Joel Osteen: Whatever Happened to Sin?
by Michael S. Horton
In his interview with Larry King (CNN, June 20, 2005), Joel Osteen said that he is not sure what happens to people who reject Christ. King followed up with the question about Jews, Moslems, and other non-Christians. "They're wrong, aren't they?" Osteen replied, "Well, I don't know if I believe they're wrong. I believe here's what the Bible teaches and from the Christian faith this is what I believe. But I just think that only God will judge a person's heart. I spent a lot of time in India with my father. I don't know all about their religion. But I know they love God. And I don't know. I've seen their sincerity. So I don't know. I know for me, and what the Bible teaches, I want to have a relationship with Jesus."
King (and a caller) gave him a few more chances to answer the question, but it kept coming back to the heart: "God's got to look at your heart." Evidently, the last judgment will be based not on God's standard of holiness and justice but on the purity of our hearts.
Certainly there is truth in this position. God will expose all of the secrets of our hearts on the last day. However, where Osteen seems to think that God's judgment of our heart (like his record-keeping) is good news, Scripture treats it as the worst possible report, since "The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked: who can know it?" (Jer 17:9). Jesus added, "For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies" (Mt 15:11). My heart has conceived and committed sins that my hands have never carried out. Far from being a relatively unspoiled beach of sanctity, the heart is the citadel from which our mutiny against God and neighbor is launched. Even when I have done the right thing as far as other people are concerned, if my sincerity were weighed, it would actually count against my righteousness. So to think that our trial before God's all-knowing justice can somehow turn in our favor by examination of our heart or the record of our life is a dangerous mistake. I keep thinking of St. Anselm's great line to those who thought that Christ's death was not a vicarious substitution: "You have not yet considered how great is your sin is." Osteen's outlook may resonate with Americans steeped in a sentimentalized version of the Pelagian heresy of self-salvation. But it is not Christianity.
When asked by Larry King if he uses the word "sinners," Osteen replied, "I don't use it. I never thought about it. But I probably don't. But most people already know what [when] they're doing wrong. When I get them to church I want to tell them that you can change." What's remarkable is the he has not even thought about it.
Osteen's view of sin, ironically, is actually quite similar to the "hellfire and brimstone" preaching of a prior generation. To be sure, you'll never hear him threatening, "You'll go to hell if you dance. Don't smoke, or you will incur God's judgment." Heaven and hell are not exactly your major themes when the message is all about "your best life now." But his message is still very much about moral therapy: changing your lifestyle to receive God's favor. It's not heaven in the hereafter, but happiness here and now: but it is still up to you to make it happen.
The older fundamentalists whom Osteen has in mind had their "sin lists" for which you could be condemned. Not only were most of these major "sins" never mentioned in Scripture; they reduced sin to "sins." Of course, sins can to some extent be managed, especially when they are taboos that we have invented. I can stop going to movies. It may be hard, but I can probably swear off of a nice pint of Guinness every now and then. Such churches were filled with people who thought well of themselves because they had managed to shun legalism's "sin lists." However, the sins that the Bible mentions are less easily managed: gossip, envy, strife, coveting. For many of us, these vices actually mentioned in Scripture were often more evident in the church than they were among our neighbors. So the first thing to do in order to trivialize sin and make it look as though our righteousness can withstand God's judgment is to come up with our own sin list rather than God's.
The second move in this trivialization of sin is to reduce it to actions rather than a condition. If I can stop committing sin x, then it is at least logically possible that I can stop committing sin y, and so on, until I am at least avoiding all known sins. If, however, sin is first of all a condition and only secondarily actions, then no matter how many sins I "conquer," I'm still sinful! No matter what advances I think I've made, according to God, "There is no one righteous, no not even one; no one who understands; no one who seeks for God" (Rom 3:10-11, quoting Psalm 14:1-3; 53:1-3). "Our righteousness"-never mind our sins!-"is like filthy rags" (Is 64:6). So now we can no longer rest confidently in our own behaviors, standards, Judeo-Christian ethics, virtues, discipleship, deeds of love and kindness, and pious spirituality. We can no longer divide the world neatly into "decent" and "disgusting." We must take our place with the prostitutes and publicans rather than with the Pharisees in order to enter the kingdom of God.
Wouldn't Osteen's message have a lot in common with what I've just said? In tone, perhaps. However, instead of considering us Christians as just as disqualified from heaven on our own merits as publicans and prostitutes, his message assumes that deep down, we are all-including publicans and prostitutes-pretty good people who could just be a little better. Ironically, he shares with his "hellfire and brimstone" forebears an assumption that sin is not an all-encompassing condition from which we cannot free ourselves, but particular actions that we can overcome through good instructions. And he too has his own lists. He may include some of the older taboos, but the main "sins" are failing to put God's principles for success into practice.
