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A Critical Review of John Eldredge’s Wild at Heart

 

(This book review was revised on 03-30-10)

Eldredge, John. Wild at Heart. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2001.

(Spirituality/Christian living; 222 pages; hardcover; suggested retail price, $19.99)

John Eldredge’s book Wild at Heart was recommended to me by several different Christians. Partly out of respect for them, and partly out of my pastoral sense of obligation to “Test all things; hold fast what is good,” I made the time to review what Charles R. Swindoll endorsed as, “the best, most insightful book I have read in at least the last five years.”

From the outset, you will undoubtedly notice that my review of Wild at Heart is overwhelmingly unfavorable. There would be no point in tempting you to read this entire review by leading you to believe otherwise. But still, I want to begin by saying that I do not disagree with everything John Eldredge has to say. I believe, as he does, that men in America have become passive, passionless, and even feminized in some regards. I commend his efforts to convince fathers to steer their boys in a more masculine direction. I do not even disagree theologically with everything he says (for example, see section 2 where my own understanding of Scripture has changed since I wrote the original review). But once these few footholds of common ground are established, we part company almost completely. From the one page introduction all the way through chapter 12, I found little to commend.

My purpose is not to examine Wild at Heart under a microscope. Many popular books could be painted in a negative light under close scrutiny. My purpose here is to address three major problems—ones for which no microscope was needed. They not only appear throughout the book, they characterize the book. Simply stated, the problems are as follows: First, John Eldredge mishandles Scripture badly. Second, the central theme of the book is not consistent with the teaching of the Bible. Third, the book conveys a degrading, humanistic, and even heretical view of God. If I can demonstrate that these three problems characterize Wild at Heart, I will have done all I intended to do, and you will have something to think about.

Problem #1: Recklessly Dividing the Word of Truth

In his introduction Eldredge writes, “Most messages for men ultimately fail.” “The reason is simple,” he says. “They ignore what is deep and true to a man’s heart, his real passions, and simply try to shape him up through various forms of pressure.” Needless to say, I wondered what new message he was offering men. Within the first few pages it became abundantly clear. Chapter one opens with the following quotation from Proverbs 20 verse 5: “The heart of a man is like deep water . . .”

What men need, in Eldredge’s estimation, is to find their hearts. On page 3 he writes, “I am searching for an even more elusive prey . . . something that can only be found through the help of wilderness. I am looking for my heart.” On page 6—”If a man is ever to find out who he is and what he is here for, he has got to take that journey for himself. He has got to get his heart back.” And then on page 8—”The church wags its head and wonders why it can’t get more men to sign up for its programs. The answer is simply this: We have not invited a man to know and live from his own deep heart.”

I now understood the relevance of Proverbs 20:5 (according to Eldredge). Since the heart of man is “deep” and “elusive,” men need help understanding their hearts better. They need to learn to live according to the natural desires and motivations of that heart if they are to find true fulfillment—if they are to be all God intended them to be. It would be difficult to argue that this is not the central theme of the book.

This is where I noticed the first major problem—Eldredge’s consistent mishandling of Scripture. I am not speaking here of his interpretations of Scripture. I take issue with the manner in which he handles certain biblical texts. To say the least, he takes Scripture out of context. But even worse, he actually edits Scripture to make it suit his purpose and affirm his teachings. Proverbs 20:5 does not say what Eldredge claims it says. If you’re expecting me to pull out some deeper understanding of the original Hebrew and call Eldredge’s scholarship into question, I didn’t need to go to that much trouble. All I had to do was open my Bible—my NKJV Bible—the version from which Eldredge said he had quoted.

His quote reads like this: “The heart of a man is like deep water . . .” The meaning of the sentence, as quoted by Eldredge, is that the subject “heart” is described and explained by the adjective phrase, “like deep water.” The heart is like deep water, Eldredge claims. But the NKJV text actually reads like this: “Counsel in the heart of man is like deep water.” In the biblical text, the subject of the sentence is not “heart,” but rather, “Counsel.” The simile, “like deep water,” refers to the subject, “Counsel,” not to the object of the prepositional phrase, “in the heart of man.” So the Bible teaches us that counsel . . . is like deep water.

