“A Tattered Vestige of a Formerly Robust Faith”
Recently I found an evangelistic appeal that closed a book by a well-known American pulpiteer. He always, according to his nomenclature, wants to “provide the audience an opportunity to make Jesus the Lord of their lives,” and, as in his spoken medium, suggested the need of his reader and a prayer as a fitting response to his message.
“Are you at peace with God? A void exists in every person’s heart that only God can fill. I’m not talking about joining a church or finding religion. I’m talking about finding life and peace and happiness.” Having established the need, hopefully, this would spark a desire for a corresponding solution. He continued. “Would you pray with me today? Just say, ‘Lord Jesus, I repent of my sins. I ask you to come into my heart. I make you my Lord and Savior.” Very similarly, on the last page of another book, the writer-preacher stated, “I believe there is a void in every person that only a relationship with God can fill,” and after similar explanatory language encouraged his readers to pray, “Jesus, I believe You died for me and rose from the dead, so now I want to live for you. I am turning away from my sins and placing my trust in you. I acknowledge You as my Savior and Lord, and I’m asking You to guide my life from now on.”
Perhaps with a nuance here and there, this kind of appeal rests right at the center of the standard perceptions of what is involved in repentance and faith. Repentance consists of saying the words “I repent.” Faith consists of an invitation to Jesus to come into one’s heart, and sincerity in the process is sealed by the supplicant making Jesus “my Lord and Savior.” So confident of the saving efficacy of such a decisional transaction is the preacher, that he continued, “Friend, if you prayed that simple prayer, I believe you have been ‘born again.’ I encourage you to attend a good, Bible-based church and keep God in first place in you life.” The new birth constitutes God’s response to our act of repentance and faith.
All the elements that reflect the revivalist evangelism of the twentieth-century are present, with the doctrinal assumptions that support this self-generated act of union with Christ. What is remarkable in this is the rampant confidence in a verbal formula void of commensurate corresponding substance. This appeal is the last page of a book by Joel Osteen entitled, You Can, You Will: 8 Undeniable Qualities of a Winner. The second comes from his Break Out: 5 Keys to go Beyond Your Barriers and Live and Extraordinary Life. Osteen’s connection with the flow of evangelicalism resides in his confidence that his ministry has the full approval of Billy Graham. When Osteen visited Graham a few months before the death of Ruth Graham, he asked him for advice. Graham, responded, “I don’t know of anything I would tell you, Joel, except keep doing what you’re doing.” Graham, according to Osteen’s recollection of the event, continued, “Don’t let people change you; stay true to what God has called you to do.” (Billy Graham & Me, 268)
Osteen’s evangelistic prayer formula could pass for that of Graham’s, but his doctrinal content is far from Graham’s. I do not fear exaggeration when I write these words: Absolutely nothing in either book gives warrant for such a designated prayer—even as unburdened by theological direction such proposed language may be—and nothing in the content of Osteen’s preaching has anything at all to do with sin or repentance. I summarize its most relevant elements of appeal in You Can, You Will.
Savior is mentioned once in a hazily oblique context. In reminding his readers to avoid parasitic, dependent people (“God did not call you to be unhappy. He does not want you to waste your life to keep someone else happy.” 40f), he advised, “You are not the savior of the world. We already have a Savior” (32). Otherwise, he presents Jesus as an exemplar of true service to others who bolsters our confidence when we need to look on the bright side of things. When his disciples seemed puzzled that Jesus was not hungry as he sat at the well in Samaria having talked with a woman whom he told “about her future and gave her a new beginning,” Jesus explained, “I get fed by doing what God wants me to do. I get nourished when I help people. My food, strength, peace, joy, and satisfaction come when I serve others” (136). Those are the most Christ-centered words in the book.
Further to illustrate the joy of service, Osteen assured his readers that those that serve unapplauded here will receive applause in heaven. “The Scripture says,” so Osteen reported, “when Peter went to heaven, Jesus stood up to welcome him.” Well, let’s cut some slack for the encourager and suppose he meant to write “Steven.” His point, however, is that when unsung heroes arrive in heaven, sometimes Jesus says, “You know what? This one deserves a standing ovation” (145). Christ also makes his appearance when Osteen needs some mantra of encouragement to evoke positive feelings. Three times he quoted, “I can do all things through Christ” (40, 83, 87). It is used almost as a throw-away line in a Saturday Night Live spoof. “All through the day you should be focused on the positive: ‘Something good is going to happen to me. I’m strong, healthy, talented, disciplined. I’m fun to be around. My children will be mighty in the land. I can do all things through Christ. I will pass this chemistry test. I will meet the right person. I will overcome this challenge. My best days are still out in front of me” (83).