There are important differences, of course. First of all, "sins" seem to lack any clear vertical dimension. That is, it is not obvious that sin, in Osteen's view, is an offense against God. That's why he does not speak of sins, but mistakes or failures to be all we can be. According to the Bible, it is their offensiveness to God that makes such attitudes and actions sins in the first place. Without that vertical (God-oriented) dimension, even sinful actions lose their moral context. Instead, they become translated into the therapeutic language of "dysfunction," unhealthy behaviors that fail to merit God's favor on us in our daily search for good parking spaces. But sinful actions, in this view, even lack the usual horizontal dimension: an offense against our neighbors. Even the social gospel, which made sin more of an offense against our fellow-humans rather than first and foremost against God, at least recognized it as a failure to give to someone else the love and service that I owe. In the increasingly pervasive message of preachers like Osteen, however, sins become offenses I commit against myself that keep me from realizing my own expectations. It is therapeutic narcissism: I have failed to live up to my potential, or to secure God's best for my life, or to follow the instructions that lead to the good life. Can we even comprehend in our human-centered universe of discourse today the God-centered orientation of David's confession to God, "Against you and you alone have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight" (Ps 51:4)?
Second, Osteen does not even use the word "sin" or "sinners," as he himself observed above. In its place apparently is something like "mistake." No longer "falling short of the glory of God" (Rom 3:23), sin is falling short of my best life now. "Is it hard to lead a Christian life?", asked Larry King. "I don't think it's that hard," Osteen replied. "To me it's fun. We have joy and happiness....I'm not trying to follow a set of rules and stuff. I'm just living my life."
Again we meet the swinging pendulum: recoiling from the decidedly "un-fun" legalism of his youth, Osteen rebounds into the arms of antinomianism (no law). No wonder he does not speak of sins (much less the sinful condition that renders us all-even believers-"sinners"), since there is apparently no divinely given "set of rules" that might identify such an offense. The standard is not righteousness, but fun; not holiness before God, but happiness before oneself.
It is not obvious that Christ-at least his incarnation, obedient life, atoning death, and justifying and life-giving resurrection-is necessary at all in Osteen's scheme. "But you have rules, don't you?", King pressed, to which Osteen replied, "We do have rules. But the main rule is to honor God with your life. To live a life of integrity. Not be selfish. You know, help others. But that's really the essence of the Christian faith." Notice how Osteen's happy, fun-filled Christian life without rules suddenly becomes the most demanding religion possible. He is certainly correct when he says that God commands a life of integrity and helping others, not being selfish. In fact, Jesus excoriated the Pharisees for substituting their own petty laws for God's commands, which actually served some good purpose for our neighbors. However, this is precisely what the Law prescribes. Jesus said that "the whole law" is summarized in one sentence: "love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and your neighbor as yourself" (Mt 22:37). Osteen apparently thinks that this is easier than following "a set of rules." In truth, as the rich young ruler learned, it is not. I may keep from literally killing my neighbor, but if I have not sacrificed everything for my neighbor's good, I have not really loved him or her. Osteen thinks that loving our neighbor is easier than "a lot of rules," but Jesus showed us that it's the other way around. One may be sexually pure to one's friends, but God knows whether adultery has been committed in one's heart.
Osteen said that perhaps talk of God's judgment "was for a time," a generation ago. "But I don't have it in my heart to condemn people. I'm there to encourage them. I see myself more as a coach, as a motivator to help them experience the life God has for us."
At first glance, this sounds humble-and perhaps, compared to some of the moralistic and self-righteous jeramiads of yesteryear that threatened God's judgment for drinking a glass of wine or going to a movie, it is. However, the answer to bad law-preaching is good law-preaching, not its elimination. The proper preaching of the law-God's holiness, righteousness, glory, and justice-will not create an "us" versus "them" self-righteousness, but will expose the best works, done from the best motives of the best among us as "filthy rags" before God's searching judgment. Bad law-preaching levels some of us; Osteen's omission of the law levels none of us; biblical preaching of the law levels all of us.
It is actually arrogant for ambassadors to create their own policies, especially when they directly counter the word of the one who sent them. Osteen seems to admit that Jesus Christ is in some way unique and important, but he presumes ignorance of a point that Christ made perfectly clear: namely, that he the only way of salvation from the coming judgment.
Was Jesus' message (however radically different from the rambling jeremiads of fundamentalism) only "for a time" as well? Did Jesus think that people are basically good when you look at their heart? Did he think that sincerity and moral effort would suffice as our clothing when we appear before the judge of all the earth?
