Book Review: Outlive Your Life by Max Lucado

Title: Outlive Your Life
Author: Max Lucado
Publisher: Thomas Nelson (2010)

Some time ago, I was in the president’s office at a Christian NGO and noticed a new book on his desk. Making conversation, I asked, “What’s that one about?” It’s about the Christian’s responsibility in areas of poverty and injustice, he said. I made a mental note and determined to give it a read.

A couple weeks later, I began to read Outlive Your Life by Max Lucado. Over the course of 16 chapters, Lucado loosely examines the first twelve chapters of Acts in an attempt to show readers how they “were made to make a difference” in the lives of impoverished men, women and children around the globe.

Christian books on social justice and caring for the poor are tricky things. There’s a tendency to turn a God-honoring act into “God’s mandate” for the Christian life. A false gospel based around our work, rather than Christ’s work on the cross.

So where does Outlive Your Life land?

A weird place.

First, what did I like about this book?

Lucado is a very fast-paced writer; his style is easy-going, light and conversational. The plus side of this is that it makes this book a very quick read. The chapters are short (usually no more than about 4-5 pages) and you can breeze through it in a couple hours.

Lucado’s use of illustrations from everyday life help makes his subject matter come alive. He generally portrays himself as a bit of a goober, so you get the impression that he’s just a regular guy who puts his pants on one leg at a time (but when he puts his pants on, he sells hundreds of thousands of books).

When it comes down to the content, I greatly appreciated chapter 15, “Pray first; pray most.” This section in particular was a strong reminder of the importance of prayer and why everything we do, if we are followers of Christ, should be saturated with prayer.

Additionally, I did appreciate the idea behind the chapter, “Don’t write anyone off.” There’s no one that God can’t save—so why would we write off anyone as “unsave-able” when God is capable of doing more than we can imagine? After all, He saved Paul, who persecuted the Church & murdered Christians and used him as His instrument to spread the gospel throughout Asia Minor, and into Rome.

Now, having said that, there is a lot that concerned me about Outlive Your Life.

Some of it’s just goofy, like a strangely graphic description of a temple guard on page 78 (that I’m not entirely sure is historically accurate) that wouldn’t seem out of place in the movie 300. There’s some creative speculation into biblical stories in an attempt to engage readers… But there’s also this prevalent notion that sound doctrine isn’t as important as actions and working together for the common good.

Now here’s where he’s right: Unity is important to God. No part of the body can say to another “I have no need of you” (cf. 1 Cor. 12:21). And in cases of secondary doctrinal issues (ie in-house debates), we absolutely do need to put aside those at times to work for a common goal that relates to a matter of first importance. So yeah, paedo-bapists and credo-baptists can probably shelve the argument when it comes to teaming up to, for example, meet the physical and spiritual needs of people in developing countries.

Where he goes too far is by, it seems, suggesting that we don’t need to be united in doctrine beyond the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. On this issue and in the context of a missions experience in Guatemala, he writes:

We cannot say, “I have no need of you.” The megachurch needs the smaller church. The liberal needs the conservative. The pastor needs the missionary. . . . Suppose our group had clustered according to opinions. Divided according to doctrines. If we had made unanimity a prerequisite for partnership, can you imagine the consequences? We wouldn’t have accomplished anything. (p. 46-47)

Unless I’m grossly misunderstanding him, the assumption here is that everyone’s playing on the same team. This, however, is simply not the case. We aren’t permitted to, for example, team up with professing Christians who deny the authority of Scripture, or distort the character and nature of God. We disagree on matters of first importance that affect everything else.

Far more concerning is that while Lucado advocates “remembering to give people the bread” (that is, the gospel), he does an astoundingly good job of botching it within this book. When he attempts to give us “the bread,” he’s light on the fact that it was not only the religious leaders in Jerusalem who put Jesus on the cross—it was us. it’s not simply they who killed him. It was us.

