Francis Chan sets the bar way too high

Mark Galli interviews best-selling author and pastor Francis Chan about his new book on discipleship in this month’s Christianity Today. Galli zeroes in on a passage in the book that—as it happens—makes my Methodist blood boil. Maybe it will bother you, too. Who knows? (I’ve underlined the offensive part.)

GALLI: Your writing has what I’d call a “relentless intensity” to get readers to do more for Christ. One example among many in this book: “Being a disciple maker demands your entire life …. It requires everything. It means following Jesus in every aspect of your life, pursuing him with a wholehearted devotion. If you’re not ready to lay down your life for Christ, then you’re not ready to make disciples. It’s that simple.” Where does your intensity come from? Is that a family trait? Something you learned as a Christian?

CHAN: (Laughter.) A family trait. Oh, that’s funny. It could be. I don’t know. When I read the statements of Christ, there seems to be this urgency and intensity. I guess that’s what I get out of it when I read the tone of the Scriptures, which is very different from the tone of our culture.

Beware of someone saying, “It’s that simple.” It never is.

Of course disciple-making doesn’t “require everything.” It doesn’t require “following Jesus in every aspect of your life.” It doesn’t require “pursuing [Jesus] with a wholehearted devotion.” Thank God it doesn’t require that! Otherwise, who could possibly do it?

Could Chan? How convinced is he of his own “wholehearted devotion”? Is he currently giving everything for the sake of the gospel? Yet I don’t doubt for a moment that he’s made and is making disciples.

Look, I get it… Whether Chan knows it or not, he’s an old-fashioned Pietist. We non-Pietists need them to challenge us in our own piety. They keep us honest. They hold us to a high standard—or I should say that they remind us of the high standard to which Jesus holds us when he says, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” And that’s good.


Forgive me for being Methodist guy, but where’s the grace? Does Chan not realize that as we are making disciples, we are also being made into disciples? I’m reminded of that famous definition of evangelism: It’s one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread. We’re all beggars. We’re all constantly in need of God’s grace at every moment. We’re all on a journey toward perfection. Although we Methodists hold out hope, we know the vast majority of us won’t arrive at perfection—what we Methodists call “entire sanctification”—in this lifetime.

When I say “grace,” I don’t mostly mean—as it’s popularly understood—”forgiveness for falling short.” That’s only a small part of it. I mostly mean grace as “the activity of the Holy Spirit in our lives.” Disciple-making is a Spirit-filled, and therefore grace-filled, process. Disciple-making doesn’t happen apart from the Holy Spirit—again, thank God.

Believe me, I’m striving to be wholehearted in my devotion. I’m striving to be ready to “lay down [my] life.” I’m striving to follow Jesus in “every aspect of [my] life.” I’m not there yet. Are you?

When I read stuff like this from Chan I wonder if he underestimates the power of sin—how insidious it is. I’d recommend he read some Kierkegaard. Maybe—I don’t know—The Sickness Unto Death? I bet he wouldn’t speak so glibly about wholeheartedness after that!

24 thoughts on “Francis Chan sets the bar way too high”

  1. Brent, I entirely agree that “wholehearted devotion” is not a prerequisite to being used by God to bring new Christians into the fold. For that matter, a friend of mine told me he became saved after reading a “Four Spiritual Laws” pamphlet he found lying around–no direct personal contact at all! However, and you may agree with this, I think it is possible that the likelihood of being used to bring in new saints may be increased the more we move in the direction of being wholehearted in our devotion. I think of the passage, “If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me.” Of course, I don’t think that is an “absolute rule,” given other scriptures (and corroborated by personal experience), but I think it “points in the right direction”–the greater our obedience, the more we may expect God to “grant our prayers.” Might this in particular include our prayers directed toward salvation of others?

    I admit to some uncertainty in this regard–witness the fact that I can only count one couple that I feel like I was fairly directly involved with in seeing someone come into the faith, and I’m 56! Of course, one distinct possibility is that I am not so “devoted” as I should be–in particular as to “witnessing” in the first place. Also, we have to leave open the prospect of free choosers saying no, despite all efforts. And sometimes we are preaching to stone walls, such as with Jeremiah.

    Well, I am rambling in stream of consciousness here. Ultimately I will be interested to find out once eternity rolls around exactly how it is that we are or were “used” in bringing in new saints. Presently, I’ll settle for any further input you may have!

    1. I agree with you, Tom. Our success at disciple-making ability will surely improve as we become more faithful. But my problem is that Chan didn’t say that. He writes in such absolute terms. I don’t get it.

    1. If Jesus left us to our own devices, then yes. Fortunately, God is Trinity, and God gave us the Holy Spirit, the power by which we can accomplish any good thing for God’s kingdom. Theologically speaking, Chan’s pneumatology (his understanding of the Holy Spirit)—at least based on this statement—is deficient.

  2. “Unless you hate your mother and brother ……” In this instance I do not think F. Chan sets the bar too high. I think he is restating what Jesus taught his own disciples. Where is the grace, you ask? In the offer from God, through Jesus Christ, of forgiveness and inclusion even though our debt exceeds our ability to pay it ourselves.

