I feel a wee bit sorry for Victoria Osteen. In a 36 second clip from a sermon that will be played for many years to come on YouTube, she declared "When you come to church, when you worship Him, you're not doing it for God really. You're doing it for yourself, because that's what makes God happy. Amen? Let's open our hearts to Him today." She also told us that when we are doing good we are doing it for ourselves. It is of course self-obsessed unbiblical heresy but I still feel sorry for her. Why? Because she is only preaching what Lakewood Church and much of the US Church (and sadly, increasingly the UK Church) practises.
Joel is considered to be the pastor of America's most successful church – if you judge by numbers and money. He has five New York Times best-selling books, a weekly TV audience of seven million, a congregation of some 45,000 and a $120 million stadium to call 'church'. He can afford to ignore the critics. He lives in a $10 million mansion and is reputed to be worth over $60 million. Little wonder that he is called 'the Smiling Preacher'!
Victoria has defended her remarks by claiming that she could have expressed herself more clearly, that she really meant it is better for us when we worship God, and that only critics and cynics would interpret her remarks in such a negative way. It's a neat trick. A superb self-defence weapon. Any criticism is automatically dismissed as just being from critics and cynics. Well, I admit to being both. But then I follow Christ who would have been a classic cynic in Victoria's eyes...he trusted himself to no man. And he did tend to be somewhat critical – especially of religious leaders. Telling the Pharisees that they were 'white washed tombs, twice dead' or that they were of their father, the devil, would not have won him the Osteen smile awards for loving statement of the century!
But it is of course all to easy to criticise from afar, to throw up one's hands in faux horror and to have a few cheap laughs at what is clearly a cultural aberration and biblical heresy. So let's avoid that and see instead if we can learn some lessons from the Osteens. I would suggest the following:
1) We must not let our Christianity follow the culture, but should seek to have the culture follow Christ. The Osteens' theology, practice, church and Christ are a product of a materialistic, me-centred culture where the ultimate blasphemy is to feel bad about yourself. It is little wonder that Victoria claimed that worship was done for yourself when her husband's message has been built on books with titles like Your Best Life Now, Become a Better You and It's Your Time. For far too much of its history, the Christian Church has allowed the culture to be the cancer within that defines and destroys it, rather than the Church being the salt and the light that transforms the culture.
2) Good theology is a lifesaver, bad theology is a killer. The Shiny Happy People want to tell us that theology is all about angels dancing on pinheads and grumpy old men nit-picking about obscure doctrines. Osteen defends his lack of theological knowledge by declaring in Become a Better You, "I'm not called to explain every minute facet of Scripture or to expound on deep theological doctrines or disputes that don't touch where people live...My gift is to encourage, to challenge, and to inspire." The problem is that it is precisely the doctrines and teachings of Scripture, which do touch where people live, and which do encourage, challenge and inspire. A man in a shiny suit, with a million dollar salary or a woman with a $1000 haircut are not inspiring or encouraging to the woman I met last week whose partner had died and whose children were struggling. They are just not remotely relevant to anyone outside their own cultural bubble. When I read that Joel's father pronounced that he had received a vision from the Lord in which he was promised he would be preaching into his nineties and then collapsed and died two weeks later, I wonder why people can't see the disconnect? Why do people buy into this guff?
3) Moralism is a poor substitute for the Gospel of Grace. Make no mistake about it, the Osteens teach a gospel of self which is ultimately a gospel of moralism. It has an evangelical veneer but scrape underneath and you will soon find a health and wealth moralism, a double dose of theological poison. Joel sums his message up: "You've got to live an obedient life, but for every mistake you've made, there's mercy there, and I believe we can do better".That's it. At best it is moralistic therapeutic deism. Do your best. If you 'make a mistake' don't worry God will forgive you and you can get on with being a better you. It is a gospel of self-redemption, with no sin and no consequences and ultimately no Christ, other than the cuddly toy Jesus who is your good luck charm.
The real Good News is somewhat different. Yes God does want you to live an obedient life. But you can't. You are not only a person who makes a few mistakes on your way to being a better you. You are corrupt and rotten at heart, dead in sins and trespasses. You can't become a better you. But you can become a new you. Thank a merciful God that there is mercy. And that, that mercy is in Christ. Who, if you will forgive the wee bit of theology here, came as the incarnate Son of God, lived the obedient life you could not, died the death you deserved and suffered your hell (the theology of the atonement). That Christ rose from the dead for your justification (the theology of salvation), guaranteed your resurrection and sent His Spirit (the theology of the Trinity) so that you would be born again, see the Kingdom of God and love serve and follow Him (the theology of practice).
God does not want us to worship him for our sakes. He wants us to worship Him because he is worthy of worship and glory. The Westminster Divines put it far better; "Man's chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever". The irony is that if we seek to use the worship of God to serve and satisfy ourselves we will fail miserably. We will end up creating small gods made in our own image – gods which will inevitably disappoint and destroy. If we realise that our purpose is to glorify God as He is in Himself, as He has revealed Himself in His Son, we will also enjoy Him and become what we were meant to be. The Osteen prescription is poison in a shiny wrapper. The Good News comes in broken vessels but is eternally priceless. Which one will you believe and dispense?
David Robertson is the director of Solas CPC.