Joel Osteen and “Itching Ears”

With the evangelical focus once again on Joel Osteen after this Sunday’s 60 Minutes, I received a comment about Joel Osteen from one of my friends. He said that last spring, a high-ranking government official from a prominent Islamic nation mentioned to him that he and his wife watch Osteen regularly on television. He found Osteen to be a “refreshment in a pretty dismal parade of poor television programming” and also an “inspiration.”

Yes, I agree that we have a daily dose of poor TV programs, especially those of televangelist hucksters. (That’s why we don’t subscribe to cable TV.) However, contrary to being an endorsement of Osteen and his brand of prosperity gospel, the above interest in Osteen shown by a Muslim believer is the most damning observation of all. How can a Muslim be comfortable, even be “refreshed” and “inspired” by a Christian sermon? The answer is that Osteen’s sermon is not just sub-Christian, but un-Christian. Michael Horton says Osteen’s gospel is a man-centered heresy because he makes God to be only a “resource for getting our best life now”; that God is some sort of “divine butler” at our service.

Osteen’s gospel is no gospel at all. And when a Christian minister preaches a false gospel, the apostle Paul says he is to be “accursed” (Gal. 1:8, 9). The Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Mormon, or Jehovah’s Witness believer would not find Osteen’s message – of self-esteem, positive thinking, and health and wealth promises – offensive and uncomfortable because there is no Christ in them. But as Jay E. Adams, an authority on Biblical expository preaching, says:

If you preach a sermon that would be acceptable to the member of a Jewish synagogue or to a Unitarian congregation, there is something radically wrong with it. Preaching, when truly Christian, is distinctive. And what makes it distinctive is the all-pervading presence of a saving and sanctifying Christ. Jesus Christ must be at the heart of every sermon you preach” (Preaching with Purpose: A Comprehensive Textbook on Biblical Preaching, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1982, 147).

How do Osteen’s messages measure up against the Christ-centered, redemptive-historical theme of the Bible? Listen to his preaching:

My message is a message of hope that God is a good God, and that no matter what we’ve done, where we’ve been, God has a great plan for our lives… [M]ost people already know what they’re doing wrong. And for me to get in here and just beat ’em down and talk down to ’em, I just don’t think that inspires anybody to rise higher. But I want to motivate.”

In contrast to Osteen’s non-gospel “message of hope,” the Bible’s message is always in three parts: sin, salvation, service. For example, Paul in his letter to the Romans starts out by pointing to man’s sinfulness and God’s holiness (ch. 1-3). Then he explains how God saves those who believe in Christ (ch. 4-11). Finally, he tells believers how they are to be thankful to God for saving them by living holy lives acceptable to God (ch. 12-16). People should never be told that God has “a great plan for our lives” as they are, for if they come into God’s presence in their irreverent and arrrogant filthiness, they will be destroyed by his holy “consuming fire” (Heb. 12:29). They can only “have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus” (Heb. 10:19).

Paul certainly didn’t refrain from giving the Roman, Corinthian and Galatian believers a good talking to. He “beat ’em down and talk down to ’em,” even calling them fools! (1 Cor. 15:36; Gal. 3:1, 3). Paul first talked to them straight in the face how they are reserved for God’s judgment-wrath if their hearts remain “hard and impenitent” (Rom. 2:5). Only afterwards did he “motivate” them – not an Osteen motivation for health and wealth in this world – but to “not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Rom 12:2).

And how can Osteen tell suffering Christians in Darfur, Turkey, Afghanistan, and in many parts of the Middle East, that God has “a great plan for our lives”? How can he preach his prosperity gospel to persecuted, hungry, and thirsty believers outside of the West, “There are exciting things in your future. Your future is filled with marked moments of blessing, increase, promotion. God has already ordained before the foundation of the world, the right people, the right opportunity.”?

Didn’t Jesus himself tell his disciples that until he comes again, we will have tribulation? Didn’t Paul and all the other apostles warn us in all of their epistles about persecution and suffering in this vale of tears?

This non-gospel is only one aspect of Osteen’s false “message of hope.” Another aspect is its dumbed-down, “simple” message. While I agree with Osteen that in preaching, “sometimes you have to keep it simple and not make it so complicated that people don’t understand,” keeping the sermon “simple” is totally different from “dumbing it down” on the assumption that people are stupid or uninterested. This spiritual immaturity is what Paul rebukes in the Corinthians – always on a milk diet, never eating solid food (1 Cor. 3:1, 2; cf. Heb. 5:12, 13). In constrast to Paul, Osteen will always feed his flock with “marked moments of blessing,” afraid and ashamed that they will be threatened and offended by the “foolishness” of the cross (1 Cor. 1:23), which will surely result in a leaner cash cow.

The 16th century Reformers have a doctrine of Scriptural clarity and illumination – things about man’s salvation are clear enough that both the educated and the uneducated will understand them through the light given by the Spirit – so Osteen does not have to dumb down the gospel for people to understand.

Evangelicals will always be spiritual infants if they remain in their Osteenesque diet of self-esteem, positive thinking, and feel-good messages. My fear is that they will remain so, because Paul wrote that in these last days, “people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths” (2 Tim. 4:3-4).

As for ministers who diligently study God’s word so they will be able to declare “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27), Paul encourages you to “always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry” (2 Tim. 4:5).

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