David Platt is no stranger to provocative claims. Last spring he challenged the Southern Baptist leadership to rethink its reliance on the "sinner's prayer." Two years earlier he published the bestselling Radical, a trenchant critique of materialism and widespread complacency in the American church. Now, in his latest book, Follow Me: A Call to Die. A Call to Live (Tyndale), Platt, lead pastor of the Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham, Alabama, turns from letting go of the American Dream to grabbing hold of Jesus, and recognizing the high demands of being his disciple. Jeff Haanen, a freelance writer and school administrator, spoke with Platt on the pervasiveness of "cultural Christianity," the role of hell in evangelism, and the sharper edges of following Christ today. (CT managing editor Katelyn Beaty also spoke with Platt at the recent Urbana Student Missions Conference, and parts of that conversation are included here.)
In Radical, you critiqued a version of the American Dream. How is Follow Me different?
In Radical my goal was to expose values and ideals that are common in our culture yet antithetical to the gospel. So I was focusing on what we need to let go of in order to follow Jesus. In Follow Me I move from what we need to let go of to who we hold on to as followers of Jesus. So I'm not just looking at the gravity of the things we've forsaken, but looking at the greatness of the One we follow, and what it really means to follow Jesus on a day-by-day basis.
A lot of people, after reading Radical, said, "Okay, what do I need to do? Do I need to sell my house? Do I need to adopt children? Do I need to move to another country?" My answer would be, "Go to Jesus." There's no program for what this looks like in everybody's life. The picture is, "Abandon yourself to Christ. Surrender everything in your life to Christ. Put a blank check on the table with no strings attached." That's the whole point. Let go of dreams, and plans, and ambitions that are more worldly than they are biblical, and say, "I'll do whatever, go wherever, give whatever." Press into him and see what he leads you to do.
The beauty is he'll lead some people to adopt. He'll lead some people to sell their home and move overseas. We've seen some people sell their homes and move into a dangerous inner city environment. We've seen some people keep their home, make disciples in their home, and leverage their home for the spread of the gospel in their community and the nation.
We're tempted to just look for a check-off box: Here's what I've done, now I'm "radical." No, the picture is: Press into Christ, and really get serious about what it means to follow him and make disciples for him.
You begin by criticizing "trite phrases of the church" such as "Just ask Jesus into your heart," or "Simply invite Christ into your life." What's wrong with these phrases?
I think, if we're not careful, we've taken trite phrases like this and dulled the challenging words of Christ in Scripture. Following Jesus is not merely the invitation to pray a prayer or to say certain words or to even assent to certain truths. The call to follow Jesus is a summons to lose your life. Jesus is more than a Savior who's just begging to be accepted into our hearts. He is a King worthy of infinite adoration and surrender of our lives.
To become a follower of Jesus, here are the words of the Bible: repent, believe, turn from sin, turn from yourself, trust in Jesus as Savior and Lord. This is a total reorientation of life. And if we're not careful we can assent to certain truths and say certain words totally apart from heart change.
Do you think these attitudes are common outside the "culturally Christian" South?
I do. I can't speak for every culture and context, but even when I've been in places around the world, whether it's India or parts of Asia, I've been in gatherings where following Jesus is reduced to, "Bow your heads, say these words, raise your hands, and now you're a follower of Jesus." Is it common in the South? Absolutely. But I don't think the minimizing the magnitude of following Jesus is merely something that's going on in the South.
The way cultural Christianity plays out is going to be different in different places of the world. One example in the book is Jamaica. I'm praying through Operation World for Jamaica right now. Operation World says that Jamaica is almost exclusively a Christian country; they have more churches per square mile than almost any other country. It's something like 90 percent Christian. But most people in Jamaica don't follow the teachings of Jesus or are not a part of churches. There's a clear disconnect. To say they're mostly Christian, and yet don't follow the teachings of Jesus—that doesn't add up.
I'm not trying to just pick on Jamaica, and I'm not just trying to pick on the South. I think there's spiritual deception here. It's what Jesus is stressing in Matthew 7: "'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?' Then I will tell them plainly, 'I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!'" Those are some of the most frightening words for me as a pastor. There will be many people, and not just in the South, who will be shocked to hear Jesus say "I never knew you."
