Last Thursday, James MacDonald gathered a group of mega-church pastors for a conference called “The Elephant Room.” The sessions featured lively discussion and friendly debate regarding a number of controversial methodological, theological, and practical issues related to church ministry. (See notes here.) One of the most interesting sessions was David Platt and James MacDonald’s conversation on sacrifice and generosity.

David Platt made the case that wealth and money, though not inherently sinful, are dangerous in the hands of sinful people. Our current context of self-indulgence needs to be challenged. Spiritual transformation leads to material transformation. The gospel gives us generous hearts that overflow into radical sacrifice for God’s eternal purposes. When God blesses us financially, He intends us to give to others.

James MacDonald warned that a distorted version of Platt’s teaching equates “poverty” and “spirituality.” Instead, MacDonald believes we need a full-orbed theology of joy in God that includes joy in the good gifts God has given us. Emphasizing radical sacrifice can lead to poverty theology that is all about the immediate divesting of money rather than the multiplication of money that will lead to greater involvement in mission.

The Points of Agreement

The MacDonald/Platt discussion was tense at times, perhaps because the practical ramifications of how we think about money always hit close to home. Still, there are three major points on which Platt and MacDonald agree:

  1. Money and possessions are a good gift from God.
  2. Money and possessions can become idolatrous.
  3. We are called to exercise stewardship of our finances in a way that pleases the Lord and furthers the spread of His name.

The Debate

Even though Platt and MacDonald would “Amen” each of these points, they have diverging views on the particulars of how these truths should be applied. MacDonald believes we need a theology of joy that reiterates point #1. Platt believes we are underestimating the idolatrous pull of point #2. Then, because MacDonald emphasizes #1 and Platt focuses on #2, they have radically different notions about how to apply #3.

I feel the tension of this discussion at a deeply personal level. When I lived in Romania, I wrestled daily with the tension of being one of the “haves” in a world of “have-nots.” Over the course of my years overseas, all my categories were shattered, so that I was confused, challenged, content, frustrated, joyful, and well-meaning at different moments and in different ways. Here are the cycles of my personal journey:

1. Culture Shock at Poverty

When I first began ministry overseas, I was deeply moved by the poverty I noticed. Early on, I wrote an email to family and friends:

You know I am not one to dwell on the bad things or poverty, but sometimes, the situations here can really get to me… Every now and then I wish to be home to just have a good long cry about all the things that happen here. Here, it’s impossible, because it’s almost like you’re in a bubble, and you have to separate your heart from your mind somewhat, just to make it through emotionally. Your mind can see something, but you have to keep it from getting to your heart until you have time to really process what you’ve seen and carry with you the emotional baggage that comes with it.

The longer I was in Romania, the more I realized that even poor Romanian villages would be considered “rich” by the standards of third-world countries. Poverty is defined in so many different ways, and the way we define poverty impinges on how we spread the gospel. Many times, I have asked David Platt’s question: “How do we proclaim the gospel in a world in which utter poverty (no drinking water, starving people, enormous economic needs) is so prevalent?”

2. Culture Shock at Wealth

Upon returning to the U.S. after spending a year away, I was surprised by our wealth. I remember arriving back in Nashville, and asking – in the fog of jet lag – “When did they put a new car lot near the airport?” Dad answered: “That’s just the parking lot, Trevin.” Strange, but after so much time away, my mind couldn’t conceive of the fact that all the new, shiny cars were owned by average citizens. Even now, I remember the feeling I had when I noticed how easy it was to walk downstairs and get a glass of water. After having lived in a village with no indoor plumbing, water from the refrigerator seemed like a luxury.

3. Frustration with Materialism

The longer I looked at the U.S. from the outside in, the more I noticed our excess wealth. Closets stuffed full of junk… credit card debt racked up on frivolities… churches budgeting thousands of dollars to activities that seemed designed more for the comfort of church members than God’s mission in the world… Our priorities seemed so out of line!

And then there was the day I received an email invitation to take a pastor-led cruise with a number of famous preachers. I remember the odd feeling of walking from the computer to the window where I could see homeless Gypsies scavenging through the dumpster outside our apartment complex. The jarring juxtaposition of wealth and poverty frustrated me.

