Christless Christianity

"Perhaps no greater example of the American churches captivity can be see than in the success of Joel Osteen. If there is any theology at all, it represents a mix between self-help and self-exaltation. In the less extremes it seems to characterize much of popular religion in America. God is there for you and your happiness. He has some rules for getting what you want, and if you follow them, you can have it. It’s like God as a personal shopper.

There is no condemnation.There is no justification. Instead there is an upbeat moralism that is somewhere in the middle: Do your best, follow the instructions I give you, and God will make your life successful. “Don’t sit back passively,” he warns, “You do your part, and God will do his part.” “Sure we have our faults,” he says, but “the good news is, God loves us anyway.”

Instead of accepting God’s just verdict on our own righteousness and fleeing to Christ for justification, Osteen counsels readers simply to reject guilt and condemnation. Yet it is hard to do that successfully when God’s favor and blessing on my life depend entirely on how well I can put his commands to work. “If you will simply obey his commands, He will change things in your favor.”

That’s all: simply obey his commands. Everything depends on us, but it’s easy. “God is keeping a record of every good deed you’ve ever done,” he says— as if this is good news.

“In your time of need, because of your generosity, God will move heaven and earth to make sure you are taken care of.” It may be Law Lite, but make no mistake about it: behind a smiling evangelicalism that eschews any talk of God’s wrath, there is a determination to make the gospel into law, an announcement of victory to a call to be victorious, Good News to good advice.

The bad news may not be as bad as it used to be, but the Good News is just a softer version of the bad news: Do more. But this time , it’s easy! And if you fail, don’t worry. God just wants you to do your best. He’ll take care of the rest. So who needs Christ?

Exemplifying the moralistic and therapeutic approach to religion, Osteen’s message is also a good example of the inability to mourn in the face of God’s judgment or dance under the liberating news of God’s saving mercy. In other words, all gravity is lost— both the gravity of our problem and of God’s amazing grace. According to this message, we are not helpless sinners— the ungodly— who need a divine rescue.

Rather, we are good people who just need a little instruction and motivation. So while many supporters offer testimonials to his kinder, gentler version of Christianity than the legalistic scolding of their youth, the only real difference is that God’s rules or principles are easier these days and it’s all about happiness here and now, not rescue from God’s wrath by God’s grace.

In its therapeutic milieu, sin is failing to live up to our potential, not falling short of God’s glory. It is “sin” not to believe in ourselves, and the wages of such sins is missing out on our best life now. But it’s still a constant stream of exhortation, demands, and burdens: follow my steps and I guarantee your life will be blessed.

We are swimming in a sea of narcissistic moralism: an easy-listening version of salvation by self-help. This is what we might call the 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.

I have no reason to doubt the sincere motivation to reach non-Christians with a relevant message. My concern, however, is that the way this message comes out actually trivializes the faith at its best and contradicts it at its worst. The televangelist shrugs off such concerns by saying that different people have different “giftings” and his mission is to help people live better.

Christian outreach without a Christian message? One could easily come away from this type of message 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 blessing.

God has set up all of these laws, and now it’s up to us to follow them so we can be blessed. As we lose a sense of God’s gravity, sin loses its reference point. No longer falling short of God’s glory (Rom. 3: 23), sin is now falling short of the glory of the self. Everything is under control quite well without Christ.

No longer an issue of our place in the life to come, it’s just a question of getting the best out of life here and now. The gospel seems to be that you can have a personal relationship with Jesus. Yet given the lack of any serious account of the human predicament before a holy God, it is unclear what this personal relationship might accomplish. Christ nowhere appears in Osteen’s books as a mediator between God and human beings. (John 1:29)

In this context, Jesus becomes whatever you want him to be in your life. If one’s greatest problem is loneliness, the good news is that Jesus is a reliable friend. If the big problem is anxiety, Jesus will calm us down. Jesus is the glue that holds our marriages and families together, gives us a purpose to strive toward, and provides wisdom for daily life. There are half-truths in all of these pleas, but they never really bring hearers face-to-face with their real problem: that they stand naked and ashamed before a holy God and can only be acceptably clothed in his presence by being clothed in Christ’s righteousness.

Besides the fact that Scripture never refers to the gospel as having a personal relationship with Jesus nor defines faith as a decision to ask Jesus to come into our heart, this concept of salvation fails to realize that everyone has a personal relationship with God already: either as a condemned criminal standing before a righteous judge or as a justified coheir with Christ and adopted child of the Father.

“How can I be right with God?” is no longer a question when my happiness rather than God’s holiness is the main issue. Joel Osteen is simply the latest in a long line of self-help evangelists who appeal to the innate American obsession with pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps. Salvation is not a matter of divine rescue from the judgment that is coming on the world but rather a matter of self-improvement in order to have your best life now."

(From Michael Horton's Book, Christless Christianity pg. 68-74)

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