Joel Osteen preaching at Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas. Photo Credit:: Justin Brackett (CC-By-SA 4.0)

Michael Horton in the third chapter of Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church focuses on the Word of Faith movement (or prosperity gospel). In particular, he 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 be 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.”

“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,” he wrote.

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?

Note: I originally wrote this in 2009, but as we’ve seen over the last four years, there are many who continue to flirt with the prosperity gospel, especially as they became more prominent due to their connection with former President Donald Trump.

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