4. Repentance for my Patronizing Attitude

After the period of frustration, the Lord convicted my heart for my superior attitude toward my Romanian brothers and sisters. My initial mindset had been: “I’m the rich American here to help the poor Romanians.” That attitude was unhealthy, anti-gospel, and ultimately untrue.

God opened my eyes to see the problem of dividing people into categories of “rich and poor.” I had the opportunity to serve alongside “poor” Romanians who were doing mercy ministry to poorer people. We prayed as Romanian missionaries went to third-world countries to spread the gospel. Over time, my categories were shattered. Christians are poor in spirit, called to be generous. Forget the categories. Quit patronizing our brothers and sisters, many of whom are richer spiritually than we’ll ever be. We’re united in our service by the cross, not the size of our wallets.

5. Repentance for my Judgmental Attitude

Then, God started in on me from another angle. He exposed my judgmental attitude toward “wealthy Americans.” Though I had looked with disgust at the idea of a “pastor’s cruise,” I eventually realized that this type of vacation was attractive to many pastors – not because they were idolatrous materialists, but because being “inaccessible” on a cruise is one of the only ways they can feel truly “off”. A pastor-led cruise may, for some, lead to rest and spiritual renewal in a way I had not considered. Whatever the reasons, I needed to repent of my patronizing attitude to the poor and my superior attitude to the rich.

Where Do We Go from Here?

One of the most helpful books I have read on the subject of wealth is Neither Poverty nor Riches: A Biblical Theology of Possessions by Craig Blomberg. The points that Platt and MacDonald agree on are declared loudly and clearly in Blomberg’s work. We can gratefully enjoy God’s gifts. We must beware of the idolization of wealth. We must give where we want our heart to be.

I don’t claim to have figured out the debate about radical generosity and stewardship. But there are places where I think both emphases could lead to unhealthy extremes.

MacDonald is right that there is nothing inherently spiritual about poverty. But I’m cautious about his statement that financial blessing flows to fruitfulness. Sometimes. Maybe often. But not all the time. I’ve served alongside many pastors who didn’t reap financial rewards, even though they had very fruitful ministries. Conflating financial blessing with fruitfulness can lead to unwarranted appreciation of prosperity-gospel teachers who confuse the two (just as the ancient world did). Christ has set us free from the shackles of “success” defined by the world.

Platt is right that we live in a culture that seeks joy in more and more things. His focus on “radical sacrifice” as the outworking of gospel generosity should be commended. But I’m cautious that Platt’s teaching could be turned into a legalistic, obligatory exercise that leaves little room for the full-orbed theology of joy that MacDonald talks about.

A couple months ago, Platt tweeted: About to coach my first T-ball practice. Scared. Really scared. The next tweet was: Exhausted. Stressed. Filthy. Sore. Glad to be coach. Grateful to be dad. I chuckled when I read those tweets, and I was glad to see them. Why? Because that image of joy-filled leisure and recreation can easily get lost in the “radical” image that comes through Platt’s books, conference messages, and the branding machine of the publishing industry.


The more I think about those three points, the more I am convinced that it’s not a “balance between the three” that is necessary, but a radical, unshakeable commitment to all three.

  • We need to pursue joy in the God who gives us good gifts, intentionally basking in His goodness to us, growing in gratitude for His provision, and enjoying His gifts as the good things they are.
  • We also need to be radical in our realization of how idolatrous good things can become when they take the throne of our lives. Our commitment to enjoying the good things of life should be matched by our ruthless efforts to root out idols from our lives, to find our satisfaction in God alone, and not just the gifts He gives us.
  • In the end, radical stewardship will look different from person to person, from church to church, – but we are all called to be good stewards, to prioritize rightly, to sacrifice for the King out of gospel-soaked generous hearts. Radical sacrifice must always overflow from a heart that is gripped by the gospel; otherwise, it becomes a joyless and fruitless effort of self-righteousness.

