Joel Osteen

Why would the Visitor run an article about television personality, Joel Osteen? Some of our readers may not even know the name. However, Osteen’s website (joelosteen.com) states:

“According to Nielsen Media Research, Joel is the most watched inspirational figure in America. His weekly sermon is broadcast into every U.S. television market where it is viewed by seven million Americans each week and more than 20 million each month.”

I would guess that some of those 20 million people sit in our Ohio Bible Fellowship churches. Those very people may view Osteen as a Bible preacher and react favorably to his upbeat view of life. It would therefore behoove us to look at his ministry with an open Bible.

As Big As Texas
Joel Osteen is a native Texan, and everything about him is as big as Texas. He is pastor of Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas, which claims to be the largest and fastest growing church in America. The church meets in the remodeled Compaq Center, formerly the home of the Houston Rockets basketball team, and boasts a weekly attendance of 38,000. Since the center only seats 16,000, I take it that the larger figure is the composite attendance of the weekly services.

Joel Osteen is a second generation preacher, following in the footsteps of his deceased father John Osteen. According to his website, Joel attended Oral Roberts University, studying radio and television communications. No mention is made of any Bible or theological training. The published doctrinal statement on the website is very brief and contains nothing to which any Christian would object. From my observation, Osteen’s ministry would be in the charismatic or Pentecostal camp, but this is not mentioned in the doctrinal statement. Probably the statement has been deliberately kept brief to appeal to anyone who calls himself a Christian.

Lots of Osteens
Lakewood Church boasts a leadership team of 350. The team is heavy at the top with Osteen family members. Joel’s wife, Victoria, is listed as co-pastor (that fact alone should speak volumes to fundamental believers). Brother Paul Osteen, who is a medical doctor, is associate pastor. Dodie Osteen, mother of Joel and Paul, is listed without title. Kevin Comes, a brother-in-law, is designated as Chief Operating Officer, and his wife, Lisa Comes, is listed as an associate pastor.

Not True
Joel Osteen is the author of two books. The first, Your Best Life Now, made the New York Times bestseller list, selling more than four million copies. The second book, Become a Better You, was just released this fall with a printing of three million copies. Without reading the second book, I feel certain that it is very much like the first. Melanie Eversley, writing in USA Today for October 10, 2007 observed, “The message is a continuation of that from his first book. . . .” In the Eversley article she summarizes the book by saying, “He says he wants people to love themselves, to understand that God wants this and to know they can do anything with God’s help.” The same summary might also be used to précis the first book.

In the course of Your Best Life Now, there are helpful suggestions about negative attitudes, bitterness, giving of oneself, and happiness. However, as I read through the book and pondered its significant statements, I found myself writing in the margin, “Not true.” Let me give some examples. On page 104 Osteen says, “When you think positive, excellent thoughts, you will be propelled toward greatness, inevitably bound for increase, promotion, and God’s supernatural blessing.” I am all for thinking excellent thoughts, but will the rest of that statement pass the test of reality?

Osteen sets forth the thesis of his book on page five: “God wants to increase you financially, by giving you promotions, fresh ideas, and creativity.” Is it true that God desires to do that for all of his children? Osteen does not even limit it to believers, God’s children. Osteen makes this statement as if it were some written promise given to every man. The truth is, what “God wants” is for all men everywhere to repent of their sins regardless of their financial condition (Acts 17:30). The idea that God has made such a promise is simply not true.

On page 35 he intones, “Don’t just accept whatever comes your way in life. You were born to win; you were born for greatness; you were created to be a champion in life.” The statement has the flavor of athletics about it. In my younger days I strove to be a champion in track. Though I believe I gave my best, I learned I was not born to be a champion. I was born to be average and had to be content with second or third place. I had to learn to glorify God even when mediocre, because Scripture says that is what I was “born for” (Rev 4:11). Again, the idea that “you were born for greatness” is simply not true.

That “champion” theme is repeated a number of times. On page 57 he states, “Moreover, God sees you as a champion. He believes in you even more than you believe in yourself.” Osteen follows that up on page 58 by stating, “God wants us to have healthy, positive self-images, to see ourselves as priceless treasures. He wants us to feel good about ourselves.” Where in Scripture does God say he wants me to feel good about myself? Doesn’t the Bible teach that God wants us to see ourselves as sinners saved by grace, realizing that the only good things about us are wrought by the Holy Spirit in our lives (Eph 2:8–10)? Self image is a big theme in modern psychology. Many a child has been spoiled rotten by parents constantly reminding him that he is a “priceless treasure” rather than a rebellious sinner (Rom 3:10–11, 23). Children need biblical instruction and discipline instead of praise. Once more, the champion mentality is simply not true.