You say that many born-again Christians are "dangerously deceived" about actually being Christian, and "multitudes of men and women at this moment think they are saved from their sins when they are not." How can you tell who is and who is not a real Christian?
Scripture says a lot about how we can tell who is and who is not a follower of Christ. Now, I want to be careful not to communicate that we need to do certain things in order to be saved, or do certain things to earn the favor or the love of God. That misses the whole point of Christianity. That's why I try to spend the beginning of the book, particularly the second chapter, just focusing on the grace that lies at the heart of Christianity—what God does for us that we could never do for ourselves.
But when we come face to face with grace, the God of the universe reaches down in the depths of our souls, forgives our sins, and fills us with his Spirit. Our life is going to look radically different as a result. The way we think is going to be different. What we desire is going to be different. How we live is going to be different.
Now, obviously there's a process in that. Nobody's perfect. That process is never complete until our life is over and we experience glorification with God in heaven. But there is a process that is taking place. That's what Jesus talks about in Matthew 7. He's talking about the fruit in our lives. The good tree bears good fruit, and the bad tree bears bad fruit. In 2 Corinthians 13:5, Paul tells us to examine ourselves, to test ourselves to see if we're in the faith. Self examination is important in our lives. But because the danger of spiritual deception, we'll find in our own favor. It's not surprising that the adversary would use a tactic of deception to convince people they're in the kingdom when they're not.
How can we have assurance of salvation without being complicit in either a cultural Christianity or a "comfortable" Christianity?
Well, 1 John is a great picture of how we know we have assurance of salvation. Are we believing in the truth of Christ? Are we expressing the love of Christ? Are we walking in the word of Christ? These are things the Bible encourages us to ask ourselves.
I'm trying to show what happens when someone becomes a follower of Jesus. How does that play out? In the book, I try to walk through the inner transformation that happens when we're forgiven of our sins and we're filled with the Spirit of God. We begin to think differently. We begin to desire differently. We begin to want what God wants. We begin to live differently. And that's a good thing, because we believe Jesus knows what's best. Our relationships also begin to change. We see the importance of the community of faith and the church. And we become more intentional about sharing the gospel with people who don't know Christ.
So, those are all domino effects of the forgiveness of Christ and the Spirit of Christ coming to dwell in us. And that's true of every Christian, not just super Christians. This is what it means to be a Christian, a follower of Jesus with a transformed mind, heart, desires, will, relationships, and purpose for living.
You've traveled several times to India, and concluded that "597 million Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists and Sikhs around me would go to hell if they didn't trust in Jesus." What motivation should the doctrine of hell play in evangelism?
The doctrine of hell is undergirding everything. The reality is, evangelism is the necessary proclamation of the gospel because people are lost without Christ, separated from God, and in need of a Savior to redeem them. Eternity is at stake with how we respond to God's provision of salvation in Christ. Every single person in this world will either go to eternal hell or everlasting heaven. If that reality is true, then certainly we want to make that known. We would not want to hide that or shirk that or even be embarrassed of that.
Now, the doctrine of hell is not the ultimate motivator in evangelism. The ultimate motivator is the glory of God. In northern India, all kinds of other gods are being worshipped. I believe the Bible, and I believe there is only one God who is worthy of all worship. More than anything, I want to make his goodness greatness known in that place for His glory, also knowing that God glorifies himself by saving sinners.
Hell doesn't need to be the leading line in sharing the gospel. Maybe in some circumstances it is. But whenever I'm sharing the gospel, I'm always looking for ways to build bridges into people's lives and where their worldview is—to an understanding of who God is, who man is, who Christ is, and that Christ is the only way to salvation.
Many of the book's illustrations of discipleship are from places like the Middle East where following Christ is illegal or dangerous. Why choose so many examples from places of persecution and rather than America?
We have a lot to learn from our brothers and sisters around the world. By God's grace, in America we can worship Christ freely. We are not imprisoned for trusting in Christ, and there's no threat of losing our land, our family, or our life.