If Jesus and the apostles clearly proclaimed the total depravity of the human heart and redemption by Christ alone through faith alone, then Osteen is not being humble when he declines to represent that central announcement. It was Jesus who said that those who do not trust in him "stand condemned already" (Jn 3:18). That was because for Jesus, the judgment that he came to save us from by enduring it for us had God and his glory, not me and my temporal happiness, as its reference point. The ditch we had dug for ourselves was so deep that only God incarnate could pull us out of it by falling in and climbing back out of it himself as our substitute and victor. For him, the good news is that on judgment day God will look at our heart. According to Scripture, that is actually the bad news. The good news is that for all who are in Christ, God looks on the heart, life, death, and resurrection of his Son and declares us righteous in him. It is not a cheap gift, but a free gift.
The Bad News Is Far Worse
The bad news is far worse than that we are not experiencing health, wealth, and happiness now. It is that we are actually dying and nothing can reverse this fact. It gets worse. Death is just a symptom. We will all have a different "cause of death" listed on the medical certificate. However, death itself is the result of a condition we all share: "The wages of sin is death..." (Rom 6:23); "The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law" (1 Cor 15:56). Notice that it is not sins (particular actions), but sin (a condition), that requires our death. Even now, we are falling apart on our way toward death-even if we are having our best life now.
The Good News is Far Better
The good news is far greater than finding a way to mask our symptoms. In both of those passages just cited, it is the counter-point to the bad news: "For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus" (Rom 6:23). "The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Cor 15:56-57). The victory here promised is far greater than relief from stress, sadness, loneliness, disappointment, and even illness leading to death. It is the victory over everlasting death through the resurrection on the last day, as we share in Christ's victory over the grave: "When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: 'Death is swallowed up in victory.' 'O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?'" (1 Cor 15:54-55). Christ did not deal with symptoms; he went right to the source: the curse that his law justly imposes as the penalty for our participation in Adam's sin. As the first Adam brought death, the Last Adam brought eternal life (1 Cor 15:20-24).
Far greater than living longer, enjoying ourselves and our circumstances, is the unfathomable richness of our life together with God, reconciled even while we were enemies, made alive even while we were spiritually dead, brought near even while we were strangers, and adopted as co-heirs of the entire estate even while we were hostile to the things of God. Even now we begin to enjoy a foretaste of this feast, as those for whom "there is therefore no condemnation" (Rom 8:1). Through faith in Christ, we have the assurance that the last judgment has already been determined in our favor despite our sinfulness even as Christians. In the midst of our suffering, pain, and even death, we can confidently cling to the promise that Paul quotes from Isaiah 64:4, namely that which "'no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him'" (1 Cor 2:9). Where the gospel has salvation from the guilt and tyranny of sin now and from the presence and effects of sin in the future, Osteen's very American message has the gospel as salvation from the symptoms of sin now without any clear proclamation of the far greater liberation from God's wrath.
Because he does not face the bad news, Osteen does not really have any good news. To paraphrase Jesus' description of his generation in Luke 7:31-35, Osteen's message teaches us to sing neither the Blues nor the triumphant anthem. It's more like a steady, droning, upbeat hum that we hear on the elevator or at the mall, keeping everything light and undisturbing.
If Osteen were a herald, ambassador, and messenger of the gospel, he would humbly yet confidently proclaim the message that we have been given, rather than deciding for himself what kind of ministry for which he wants to be remembered. An ambassador is sent with the word of his superior. However, Osteen sees himself "more as a coach, as a motivator to help [people] experience the life God has for us." Not only does Osteen's commitment to his own message and ministry fail to serve the interests of God's kingdom; they fall far short of truly serving his hearers. If he loves the people to whom he speaks, he will give them the truth about their situation before God and the good news of God's grace in Christ.
Of course, it is a lot easier to say, "...I don't have it in my heart to condemn people," when you are asked if Jesus is the only way of salvation. It makes us look good. We can be the "nice guy" in a culture that prizes being nice. But being nice isn't always loving. A doctor who can't bring himself or herself to inform you of your cancer in time to receive a possible cure is actually selfish. We trust such informed people to tell us the truth regardless of the personal anxiety or unpleasantness of the news.