Further, there’s an air of almost needing to get the gospel out of the way so we can get on with talking about how we can make a difference in the world. It’s very moralistic, but not so much gospel-driven.

Most alarmingly, though, is what I read on page 138:

Of course, no one believed in people more than Jesus did. He saw something in Peter worth developing, in the adulterous woman worth forgiving, and in John worth harnessing. He saw something in the thief on the cross, and what he saw was worth saving… [emphasis mine]

I nearly did a spit-take when I read this. This is the exact opposite of the gospel! Jesus did not believe in people, because He knew their hearts (John 2:24). There isn’t anything in us particularly worth saving—that’s why we need Jesus!

If we could save ourselves through works of the law, through moralism, through being good people… if there was anything that was “worth saving,” then Christ died for nothing (cf. Gal. 2:21).

I don’t know if I can stress the seriousness of this error more. While it might seem like I’m nitpicking, this is really, really important. How we understand the gospel affects everything else in our lives. And if we get the gospel wrong, everything else will be, too.

Believe it or not, I actually wanted to like Outlive Your Life, but to get something so fundamental so wrong… I just can’t, nor can I recommend anyone read this book.

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  • http://www.hillsbiblechurch.org/ Don

    Thanks, Aaron – I know you struggled with this book – at least I won’t have to. ;-)

    Your analysis reminds me of the kind of confused rhetoric being preached in some of our Australian Baptist churches; liberal, feel-good unbiblical nonsense!

    I have yet to experience anyone who raises social justice to a first-principle doctrine that truly understands the gospel. If Lucado is serious about wanting to make a difference, he needs to introduce people to the Saviour.

    • http://hardwords.wordpress.com Aaron Armstrong

      Agreed, Don. On raising social justice to a first-principle doctrine, you should check out David Platt; his is probably the best new book that touches on the subject at all (in and of itself, it’s thematically very similar to Don’t Waste Your Life and Let the Nations Be Glad by Piper).

      • http://www.hillsbiblechurch.org/ Don

        Yes, Aaron, the two you have mentioned may be the exceptions.

        I certainly feel John Piper has the balance. I have to confess, however, that I’m a little uncomfortable with David Platt’s emphasis on social justice. No doubt he is a very impressive young man and his humility leaves most of us feeling embarrassed with our own pride – but the jury is still out on him for me.

        Don’t get me wrong, I’m not opposed to social justice, I wouldn’t be a true follower of Jesus if I was. Social justice is one of the natural ‘by-products’ of the gospel – but it is not the gospel.

        • http://hardwords.wordpress.com Aaron Armstrong

          Agreed entirely. It’s in all honesty, one of the things I struggle with the most working for an NGO that can so easily fall into the social justice trap if we’re not careful.

  • http://benumnus.wordpress.com Ben Umnus

    I’m glad I wasn’t the only one who noticed Max Lucado was promoting the Jim Wallis gospel.

    • http://hardwords.wordpress.com Aaron Armstrong

      No sir, you’re not.

  • http://conniemace.typepad.com/raise_up_your_eyes/ Connie Mace

    Thank you Aaron for being willing to stand for The Gospel. We do indeed need to read with a discerning eye and heart.

    If any of us write things contrary to The Salvation message of JESUS CHRIST, our brothers and sisters need to point out our error. Lives are at stake.

  • http://stevepye.me Steve Pye

    You know, it’s so hard, especially today, to preach and teach the gospel with all of the intended intensity, and to be solid in our doctrine and teaching as scripture calls us to, while still being sensitive and understanding to culture. So many people have become increasingly offended by the gospel (and as well they should be, as it is truly offensive to sinful human nature), and the Church as a result has tried to thin it out to make it more palatable, to the extent that we’re afraid to preach it because we want to be so purposeful about doing it. Paul says, whatever you do in WORD or DEED. Both. Preach it, and do it. It seems, based on this review, that Lucado is promoting the “do it” without promoting the “preach it.”

  • http://hardwords.wordpress.com Aaron Armstrong

    @ Connie – Thank you for the encouragement!