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25 thoughts on “James MacDonald, David Platt, and the Question of Radical Sacrifice”

  1. Loren says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful overview of the MacDonald/Platt discussion. I have learned a great deal from both men. From the chatter generated at our church (community income average for the 100,000+ residents is $82,000) my sense is that Platt’s “Radical” challenge has been a needed corrective to some pretty self-focused, shallow lifestyles. His book has generated a continuing discussion of what many were sensing as a spiritual issue, but really didn’t come to the surface until his book was published. We have begun a quartely “Beyond the Walls” gospel proclaiming and physical need meeting outreach and some of that, I believe, was generated by Platt’s book.

    So, there has been much more wrestling with, “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?” and what that looks like at our church; not in a legalistic “I have to” mindset, but in a “I have been blessed, so how can I bless others to God’s glory” focus.

    Other books that have been helpful to me in thinking through these issues is Jacques Ellul’s Money and Power (which God used to change some selfish thinking on my part), and Money, Greed, and God: Why Capitalism Is the Solution and Not the Problem by Jay Richards.

    Thanks for your blog and your desire to serve God and His church in this way!

  2. Bob says:

    Thank you Trevin. I watched Platt’s video teaching series on Radical and was left shaken and doubting where I stood with God. As I pondered down-sizing my life and giving away the financial security I had accumulated, I thought ‘OK, but what’s next… What then is left for me to accomplish in His Kingdom’. Then I came back to the three points in your conclusion. When we consider only the positions espoused by James and David, our attention is drawn from where God would lead us.

  3. Asa says:

    Immensely helpful, Trevin. The trouble with reducing your message and ministry to the emphasis of one practical outworking of Gospel faith is that you can lose the Gospel faith.

  4. pdawg says:

    Thank you! What would you advise for a Christian university student who has considerable debt but is yet not in a position to work part-time or full-time? I would like to give but it would not be my money but it would not be my money but my bank’s money and parents’ money?

  5. Thanks so much for your insights, I too have struggled with this tension for a number of years in my life. Thanks for speaking outloud about it.

  6. Travis says:

    Thanks for writing this. I didn’t get to see the elephant room but this topic was especially of interest to me. I appreciate you outlining things!

  7. John says:

    Thanks for the post. I have struggled with this for a long time, wavering between the two extremes. It’s good to know that others are on the same journey to truly know what God would have us do with what He has given us.

  8. Charlie says:

    Yes, as a long time supporter of MacDonald and huge new fan of Platt, I thoroughly enjoyed Elephant Room and completely agree with your assessment of this particular discussion. In regards to this subject this is what I struggle with : and it has to do with point #1 ; which is more of MacDonald’s emphasis. I catch myself with the same responses, ex. Appreciate God’s blessings, it’s okay to have Joy, etc. However we have to be careful about how we stretch the meaning of ” JOY “. The fact is, when you take those two points, #1 and #2, MacDonald’s and Platt’s, point #2, or extremely illustrated as ” poverty gospel “, is way more supported in Scripture! In other words, not to say that blessings and joy aren’t supported, but biblically we could defend the ” poverty “, ” better to give than receive “, much easier than the other. Trust me, I struggle with interpretation and calling, about this issue as much as the next guy. But honestly even though the talk about blessings and joy have an ” appearance of wisdom ” I’m fearful, as I believe Platt is, that we speak more to our comfort than we do of the gospel of ” giving ” and ” serving ” that is modeled by Christ himself. If we judged Christ by that example of blessings and joy then He died a very poor man. Or the apostle Paul for that matter. But we know that is certainly not the case. They both died just the opposite, very rich in Blessing and in Joy. So maybe my point is more of a ‘definition of terms ‘ arguement : What is JOY, what is BLESSING… Nevertheless I completely agree with the charge to us all through point #3, and I pray even now that I will know God’s call in my life personally and have the courage and faith to follow conviction for His glory rather than my comfort. For our comfort is imminent, and promised – but on the other side!

  9. Mike says:

    After thinking about this post last night, I firmly believe that we don’t need men like McDonald telling us to live richly – our human nature and consumer oriented society does that for us.

    It just seems like a cop-out to me.

    However, Platt’s message is one that is needed in a great way today, and I personally believe it is the message that Christ promotes in Scripture.

  10. AStev says:

    Mike, I would hesitate to say we don’t “need” MacDonald’s message. Yes, society already tells us to live richly, pursue happiness at all costs, etc.

    But there is a very real error in a poverty gospel (which Platt does not promote), and when people go too far in that direction, they do need to hear God’s biblical truth regarding their error.

