How Not To ‘Become A Better You’

The gospel of Jesus Christ is about acknowledging that we are selfish sinners, heading for a lost eternity, in need of redemption by the work of Christ on the cross. And Christian discipleship is about denying yourself, taking up your cross, and following Jesus. That is clear as day by any reading of the New Testament.

Yet you would not necessarily know any of this if you went by many of today’s high-profile television preachers. They will talk a lot about how you can be a better you, have a better self-image, make a lot of money, be successful in everything you do, and even lose weight for Jesus. But you will hear very little, if any, of the biblical gospel.

Sadly the pastor of America’s biggest church week in and week out gives us this sort of feel-good message which totally appeals to self, while barely quoting Scripture or sharing the hard words of Jesus. Joel Osteen simply gives prosperous, bloated, middle-class Americans just what they want to hear.

In his best-selling books and his weekly sermons, the message is always the same: it is all about me, me, me. It is a completely self-centred gospel which makes no demands, offers no challenges, utters no hard words, and presents no cross.

And when he is in a public place, being interviewed about the very heart of the gospel, we get more of the same. With millions of listeners, these would be golden opportunities to present a clear gospel message. Yet even then he refuses to do so. The classic example of this is his June 2005 interview with Larry King. Here is part of it:

LARRY KING: Is it hard to lead a Christian life?

JOEL OSTEEN: I don’t think it’s that hard. To me it’s fun. We have joy and happiness. Our family — I don’t feel like that at all. I’m not trying to follow a set of rules and stuff. I’m just living my life.

LARRY KING: But you have rules, don’t you?

JOEL OSTEEN: We do have rules. But the main rule to me is to honor God with your life. To live a life of integrity. Not be selfish. You know, help others. But that’s really the essence of the Christian faith.

LARRY KING: What if you’re Jewish or Muslim, you don’t accept Christ at all?

JOEL OSTEEN: You know, I’m very careful about saying who would and wouldn’t go to heaven. I don’t know …

LARRY KING: If you believe you have to believe in Christ? They’re wrong, aren’t they?

JOEL OSTEEN: Well, I don’t know if I believe they’re wrong. I believe here’s what the Bible teaches and from the Christian faith this is what I believe. But I just think that only God can judge a person’s heart. I spent a lot of time in India with my father. I don’t know all about their religion. But I know they love God. And I don’t know. I’ve seen their sincerity. So I don’t know. I know for me, and what the Bible teaches, I want to have a relationship with Jesus.

That is a lot of I don’t knows. Sure, he is right in the sense that at the end of the day only God knows our hearts perfectly, thus only he can finally and properly judge those who are truly his. But that is not the issue here. The issue is this: what is the gospel, and what must I do to be saved? That was what King was trying to get out of Osteen. Yet he refused to give a simple, straight-forward answer.

He delighted in doubt and obfuscation. It is a good thing Jesus and the disciples were not so wimpy and uncertain. There are dozens of crystal clear affirmations and assurances about these very questions which they offer us. For example:

-Jesus could say this with absolute certainty and confidence: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6-7).

-Peter could say this with absolute certainty and confidence: “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).

-Paul could say this with absolute certainty and confidence: “For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5).

-John could say this with absolute certainty and confidence: “And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life” (1 John 5:11-12).

Yet this pastor cannot and will not make such certain and unambiguous pronouncements. All he can say over and over again is “I don’t know”. Imagine if Paul replied this way when asked by the Philippian jailor in Acts 16:30, “What must I do to be saved?” Do we find Paul throwing up his hands and saying “I don’t know”?

But if your main aim is to please men, not to rock the boat, and offer the masses what they want to hear, then you will not wade into such controversial theological territory. And that seems to be what Osteen is all about. It is not hard to create the most-attended church in America if you offer them exactly what they want to hear – as opposed to what they need to hear.

Thus the gospel is not clearly taught – and neither are the important moral issues of the day. Consider another appearance by Osteen on CNN, this time much more recently. When pressed about the issue of homosexuality, all he could say in response was this:

“Well, Soledad, I don’t necessarily focus on that…. I think part of my, if you want to call it success, I’ve stayed in my lane and my lane is lifting people’s spirits and there are issues that good, Bible-believing people see on both sides of the fence.”

When pressed again he said, “First of all, in my services, I don’t cover all those issues that we talk about here.” And later he responded to another question with these words “And I don’t understand all those issues and so, you know, I try to stick to the issues that I do understand. I know this: I am for everybody. I’m not for pushing people down.”