To conclude and teach, as John Eldredge does, that “The heart of a man is like deep water,” especially when his quotation of the verse capitalizes the first word as if it were actually the beginning of the sentence, is not to merely misinterpret the meaning of the text; it is to change and misrepresent the meaning of the text. This would not all be quite so serious if he had not built the entire theme of chapter one (and really, the whole book) on the meaning of his edited version of Proverbs 20:5.

Another passage of Scripture with which John Eldredge takes unjustified liberty is the beginning of Genesis. On pages 213-214, in describing Adam’s relationship with God, Eldredge includes this commentary on the creation account. “Before the moment of Adam’s greatest trial God provided no step-by-step plan, gave no formula for how he was to handle the whole mess. That was not abandonment; that was the way God honored Adam. You are a man; you don’t need Me to hold you by the hand through this. You have what it takes.”

Such a statement not only reveals a highly imaginative interpretation of the beginning of Genesis, it also reeks of humanism (man-centered thinking) and is even suggestive of Pelagianism, a centuries-old, but still popular heresy which tells mankind basically what Eldredge portrays God saying here to Adam—”you have what it takes” to deal with the consequences of your sin.

I was also fascinated when I learned what Eldredge says went wrong in the first place—how man’s (deep) heart got lost, and why men feel the need to find it. I was disturbed to find that it didn’t seem to have anything to do with sin. His understanding of the problem could be summarized like this: Eve (woman) is perfectly happy being domesticated because she was created inside the Garden of Eden. Adam (man) on the other hand, was created outside the garden and then brought inside. Therefore he has always felt restless. He has always had thisinner need for adventure, exploration, and danger. Eldredge explains all of this on pages 3 and 4: “Man was born in the outback, from the untamed part of creation. Only afterward is he brought to Eden. And ever since then boys have never been at home indoors, and men have had an insatiable longing to explore . . . The core of a man’s heart is undomesticated and that is good. “

Do you hear what he is saying? Adam was better off—more suited to his environment—before God brought him to (or confined him in) the Garden of Eden. If Eldredge is right, then in a way it seems that God cursed Adam before he sinned. He took him out of the environment in which he would have been fulfilled, and placed him in an environment that would repress his deepest inner longings. When Adam sinned and was kicked out of the garden, he actually got what he wanted.

One more example of worth mentioning, although not directly related to the central theme of the book, is Eldredge’s treatment of Luke 8:26-33—Luke’s account of Jesus’ encounter with the demoniac of the Gerasenes tombs. In using this passage of Scripture to illustrate the need for vigorous resistance to spiritual oppression, Eldredge writes, ” . . . when [Jesus] encounters the guy who lives out in the Gerasenes tombs, tormented by a legion of spirits, the first rebuke by Jesus doesn’t work. He had to get more information, really take them on . . . .” Eldredge’s explanation of this encounter (page 166) certainly affirms the point he tries to make, but once you read the biblical text for yourself, you can see just how badly he misunderstands this text. Even a cursory reading of Luke 8:26-33 will convince you that these demons never resisted, or even questioned Jesus’ first (and only) rebuke. In fact, the whole dialogue between Jesus and the demons took place precisely because they knew exactly who He was, and they knew they had no choice but to obey His command.

For those who think the liberties Eldredge takes with these biblical texts is acceptable, I remind you of Peter’s words regarding the holy Scriptures “which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction . . .” (2 Peter 3:16). Peter was referring directly to the distortion of some of the difficult portions of Paul’s epistles, but he concludes that sentence by saying, ” . . . as they do also the rest of the Scriptures” (including Genesis, Proverbs, and Luke).

Problem #2: Relying On the Regenerate Heart

Note: This section was formerly entitled “Whitewashing the Human Heart.” It has been revised in both title and content to reflect a change in my own understanding of Scripture.

