Salvation of Happiness by Doing Your Best
I recently read an essay published by Westminster Seminary California back in 2007. Written by Michael S. Horton, this essay examined the “gospel of prosperity” as taught by Houston, Joel Osteen. It was entitled, Joel Osteen and the Glory Story: A Case Study.
The essay is an excellent case study and is worth the read in its entirety. However, it is a portion of the article that is the focus here. There have been many who have crtiqued Osteen and the Prosperity Gospel over the past several years. But none have stood out to me for its explanation of dangers quite like his.
He calls Osteen’s gospel a Law-Lite. Like some foods are made available with little sugar or fats, the gospel of Osteen is made available with little law. But, as logic demands, it is more than that. It is a new salvation1 and a new hell. It is salvation from unhappiness and it is attained by doing your best. Here is a lengthy excerpt from his essay:
There is no condemnation in Osteen’s message for failing to fulfill God’s righteous law. On the other hand, there is no justification. Instead of either message, 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, but with a gentle pleading suggests that the only reason we need to follow his advice is because it’s useful for getting what we want. God is a buddy or partner who exists primarily to make sure we are happy. “You do your part, and God will do his part.” 2 “Sure we have our faults,” he says, but “the good news is, God loves us anyway.” 3 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.4 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.”5 That’s all: “…simply obey his commands.”
Everything depends on us, but it’s easy. One wonders if he has ever had a crisis of doubt or moral failure that stripped him naked in God’s presence. Osteen seems to think that we are basically good people and God has a very easy way for us to save ourselves—not from his judgment, but from our lack of success in life—with his help. “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.”6
It may be “Law Lite,” but make no mistake about it: behind a smiling Boomer Evangelicalism that eschews any talk of God’s wrath, there is a determination to assimilate the gospel to law, an announcement of victory to a call to be victorious, indicatives to imperatives, 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? At least, who needs Christ as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn 1:29)? The sting of the law may be taken out of the message, but that only means that the gospel has become a less demanding, more encouraging law whose exhortations are only meant to make us happy, not to measure us against God’s holiness.
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 and it’s all about happiness here and now, not being reconciled to a holy God who saves us from ourselves. In its therapeutic milieu, sin is failing to live up to our potential, not falling short of God’s glory. We need 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.
If you find this to be a helpful piece, read the case study in full, Joel Osteen and the Glory Story by Michael S. Horton.
- Read Jesus is Not Your Savior If Hell is Not Your Punishment for an explanation of how this works.
- Joel Osteen, Your Best Life Now: Seven Steps to Living at Your Full Potential(NY: Warner Books, 2004),41-42
- Ibid., 57
- Ibid., 66
- Ibid. 119
- Ibid., 262