briefing, Albert Mohler

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

It’s Wednesday, April 24, 2019. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

Theology makes its way into the headlines again: The Financial Times looks at Joel Osteen’s prosperity theology. It’s not pretty.

This is something I honestly did not expect. Edward Luce, who is the American editor of the Financial Times of London, he visited Lakewood Church in recent days and he then wrote about it in the pages of the Financial Times. The article is entitled “A Preacher for Trump’s America: Joel Osteen and the Prosperity Gospel.”

And again, surprisingly, and in this case without any expectation, theology blast its way right back into the headlines. This time is not just the New York Times, you’re talking about the Financial Times. It is one of the most influential periodicals in the world, especially in the global financial class. It is a paper that is known for its insightful analysis, cultural analysis, economic analysis, political analysis. It is a paper that is not read by the faint-hearted. It is one of the symbols of what we might call the Davos elite.

And Edward Luce, the American editor of the Financial Times, writing about visiting America’s most significant temple to the prosperity gospel, well, that’s going to be interesting, you know that in advance. The article does not disappoint. Edward Luce brings all of his powers of analysis to this article, but it’s a rather secular analysis, but it’s a secular analysis that is based upon at least an understanding of what historic Christianity has represented. What Christians based upon the Bible have understood to have believed and to have preached for 2000 years.

The most important thing that you note in this analysis by Edward Luce is not so much what’s present in prosperity theology, but what’s absent. After writing about attending a men’s support meeting at Lakewood Church, Luce writes, “Optimism, hope, destiny, harvest, bounty. These are Lakewood’s buzzwords. Prosperity, too.” Luce continues, “Words that are rarely heard include guilt, shame, sin, pennants, and hell. Lakewood,” he says, “is not the kind of church that troubles your conscience.”

One of the men in the support group explained to him, “If you want to feel bad, Lakewood is not the place for you. Most people want to leave church feeling better than when they went in.” And, well, if you’re looking for just a single sentence to sum up the message of Lakewood Church of Joel Osteen and of the prosperity gospel is probably hard to come up with a better sentence than that. Most people want to leave church feeling better than when they went in. And feeling better here means feeling better about themselves.

A part of what marks the prosperity theology movement, a part of what marks the prosperity gospel so incredibly popular in America these days is the fact that meaning revolves around the self. The self becomes the center of all meaning, the center of all meaning in the cosmos. That center of meaning is shifted from the self-revealing, self-existing God to the human being whom God loves. That point is made explicitly by Joel Osteen in the course of the message that Edward Luce observed in which Osteen said, and I’m not kidding here, “If God had a refrigerator, your picture would be on it. If he had a computer, your face would be the screen saver.”

There you have the complete reversal of the theological order that has founded biblical Christianity. An order that begins with the priority of God and only gets to us in the course of the biblical account of God bringing glory to himself by saving people through the blood of his son, demonstrating himself to be both just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

But in Joel Osteen’s world, that polarity is exactly exchanged. God is instead the great admirer of you and of me, rather indiscriminate and nonjudgmental God is, as is made very, very clear in Joel Osteen’s preaching. Luce also writes the special events known as this night of hope that is sponsored by Osteen’s ministry and for which admission is charged. There’s a big money-making operation here that becomes explicitly clear later in the article.

But at the very center of this story is the Osteen theology about which he was incredibly candid. When Luce asks how does Osteen managed to keep sin and redemption out of a Christian message? Osteen responded, “Look, I’m a preacher’s son, so I’m an optimist. Life already makes us feel guilty every day. If you keep laying shame on people, they get turned off.”

Now to the shame of Joel Osteen, the only echoes of Orthodox theology are coming from the American editor of the Financial Times who is asking the questions, and it’s hard to come up with a better question than how in the world can you avoid a message of sin and redemption if you’re going to have any claim upon Christianity whatsoever? Osteen’s response is not the theological. It is, we need to note, psychological. Again, he said, “Life already makes us feel guilty every day. If you keep weighing shame on people, they’ll get turned off.”

Well, that also becomes something that we note here. Joel Osteen is determined that no one should be offended by being made to feel bad or guilty or shameful about anything because he does not want them to stop coming back. When Luce asks, “How does telling people to downplay their consciences tally with the New Testament?” Osteen responds, again, listen to this, “I preach the Gospel, but we are nondenominational. It’s not my aim to dwell on technicalities. I want to help people sleep at night.”

Well, he wants to help people sleep at night, and that goes back to that old expression that people have said, “Whatever gets you through the night.” But in this case, we’re talking about exchanging the eternal consequences of the redemptive power of the gospel of Jesus Christ for a thinly veiled mash of modern psychotherapy and positive thinking. And furthermore, just to kind of pop psychology that appears to pop up just about every day, whether from Oprah or from some other cultural authority.