When I wrote the original review of Wild at Heart in 2003, I was of the opinion that the regenerate heart was at least partially corrupt, similar in many ways to the unregenerate heart. I based this opinion on my former understanding of passages like Jeremiah 17:9 and Mark 7:21-23 (with the parallel passage in Matthew 15:18-20), and on various statements from godly teachers like Charles Spurgeon and Jonathan Edwards who described the regenerate heart using words like “depraved,” “defiled,” and “corrupt.” Having studied this matter in more depth for the past few years, I now must admit that I was wrong. I fully agree with John Eldredge when he says to the Christian, “Your heart is good . . . In the core of your being you are a good man” (pg. 144). These statements are simply a rewording what Jesus said Himself in Luke 6:45. “The good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth what is good.” They also reflect what Paul said about the Christian’s “new self” being “created in righteousness and holiness of the truth” (Eph. 4:24; cf. Eph. 2:10; 2 Cor. 5:17; 2 Pet. 1:4). One simply cannot find language in the New Testament to affirm my former opinion (which is also the opinion of many other Christians) that the believer’s innermost being is vile or corrupt even after regeneration. I am now convinced that Mark 7:21-23, Matthew 15:18-20, and Jeremiah 17:9 refer to the heart of the unregenerate person.

The Christian might be properly defined as “snow covered dung” (to quote Martin Luther) if justification were the only doctrine of salvation revealed in the Bible. We are justified by faith alone despite the fact that we continue to sin, and “snow covered dung” was Luther’s way of describing the Christian as a “justified sinner.” But to say that “snow covered dung” or “justified sinner” fully describes the Christian is to overlook half of what God has done in redeeming him. Believers are not only justified, but also regenerated. We have not only been delivered from sin’s penalty, but also from its power. We are not merely “not guilty,” we are “not guilty new creations.”

I greatly value the teachings of men like Charles Spurgeon and Jonathan Edwards, although I now am more aware of the fact that we should not automatically agree with everything they said. They were men, and therefore they were capable of error. Thankfully, their teachings are far more often biblical than unbiblical. As one example of their pattern of correctness, and as a way to summarize what I now understand to be the biblical understanding of the Christian’s new heart and nature, consider the following quote from Spurgeon:

  • In the spirit of humility, we should recognize the true dignity of our reborn nature and then live up to it. What is a Christian? If you compare him with a king, he adds priestly sanctity to royal dignity. The king’s royalty is often seen only in his crown. But with a Christian, it is infused into his inmost nature. He is as much above other men through his new birth as the man is above the beast. Surely he ought to conduct himself in all his dealings as one who is not of this world, but chosen and distinguished by sovereign grace. Therefore he cannot live in the same way as the world’s citizens. Let the dignity of your nature and the brightness of your future constrain you to cling to holiness and to avoid every appearance of evil.[1]

My current understanding of the regenerate heart and nature is reflected in my own book, Delivered by Desire: The Encouraging Truth About Christians and Sexual Purity (Kansas City: Christian Communicators Worldwide, 2010). This book teaches Christian men about God’s work of regeneration, with a view toward helping them experience freedom from sexual sin. It also presents a better way of understanding Jeremiah 17:9, Mark 7:21-23, and Matthew 15:18-20.

I wish to apologize to John Eldredge and to all who have read the former version of my review of Wild at Heart for my former error with respect to the goodness of the regenerate heart. I hope I have not been the cause of confusion or discouragement.

Having said that, I maintain four points of disagreement with John Eldredge with respect to the regenerate heart.

First, although I now agree with much of what John Eldredge says about the regenerate heart, it is not always clear that the regenerate heart is the one he has in view. There is no biblical reason, for example, to conclude that Adam was a regenerate man when he was removed from the Garden of Eden. Yet Eldredge portrays God addressing Adam like this: “You are a man; you don’t need Me to hold you by the hand through this. You have what it takes” This depiction of the heart of unregenerate Adam is then used throughout the book as the mold for every man’s heart, leading me to ask two questions: “Should all men know and live from their deep hearts even before they become Christians? Or should at least the unbelieving man be wary of his own heart because it is wicked and unreliable?” The book lacks clarity on this very important issue.