    1. I certainly agree that saving grace is the best example of God’s grace! When I talk about Chan’s failure to appreciate grace, I mostly mean in connection to the work of the Holy Spirit. It is only by and through the Spirit that any of our efforts at evangelism will be successful. Besides, I never trust any statement that ends with, “It’s just that simple.” You can be sure it isn’t. 😉

  3. Sorry Brent, not in agreement here. I don’t see Chan ever saying that he doesn’t appreciate God’s grace – nor would I come to that conclusion based on his writings or interviews. It appears that he has a deep understanding of God’s grace -the same grace which provides the strength required for wholehearted devotion.

    1. The kind of “wholehearted devotion” that Chan suggests we need in order to do evangelism minimizes the necessary role of the Spirit in the process. He implies that we’re making defective disciples. But in a sense, we’re not making disciples at all: the Spirit does the heavy lifting.

  4. I would have to agree with Bill (and Francis Chan….and Jesus Christ) on this one. His followers were asked to leave everything behind …. and they did. The Lord did make the statement Bill quoted above. Jesus never taught the doctrine of cheap grace. His grace and mercy cost His life and He offers it to us but He does require us to follow His commands. “Love the Lord your God with all of your heart and with all of your soul and all your strength and with all your mind”
    I see no minimizing of the role of the Spirit here nor a lack of grace. His grace makes it possible for me, a sinner, to come to Him, forgiven. Whole hearted devotion is hardly too much to ask of one who owes so much.

    1. Without going back and re-reading the Chan article, is he not saying that unless or until one achieves this “wholehearted devotion,” don’t bother with evangelism? My point, which none of you is engaging, is that the Holy Spirit, not human effort, makes evangelism effective. The Holy Spirit also enables us to be transformed as disciples who possess wholehearted devotion.

      But honestly… How confident are any of you that you are presently devoted to the Lord in a wholehearted way? I’m not!

  5. Reminds me of guys sitting in their recliners on Sunday afternoon second guessing NFL coaches as if they are better football guys than the guys getting paid to do the job..

    Francis Chan puts his life where his mouth is.

    1. Was I commenting on Francis Chan’s life? I’m arguing against one particular idea, an argument which none of you have engaged. I know hardly anything about Chan. I read the book to which this article pointed.

  6. You say none of us have engaged the idea of wholehearted devotion as required yet the words of Jesus quoted above (ALL your heart, ALL your soul, ALL your strength, ALL your mind) sounds precisely like wholehearted devotion is what he is asking of his followers. The very same followers he directed to “…make disciples of all nations…” which, of course, is the very definition of evangelism. Does that help ?

    1. Not really. How confident are you that you achieve wholehearted devotion? Suppose you’re only 98-percent-hearted devoted? Are you of any use to the Lord at that point?

      1. The Lord uses even those who would oppose him if he so chooses. That is not the question. I thought the question was more about what Jesus asks of those He sends to make disciples. Perhaps you and I interpret the idea of “all” differently. If you could provide scripture or words of Jesus to clarify your feelings….

      2. Sorry, Billy. I’m done. You never answered my questions and avoided engaging my argument.

      3. Billy, how about, “He who is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone.” Also, John says, if we say we have no sin, we lie, and the truth is not in us. You agree that God can use anyone. Of course, that is no excuse for slacking up on our devotion (cf. Paul in Romans), but “there is none righteous, no not one.” “Why do you call me good? There is one good, God.”, Jesus says. I think the main point is, while of course Jesus calls for wholehearted devotion (as does scripture in general), none of us actually measures up. But God can and does use even us “defective” types. I mean, he used Peter, who went so far as to deny Jesus at one point. And look at people he used as “judges” in the OT, such as Samson, who is listed in the “roll call of the faithful” in Hebrews 11. Having less than “whole-hearted” devotion does not mean God will decline use us. (I read one book of Chan’s sometime back, Crazy Love, but I can’t honestly recall his arguments. But if he is saying whole-hearted devotion or nothing, I think he is overly optimistic about what we can actually achieve, as opposed to the ultimate goal to strive for.)

        Consider a baseball player whose coach says, “Bat 1.000.” Will he? Of course not. But, he had better be trying, if he does not want to be benched. Trying is the best we can do. I think almost any time we “slip up,” that could be said to be less than “100% devotion,” don’t you think? “A righteous man falls down seven times, and rises up again.” And God recognizes that and is patient with us (God to Moses) and uses us. “O Lord, if you reckoned iniquity in the heart, who could stand?”

      4. Oy. Brent and Tom, it sounds like you guys are defining “wholehearted” differently than F. Chan or myself would. I have no doubt that Peter, Paul or any of a number of followers we read about in the Bible were imperfect outside of Jesus Christ, but He made them complete. I am not saying wholehearted devotion means sinless on one’s own merit. Far from it. I AM saying it means made sinless in Jesus Christ and ever re-focusing on Him when we err…as humans are wont to do. And, Brent, I did engage your argument. You just did not like the answer. Be well.

