tell them to just become Christians—you know, the people who get to go to heaven without having to commit to anything’ [emphasis Chan’s]” (p. 87).
Response: Chan misquotes Matthew 28:19-20 [incomplete quotation] from the NIV without citation. He says this was the last thing Jesus told us. Actually, Jesus’ final words are recorded in Acts 1:8. Chan sardonically constructs a straw man, then razes it. Without legitimizing his mocking mischaracterization of the Free-Grace position, I’ve never heard anyone else define Christianity that way. Of course a person must commit to something when becoming a Christian. That something is actually a someone, namely Jesus Christ. When the Philippian jailer in Acts 16:30-31 came trembling from an earthquake to Paul and Silas, “He then brought them out and asked, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ They replied, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.’” Chan amalgamates the gospel message of salvation by faith in Christ alone with issues of discipleship and commitment, which creates a complicated mess, placing unreasonable demands upon the unsaved. Bing remarks:
The Lordship Salvation view of discipleship assumes a Christian response from unbelievers. But what would an unbeliever understand about carrying his cross? What would an unbeliever understand about loving God with all his heart? He doesn’t know God. Would we expect an unbeliever to give up all his possessions or be willing to? What kind of logic is it that demands an unbeliever such sophisticated, mature Christian decisions that I am still grappling with in my own life? It just doesn’t make sense to expect from someone who is dead in sin, to expect from someone whose mind has been veiled by Satan himself, to respond to God with a fully loving heart at the moment of salvation, to respond to God in total commitment and total submission, to be willing to suffer for Him (“Why Lordship Faith Misses the Mark for Discipleship,” 5-6).
Matthew 28:19-20 reads, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Therefore go can indicate going or while going. Disciple, mathetes, means “learner,” as a rabbi’s student. Jesus had disciples—intimate and broader groups. John the Baptist also had disciples. Ryrie explains:
The Great Commission recorded in Matthew 28:18-20 commands us to make disciples. This involves two activities—baptizing and teaching. Baptizing is a single act; teaching is a continuous process. Disciples have to be baptized (an evidence of salvation—therefore, one may say that disciples must first be saved); then they have to be taught over and over to obey (observe all things). In New Testament times, baptism served as one of the clearest proofs that a person had accepted Christ. Baptism was not entered into casually or routinely as is often the case today. Although it is clear in the New Testament that baptism does not save, to be baptized was to signify in no uncertain terms that one had received Christ and was also associating himself with the Christian group, the church… normally, a baptized person was a saved person; and a saved person was a baptized person. This is why our Lord’s Great Commission can use “baptism” as equivalent to “salvation.” (So Great Salvation, 93-94).
So, what is the proper order of discipleship according to the Bible? First, lead people to salvation through faith in Christ alone. Second, baptize them as outward evidence of their eternal salvation. Third, teach them the Bible and how to grow in their faith (sanctification). I find it significant that Chan failed to quote Jesus’ words in Matt. 28:19-20 (“baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”), yet Chan does include the part about obeying everything Jesus commanded. This striking omission eliminates the gospel message of salvation through faith in Christ Jesus, intrinsic to the call to baptize. Furthermore, it implies that salvation comes through obedience to God’s commands, in spite of Rom 3:20!
The Origin of Chan’s Extreme Teachings
Online magazine Today’s Christian explains the genesis of Chan’s radical beliefs:
In 2002, a trip to Uganda changed Chan forever. There he saw real poverty, and it became personal. Little girls the age of his daughters rooted through dumpsters for food. Chan began to ask himself, What does it look like to love my neighbor as myself? His answer was to move his family of four out of their 2,000-square-foot house into one half that size so they could give more to missions. “I couldn’t reconcile how I could live in such a nice house while others were starving,” Chan says. But while he was beginning to respond to God’s difficult calls in his personal life, Chan wasn’t sure he could do whatever God demanded of him as the leader of his church. So in May 2006, he announced his plans to resign as Cornerstone’s pastor. He wasn’t sure he’d ever return.2
Francis Chan returned to Cornerstone on October 8, 2006, preaching a sermon entitled, “Lukewarm and Loving It” (YouTube). In it, he expressed that he had experienced doubts of his own salvation when he left the church. Much of Crazy Love appears to emanate from that sermon—an excoriating condemnation of Chan’s congregation and of evangelical Christianity today. Combining his interpretations of the rich ruler in Luke 18 with the spitting out of the lukewarm Laodicean church of Revelation 3 (more on this later) he says, “We are so weird. We are so filthy, filthy, filthy rich. And yet, most of you think you’re not.” Continuing,
It’s not gonna be easy; it’s not gonna be probable; but, by the power of God, some of you could go to heaven. I have this haunting fear that some of you here at Cornerstone Church, possibly many, many of you are going to hell. It keeps me up at night.
Cornerstone’s reaction a week later: Chan preached a follow-up sermon “Slavery Can Be Fun” (YouTube). In it he said,
People keep asking our pastors, ‘What should I do?’ You know, I had people say, ‘It was like you stuck a dagger in my gut and I was like aw’ you’re absolutely right’; that is, the more I heard it, I said, Wow, this is so cool. This is exactly the way the church is supposed to respond.
Chan shares more responses, “‘I will do anything!’ People are just going, ‘Whatever, whatever, whatever!’”
It is pretty sad to see Christians living in such bondage and insecurity!
I bear no animosity toward Francis Chan. I do not know him personally. What I know of him comes entirely from reading his book and from watching some sermons. It is clear that he views his convictions as correct and he obviously wants people to experience closer relationships with God. But has he really carefully examined all the Scriptures pertaining to his viewpoints?
Words have meaning and impact! Words can edify or harm. The book Crazy Love, through poor exegesis, consigns all lukewarm and not fully-committed Christians to hell: “To put it plainly, churchgoers who are ‘lukewarm’ are not Christians. We will not see them in heaven” (pp. 83-84). Isn’t there bound to be fallout from such an egregious, albeit well-intentioned, misrepresentation of Scripture?
Crazy Love is a Christian best-seller. Its impact is destined to be substantial. Most, I fear, will have no understanding of the broad theological implications of the book as outlined in this article. My greatest apprehension is the potential for wholesale devastation of Christians’ assurance of salvation.
Bruce Bauer, MA, DBS, lives in Lancaster, CA.
1. http://www.eternitybiblecollege.com/ about/sof.html, pp. 1-4.
2. http://www.christianitytoday.com/tc/ peopleoffaith/profiles/francischanscrazylove. html?start=2 (Jennifer Schuchmann, “Francis Chan’s Crazy Love: Why this pastor’s church gives away half its budget,” Christianity Today’s Online Version, Today’s Christian, September/October, 2008), p. 1.
*This review was published in the Autumn 2009 (pp. 75-91) issue of the Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society.