Second, I would still contend that the central theme of the book is not consistent with the teaching of the Bible. I say this not because of what Eldredge teaches about the nature of the regenerate heart, but because of the way he encourages Christian men to look to their hearts for guidance (i.e., to “know and live from” their hearts). The regenerate heart is good, but it is not a source of strength or guidance for the Christian. Its creation simply means that the Christian is inclined toward doing God’s will rather than rebelling against it. It would be more appropriate, in fact, to think of the unregenerate heart as “wild” (i.e., rebellious) and the regenerate heart as “tame” (i.e., submissive, or to use Eldredge’s language, “domesticated”). Through regeneration, the man who was formerly a rebel has been brought into submission (cf. Rom. 8:7-9).

The regenerate heart is no longer the source of foolishness or evil as was the unregenerate heart, but on its own it is powerless and without inherent wisdom. It is not something to be depended upon. It is the instrument through which the Christian now fully depends upon the power and wisdom of God. This fully dependent spirit in a man is called faith, and it is what defines true Christian living. In this sense the regenerate heart is much like a well-machined racecar engine. Apart from the explosive power of fuel, it simply cannot do what it is designed to do. To quote myself from the former version of this section, “nowhere does the Bible advise or encourage Christians to trust, or ‘live from’ even their regenerate hearts. On the contrary, the eternal wisdom of Proverbs 28:26 tells us that “He who trusts in his own heart is a fool.”

Enjoy the goodness of your regenerate heart, but depend upon (i.e., “live from”) the God who made it. Appreciate the fact that your new heart is inclined toward obedience rather than sin, but cling to the written Word of God as a lamp to your feet and a light to your path (Ps. 119:105).

Third, I disagree with John Eldredge’s view of Romans 7:14-25, although for a different reason than before. I formerly referred to the “mystery” of the divided man concept most people (including John Eldredge) think is being described in this passage. I now believe verses 14-25 are not describing the Christian life at all, but rather the pre-conversion experience of the man who is learning that the Law of Moses is not an instrument of transformation. I have written about this in an article entitled “The Conviction of Fleshly Man: Why Romans 7:14-25 Cannot Describe the Christian Life” (www.CCWtoday.org).

Fourth, I still believe John Eldredge toys dangerously with the false view of justification held by the Roman Catholic Church when he makes this statement on page 134: “What God sees when he sees you is the real you, the true you, the man he had in mind when he made you.” Notice that Eldredge is speaking of “the real you” in the present tense, not referring to some point in the future. Now listen carefully to the next sentence, where he poses this question: “How else could [God] give you the white stone with your true name on it?”

To what “white stone” is Eldredge referring? Though he does not give the reference, I’m certain that he was referring to Revelation 2:17 which says, “To him who overcomes I will give some of the hidden manna to eat. And I will give him a white stone, and on the stone a new name written which no one knows except him who receives it.” The white stone is given to saints—those who overcome—those whose faith is proven true, and who will spend eternity in heaven. But according to Eldredge, how can you or I get that white stone? What is the only possible way to enter heaven? God must see the purity of your own heart right now. He must see “the real you, the true you, the man he had in mind when he made you,” if he is to grant you entrance into heaven. “How else could he give you the white stone with your true name on it?”

As much as I now agree with John Eldredge about the goodness of the real you (i.e., your new heart and nature as a Christian), this goodness is not your basis for being accepted by God. When God justifies a person—when He declares someone like you to be righteous—He bases that declaration on the merits of Christ and His work on the cross. As Paul wrote in Romans 4:5, God “justifies the ungodly.” Were it not for that beautiful truth, neither you nor I would have any hope of heaven.

Problem #3: Making God in the Image of Man

Note: This section has also been revised to reflect a change in my understanding of Scripture, but only in the few places where the nature of the regenerate heart is in view.

This section concerns what I was referring to on page 2 of this review when I spoke of John Eldredge’s “degrading, humanistic, and even heretical view of God.” In order to show you this, let me first quote Eldredge where he writes, on page 32, ” . . . for those aware of the discussion, I am not advocating open theism.” Why does he insert this disclaimer? What is open theism?

Open theism is a theological heresy, the proponents of which hold that God does not know the future perfectly. God is not omniscient in their view. He is learning day by day, along with us. He is very wise, they say, so He can predict the future very accurately, but He does not know it infallibly, let alone control it.