Again, the big point being that the most important reality in the universe is you, and you have nothing to feel guilty or shameful about. You are you, and God loves you. If God had a refrigerator, he would have your picture on it. Later in the article, Edward Luce turns to analysis. He writes, “Osteen knows his audience. We want fatted calves slaughtered in our honor. There was no hint in his message of the fire and brimstone of a Billy Graham or a Jerry Falwell, two of America’s most celebrated 20th century of evangelists.” Osteen, he writes, “Is more like Oprah Winfrey in a suit. He is not peddling the opium of the masses. It’s more like therapy for a broken middle class.”

Evidently it’s working financially. In this article, we are told that Osteen received, for one of his recent books, $13 million advance. Luce writes, “With a fortune estimated at $60 million and a mansion listed on Zillow at $10.7 million, Osteen is hardly living like a friar. His suburban Houston home has three elevators, a swimming pool and parking for 20 cars, including his $230,000 Ferrari 458 Italia.”

Looking not only at Osteen, but of other prosperity preachers such as Kenneth Copeland and Paula White. He cites White as saying, “Anyone who tells you to deny yourself is Satan.” Let’s just note that Jesus said that. If you get Jesus and Satan confused, that is. Let’s just say the very least, a very fatal, if revealing, confusion, but the entire prosperity gospel is built upon an edifice of false theology.

Just consider this teaching from Joel Osteen, “If you do your part, God will do his. He will promote you. He’ll give you the increase.” Now, again, that is just a reversal of the entire logic of scripture. We are not told in scripture if we do our part, God will do his. Instead, we are told that God accomplished everything needful for our salvation and he is not, in any sense, a butler who is left in our theological call.

But the most horrifying statement in the entire Financial Times article about Joel Osteen comes down to the last words spoken by Jesus from the Cross, “It is finished.” And then we are told that Osteen’s response is that Jesus was not actually declaring his imminent death. In effect, said Osteen, Jesus meant instead, “The guilt is finished, the depression is finished, the low self-esteem is finished, the mediocrity is finished, it is all finished.”

What we’re looking at here is a total replacement of the bible’s message concerning the meaning of the death of Christ on the cross, and it’s being replaced with a message of self-help that isn’t even necessarily theological at all. That’s a part of the reality we’re looking at here. If God exists in this entire system of theology, it is only because we are so important that he loves us and he loves us such that he wants us to be healthy. He wants us to be prosperous and he basically is on call so that if we do our part, he will do his.

When Jesus said, “It is finished,” of course, he was speaking of the completion of his atoning work on the cross of the absolute finality of his perfect sacrifice for sin. That’s why when he said, “It is finished,” the veil in the temple was torn all the way from the top to the bottom in such a way that it declared the end of the sacrificial system because the penalty for sin had been paid in full. That is the clear teaching in the gospels. That is the clear teaching of the apostles. That is what Christians have understood to be the very essence of the Gospel since Jesus established the church and set the apostles to preaching and told the Church to continue in the apostle’s teaching.

Elsewhere in the article, as in his preaching, Joel Osteen actually exchanges human beings and God in a way that’s abundantly clear, if tragically clear. Luce writes about Osteen asking whether or not God would have hesitated before creating the universe and quotes him as saying, “He didn’t check with accounting and say, I’m about to create the stars, galaxies and planets.” Instead, Osteen just said that God went ahead and did it and he pointed to our problem being a fundamental lack of self-belief. In Osteen’s words, “God spoke worlds into creation. He didn’t Google it to see if it was possible.” And then Luce summarizes, “We too can achieve anything we set our sights on. If God can do it, we can do it.”

Part II

The problem with the false gospel of prosperity theology is not that it promises more than the gospel of Christ, but infinitely less

But now we need to think more deeply and ask, where did this sort of theology emerge? Well, here’s bad news for you. It emerged in the United States of America. In order to understand this, we have to see this is a particularly American heresy that is now being transported all over the world, increasingly popular, especially in the emerging world, especially now in Asia and South America and Sub-Saharan Africa, but it’s now found just about everywhere thanks to modern communication where Joel Osteen goes and he goes just about anywhere the Internet will go, prosperity and theology is going with him and he’s not alone.

But this theology emerged in the 19th century in the United States and the progenitor of it all was a quack doctor by the name of Phineas Parkhurst Quimby. Quimby was one of those self-declared physicians in the middle of the 19th century and he, influenced by Mesmerism from Europe, began to develop an entire worldview in which the most important reality of all was not matter, but thought. This became a movement known as New Thought. It focused on the fact that if you can change your thoughts, you can change the world.

Quimby was himself a rather secular person. He offered a rather secular, positive thinking kind of worldview, but it was picked up by many others. Most famously, immediately in his interest, there was one of his own patients who made this into an entire theological system. Her name was Mary Baker Eddy and she became the founder of what became known as Christian Science. A new thought movement so comprehensively new thought in its shape that she denied the reality of death and of sin and of pain and of illness.