    But you’re right, far more people in our culture succumb to prosperity theology than poverty theology, so Platt’s message is arguably the more needful for the majority of the church.

    But not to the complete exclusion of MacDonald’s point.

  11. Jay Beerley says:

    I also highly recommend “When Helping Hurts” as a lens for thinking through the question, “How do I actually help people who are in need in a way that is consistent with the ministry of reconciliation?”

  12. Linda Owen says:

    Terrific article! Your conclusions ring true to my heart and are going in my ‘quotables’ files! And the personal insights you add from your experiences in Romania validate your conclusions. Thank you for something I can meditate on, grab hold of, and grow in. “Commitment to all three!” That’s what I want.
    Blessings! Linda

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  14. Jeff says:

    Trevin. Very good discussion. I have wrestled in exactly the same way you have (I’ve done missionary work for two years in the Czech Republic – right at the end of communism) and I’ve also been in other areas (Malaysia). And, I’ve wrestled with those preacher cruises! Personally, I’ve chosen not to go on them. Not to say I don’t have my own failings with money or possessions as an idol.

    However, I find that in the end, your post, while recognizing the tensions, winds up almost justifying both. I don’t take issue with the tensions – they are real and should be held, always. But, while I fully agree that our lives should be filled with the joy of God’s gifts – and that we should not just teach a theology of poverty = spirituality; it seems clear that living under the new creation in Christ means when we are blessed with wealth and the ability to produce more wealth that we should, in fact, do so not for the purpose of experiencing the joy of wealth ourselves but, rather, do to experience the joy of giving. And, that this is where real joy emerges. It is about joy (rather than obligation) but it is a joy of self-sacrifice! Acts 20:35 – “It is more blessed (joyful/happy) to give than to receive.” Eph. 4:28 – “… work with his hands that he may have something to give to the one who has need” (note the purpose of work and wealth). 1 Tim. 6 – Paul instructs the rich to be “rich in good works” (The “rich” should be “rich” in good works – the richer you are the richer you should be in good works with the use of those riches). 2 Cor. 8:9- Paul exhorts the Corinthians in giving by the example of the Lord, “Who, though he was rich, became poor for your sakes.”

    Did the Lord find joy in his emptying himself of the wealth of heaven, or even of the wealth of this life? Did the Lord find “joy” in what God had blessed him with materially or did he find joy in being able to give of those material things?

    It is not about poverty = spirituality. Nor do I think we should go live in a shack somewhere. I take no issue with successful Christians having a bit nicer home. But, I think the problem is not only idolatry but of cutting ourselves off from the poor – and creating a zone of materialism, escape from the wounds of the city – rather than seeking its welfare – that does destroy our souls and also hinders the gospel by creating a barrier between rich and poor.

    I can be wealthy and lower my standards – of clothing, of housing, of automobiles – yet still live comfortably – in order to break down cultural barriers.

    Ironically, this was the underlying point about the Gentile churches giving to the saints in Jerusalem. It was not just to help the poor but to break down the cultural barrier between Jew & Gentile – when the Jews saw what the Gentiles were doing, sacrificing themselves, it created solidarity and unity. In the same way the radical distinction between rich and poor today should do the same.

  15. James says:

    I wonder if poverty can also be seen as a gift and blessing from God.

  16. scott price says:

    I am troubled by the gymnastics people attempt to go through to arrive at a decision about how much of God’s gifts they have to give away. Talk about God’s heart and God’s treasury first and then ask God how much you should keep instead of how much you have to give. If you have two coats…….God gives us this command not to test or to show that poverty is spiritual but to show His heart of compassion which we should share. Read Isaiah 58 some time and let me know how the joy in the presence of the Lord is achieved.

  17. Benjamin says:

    @pdawg (regarding college kids who want to give): 2 Cor 8 is helpful for me to understand a methodology. “For if the readiness is present, it is acceptable according to what a person has, not according to what he does not have.” So if you’re ready to give, but you technically don’t own anything because you’re in debt, it doesn’t really make sense to give what isn’t yours to give. I strongly suggest reading 2 Cor 8, though, and probably all of 2 Cor.

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Trevin Wax

​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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