    @ Steve – He does tend to err on the side of “do” vs. “preach” rather than really promote both. In his overview of Acts, one of the things I noticed was that he tended to overlook the “why” of what the early church was doing; they were generous because of the gospel. One thing he does get right is that he affirms that compassion is a fruit of salvation, but there’s a lack of emphasis on the “make disciples” part…

  • AWHall

    Aaron – good review. This concern of yours is characteristic of Lucado. I can’t remember if he’s a Disciples of Christ background, but there is a minimalistic approach to doctrine which leads to horrendous error. Lucado is a great story teller, but his preaching and doctrine leaves much to be desired.

    • http://hardwords.wordpress.com Aaron Armstrong

      Thanks for the feedback Andrew – glad to know I”m not off my rocker in my assessment. Who knows? Maybe God will do something to turn Lucado onto telling good stories with great doctrine?

  • Hannah

    I have read this book as well. I believe he is not preaching do instead of preach when devotes the entire fourth chapter to the sharing of the gospel and not getting too caught up in doing that we forget the “bread.” I believe that you are saved through faith. I also believe that a mark of your faith is that you DO. Lucado shows throughout the text the Biblical point. I believe this is a stark contrast to Chan’s “Crazy Love” which I believe to be on (if not over) the edge of unbiblical. Jesus does see the best in people at the same time He does see the worst. He also see’s what we see and beyond that .” He is willing that none may perish but have eternal life through Him.” So no matter who they are He sees something worth saving. It’s that crazy sovereignty of God which still spins my head around. I am just giving my perspective. I hope that I’ll get a reply because I’m curious to hear your thought on mine.

    • http://hardwords.wordpress.com Aaron Armstrong

      Thanks for your feedback, Hannah; I really appreciate you taking the time to write a thoughtful response.

      You’re absolutely correct that God is sovereign in how He determines who He saves… I guess the question I have is where do you see in Scripture people being said to be “worth saving”?

      All of us, on a human level, are equally worthy of being treated with dignity and respect in light of our being made in God’s image, but what I see over and over again in Scripture is that that’s not why He saves anyone. He saves us not because we deserve it, but because He is so great (I wrote about this more indepth a couple months back; you can read it here if you like).

      And this is why I (as I noted above) really appreciated Lucado’s reminder that no one is un-saveable. That’s where he’s right. But where it gets muddy is when he starts speaking in terms of there being something “worth” saving in someone.

      I’m not trying to be contentious as I appreciate what Lucado is trying to get at in the book, it’s just that he gets too fuzzy in places where it’s really important to be clear.

  • Andrea Thompson

    “Jesus did not believe in people, because He knew their hearts (John 2:24). There isn’t anything in us particularly worth saving—that’s why we need Jesus!”

    I gasped when I heard that statement.

    Jesus did believe in people, when everyone else didn’t…likewise, Jesus believes in people when everyone else doesn’t. Why would He have spent His earthly ministry teaching repentance, faith, baptism, etc…? He knew that we could “put off the natural man”, change our hearts and follow Him. He laid out His Father’s plan of salvation and taught us to preach the gospel to others so that they could be the receivers of His great mercy and love.

    There are many biblical references to Jesus “knowing” us. When teaching people, he knew their thoughts and hearts and taught them accordingly. The outward man men nothing to Him. He came here to save us from our sins because He knew our hearts longed for and needed the saving principles of His gospel. He believed we could be good, faithful and enjoy the joy that comes from living a Christlike life. I could go on.

    The following are examples of when the word “knew or knowing” was also used in the Bible; Matthew 12:25, Luke 11:17, John 6:61.

    It’s true that often times we can stray from true doctrine and that this can lead us to not fully understand how we should conduct our lives. And this lack of understanding doesn’t draw us closer to Jesus and, can actually end in the “losing of our souls”.

    To me, “Jesus did not believe in people”, is one of those untruths that could lead someone away from the love and peace that could be found in Jesus Christ.

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