Michael Horton in chapter 3 of Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church focuses on the Word of Faith movement (or prosperity gospel), and in particular looks at the person who has embodied it successfully, Joel Osteen of Lakewood Church in Houston, TX.  Osteen never uses the words, “sin” or “sinners” (by his own admission), and Horton points out he trivializes sin in a couple of ways.  This can been seen not only in Osteen, but other authors whose books currently grace the shelves of Christian bookstores.

  • Shifts sin’s focus from an offense against God with eternal consequences to an offense against oneself that keeps us from health, wealth, and happiness right now.
  • Reduce sin to negative behaviors and actions that can be overcome easily by instruction, rather than sin being a condition from which we are helpless to free ourselves.

In Osteen’s eyes (and many others), sin is not how the Bible describes it, as falling short of the glory of God, (Romans 3:23).  Rather sin mistakes are falling short of our own potential.  Oops my bad.  This leads to a false gospel of “God Loves You Anyway.”  He explains:

There’s no need for Christ as our mediator since God is never quite as holy and we are never quite as morally perverse as to require nothing short of Christ’s death in our place.  God is our buddy.  He just wants us to be happy, and the Bible gives us the road map.

Horton says that one could come away from this message (that is pretty well steeped in American optimism) concluding that “we are not saved by Christ’s objective work for us but by our subjective personal relationship with Jesus through a series of works that we perform to secure his favor and blessings.”

It’s like, God gave us the Bible, and in it are His laws and it is up to us to follow them so we can be blessed.  This is a reflection, Horton says, of a broader assumption among evangelicals that we are “saved by making a decision to have a personal relationship with God.”  Essentially the Gospel = a personal relationship with Jesus.

Yet if we lack a serious account of the human predicament before a holy God… what will this personal relationship accomplish?

Update: Welcome readers from The Point!

  1. This is the reason I have contemplated leaving the evangelical church altogether! Joel Olsteen is the most VISIBLE culprit, but this horrible theology is prevalent in the leadership of the protestant churches. It is the reason I believe we are seeing a revival within Catholicism, and a moving of fundamental evangelicals to the catholic teaching. Does anyone remember AMAZING GRACE? This is how it is sung at LAKEWOOD:

    Mediocre Grace, How bland the sound
    that slightly corrected a misguided person like me!
    I once was lost, got a Garmin,
    Didn't see well, got laser surgery!

  2. While I agree with your assertion about Olsteen and his heretical teachings on holiness and sin (or the lack thereof), I fail to see how you're equating this to the “Word of Faith” and the “Prosperity Gospel” I've blogged before about my hesitance to defend the true “Prosperity Gospel” because it typically lumps me in with people who I totally disagree with…but here you're not even making a point that indicts either message with the claims you're making. There's some very real, very Biblical, truths to be learned from the prosperity Gospel, and even to some extent the “Word of Faith” teachings…I think what you're wanting to criticize is the “Seeker Sensitive” movement…of which Rick Warren and Joel Osteen are both fathers and proponents of. There is your false Gospel…that winks at sin, and allows all manner of perversions so that no one feels “uncomfortable.” Biblical views on God's idea of prosperity are ideas that the church has shied away from for too long, because of fear of being labeled a fruit-cake.

  3. Where to start with Osteen? Truly…I cannot believe that there was not a massive backlash from the church as a whole after his pathetic interview with Larry King where his favorite expression during the whole thing was “I don't know, Larry.” Scary.

    Paul said it best:

    “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths.” –2 Timothy 4:3-4.

    I'm not convinced that Catholicism is the answer to Osteen, however. The church needs to get back to teaching what the Bible says. It seems like such an obvious statement but when you have someone as a senior pastor of the largest church in America repeatedly saying “I don't know” to Larry King, it scares me.

    Joel: if you don't know the answers to the basic questions Larry King was asking you, consult the Bible you supposedly say you believe in.