Just so you understand, God’s omniscience is not one of those “minor” doctrines that can be debated among true believers. God is a Trinity, He is sovereign, He is righteous, He is omnipotent, and He is omniscient. To deny God’s omniscience is heretical just as surely as to deny the deity of Christ. John Eldredge says he does not advocate this heretical view, but we must look at the facts. On page 30, he tells of a wilderness adventure where he was in real danger from grizzly bears. As he thinks of the wildness of the situation, of the possibility and reality of death, he writes, “It then occurred to me that after God made all this, he pronounced it good . . .”

(Just a quick note here: In saying this, Eldredge seems to have forgotten that when God pronounced creation “good”—actually He said, “very good”—something known as the fall of man had not yet occurred, and therefore, death had not entered the world. What God called “very good” did not include the danger of a man being mauled to death by a grizzly bear.)

Eldredge continues musing about his predicament when he says, referring to the goodness of this wild and dangerous place, “It is [God's] way of letting us know he rather prefers adventure, danger, risk, the element of surprise.” I don’t know about you, but when something surprises me, it is because I did not know it was going to happen. When I take a risk, I do not know the outcome. If I were omniscient, there could be no “element of surprise” or “risk.” And in case you wonder if I am just picking on one lone statement, consider the following examples where Eldredge promotes the same idea:

“God is a person who takes immense risks” (pg. 30). “He did not make Adam and Eve obey Him. He took a risk. A staggering risk, with staggering consequences. He let others into his story, and he lets their choices shape it profoundly” (pg. 31). “God lives in a dynamic relationship with us and with our world” (pg. 31). “As with every relationship, there’s a certain amount of unpredictability, and the ever-present likelihood that you’ll get hurt” (pg. 32).

“God’s willingness to risk is just astounding—far beyond what any of us would do were we in his position” (pg. 32).

I couldn’t help but chuckle at that last one, because if you really think about Eldredge’s view, we are in God’s position. We have, at any moment, the ability to surprise God. We have the ability to hurt God. We have the ability to make God’s risks become bad ones. In fact, by knowing what we intend to do in the next moment—things that will surprise or hurt God—we know the future better than He does!

Some of the leading proponents of open theism are Clark Pinnock, Richard Rice, John Sanders, William Hasker, and David Basinger. These men have co-authored a book entitled, The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God, in which we find the following statements: “We believe that the Bible presents an open view of God as living and active, involved in history, relating to us and changing in relation to us.” In their view, God “is happy to accept the future as open, not closed.” ” . . . God cares about us and lets what we do impact Him.”4

Do you notice that these statements sound similar to those made by Eldredge? Keep in mind that within the last several years, two votes were taken by the members of ETS (Evangelical Theological Society): one vote declared open theism to be heresy, while the second was the decision to expel several of these men from the organization for their heretical views.5 And as you remember Eldredge’s statements about God being a risk-taker, know that John Sanders, who openly advocates open theism, has written a book entitled, The God Who Risks: A Theology of Providence.6 John Eldredge may not believe what these men believe, but his book will have a prominent place on the bookshelves of many open theists because he promotes, even if out of ignorance or carelessness, their heretical view of God.

Eldredge is not finished yet with his creative but degrading portrait of God. Having re-created God in the image of man by making Him less than omniscient, Eldredge continues humanizing God by making Him needy. You could easily find yourself feeling sorry for God if He is anything like Wild at Heart portrays Him. Consider this quote from page 36:

  • “As a counselor and a friend, and especially as a husband, I’ve been honored to be welcomed into the deep heart of Eve. Often when I am with a woman, I find myself quietly wondering, What is she telling me about God? I know he wants to say something to the world through Eve—what is it? And after years of hearing the heart-cry of women, I am convinced beyond a doubt of this: God wants to be loved. He wants to be a priority to someone. How could we have missed this? From cover to cover, from beginning to end, the cry of God’s heart is, ‘Why won’t you choose me?’ It’s amazing how humble, how vulnerable God is on this point.”