Al Mohler rightly comments, “Viewers of CNN saw a display of confusion, evasion, and equivocation coming from one presented as a Christian pastor. What they were really seeing is the total theological bankruptcy of the word of faith movement and the gospel of positive thinking. Osteen cannot, or at least will not, speak even the simplest word of biblical conviction. He states his intention to stay in his ‘lane’ of glib affirmation.

“Affirmation is important, and humans crave it. But affirmation as a sinner is the worst possible form of pastoral malpractice. Christianity is based on the truth that sinners need a Savior, not merely a coach or a therapist. Joel Osteen’s appearance on CNN Thursday revealed little that is new. It was Osteen as always — evasive and confused, but constantly smiling. This is now his calculated and well-practiced approach. He offered no word of the gospel, and no reference to Jesus Christ, but he was introduced as ‘one of the most recognizable faces of Christianity in America today.’ There, for all to see, was Joel Osteen … staying in his lane.”

So whether it is homosexuality, or the truth claims of Christ, you will not get a straight answer out of Osteen. You will instead get more smiles and more I don’t knows. That will never help anyone to “become a better you”. Oh, and Australia’s biggest church conference will soon proudly bring him here as its keynote speaker. No wonder we are losing left, right and centre.

As Gary Gilley writes, “Osteen’s message is exactly what unbelievers and undiscerning Christians want to believe and they are thrilled to have someone who claims to be a reliable spokesperson for God agree with them. This would account for Osteen’s incredible success, but it does not account for, or excuse, the inconceivable gullibility and immaturity of professing Christians.”

[1383 words]

18 Replies to “How Not To ‘Become A Better You’”

  1. I’m so pleased to see this post, Bill. You’ve said everything I’ve always only thought to myself! And in such a logical way too.

    Christians, if truly saved, would be dead to themselves and the world. But what Osteen teaches is about how to be a happy PERSON, how to have a good LIFE in THIS WORLD. What a false teacher he is! He should know that we Christians should not make this world our home.

    So thank you, Bill. I’m going to share this post wherever possible. Please keep writing! Your ministry is an amazingly helpful one that really reaches out to this generation.

    Binny Hendrix

  2. Clearly Osteen does not fear God. Richard Dawkins and probably most dictators have a lot less to fear than this man when they meet God.

    Matthew Pearson

  3. I think Joel Osteen is coming to a Hillsong event. Correct me if I am wrong.
    Wayne Pelling

  4. This is so needed Bill to wake the sleeping church up! I’m amazed Hillsong is having Joel Oseen for their conference but then there are at least 2 other apostates speaking as well one of them being T D Jakes, I believe he got Joel Osteen started. The theme is revival. How can you have revival when the the truth is not spoken and when the issues of the day are not addressed?

    Liz Gee

  5. Whatever else may be said about him, if you need encouragement go to Joel. That’s what he does best. Also TV talk people are skilful at cornering people into saying things they later regret. However in similar situations it seems Jesus didn’t feel obliged to answer every question. He almost ignored people unless they were sincere genuine enquirers. “Tell us plainly” they said. But he answered them not a word. To others he replied ” …first you tell me..” and later “neither will I tell you”. The way some journalism is conducted today I think we could learn some smarts from Jesus & maybe even Bob Dylan circa 1966. For instance, what might have happened if Joel had said ‘OK Larry but first tell me what you think about this’.
    Terry Darmody

  6. Thanks Terry

    But of course what people need is biblical encouragement, not New Age encouragement. As I demonstrated elsewhere, Osteen gives us what any New Age huckster offers – and that is not at all helpful. It is in fact dangerous and misleading. See here:

    And that is all he does. He never challenges, never rebukes, never speaks of the cross, never talks repentance, never mentions wrath to come, never exposes sin, never even talks about sin. He utterly fails to do what any Christian preacher is called to do: “proclaim the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27).

    As to silence, I really don’t think blowing a golden opportunity to share the gospel with millions of TV listeners can be compared to the occasional silence of Jesus to hostile opponents. Apples and oranges it seems to me.

    Osteen is simply one of the greatest men-pleasers we have. He never wants to rock the boat, never wants to turn anyone off, never wants to cause any division, never wants to offend anyone, and never wants to offer a hard word – all the exact opposite of what Jesus did.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  7. Osteen sounds like a biblical wimp, in fact I would label him a Life Coach, if anything – definitely not a Pastor! I think I’d rather listen to Bill speak! When are you heading to Perth for some speech giving, Bill?
    Matthew Patchon

  8. If only prosperity teachers such as Osteen focused on the believer’s eternal prosperity (storing riches up in heaven), rather than just being comfortable in the here an now.