On page 76 I read, “God doesn’t want you to drag through life, barely making it. He doesn’t want you to have to scrimp and scrape, trying to come up with enough money to pay for food, shelter, transportation, to pay your bills, or to worry about how you are going to send your children to college.” As I read that statement my mind went to Hebrews 11:34–37. That passage speaks of the heroes of the faith who were tortured, cruelly mocked, scourged, imprisoned, stoned, sawn asunder, destitute, afflicted and torn apart. These men and women of faith were not parading down Joel Osteen’s easy street; rather, they were suffering in the center of God’s will. Rather than preparing God’s people for success, Osteen is setting them up for bitter disappointment. Osteen presents his statement as a foundational truth, but the idea that God protects His children from passing through lean times is simply not true.

Twisted Scripture
As a college student I kept taking elective courses in psychology. At the close of each course, I felt disappointed, thinking that the “good stuff” must be in the next course. My last attempt was a class in clinical psychology. At the end of that course the light finally began to dawn on me. Psychology doesn’t have the “good stuff.” The “good stuff” about human beings, life, and its realities, is all found in the Bible (2 Pet 1:3; 2 Tim 3:16–17). Psychology, unless it is informed by the Bible, is no better in the hands of a preacher than it is in the hands of a secular professor.

Osteen does not use many Scripture passages to set forth his ideas. Even more troubling, whenever Scripture is used, it is twisted to speak of some point that will support his psychological thinking. For example, Isaiah 61:7 is a verse that speaks about the future of Israel. It says, “For your shame ye shall have double; and for confusion they shall rejoice in their portion: therefore in their land they shall possess the double: everlasting joy shall be unto them.” While this article is not the place to exegete the text, it is obvious that it is a promise to Israel to be kept by God at a specific time. On page 31 Osteen comments on this text, “The Bible promises that God will give us ‘a twofold recompense for our former shame.’ That means if you’ll keep the right attitude, God will pay you back double for your trouble.” Using the verse to make a point about a positive attitude is certainly twisting the text.

In Matthew 9 Christ was speaking to the Pharisees and pointing out the great gap between their hardened thinking and the truth he was teaching. In verse seventeen, Jesus used the illustration of putting new wine into old bottles. On page 6 of the book, Osteen seeks to get his readers to enlarge their positive thinking vision. He uses Matthew 9:17 as follows: “’You can’t put new wine into old wineskins.’ Jesus was saying that you cannot have a larger life with restricted attitudes.” Actually, Christ was using the passage to talk about the hard hearts of the Pharisees. It takes a mighty twist to apply it to “a larger life with restricted attitudes.”

Easy Believism
Throughout the book it is assumed that all readers can expect God’s blessings if they think, speak, and live positively. Osteen makes no suggestion that the wrath of God is upon sinful men (Eph 2:3). All people are assumed to be the children of God who can have a life of being a champion if they will just be positive. When the book is complete, and the footnotes have been given, there is a final page entitled “We Want to Hear from You” where the following encouragement is found:

“Are you at peace with God? A void exists in every person’s heart that only God can fill. I’m not talking about joining a church or finding religion. I’m talking about finding life and peace and happiness. Would you pray with me today? Just say, ‘Lord Jesus, I repent of my sins. I ask You to come into my heart. I make You my Lord and Savior. . . .’ Friend, if you prayed that simple prayer, I believe you have been ‘born again.’”

This paragraph illustrates “easy believism” in its clearest form. Just pray the prayer and you are saved. Millions have, and will, pray that prayer as some kind of simple formula which they hope will magically bring the new birth. However, salvation is only received if you know you are a lost sinner; if the Holy Spirit has brought you under conviction to make you sick of that sin; if you realize that Christ the Son of God died to atone for your sin; and if you see that you are hell-bound without Him; then, if you ask God through prayer, genuinely believing and confessing such truths, you can have any hope of God saving your soul.

“I Don’t Know”
As grievous as the errors in Osteen’s books may be, they pale in comparison to his outright denial of gospel truth. In an interview on CNN’s Larry King Live on June 20, 2005, Osteen was asked if salvation is possible outside of Jesus Christ. His response? “I don’t know.”

KING: What if you’re Jewish or Muslim, you don’t accept Christ at all?

OSTEEN: You know, I’m very careful about saying who would and wouldn’t go to heaven. I don’t know. . . .

KING: If you believe you have to believe in Christ, they’re wrong, aren’t they?

OSTEEN: 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.

According to Scripture, that’s not a humble answer. It’s a false and damning answer. It appears that Osteen is more interested in presenting a positive message than an accurate one.

A Spiritual Guide?
Joel Osteen is the pastor of America’s largest church. His sermon is heard by seven million Americans each week. Does that make him a safe counselor for your soul? No, worldly fame does not accredit a spiritual guide. When your salvation and growth in grace are at stake, you do not need a positive thinker with a psychology book. You need a faithful pastor with his Bible.

March 2008

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The OBF Visitor is the official publication of the Ohio Bible Fellowship. Feature articles from past issues of the Visitor are made available here for your use. You may read, distribute, and use this material as long as you do so in its entirety and without modification. All articles © The Ohio Bible Fellowship.

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