At the same time, in the midst of the comforts that we enjoy, we can find ourselves pretty distanced from the picture of following Christ that we see in the New Testament, where it was costly. So, in the process of trying to understand what New Testament Christianity is, I think it's helpful to learn from brothers and sisters around the world who are experiencing the cost of following Jesus.
We're not excused from abandonment and sacrifice. Now it will look different in our lives and in this culture since we're not in danger of losing our life. At the same time, the gospel calls us to look at our possessions very differently. Sure, we don't have somebody taking them away from us for following Christ, but we do find ourselves compelled by the gospel to give them away for the glory of Christ. We give our lives to make this gospel known among people who have never heard it before. And that involves sacrifice.
In the last couple of weeks, my church has sent people out into dangerous contexts in the world. I think the Lord is calling many people in the church in comfortable places to do that. Not everybody, though. I want to be clear. There are ways to carry out the commands of Christ and live out the life of Christ right here in this context, and I try to use different examples of that. I love to see how God, in his glorious creativity, takes his Word and his Spirit and leads us into all kinds of different places. Some people stay here, and some people move to the other side of the world, but all with the same purpose. We want to make disciples of Jesus.
You reference persecuted Christians frequently as models of discipleship. Should Western Christians seek this kind of persecution?
No, I don't think Western Christians—I don't think any Christians—should seek persecution. Instead, Christians should seek Christ, knowing that persecution will come.
It'll look different in different parts of the world. 2 Timothy 3:12 says everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ will be persecuted. Like Jesus says, "They persecuted me, and they will persecute you also." The reality is, in a very real sense, the danger of our lives increases in proportion to the depth of our relationship with Jesus.
So, it would be foolish to seek after persecution for persecution's sake. That is not the point at all. But we are actively proclaiming the gospel in all nations. And there will be challenges. There will be hardships. There will be trials. There will be persecution that comes along the way. That should be expected, but not sought after. We proclaim the gospel, and as we do that, persecution will come.
In a chapter about evangelism, you write "we have brothers and sisters around the world who are imprisoned, beaten, persecuted, and killed today not because they smile as they serve people" but because they share the gospel verbally. But isn't "smiling as you serve," especially in one's vocation, an equally valid calling as that of an evangelist?
Can people serve Christ in valid ways in their callings? Absolutely. No question. No matter what that vocation might be. Whether working in a factory, or a school, or a church, wherever that might be. Yes, we live for the glory of God, and God has given us all different gifts in terms of background, experiences, and education.
But for all of us, there is a command in our lives to make disciples of Jesus. So that's non-negotiable, regardless of what our calling or vocation might be. It's at the center of our lives and at the center of the church. The way that plays out for me as a pastor happens in a certain way, and the way that plays out for a teacher in another way. Or for any number of vocations: I think about my wife, who stays at home with our children. She's got the same command at the center of her life.
So as we're carrying out our vocations, we're using the platforms and opportunities, in the context of where we work, to lead people to Jesus and teach them what the life of Christ looks like in action.
So that's where I want to be careful to not just say evangelism is just for the evangelist. No, making disciples and showing people how to follow Christ, that's the command that drives all Christians, no matter what our vocations might be.
What about, say, a factory worker who loves Jesus and wants to follow him, but works long hours because he needs to support his family? How would you counsel him?
That's a great example. I'd say to that brother in Christ, "You were created for the glory of God in all nations. This is why you have breath, to make His glory known in all nations." How do you carry that out? Well, certainly by loving and providing for your family, and leading your family to love Jesus—no question. That's primary. To not provide for your family, that's totally unbiblical. You're worse than an unbeliever at that point.
God's put you in that factory for his purpose. There are people around you that need to hear about Jesus. God's glorified in your work, and he's given you opportunities to lead people to Christ.
Jesus didn't travel around the world. He spent most of his time in a pretty isolated geographic location, with 12 guys. This is how he was changing the world, so do that in the factory. Pour your life into some people, share the gospel, lead them to Christ, show them how to follow Christ, and show them how to do the same thing in other people's lives. There's a multiplication process here. This is how your life connects with the nations.