    80 years of comfort pales in insignificance to an eternity of being rewarded by Christ.

    Mark Buscumb

  9. Bill, I love your contributions to the Church world of Truth and wisdom. May it continue. just a comment on Joel Osteen’s answer to the great question of Christ being the only way to heaven and God. This question has troubled me much over the years and I find a straight evangelical ‘Yes’ being thwart with other theological contradictions (God’s justice toward the ignorant being the main one). I have discovered a scripture I believe answers the dilemma. In Acts 10:34-35 we observe Peter’s response to Cornelius’ faith toward God (prior to his salvation). Peter exclaims: Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons: But in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him. I see this throws light on this question – that if a person fears God and lives righteously, they are accepted by God. Whether this includes heaven I’m not sure but it certainly throws light on the stated before God of such people who (though maybe deceived) have yet to come to Christ as Lord. Just a thought!
    Richard Warner

  10. Thanks Richard

    Yes that is one important verse to throw into the mix – but only one of many of course. We must consider the totality of God’s revelation on this matter. Simply consider Saul the non-Christian. He was as God-fearing and righteous as you can get. Yet Paul the Christian utterly renounces his past life, saying all that was mere dung. So while it is true that the genuine seeker is one whom God looks upon favourably, simply having a form of righteousness in and of itself does not cut it. But God does look for those who are humble, who seek him, and so on. His grace is very great, but we also know that salvation comes only through Christ, as the verses I cite in my article clearly attest. But thanks again for your thoughts.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  11. Off topic – I liked this article about the Slow Church Movement.

    Nina Blondel

  12. I think we need to be very careful knocking another man’s servant. I often hear “Joel doesn’t teach any deep doctrine”. Well, he doesn’t. He is an encourager. That is his forte. For him to say he “stays in his lane” is probably quite genuine. In any army, there are always areas of specialisation – some cast out demons, some feed the poor, some counsel the wounded, some are worship specialists. It is sad that Joel has extended his “I don’t want to ruffle any feathers” philosophy so far that he can’t even give a straight answer re salvation. I think he has a valid place in God’s scheme of things. I find his sermons very uplifting, but you don’t go there for any deep teaching or theology of answers to deep mysterys of life. But I have other sources for that.
    Ian Brearley

  13. Thanks Ian, although I am not quite with you here. The New Testament is full of commands for God’s people to assess and correct faulty Christian conduct or faulty Christian teaching. Failure to do so is a failure to love. Just imagine if Paul failed to publically rebuke the erring Galatians, or Judaisers, or Peter. Imagine if he said, “Well, I don’t know – that is not my forte – I am just into encouragement”. The church might not even be here today if that happened.

    Moreover, we are nowhere told in the NT to just run with our “forte” or “specialisation”. We are however clearly told to proclaim the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27). That is something all ministers of the gospel must do. If you refuse to mention the cross, repentance, sin, judgment and the holiness of God, then you are not merely running with an encouragement “forte” or “specialisation” – you are preaching a false gospel, and leading millions to a lost eternity. In that sense he has blood on his hands, and we dare not try to justify that sort of situation.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  14. While a heart may be turned towards God and still be in ignorance, when it is however confronted with Jesus presenting Himself as “the way the truth and the Life” and it should draw back from accepting Him as Lord after having searched for the truth then that choice is no longer made in ignorance, for ignorance and doubt cannot remain a hiding place from making inevitable choices or else they turn into mere excuses. “He who is of the truth will hear my voice” said Jesus, so if people do not hear His voice when it is clearly within their hearing they have at that point stopped following after the truth.
    If Joel is unable to clearly state what Jesus says about a subject regardless if that is his own opinion or not he is not fit to even encourage anyone, for if encouragement is not after the truth, it is dangerous and he is in danger of that double condemnation James talks about regarding teachers, for surely he is teaching people things about the nature of God and His kingdom.

    Also, if we have joy, it is because the blood of Christ has bought our salvation and if we are improving ourselves, it is for the glory of God, so neither His word nor his name should be blasphemed because of our behaviour.
    Many blessings
    Ursula Bennett

  15. The interview with Larry King saddens me to the core. Thank you for quickly quoting Jesus, Peter, Paul and John.

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