But then you have to fast forward to the 20th century, just a few decades later, and the emergence of Pentecostalism and what would become later known as the Charismatic Movement, and you would come to understand that New Thought became linked with the Word-Faith Movement in such a way that positive confession and positive thinking, they became combined in the promise that what God wants for us is health and wealth. What God has accomplished for us in the Gospel is prosperity. And if we do not now experience the blessings of prosperity is because we just don’t know how to make God work.

Joel Osteen burst on the American scene in January of 1999, when to the surprise of many he was announced as the successor to his late father, John Osteen, the founder of Lakewood Church who had recently died. John Osteen had been a Baptist, but he became influenced by Pentecostal and charismatic theology, and he became one of the leading prophets of Prosperity theology during the 20th century. He built Lakewood Church into a massive congregation at one point, building a $5 million sanctuary that would seat 8,000 people.

But Joel Osteen was clearly not willing merely to inherit his father’s mantle. He wanted to build upon it, and Lakewood church now claims that 50,000 people are coming to weekend services every single week. It may seem rather early in the 21st century to make this declaration, but Phillip Luke Sinitiere in his book entitled Salvation with a Smile, Joel Osteen, Lakewood Church and American Christianity, published by New York University Press States, “Joel Osteen is America’s most powerful 21st century evangelical minister.”

Well, at this point, it is hard to argue that he is not the most influential religious speaker, but I am not going to concede that he is a 21st century evangelical minister. The Evangel, the gospel of Jesus Christ, is entirely absent from his theology. Over the course of the year since 1999, I have had to comment on Joel Osteen time and again. He has made slippery just about every definite Christian doctrine.

When he has been pressed in the national media about theological and moral issues, he just about always, indeed, I can’t think of a single exception. He violates biblical truth. He minimizes biblical content. He reverses the Gospel. He takes out sin and guilt and declares them just to be denominational eccentricities and instead gets back to his main message, which is prosperity theology, the theology that has made him quite prosperous indeed.

Later in his book, insightfully, Sinitiere, breaks down what he calls the four basic parts of Joel Osteen’s prosperity gospel. The first is positive thinking. The second is positive confession. The third is positive providence and the fourth is the promotion of the Christian body as a site of improvement. Well, you’ll also note the distinction that many make between a hard prosperity theology and a soft prosperity theology.

In one sense, Joel Osteen is the essence of soft. He doesn’t promise that God is going to heal you have any particular disease. He doesn’t promise that God is going to make you rich, at least not now. He just says that that’s what God wants for you and he makes very clear that the problem is that you have not yet confessed or you have not yet believed enough for God to respond by giving you what you deserve and also want.

When Sinitiere talks about positive thinking, well, that’s pretty obvious by now, you change the cosmos by thinking according to a positive pattern. Positive Confession means you say it out loud. Astoundingly, Joel Osteen comes back to that again and again and again. You have to say out loud as if in saying something, you are going to actualize it, and evidently there are millions of people who believe, following Joel Osteen’s teaching, that if they can just say it, they can make it real.

This goes back to the Word-Faith Movement that became popular among many charismatics in the middle and latter part of the 20th century. If you just say the right words, then God will honor you saying those words with what you declare or what you request under God. And of course, the third part of this is positive providence, which means that God is in control of the universe and he wants to bend the universe according to your needs in the direction of your prosperity.

But the final part is very interesting. Sinitiere said, “It is the promotion of the Christian body as a site of improvement.” Now, a Christian reading that might wonder what is the Christian body here, the body of a Christian or the body of Christians, the congregation? Well, it turns out this clearly means the body of the Christian, that the physical body of a Christian is to be the site where this kind of improvement is made clear.

In Joel Osteen’s soft prosperity theology, that’s the health part of health and wealth. Since I’ve quoted Sinitiere’s book here as an authority, I do need at least to reveal that he has indicated that I am amongst the most severe evangelical theological critics of Joel Osteen, but he thinks Osteen represents the future and I, along with others, represent the past. On page 209 of the book, he identifies me along with John MacArthur and Michael Horton as offering critiques of Joel Osteen, but he refers to us as the aging ministries of Mohler, Horton, and MacArthur. I’m just, by the way, four years older than Joel Osteen. I’m not sure that means I deserve the adjective aging, but nonetheless put forward by the aging ministries of Mohler, Horton and MacArthur.

And he says it reveals the decreasing appeal of their, meaning our, stridently conservative theology. He says, “This shows that spiritual sensibilities, that the root of the prosperity gospel tradition that Osteen represents have long frustrated those whose commitments to propositional theology produce a clamorous resistance to change.”