Osteen ends most chapters with a declaration that God will give his readers success if they pursue each respective trait of a winner. In speaking of keeping a vision, he said, “Every time you see your vision, you’re moving toward it. Thank God that it’s on the way. If you’ll do this God will supersize what you’re dreaming about. . . . I believe and declare that every dream, every promise, every goal God puts in your heart, He will bring to pass” (17, 18). Discernment concerning the biblical doctrine of the subtle and corrosive nature of the desires of a fallen heart, the deceitful residual forces of indwelling sin, and the power of worldliness are not a part of the instruction. In the chapter, “Run Your Race,” having given the advice, “Understand this: Your first priority is to keep yourself happy,” he encouraged another mantra, “This is going to be a great day. I’m strong in the Lord. I’ve got the favor of God. I can do all things through Christ. Something good is going to happen to me” (40). Calling for winners to “Expect Great Things,” (William Carey would not recognize this list of expectations), Osteen advised, “Draw a line in the sand and say, ‘That’s it. I’m done with low expectations, I’m not settling for mediocrity. I expect favor, increase, and promotions. I expect blessings to chase me down. I expect this year to be my best year so far” (65). A positive mind-set is of great value, wrote Osteen, to the person that expects God to bless him with health and real breakthroughs in career. “Start off your day in faith,” Osteen urged; “If you develop this positive mind-set you’ll not only be happier, healthier, and stronger, but also, I believe and declare, you will accomplish more than you ever imagined. You will overcome obstacles that looked impossible, and you will become everything God has created you to be. You can, you will!” (89). Evidently faith is a positive mind-set that one will be amazingly successful in his or her career. Visions of getting jet planes as a gift, buying an opulent hotel chain, purchasing a massive sports complex in Houston, and becoming a billionaire illustrate the power of faith.
Real winners also pursue excellence. With many examples of how to achieve excellence, spiced with personal anecdotes and the example of Daniel, Osteen assured his reader, “If you’ll have this spirit of excellence, God will breathe in your direction and cause you to stand out. You’ll look up and be more creative, more skilled, more talented, and wise with more ideas. I believe and declare that like Daniel, you will outperform, you will outclass, and you will outshine, and God will promote you and set you in a place of honor. You can, you will” (108). To the sixth admonition to keep growing, Osteen added this declaration, “I believe and declare God is about to thrust you into the fullness of your destiny. He will open doors that no man can shut. You will go further than you could imagine and become the winner He’s created you to be” (127). What greater example could we find of what it means to take the Lord’s name in vain?
The chapter on “Serve Others” has an admonition that runs counter to the entire thrust of all the other chapters. Many people are unhappy, he observed, “because they are focused only on themselves. It’s all about ‘my dreams, my goals, and my problems.’ That self-centered focus will limit you” (131). Probably so, but every other point of motivation has been caressing and embracing self-focus. In the chapter preceding he had said, “It’s fine to help people in need, but don’t spend all your time with them. You need talented and smart people in your life; winners who are farther along than you and can inspire you and challenge you to rise higher” (126). He ended the chapter on service with the declaration, “I believe and declare because you’re a giver, you will come in to your reward. You will come in to health, strength, opportunity, promotion, and breakthroughs. You will come into new levels of God’s goodness” (146).
In Break Out!, Osteen gave a typical display of his exegetical prowess in using the stories of Joshua’s prayer and Elisha’s request of Elijah to commend God-sized, uncommon faith. In each application he emphasized his contention that each person can say to God with confidence of divine approval and performance, “Let me have twice the influence, twice the wisdom, twice the favor, twice the income” of those that preceded me (136, 139). The eighth mark of a winner is the ability to stay passionate. Lose the blahs, regain your enthusiasm; know that the image of God in you is intended to give you zeal for success, for promotion, for health, for successful relationships. Like the Ephesian church in Revelation, you may have left your first love but you have not lost it. You can regain that original passion for success: “Get back your passion, . . .You can set new levels for your family . . . You have the seeds of greatness on the inside. . . . Winning is in your DNA. The most high God breathed His life into you. You’ve got what it takes. This is your time. This is your moment. Shake off doubts, shake off fear and insecurity, and get ready for favor, get ready for increase, get ready for the fullness of your destiny. You can, you will!” (You Can, 168f).
The page of text following this triumph of confident assertion, innocent of any hint of original sin or final dependence on God, gives the evangelistic invitation. True to the impression I have received from the one sermon and one interview I heard, he exhibits no doctrine of sin or of the work of the Spirit in bringing about conviction of sin, no doctrine of justification, nothing about substitutionary atonement, no soteriological discussion of Christ in his offices or of the successive stages of his redemptive labors for sinners, nothing about holiness as a test of true faith, no serious attempt at careful biblical exposition, but plenty of silliness in his rare handling of the biblical text and endless provocations to veil rampant worldliness as confident spirituality. All of this leads with no seeming inconsistency or equivocation into a prayer to “make” Jesus “my Lord and Savior.”
This is the fruit of the confessional amnesia that justified the elevation of human will and, as a consequence, resident positive spiritual potential in the human soul. With the loss of both guilt and corruption as constituent elements of original sin, an autosoteric system is established.
Osteen’s version is not qualitatively different from the confident assertion of the “Traditional Southern Baptist” statement on God’s plan of salvation: “We deny that Adam’s sin resulted in the incapacitation of any person’s free will or rendered any person guilty before he has personally sinned.” It is a simple statement, and though problematic as to what “incapacitation of . . . free will” means, the intent of it is clear enough and seems in this generation to be a self-evident truth. With as much certainty, however, as I have surmised is possible in cases like this, I believe it will not bear the weight of theological synthesis or rigorous biblical exegesis; its capacities do not lie in the direction of increased personal spirituality or corporate holiness and worship but in the production of bad religion.