David Platt’s Radical has made more than a little impact on Christianity in America. It’s somewhat astounding that after being published in 2010 the book still receives a significant amount of attention. I say it’s astounding because our cultural and religious fads seem to have a lifespan comparable to that of a mayfly. But this isn’t the case with the movement of “radical” Christianity. For some, this is excellent news, but not so for many others.
Recently, Anthony Bradley wrote an article asking whether or not “radical” Christianity is “The New Legalism.” Not too long after that, blogger Tim Challies wrote a piece about “ordinary” Christianity. While Challies did not directly mention Platt’s book, his idea is one that many critics of Radical voice as a concern. I want to address some of the concerns raised by critics of the book, some of which I believe to be helpful and some not so helpful.
The biggest obstacle in the discussion surrounding “radical” and “ordinary” Christianity seems to be the way these terms are often defined. For instance, Bradley and most critics of Radical seem to define a “radical” Christian as someone who attempts large and attention-grabbing feats for God. This may look like a young man who starts an orphanage in some African country or a young woman who moves to a remote village in South Asia as a missionary. Bradley explains that this sort of expectation puts unneeded stress upon the Millennial generation. We see this when he pleads for a Christian life that is not “radical”: “No shame, no pressure to be awesome, no expectations of fame but simply following the call to be men and women of virtue and inviting their friends and neighbors to do the same in every area of life.”
On the other hand, “ordinary” Christianity is a walk with God that is characterized by normalcy. Challies writes:
Ordinary is Christian living for the rest of us. It is for people like me and, in all likelihood, people like you. It is for Christians who have tried to be more than ordinary and who just have not found what they have been looking for. It is for Christians who have never tried to be more than ordinary and who are content that way. It validates our sheer normalcy and refutes our desire to be anything greater than that.
I believe these two terms are often unnecessarily contrasted. Sure, one who is seeking to live a life radically obedient to Jesus may be led to sell all his or her possessions and move to a foreign country as a missionary. But that same person may also be called to live radically obedient to Jesus in suburbia as a stay-at-home mother of three. “Radical” is not concerned with geographical location or career choice. Rather, it is focused on undivided obedience to the Son of God in absolutely every area of life.
Challies writes, “I am convinced that we do not need to make ordinary synonymous with apathetic and radical synonymous with godly.” Likewise, I am convinced that we do not need to make ordinary antonymous with radical. Therefore, it is my hope that parties in this important discussion would tighten up their definitions in what is “ordinary” and “radical”.
The New Legalism?
Bradley levels the charge that “radical” Christianity is the new legalism, one that brings an unhealthy amount of pressure to the Millennial generation. He may be correct that a misunderstood version of “radical” Christianity can lead to legalism. But I believe to label the movement itself as legalistic is irresponsible at best.
Legalism is the attempt by man to earn their right standing with the Lord by good deeds.
In Radical, Platt roots his imperatives of a “radical” lifestyle in the indicatives of the gospel. He makes clear that all actions are to flow as a response to the gospel, not as an alternative to the gospel. As a matter of fact, the purpose of chapter 2 in Radical is to accomplish this very thing. Platt actually addresses this exact idea in the chapter when he clearly explains to the reader:
You might think this sounds as though we have to earn our way to Jesus through radical obedience, but that is not the case at all. Indeed, “it is by grace you [are] saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.” We are saved from our sins by a free gift of grace, something that only God can do in us and that we cannot manufacture ourselves (39).
As you can see, this teaching is far from legalism. But it certainly is the case that some believers have turned “radical” Christianity into a form of legalism. How, then, should we respond? It is not by labeling the entire teaching as legalistic. Rather, we should encourage these young men and women to root their identity in Jesus, not in their good deeds. It is to encourage them to seek the Spirit of Christ for power to live in radical obedience to the commands of Christ.
It seems that fault lies with the misunderstanding of the teaching, not with the teaching in itself. Therefore, I believe Bradley does a disservice to Platt and the “radical” movement by labeling it as legalistic.
More Than Evangelism and Helping the Impoverished?
Bradley does provide a helpful critique in the scope of Radical’s mission. Platt almost exclusively focuses on gospel proclamation and helping the impoverished of the world as the mission to which the Church is called. Bradley, though, encourages Christians to broaden their view of how the gospel impacts every facet of society. He explains that our mission should be “characterized by a holistic concern for the spiritual, moral, physical, economic, material, political, psychological, and social context necessary for human beings to live according to their design.”
Christians should be focused on applying the reality of the gospel to every facet of culture. But we should be doing so while holding the proclamation of the gospel as highest priority because God is currently bringing about new creation through the preaching of the gospel. To evangelize is the best way in which we love God and love our neighbors (Matt 22:36-40).
Overall, I believe this discussion of “radical” and “ordinary” Christianity is an important one, and it is my prayer that all Christians would benefit from it. This is a discussion amongst brothers and sisters in Christ, not between warring factions, and that should always be remembered. May God continue to bring clarity to His people concerning our life in Christ!