God's Truth vs. Our Spin
God's love is far greater than being nice. He tells us the truth. First, he tells us the truth about our condition. We are not sick, but "dead in trespasses and sins" (Eph 2:1); not good people who could do better, but those who are in ourselves incapable of meeting God's righteous standard (Rom 3:1-20). If we are to be judged on our own integrity, we will be lost. Although God could have left the matter there, he freely determined from all eternity to choose, redeem, justify, regenerate, sanctify, and glorify a new humanity "from every race, kindred, tongue, people and nation" (Rev 5:9). Even when we try-in fact, especially when we try-to supplement Christ's perfect righteousness with our "sincerity" and our good intentions, God says, "What, as if it's not enough that I bear all the burden of saving sinners, but you now want to add something of your own and get a little glory for yourselves? You presume to add a little bit of your own 'righteousness' to the finished work of my Son?" So we add ingratitude to our explicit violations of God's law.
When God finishes telling us the bad news, it is not just the non-Christians or "backsliders" who feel its sting, but the most pious believers who recognize that their "righteousness" is actually "dung" compared to the righteousness that God requires and the righteousness that Christ fulfilled (Phil 3).
But God also tells the truth about the good news. No doctor can actually assume your cancer, suffer its terrible results, and assure your resurrection by his own victory over death. But God has done this! As God incarnate, Christ fulfilled his own law in our place, bore its judgments against us on the cross, and was raised the third day for our justification (Rom 4:25). "In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins" (1 Jn 4:10). True love is exhibited in God's act of reconciling sinners to himself by doing what he commanded us to do, bearing the judgment that we deserved for not having done it, and clothing us in the perfect righteousness of the incarnate Son. Salvation is therefore a free gift for us, though it cost God dearly. "Nice" seems trivial in comparison to God's love and mercy.
Osteen is certainly correct when he says that we cannot assume God's role in the last judgment. We cannot condemn anyone. Nevertheless, we have no choice-if we are faithful witnesses-other than to announce the condemnation that rests on all who have not turned from their own claims to righteousness, decency, sincerity, and piety to embrace the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ alone. It is not our condemnation, but our clear warning of God's just condemnation of all who are outside of Christ, that the Lord of the church mandates. Osteen's message is softer, but it is not kinder. He thinks that people who show signs of integrity and a willingness to change are candidates for God's blessings. He does not believe that God justifies the wicked, but that he says, "You're not too bad" to those who do their best.
By contrast, the gospel is that God justifies the ungodly-even hypocritical Christians like me. It is the good news of free forgiveness and justification that he gives us the privilege to announce to sinners such as ourselves. The bad news is worse than having our worst life now. But that also means that the good news is far better than having our best life now. "The present sufferings," according to Paul, "are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed to us" (Rom 8:18).
Fulfilling his calling to pronounce God's judgment ("woes") on the nations, Isaiah beheld a vision of God in his majestic holiness and the only words he could eek out were, "Woe to me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell among a people of unclean lips." Why? Because he has compared himself to the others? No. "For my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!" (v 5). Integrity means having it all together, like a seamless robe. "Lost" in some sense captures the Hebrew idiom, but the old Authorized Version has a slightly better rendering: "I am undone." Undone here means "unraveled." In other words, a life that seemed to exhibit integrity in comparison with "the wicked" now seems perverse in comparison with God's holy beauty. Yet Isaiah's despair is only the prelude for God's gracious act: In the vision, a heavenly being is sent from God's throne to bring salvation and forgiveness. It is only because of this gracious action on God's part that Isaiah then cries out, "Here I am, Lord, send me!" (vv 6-13).
It is this sense of God's majesty, holiness, and righteousness-his distance from us as our judge and king-that is totally absent in Osteen's message. God is our buddy who exists for our happiness, not we for his glory. At the end of the day, Osteen's "good news" is the worst possible news. God's blessing on my life depend on my honoring God with my life, living a life of integrity, and not being selfish. Not only does Osteen affirm this; he adds, "But that's really the essence of the Christian faith." If so, what makes Christianity any different from other religions? Is the essence of the Christian faith my life, righteousness, integrity, and helping others or Christ's? We meet here Paul's absolute contrast between "the righteousness that is by the works of the law" and "the righteousness that is by faith in Christ." There is no more damning criticism that one can offer of Osteen's message than that it takes the former route, albeit in a more upbeat, pleasant, and cheerful tone.
The Rev. Dr. Horton is the J. Gresham Machen professor of systematic theology and apologetics at Westminster Seminary California, the host of the nationally syndicated broadcast of The White Horse Inn radio program, editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation magazine, and a minister in the United Reformed Churches of North America.
Dr. Horton is also the author/editor of more than fifteen books, including: Putting Amazing Back Into Grace; Made in America; A Better Way: Rediscovering the Drama of God Centered Worship; God of Promise: Introducing Covenant Theology; and Too Good To Be True: Finding Hope in a World of Hype. He received his Ph.D. from Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, and the University of Coventry, and resides in Escondido, California, with his wife Lisa and their four children.