Someone asked me just the other day when I’m signing my new book on the Apostle’s Creed, the text I give is Jude 3, that we are to contend for the faith, once for all delivered to the saints. I’ll just note that is not a cranky, modern, conservative, evangelical preoccupation. That’s a biblical command. The definitive book on Prosperity theology is written by Kate Bowler of Duke University. The title of the book is Blessed. A history of the American prosperity gospel published by Oxford University Press.

In the book, Bowler defines the prosperity gospel as centering on four themes. She identifies them and I quote, “Faith, wealth, health, and victory.” First, she says, “It conceives of faith as an activator, a power that unleashes spiritual forces and turns the spoken word into reality.” “Second,” she said, “the movement depicts faith as palpably demonstrated in wealth. And in third: health. It can be measured both in the wallet, one’s personal wealth, and in the body, one’s personal health, making material reality, the measure of the success of immaterial faith.

“And four,” she said, “the movement expects faith to be marked by victory.” Well, of course, biblical faith is marked by victory, but it’s not victory merely over sin and illness and injury in this life. It is not victory over poverty. It is not the promise of wealth and health in this life. The problem with the Prosperity theology is that it is a false gospel. It Denies The Gospel of Jesus Christ and replaces it with a consumer-driven, individualistically-focused message that fits modern America, but is absolutely contradicted by the bible itself.

And furthermore, biblical Christians need to understand the problem is not that prosperity theology offers too much. The prosperity gospel doesn’t over promise; it under promises. Because how can you compare success and prosperity and wealth and victory in this life with what the Gospel actually does promise, which is victory over death, victory over sin, victory over guilt, victory over shame. Because of Christ’s victory, yes, on the cross and by the empty tomb, in which he accomplished the salvation of all who would believe in him.

But the second problem with the prosperity gospel is that it so contorts the gospel as too contorts the very character of God and the basic divine human relationship, the relationship between the creature and the creator, that is revealed in scripture. And no one has the authority in personal experience to offer that indictment more powerfully than Kate Bowler. She published that Definitive Study of the prosperity gospel published by Oxford University Press in 2013.

But my heart has to turn to an article she wrote for The New York Times published in February of 2016. The front page of the opinion section of the New York Times included her article with the headline “Death, the Prosperity Gospel and Me.” The subhead in the article: “Some Christians believe God rewards the faithful, so why did I get stage four cancer?” That’s a question prosperity theology can’t answer. It really doesn’t want to answer.

What you see in the history of the preaching and the presentation of the prosperity gospel is that when a hard question like this is asked, even an obvious question like this is asked, there is a camera shift quickly to someone who looks healthy and looks wealthy. It took a while to deal with this today, but this is one of those stories that just will not let us loose. It’s an issue so big, we need to know it’s global dimensions.

If you are thinking about the theological competitors to the gospel of Jesus Christ worldwide, immediately you would think of the major historic world religions. You would think about a resurgent in Islam. You would think about Buddhism and Hinduism. You might even think of Western secularism, but in many parts of the world, the greatest competition for the hearts and minds of the people is between biblical Christianity and the prosperity gospel. Hand in hand with the modern secular society, the prosperity gospel, tragically enough, is helping to transform all of America into one giant mission field.

Part III

Ukraine overwhelmingly elects comedian as president whose only political experience is portraying a president in a sitcom

But finally, as time is running out for today’s edition, I want to turn to big electoral news coming from Ukraine. During the time of the Soviet Union, the USSR, it was referred to as The Ukraine, meaning the frontier, then under Soviet dominance, but after the breakup of the Soviet Union, it became an independent republic. It held its presidential election just in recent days and behind this is a massively interesting story. Is it significant on the world scene? Well, time will tell.

Just imagine that you had a sitcom, the most popular entertainment in the nation and then the feature plot line is of a 37-year old school teacher who accidentally becomes the President of Ukraine. Now, just imagine, that actor running for the office of President of Ukraine, having never held any electoral office before. And just imagine that in recent days he not only won the office of president, but did so, so overwhelmingly that he defeated not one, but two leading candidates in the polls as he claimed a victory that included over 70% of all of those who voted in the Ukrainian election.

Yes, that’s right. The Ukrainian people, at a time of incredible tensions on the border between Ukraine and Russia, when those two nations, or one of the most delicate points of international relations, the Ukrainian people just elected an actor who played a president, an accidental president, on TV as their new president. And they did so in one of the most massive electoral landslides of recent history.

I just loved the way the Wall Street Journal reported the story, trying to keep a straight face, “The election of comedian Volodymyr Zelinski as Ukrainian president up ending the country’s political establishment, jolted Russia and the West who compete for influence in Ukraine and now must determine how to deal with a political newcomer.”

In conclusion, we look at this election in Ukraine and wonder, “Did the Ukrainians really just elect someone basically best known for a television program and now he’s president? That could never happen in the United States.”

Oh, wait a minute.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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