Again Eldredge removes Scripture from its context in order to portray God as needy and affirm what he learned from counseling women. He continues the above statement by writing, ” ‘You will . . . find me, says the Lord, ‘when you seek me with all your heart.’ (Jer. 29:13). In other words, ‘Look for me, pursue me—I want you to pursue me.’ Amazing.”

Amazing indeed, but not for the reasons Eldredge suggests. Jeremiah 29:13 is in the middle of a promise from God to His people—a promise that He will redeem them after seventy years of captivity—a promise that they will seek Him and they will find Him—a promise from the God who knows, declares, and controls the future, even the free choices and actions of people. If there is one thing Jeremiah 29:13 does not contain, it is a plea from a desperate and lonely God who needs people to seek Him, find Him, and love Him. This unbiblical understanding of God does not engender a response of worship as much as pity.

Eldredge goes on to tell the reader (pg. 36) that the reason God often delays in answering prayer is because “he wants to talk to us, and sometimes that’s the only way to get us to stay and talk to him.” If God is this lonely when we are not praying as much as we should, how did He manage to survive throughout all of eternity past without us? Mankind needs God “for in Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). But to say that God needs anything is to contradict what Scripture says— “as if He needed anything, since He gives to all life, breath, and all things.” (Acts 17:25).

Summary

I read the whole book, but 222 pages of humanism, radical Arminianism, open theism, and the bending, stretching, and editing of Scripture was more than enough. There is much more that could and should be exposed regarding John Eldredge’s book, but time, and the reasonable length of a book review convince me to stop.

If I have learned one important thing from reading this book, it is the fact that the wild popularity of a book among the Christian culture of America, even among a large number of pastors, is often an indicator of superficiality and error rather than truth and sound doctrine. By and large, American Christians want treatment for their itching ears, and this book gives a good scratch. I am convinced that not so many years ago, when the senses of Christians were “exercised to discern both good and evil” (Hebrews 5:14), Wild at Heart would not have been published by any Christian publisher, much less read by hundreds of thousands of believers. But our senses have become dull, and for one reason: We have not heeded the warning of Colossians 2:8 in that we are allowing ourselves to be cheated “through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ.”

I know that many will argue that there is much good to be found in Wild at Heart—good that outweighs the bad. For those who feel this way, I have a few questions: If you knew that a glass of pure spring water had one drop of arsenic in it, would you still drink it for the water? Would you give it to a thirsty friend? Shepherds—would you give such water to your sheep?

Charles Spurgeon once said that truth may be distinguished from error by three standards: “by God, by Christ, and by man; that is, the truth which honors God, the truth which glorifies Christ, and the truth which humbles man.”7 Wild at Heart does none of the above. On the contrary, John Eldredge makes man sovereign while portraying God as humble, vulnerable, needy, and limited in knowledge. Based on the above quotation, it seems certain that Spurgeon would not have affirmed this book as truth.

Not only can I not recommend this book, I feel compelled to warn Christians to keep it away from others, especially from the lost and from the immature believer. Books like Wild at Heart—books that humanize God and glorify man, that teach a generation of Christian men already weakened by humanistic philosophy and biblical ignorance to look anywhere other than the pages of the Bible for guidance—have a seductive appeal to the flesh.

  • Error never shows itself in its naked reality, in order not to be discovered. On the contrary, it dresses elegantly, so that the unwary may be led to believe that it is more truthful than truth itself.

    (Irenaeus of Lyons—2nd Century A.D.)


  • [1]Charles Spurgeon, Evening by Evening (Springdale, PA: Whitaker House, 1984), 127.
  • 4 Clark Pinnock, Richard Rice, John Sanders, William Hasker, and David Basinger, The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1994), 103-4.
  • 5 Phil Johnson, Are We Losing the Battle For the Bible? (a message delivered at the annual Shepherd’s Conference at Grace Community Church, Sun Valley, CA, March, 2003)
  • 6 John Sanders, The God Who Risks: A Theology of Providence (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1998).
  • 7 Charles Spurgeon, 2200 Quotations from the Writings of Charles H. Spurgeon (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1988), 211-212.

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