Joel Osteen was already doing pretty well even before he became one of Oprah Winfrey’s favorite preachers. After all, he is the pastor of the largest church in America, which has an average Sunday attendance of 43,500. But when Oprah decided to include Osteen in her “Life Class” a couple of years ago, his fame and reach rose to a whole different level. Oprah fell in love with Osteen’s preaching when she encountered a sermon he gave called “The Power of I Am.”

Students of Scripture, familiar with Exodus 3:14, might assume that such a sermon would be focused on the power of God, but in fact the I Am that Osteen has in mind is not YHWH but us. “When you wake up in the morning, don’t focus on all your flaws,” says Osteen. “Instead, look in the mirror and dare to say “I am beautiful, I am young, I am vibrant, I am confident, I am secure.”” According to Osteen, the words we use to talk about ourselves have power to shape how we actually are. Therefore, rather than focusing on God’s Word, we should focus on our own words, seeking to mold ourselves through the power of positive thinking into the kind of happy, successful people that God wants us to be.

It is, perhaps, too easy to make fun of a guy like Osteen. A couple of years ago, Lutheran Satire made a video in which dying Christian martyrs read some of Osteen’s tweets. “You have a destiny to fulfill,” says Saint Peter as he’s being crucified upside down. “Be bold and take control of your own life.” It is hard to imagine that I could come up with anything that would more clearly show the vapidness of Osteen’s preaching.

Those of us in churches that are grounded in the liturgy and the historic Creeds may be tempted to think that we do not have to worry about imbibing the errors of a guy like Osteen. As Catholic Christians, we have the fullness of the apostolic faith standing sentinel to keep us safe. Yet Osteenism is alive and well in our churches every bit as much as it is in the non-denominational world.

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Several years ago, I attended Mass one Sunday at a conservative Anglican congregation well known for its fealty to historic liturgy and doctrine. The liturgy warmed my heart, but the preaching left me cold. The priest began by saying that he became a priest because he “loves Jesus.” For the next twenty minutes, he preached a sermon in which Jesus was never mentioned again. Instead, he talked about culture war issues and self help. He explicated an obscure piece of Scripture, now long forgotten to me, to suggest that God’s great desire for us is to be more confident and assertive. He offered a five-step plan by which we could become more confident. There was nothing in this man’s sermon that could not have been said by Osteen or by any number of non-Christian motivational speakers. I have heard versions of this sermon in conservative Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox congregations as well. I have also heard the liberal version of this sermon, which tends to push a different set of culture war positions but also manages to hit on the self help stuff just as hard (cf. Bishop Daniel Martins’s piece from last week).

The evidence I am presenting may be anecdotal, but I do not think that makes the problem any less real. In my pastoral work, I often ask people to tell me what they think the Gospel is. People usually respond by describing what they need to do to live good lives and they say nothing about Jesus except maybe that He has given us all a good example. More often than not, these are folks who have spent their whole lives in the Church.

What we are preaching and teaching in many of our parishes is not the Good News of Jesus Christ crucified and risen for us. Instead of preaching the power of the great I Am, we point to some inner, mystical power that exists only in our imaginations. If we preach Christ at all, he is a measuring rod for our success rather than the savior who has already succeeded on our behalf.

In his recent Covenant post on preaching, Fr. Jordan Hylden suggested that we ought to find a middle course between (1) preaching that only emphasizes the free gift of grace for us and (2) preaching that only exhorts us to do good in the world. He criticizes the subset of Evangelicals who seem to be always suspicious of sermons on Christian ethics, folks (perhaps) like the people at Mockingbird, Liberate, or the White Horse Inn. He summarizes their argument like this:

By urging the congregation to make a decision for Jesus or to go forth and live the Christian life, you can’t help but lapse into a prideful Pelagian confidence in your own willpower or into a legalistic moralism. You wind up either laying more burdens on people than they can bear or encouraging a deceptive self-confidence, when the truth is that “we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves” (BCP, 167).

Hylden sees this kind of thinking as running contrary to the Scriptures. God’s Word calls us to live in certain ways. The commandments and laws that God gives us are not meant just to convict us of our sin. They are there because God really does expect Christians to act like Christians.