      5. So, Billy, you can be wholeheartedly devoted and still sin? Even though, as you say, we are made “sinless in Christ”?

        I agree that from a juridical point of view we are declared “not guilty” of our sins when we are justified—because of Christ’s atoning death on the cross. Is that what you mean by “sinless in Christ”? But if that’s what you mean, how is this not true for all justified sinners?

        You didn’t engage my argument or answer my questions: Again, how confident are you, at this moment, that you are wholeheartedly devoted to the Lord? When you fall into sin—as perhaps you have even today—aren’t you _less_ than wholeheartedly devoted? If so, are you still eligible to do the work of God’s kingdom?

        Again, suppose you’re devoted to the Lord with only 98 percent of your heart? Are you disqualified from doing the work of evangelism?

        Tom is exactly right: you have a very optimistic view of our sinful human nature. By all means, the Holy Spirit changes us from within. We experience new birth in Christ. But this process of change lasts a lifetime.

      6. Yes.
        And, yes, it is if the justified sinner is continuing in Christ. Completely confident.
        No, I am still wholeheartedly devoted, inasmuch as my heart is able at this point in my spiritual maturing process.
        (Let me pause in my direct answers to your questions to pose one of my own…are you supposing to judge my heart?).
        Yes still eligible because I am still, if yet imperfectly, wholeheartedly devoted.
        Cannot answer “98% wholehearted” question because it has no real meaning…somewhat like 98% pregnant. One either is, or is not, wholehearted. “Whole” being the operative modifier.
        Wholehearted= committed, positive, dedicated, unswerving.
        I will plead guilty to an optimistic view especially as measured against a pessimistic perspective. And , yes! The process of change very much ought last a lifetime, but progress toward a greater and deeper spiritual maturity must be taking place.
        No animus intended at all. You just have a perspective that I find interesting but seemingly quite different from my own.

      7. No, I’m not judging your heart, except inasmuch as I believe you’re a sinner like the rest of us.

        You say that “wholehearted”= committed, positive, dedicated, unswerving.

        But when you sin, you do “swerve,” right? If someone swerves less than you, then doesn’t it stand to reason that they’re closer to “wholehearted” than you are?

        But again, are you saying that all justified sinners are “wholehearted” just by virtue of being in Christ, regardless the extent to which they fall into sin?

        If so, then wholehearted seems like a meaningless word.

  7. Don’t understand personally why you’d publish something against someone who is preaching the word of God in any regard. Some people allow that insidious sin into their lives just by saying “oh, I’m a sinner.. I’m human… God will forgive me..” and it gets worse and worse from there. I think the type of people he is around are at such an extreme (maybe, my opinion and observation) level, being SO rich in Simi Valley and also gang bangers ex drug addicts etc (as I can relate to) … some people don’t have this happy medium you speak of. Some people are literally meant and born to live and attempt to devote every thing they have in their being to Christ other wise they will get dragged back down to the other side which is trying to grasp at their souls. There’s no room for the sort of light gray area. But that’s just my opinion! And not only that… he does talk about us being imperfect too.. listen to the sermons!! Sorry I’m just telling you my opinion that I don’t see why one person of God would say this about another. We are all individually spectacularly formed by God and all SO different therefore we learn differently.. and this is the way he has been called to preach.. and personally I’m extremely thankful that someone else feels this intensity and urgency that I do. We need a “leap” a huge movement, as it is it seems we’re just creeping along, some people forgetting the whole point and people are becoming a whole new kind of lukewarm.. I think as Christians we should all be understanding and lifting one another up!
    God bless you and your endeavors!! Thanks for listening, if you did. And thanks for what YOU do as well! You’re also appreciated! We need all kinds. We are all called for a specific thing and it’s for reasons some or we may not even understand. <3

    1. Holly, great input – agreement here. We can choose to lift each other up, or tear each other down. Certainly Chan is seeking to glorify God with his efforts. As followers of Christ, why would we strive for anything less than wholehearted devotion through the grace of the Holy Spirit?

    2. Holly and Ken, I would note that Paul confronted Peter “because he was to be blamed.” And David is referred to somewhere as a “prophet,” yet Nathan said, “Thou art the man!” We are also told to sometimes confront publicly “so that others will fear.” (Witness Paul to Peter again.) I don’t think being a minister of the gospel in some fashion exempts anyone from being criticized if they are preaching theology differently from what we understand scripture to teach. Regardless whether you agree with Brent’s point about Chan, I certainly don’t agree that Brent should be reticent to point out his position on the issue, so long as Brent “is mindful that he also may fail,” which is another passage talking about “confrontation.” (And I am certain Brent does recognize that!) So we should always be polite and humble in our disagreements, but I just don’t agree that we should feel constrained not to point out error as we see it to be, just because someone is a minister. James says, “Don’t many aspire to teach, because they will receive the greater judgment.” Recall that Jesus himself said, “I came not to bring peace, but a sword.” And I think it was Paul who said, “For there must needs be divisions among you, that those who are correct may be approved.” Simply too many passages like that to argue that Brent is wrong in pointing out what he sees as an error in Chan’s theology. And, aren’t you pointing out what you see as an error in Brent’s teaching on the subject of whether we should sometimes publicly critique what others may say?

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