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.”