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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9 thoughts on “Joel Osteen and “Itching Ears””

  1. # Oliver Says:
    October 19, 2007 at 5:37 am e

    Hey dad, you wanna post something about that famous verse in Jeremiah where it seems all Christians quote, “…And God has a wonderful plan for your life.” Be an interesting read.

  2. We should not discount Joel Osteen as a nobody in the evangelical world. His show is seen weekly by tens of millions of people in 100 foreign countries. He was selected by Barbara Walters as one of the “Ten Most Fascinating People of 2006,” and was named “Most Influential Christian in America” in 2006 by churchreport.com. His show is the most watched “inspirational” television program in the United States. His book Your Best Life Now is a #1 New York Times bestseller, has sold more than four million copies since October 2004, and is available in 19 languages.

    When Rick Warren first published his Purpose Driven Church, he was a nobody. And we’ve seen how he rose from “nobody” to one of the most influential pastors in the world in just a few years. As I mentioned in another blog a few years ago, the Purpose Driven Life fad, like the Promise Keepers, What Would Jesus Do, Prayer of Jabez, etc., will also eventually fade in a few years into the trashbin of evangelical history.

    In the Philippines, PDL rose from an unknown to the most influential evangelical movement in the country. Pew Bibles were replaced by pew PDLs, and “Bible” studies became PDL studies. But not anymore. Now that PDL is on the wane, it’s Osteen’s YBLN to rise from the unknown into the world’s next most influential movement. It will soon also overwhelm the Philippine evangelical wasteland.

  3. Hi Nollie,
    So much ado about nothing. The editor/writer of TEXAS MONTHLY is being preposterous and presumptuous. He/she is trying to create SOMETHING out of NOTHING. That is rubbish because only the Eternal God can create from nothing.

    The things is, I don’t know this Osteen guy nor have I read nor heard his sermons. And I bet a lot of people I know do not know him. So, one thing I know is that HE IS NOT THAT BIG A NAME to merit LITERARY LICENSE. There are names that have invaded WORLDWIDE CONSCIOUSNESS and perhaps, perhaps can merit a writer’s invoking literary license but not this guy.

    I am a writer in Filipino and English both fiction and non-fiction and I am very, very careful in taking LITERARY LICENSE when I write about a person. This Osteen person is not big enough to merit a take-off from the Bible, nor from God Himself, as an eight day creation. NO PERSON IS.

  4. Thank you for the concern. I think Pastor Brian Ellis and the Reformed Baptist churches here in our country will also be willing to help if you inform them of this plan. God bless. 🙂

    WHERE are you planning to open this Reformed Study Center? Sana malapit sa Antipolo-Taytay-Cainta Area. Sobrang dami na kasing mga churches dito at sa tingin ko, laganap na rin ang Bible illiteracy. (Trans: I hope it’s near Antipolo-Taytay-Cainta area. I can see there are too many churches here, and Bible illiteracy is prevalent.)

  5. To all my Reformed friends who are interested in foreign missions:

    To fight against biblical illiteracy among evangelicals, I’m planning to open a Reformed Study Center in our area in the Philippines. As far as I know, this would be the only one of its kind in the Philippines. My target audience would be pastors and lay leaders who don’t have access to study resources for their Bible studies, sermon preparation, Sunday schools, etc., because of financial constraints. College students will also be welcome.

    The study center will serve the Christian community in several ways:

    (1) As a place of worship, when the need eventually arises.

    (2) As a study center for pastors/elders leadership training, such as lectures, workshops, seminars, and conferences, especially who are interested in Reformed doctrine, worship, and prace.

    (3) As a Bible study center for starting a church plant.

    In addition to a Reformed library of books and multimedial resources, I plan to offer free Internet access to those who otherwise aren’t able to afford the $0.50/hour Internet cafes. Since pastors would probably spend a few hours in the study center, I’m also planning to have an inexpensive coffee shop, with pastries and other bakery items.

    For the start-up, I plan to move most of my books to the center. Donations of Reformed books, multimedia resources, computers, a couple of cordless phones, a printer, etc., would be most welcome. I would also need information on how to design such a center. I don’t know of anyone here who does such things.

    If anyone’s interested, I could provide more details via email.

  6. Wow! It seems that the attention of quite a number of Reformed bloggers is on Joel Osteen.

    I agree. I think now’s the time to address the problems with his “gospel.”

    Thanks for the post.

    (Note: Some of the songs composed by people from Osteen’s Lakewood megachurch are popular in many Evangelical churches.)

  7. I listened to the clip of the interview on the internet… very disturbing stuff! It’s the worst kind of idolatry to invent your own god who suits your own needs and contaminate so many with the lies. Oprah is one of the worst offenders… it’s all very troubling to me.

  8. That was really something to hear, wasn’t it! I wish that interviewer would have asked him if his message was only for America and no one else. Even here there are many people for whom that wouldn’t be true. It sounded like Dr. Schuller when he was interviewed on the White Horse Inn. Of course people don’t want to hear that they are sinners in need of Christ salvation but that is the only message that works.

  9. I watched 60 Minutes and I watch Joel Osteen on Sunday evening – maybe you should too and not be influenced by people who have their own agenda or are jealous. Jesus was right in front talking to the church leaders of the day and they killed him. If God can work through a donkey he can work and is working through Joel. God doesn’t stand still and use the same way and people to reach people. If Muslims are watching I think that is great because they are hearing the WORD and God says the WORD doesn’t come back void.

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