  4. I think you're on the money about Osteen. I go to an evangelical Bible church, where Jesus Christ as salvation is preached every single Sunday, and Jesus Christ as need-meeter to the needy is lived out in our communities. It is possible to relevant and reverent at the same time, but we need to be prayerful and ready to take a stand when needed. The only other thing I've been convicted of lately is that it begins with me. I am the evangelist to my children, my neighbors, my community and my writing audience. I pray to handle His Word accurately and truthfully, yet in love. I believe as our country continues to spiral downward in this post-Culture, more people will step forward to speak His truth clearly and boldly. So let's not give up!

    Thanks for being bold enough to publish this!

  5. I think that you will get a lot of comments Shane.. Osteen brings people out of the woodwork 🙂

    I think that the reason he is so successful is because he speaks in such a winsome way. He projects a genuine compassion for, and a belief in, people. His messages are very encouraging and he has a way of connecting with people's hearts. I think that he says many times in each message that God loves us.. people need to hear that message.

    I agree with a lot of what you wrote (and I don't watch him much anymore) but I think that it might be a good idea to find out what is good about his message instead of simply dismissing him as a caricature of the health and wealth folks.

    Have you ever watched him and listened to a sermon or two? I wonder if most of his critics have ever taken the time to evaluate him first hand? Not saying you need to just suggesting.


  6. Here's a little irony for you. As I read the article in my reader, the Google ad at the bottom of the entry was for nothing other than to “watch Joel Osteen and Lakewood Church free online.”

  7. Well, I'd say Catholicism has it's own issues, but I know that mainstream evangelicalism has problems. I'm encouraged by the neo-Reformed movement that I see within evangelicalism, which I would place myself in that camp.

    I know not every church is embracing this. There are still many who are faithful to the gospel.

  8. There are evangelicals that I would disagree with, but that doesn't mean they aren't part of my camp.

    I think by and large, the prosperity, word of faith, or “name it and claim it” gospel is simply not biblical. Jesus talks much about persecution, suffering, etc. for his name. What do you say to the faithful in the global south who are being persecuted. That God isn't blessing you? That you don't have enough faith? That you aren't living your best life now?

    Read Matthew 5 – the beatitudes, none of that is talking about physical blessing. Actually Jesus said that we are blessed if we are persecuted on the count of His name!

    I can see at least you and I agree with the problem of winking (or just overlooking sin) and yes it isn't just Olsteen who promotes this. We'll have to disagree on how we define prosperity.

  9. That interview with Larry King was very frightening. The Bible is very clear on the matters being discussed. He had the opportunity to make a bold declaration for the Gospel and was wishy washy instead.

  10. I have listened to him a couple of times and perused Your Best Life Now. He is a nice guy. He is compassionate. Not saying that he's not.

    He's just dead wrong theologically.

  11. For anyone that did not see the piece that 60 minutes did on Joel Osteen, with commentary from Michael Horton, here are the links. It is interesting.

    Part One

    Part Two

    Hopefully the links work. Otherwise, you can look it up in youtube.

  12. Colossians 2:23 These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.

    Which is what Christ bled for in the first place!

  13. I know it's wrong on many religious and legal levels, but whenever I see Osteen's plastered-on smile, I really want to punch him.

    I know some of the believers in Uganda and the missionaries who reached them. Not one of these people is ever going to be rich, and some of those missionaries could be making a lot more if they chose to “live [their] best life now.”

    For my own part, I'm hoping to live my best life in Eternity.

  14. I remember listening to John Piper talk about the prosperity gospel saying that it “elevates the gifts above the Giver.” Very true, and very much idolatry.

  15. He was pretty famous for his self-help seminars in the late eighties/nineties.

    From Wikipedia: Tony Robbins…is an American self-help writer and professional speaker for over 30 years. He became well known through his infomercials and bestselling self-help books, Unlimited Power: The New Science Of Personal Achievement and Awaken The Giant Within.

    He was “banana hands” in the movie Shallow Hal.

  16. I have been a Houstonian since 1980, and would often see Joel's late father, John Osteen, preaching on local sunday morning television. (sometimes it seems like the sons of TV evangelists can't get regular jobs. So many of them go into the the family business) Anyway, “joelsteen” has all the sincerity of one of those guys pushing the latest “get rich quick” scheme on late night cable. How anyone can fall for his act is beyond me.

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