At the same time, be aware that as a follower of Christ, there's a bigger picture here. Be praying for the nations, and be praying for unreached people. Because we've got a command to make this gospel known among all the people groups of the world. Your life, even from your knees on a daily basis, can play a part. Be praying, be giving. Look for ways to sacrifice your resources. Look for ways to minimize luxuries and excesses in this culture that says "more is better and bigger is better."
Then go as the Lord leads you. Maybe you've got an opportunity to do short-term missions on a periodic basis. Maybe the Lord will lead you at some point to go overseas. Or maybe He won't. But either way, lay down your life to that possibility. That's what I would say to that factory worker, so that on a weekly basis he's living a life to the glory of God and all nations.
You note how church discipline has become unpopular in many churches—if not completely ignored. How do you think church discipline can best be done in cities where Christians can just attend other churches?
It's really challenging to do church discipline. We've experienced that even here at Brook Hills. I think in order to carry out church discipline effectively, there has to be an intentional process for what that looks like in a body of Christ. And then we need healthy relationships with other bodies of Christ in a particular community. We've had some circumstances even here, where people have come to Brook Hills that were in a church discipline process in other churches. And as soon as we found that out, we said, "Alright, we want to help foster reconciliation with that other church. Maybe the Lord will lead you to stay there, and maybe the Lord will lead you beyond there," but we're going to foster reconciliation with that person.
Similarly, we've had folks that have been in the church discipline process here—I've got a particular circumstance in mind—where the person is going to another church while still walking in unrepentant sin. And we're communicating with the other church so they can help.
The more we foster this kind of relationship between churches, the more we can effectively carry out effective church discipline.
In your church, you encourage not just church membership, but "sharing life with other followers of Christ in mutual accountability under biblical leadership for the glory of God." How do you move people to this level of commitment in a consumerist culture?
I think at the core, every follower of Christ desires relationship with others, where they're walking with others, where they're being spurred on toward Christ and shepherded by loving, servant leaders who are teaching the Word and applying it to their lives. Unfortunately, that's not always been the case. That hasn't always been the picture that we've shown as a church. I'm not presuming the church I pastor is perfect at all—but when people see a loving community sharing each other's sufferings and joys, walking through life together, and pastor-shepherds who are teaching the Word of Christ—I think followers of Christ want that. It's what we need.
So, we have found that in calling people to that expectation people are not surprised by it. They see the picture in Scripture and the picture in church, and say, "Yes, this is what we want." They begin to see the hollowness of wanting anything less than that. At the same time, God can also use that to reveal cultural Christianity, to reveal the preference people have for that hollowness. Then they have to ask the question, "Well, why don't I want something different? Am I really following Jesus?" So, that can be a healthy process of exposing some of the deception in many hearts.
You conclude with some good ideas for a personal discipleship plan, for both pastors as well as laity. What kind of effect have you seen in your church as you've walked people through this intentional discipleship and evangelism plan?
We encourage every member of our church to walk through a personal disciple-making plan, and do it in the context of relationships with one another. But we don't do this in a you-gotta-turn-this-in kind of way, where they report to someone, but instead in a grace-centered, gospel-saturated process that says, "Okay, if we're going to do anything this year, we want to grow as disciples of Jesus, and give our lives to making disciples of Jesus." And to write that out, and then to share that with others, and to encourage one another in that—it's really exciting. People say, "I want to cultivate affection for God this year. I want to fill my mind with truth. I want others to know the love of Jesus this year. And in the process I want to show the love of Christ to people in the church this year. And I want to be a part, whether it's praying, giving, or going, of what God is doing around the world."
I get excited to see members of this body dive into questions like that, and to share with one another. We challenge one another, we encourage one another, and we build in a good gospel-saturated accountability for each other. And in the process we realize, this is what we're supposed to do. This is what we are created for as followers of Christ. Then as people put that into practice, we see people come to know Jesus and begin to grow in their relationship with Christ. And they realize, "If I'm going to be intentional about anything, I want to be intentional about growing as a disciple of Jesus, and making disciples of Jesus."