Thursday, February 9, 2012

Joel Osteen's Gospel

In Wednesday's Christianity Today, Joel Osteen defended his theology against a theology that pushes people down and reveals "a God that you can’t measure up to." I described Osteen's doctrine of anthropology and theology in some detail yesterday. In this entry, I'd like to focus on Osteen's view of the gospel in particular as well as the danger of such a view in the contemporary church.

As stated in yesterday's entry, Osteen views the human condition radically different than what is defined in Scripture. Osteen's view of the human condition is to be made much of by God (man-centered). Osteen contends that God smiles down on us and has "a great plan" for people. This "great plan" is Osteen's gospel.

Osteen's Doctrine of Sin vs Biblical Doctrine of Sin
"You can overcome mistakes," says Osteen. Sin is viewed as a mistake in Osteen's view. Read this from
1) an error in action, calculation, opinion, or judgment caused by poor reasoning, carelessness, insufficient knowledge, etc. 
2) a misunderstanding or misconception.
 So, Osteen's doctrine of sin is founded upon a lofty view of man and an anemic view of God. Man makes mistakes and God keeps on smiling and looking for the best for humanity. In other words, sin is not a breaking of God's Law deserving death as described in the Bible (Romans 6:23), but rather a mistake that people have the power to bounce back from. Osteen views people as those making errors or have a misunderstanding with God. This goes to why Osteen preaches "positives" rather than "fire and brimstone sermons," as he reports.
The biblical doctrine of sin is nicely defined by Wayne Grudem: "Sin is any failure to conform to the moral law of God in act, attitude, or nature." Sin is much more than mere action, such as making a mistake. Sin is who we are by nature and in our attitude toward God. The Bible depicts sin as totally corrupting in our thoughts and desires (Romans 7:18, Titus 1:15). The sinner is left utterly helpless to overcome sin, unlike in Osteen's view that "you can overcome mistakes." Because of humanity's sinful nature, all people are dead in their trespasses and sin (Ephesians 2:1). People are not sick in need of medicine or people who make mistakes that need help overcoming errors. The Bible says sinners are dead and utterly helpless to change. There is a lake of "fire and brimstone" for sinners (Revelation 21:8).

Osteen's Doctrine of Atonement vs Biblical Doctrine of Atonement
"You can overcome mistakes." Note, Osteen says you can overcome. Humanity has the power within themselves to invoke this change and "overcome mistakes." Also notice Osteen's absence of a human need for salvation and atonement. There is a total absence of any mentioning of Jesus, atonement, or sacrifice in a Christian magazine article about the gospel. That is not Christianity Today's fault; that is the fault of Osteen. Osteen's gospel has no need for atonement, nor Christ for that matter. If humans possess the power within themselves to change and God smiles down on us regardless, then we have no need of atonement for our "mistakes." So, in Osteen's view, people are not dead sinners in need of a Savior and perfect substitutionary atonement; rather, people are those with a misunderstanding of God and needs to hear positive messages about healthy relationships and healthy living. Osteen claims that such positive messages that avoid "fire and brimstone" are what "draws people to God." Thus, positive messages invites people who have the power to change themselves to draw themselves to God.
The Bible views man as sinners dead in their trespasses, utterly helpless, and deserving of eternal punishment by a just judgment from a perfectly holy God. People do not possess the power to reconcile themselves to God. This is the remarkable grace that is found in the true, biblical gospel. God initiates the change in position of the sinner (propitiation) and God Himself provides the power that sinners do not have to reconcile Christ's church to Himself (II Corinthians 5:19). When Christians preach the biblical gospel "be reconciled to God," we are preaching the God "made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God" (II Corinthians 5:20-21). In order for sinners to be reconciled to God, God Himself must draw the dead sinner to Himself through Christ who took our sin to the cross and in exchange we receive His perfect righteousness.

Osteen's Gospel Reward vs Biblical Gospel Reward
In Osteen's view of the gospel, God is reduced to a cosmic cheerleader "smiling down" on people that make mistakes, and God is the one rooting us on to bounce back from those mistakes and have a good life. Osteen admits his gospel is focused on prosperity, but "prosperity to me is more than money. It’s health and good relationships … peace of mind." So, God does want us to be prosperous, and prosperous in ways beyond our finances. Osteen summarizes that gospel reward out of God's desire for people to be happy and healthy: "God wants you to be blessed and have good relationships and be healthy." Osteen views the gospel reward as God meeting our felt needs, both emotionally and physically.

The Bible tells us that the gospel reward is God. The biblical gospel reward is salvation for our souls from the deserved punishment of our sin through Christ's atoning sacrifice and to, as the Westminster Confession puts it, "fully enjoy Him forever." The reward Christ gives us reconciliation to God and to find our full satisfaction in Him above all of His gifts. As John Piper puts it in God is the Gospel,
Jesus must be the supreme treasure of our lives, if we are true disciples of Jesus. Jesus died for us and rose again to make it possible for us to see him and savor him above all things with everlasting joy. This is the great good the gospel is meant to accomplish. (144)
Osteen challenges the biblical view of the gospel and views those preaching the biblical gospel reward as "some people want you to think you’re supposed to be poor and broke and suffer to show that you’re a Christian, and that’s just not the way I read the Scripture." To which Scripture are you referring to, Mr. Osteen? Remember this one, where Jesus says, "Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great" (Matthew 5:12a)? So Jesus' great reward in heaven brings rejoicing and joy. To what was He referring to? "Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me...for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you" (Matthew 5:11-12). Of course, Osteen's way of reading Scripture is in eisegesis. Osteen wants a God that meets his felt needs and preaches this way and does this by informing the Word of God what the gospel is. The Word of God is meant to inform Osteen and us what the gospel is (exegesis). Notice that Osteen views a gospel that offers no other gift but God as "you're supposed to be poor and broke and suffer." Osteen only accepts a God that gives you money and comfort. If money and comfort were stripped away in Osteen's gospel reward, you have nothing. Osteen views himself making God good by transforming God into an earthly gift-giver and not Himself. A gospel that gives God as the reward is not a good God, in this view. I see Christ as the Joy above all joys, Gift above all gifts, and long to see Him return for His church. I grieve that Osteen views this reward as unsatisfactory.

Osteen's Gospel and Your Church
Let's face it; it is easy to pick on Joel Osteen. He is over-the-top and is rather ineffective when questioned by the media. It is easy for most to point our Osteen's gospel as false, or those like him. For example, you could point at Joyce Meyer's speaking with all the profundity of fortune cookies at your local Chinese take-out. Perhaps you can easily ignore the likes of historical prosperity gospel preachers like Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, Kenneth Copeland, or Robert Shuller and his Crystal Cathedral. You may only be able to shew away Osteen's gospel because of his over-the-top church of 40,000. However, could you recognize a false gospel in a church of 40? How about in a book on a shelf at your local Christian bookstore? How does your pastor express the gospel from the pulpit?
It is my hope that I have clarified that Osteen's gospel is no gospel at all and is radically oppositional to the Bible. However, I am blogging for teaching reasons. To leave you here would leave you with the usual "you should evangelize" ending to a typical Sunday sermon. As Don Whitney puts it, "It does little good to encourage people to discipline themselves to evangelize if they do not know the gospel." You should know the gospel and hear the gospel from your pastor. You should be able to discern whether or not what you are hearing from the pulpit or reading in a book is the biblical gospel or another false gospel. The implications could be deadly (Matthew 7:15-20).

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