Hylden is right to be skeptical of the kind of exegesis of Scripture that makes it seem as if the Christian life is not actually a part of God’s Good News in Christ. Life in the kingdom is what the free gift of Christ for us is all about. The need for holiness was acknowledged by most of the Protestant Reformers, including the heavy hitters like Luther and Calvin, so it really should not be controversial for a preacher today to suggest the same, regardless of their churchmanship.

Nevertheless, one of the great insights of the Reformation was that God speaks to us in two ways in Scripture: (1) through law, which is God’s commands for how we are to live, and (2) through Gospel, the proclamation of God’s free gift of his Son on the Cross, which justifies us before God even though we are unable to meet the demands of the law. The law’s main purposes are to expose us to our inability to be good (even if we want to be good) and to restrain us from acting on our worst impulses, but there is also a third use of the law by which it becomes a guide for Christians on how to live moral lives once we have been given new hearts and made holy. The problem is that, this side of the Lord’s return, that kind of living is always aspirational. Our sin continues to infect us even as God is making us holy through the blood of his Son. The law can point us towards how we are to live as Christians, but only the Gospel can actually transform our hearts so that we are able to do it.  The solution, in other words, is not to temper our preaching of the Gospel with more law. The solution is more Gospel.

Osteenism lives deep within our hearts. As Paul says, “I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it” (Romans 7:18). We see the good life we want, yet sin drives us over and over again to want to reach for the good life without going through the cross. We want the ten point plan. We want to be able to look in the mirror and say, “I am good, I am holy, I have made it all on my own.”

There is an acute danger for Catholic Christians that when we hear preaching on kingdom living, we find in it the means by which we can climb the ladder to heaven. The preacher may think, “Well, last week I told them about how their salvation is purely by the grace of God, so now I can move on to giving them God’s Word on how to live.” But between week one and week two, people will forget the message of grace. As much as we may want to hold onto it, our hearts will not let us. The sinner who still lives in our skin is always looking for ways of sabotaging grace so that we might go back to searching for ways of carrying the burden ourselves. We do not mind God giving us a little help from time to time, but in the end we want to be able to say that we got there mostly on our own.

That is the undeniable appeal of Osteenism. It feels good to think that we are not as far gone as we thought, that there are things we can do to make ourselves better, maybe even things sanctioned by God for just that purpose. For Catholic Christians the course may look and sound much holier than that offered by Osteen. Our method of self-salvation involves a variety of special behaviors and practices that we might cultivate in ourselves in order to show God how much better we are doing, but the operative force is still me rather than Christ. It is what I can do for Him, which in reality is nothing, rather than what He has already done for me, which is everything. It is Osteenism by another name.

Neither type of Osteenism actually makes us better. Wicked people who do good things from time to time do not thereby become good people anymore than dogs who learn to stand on their hind legs become people. “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander,” says Jesus (Matthew 12:19). We need more than just a new action plan. We need new hearts, which is something that only Christ’s free gift of himself on the cross can provide.

The law is good, but the law cannot save us. Christian community is good, but it cannot save us either. Only the Gospel can do that, and far too few faithful, church-going Christians today can even identify what the Gospel is, let alone rest in its promises. Until we learn again to center all that we preach and teach on grace, our calls to live the Christian life will not yield the fruit we hope to see.

I agree with Hylden that there ought to be a way for preachers to call people to righteous living even as we share with them the Good News. Paul, Peter, and James certainly seemed to have no problem doing that. But ultimately, that will require us to do a whole lot more teaching about grace than we are now. That is where our greatest deficit exists in the Church today. Until we make grace our first and last word, even our most well-intentioned efforts to proclaim the Kingdom will be absorbed by our listeners as a recipe by which they can make themselves better. We must take the Osteen out of our own eyes before we go looking to remove it from our neighbors.

The featured image of Joel Osteen was taken at the dedication of Faith Church, Sunset Hills (2013). It is licensed under Creative Commons. 

About The Author

Fr. Jonathan is a chaplain at St. John XXIII College Preparatory School in Katy, Texas, and cohost of the podcast God and Comics.

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Mike Virgilio

Great piece, and couldn’t agree with it more except your take on White Horse Inn. I’ve been listening to WHI for a very long time, and as a Christian of the Reformed persuasion agree with much, but of course not all, of their take on the Christian faith and the state of Christianity in America. You are right that their focus is on the gospel on not on ethics per se, but their understanding of sanctification flows out of their proclamation of justification. The gospel and the work of Christ should always take precedence in our preaching and our prayers,… Read more »