Sloth In Our Day by Michael Horton

White Horse Inn Commentary © 1995, White Horse Media

If you ask Thomas Aquinas, it’s one of The Seven Deadly Sins. I’m not talking about adultery, intemperance, or other vices that readily come to mind. Although it is increasingly tolerated even by the most precise moralists of our age, it is intoxicating in its very essence. The sin is “sloth.”

John Calvin had the temerity to insult Cardinal Sadoleto with the charge that the cleric had an indolent, or lazy, theology, because in spite of his great learning the Cardinal had never really struggled personally with his own sin and need for an “alien righteousness.” Today, much the same is true of all of us.

Many who are inclined to bring criticism upon the church for not properly teaching the people of God raise the concern of anti-intellectualism. Our age, as preoccupied with the flickering images on the screen as any medieval peasant, has given itself willingly to the enterprise of “dumbing down.” But losing our grip on what really matters goes deeper than lazy thinking. It is not merely that we are “intellectualists” who want to make know-it-alls out of plumbers; it is the whole person that is involved in this sloth.

It is not only that we do not think enough; we do not love enough and–more importantly, we do not love the right things. C. S. Lewis writes, “Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition, when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” The church, we are told, has to satisfy the needs of the people; it cannot simply ignore the questions that people are asking today. Of course, that’s true. It isn’t enough for the church to simply educate; it must address itself to the whole person in the whole context of that person’s life. We must make the connection between the text of Scripture and the experience of men and women living today. But the problem is the one expressed here by C. S. Lewis. Our felt needs are trivial. It’s not only that they are human-centered, but that the pleasures of such religion fall so far short of the everlasting peace that comes from a sound understanding of The Faith. We’re so wrapped up in tips for living, relationships and success in life we miss the grander scheme of redemption from God’s wrath. We are like children making mud-pies in the slums when we could be enjoying a holiday at the sea.

You see, it’s not just an “intellectual” thing, though it is certainly that. We are not only failing to love God with our minds, but also with our “hearts, souls, and strength.” The doctrines that we champion on the White Horse Inn are not merely there to fill our minds with wonderful thoughts, but to revive are souls, cheer our hearts, and animate our hands. We are loving someone or something with our minds and hearts, but is it God or is it ourselves?

Whenever people clamor for the practical and prefer to speak about the horizontal dimension–for instance, relationships and success–they are saying that they love God less than they love themselves. They are more interested in using God as a means to their own selfish ends than in glorifying God and enjoying him forever. And yet, there are others who so pride themselves on knowing all the correct doctrines that the doctrines become the object of their worship rather than the divine person these doctrines are meant to describe. Both settle for less and worship and serve the creature rather than the Creator. Some take doctrine, others take life, we are told. But that is quite impossible. Show me a person who is content with a merely intellectual religion and I will show you an unfulfilled and pitiful man or woman. Equally, if I should meet a person who is quite happy to be occupied only with happy, joyful, pleasant feelings or energetic and zealous activities, it is easy to predict that such a person will end up resenting those feelings and despising those activities in due time. Both the “dry” intellectualist and the “wet” sentimentalist are lazy; both fail to love God well. You see, even if God did heal everybody and make everybody rich, this kind of religion would still be wrong–not because people would be demanding too much, but because they would be settling for too little! God wants to open the heavens of his spiritual riches in Christ and give us our inheritance as his children. He wants to tell us who he is and how he saved us from his wrath, and there we are asking him if he’s got any candy in his pockets!

One of the great culprits in this whole enterprise is anti-intellectualism. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, Richard Hofstadter points out that the Reformed Faith built America’s only intigenous intellectual tradition, and as Puritanism degenerated into revivalism, the nation lost its intellectual balance. While the Reformed evangelists of the Great Awakening were also presidents of Princeton and Yale, evangelists ever since Charles Finney have actually boasted in their lack of education. Evangelicalism has a legacy of anti-intellectualism that has not only crippled its witness to the watching world, but has opened the church itself up to the most remarkable reaches of stupidity and incredulity.

But anti-intellectualism is not humble. It is humble to say, “I don’t know, but I’ll have to look into that.” But it’s pride that leads us to say, “I don’t know and that’s OK.” It’s arrogant, first, because it makes oneself the center of the universe. Reading a particularly obscure piece of philosophy, a friend pronounced, “What a stupid debate!” It was a “stupid debate” because Bob does not understand it, much like the child in the math class might conclude of a complicated problem. Imagine one saying of the highly sophisticated formulas that were used to put a man on the moon, “What a stupid set of formulas!”, even after the success is captured on television. To conclude that things which are beyond my reach of knowledge, insight or experience are not worth knowing is the height of arrogance. It makes oneself the measure of all values, all truths, and all meaning in the universe. Second, anti-intellectualism is arrogant in its plea for balance. Ignorant people always cry for balance whenever they do not want to take the time to think through their own position. Holding some so-called “middle position” saves the person from the hassle of having to actually employ critical skills. Circumventing thought processes, it is a mere act of will that picks up the slack. This doesn’t however, keep the person from claiming moral superiority for having the grace, moderation and sophisticated detachment to stand above and outside the debate. A third way in which anti-intellectualism is arrogant is in its intellectual egalitarianism. Egalitarianism is the spirit of our age that insists on everybody being equal. I don’t mean being equal before the law, but equal in abilities, skills, and authority. One person’s views are just as valid as another’s, no matter how stupid, because all ideas, like all people, are created equal. Anti-intellectualism makes egalitarianism possible by leveling the playing field. While in past ages, consulting wise elders and the books of the great thinkers was considered an act of humility, in our day it is considered elitist. In such a time, the church should be standing apart from such worldly arrogance, but instead she is often found at the helm of this ship of fools.

“Orthodoxy” is one of the most pejorative words in the contemporary vocabulary, but it is also the most often misunderstood. It is not about merely a matter of sorting out the intellectual paper-work, but of finding good wood for the fire. One doesn’t build a fire in the middle of the living room or wherever one happens to “feel” like enjoying its warmth; but neither does one build a fire, stack the wood ever-so-neatly, only to stare at it through the cold winter’s night. If it is done correctly, orthodoxy builds us a fire that will drive out the darkness and warm the body and soul even in the most gloomy weather. When our hopes are frozen and our hearts are hard, the Good Shepherd never fails to lead us to shelter. He himself gathers the wood (“Sanctify them by the truth–Thy Word is truth”), and makes us dwell in safety.

Take the doctrine from me, and my fire will consume me; keep the doctrine from catching fire and it will remain distant, cold, and useless.

So let’s stop being lazy. Instead of settling for too little–the trivial things that we call “practical” and “relevant,” let us “fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith,” making every effort to study the Scriptures, gathering the kindling of truth from its sacred pages, and then let us fan the flame until its brilliant glow can be seen from distant places by the homeless souls seeking warmth and light on a cold winter’s night.

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“It is an error to identify the gospel with any particular system or culture, that has been my own danger.” –Billy Graham.

R. C. Sproul tells of the story of his letter to the best selling author of Lords of Discipline commending him on his style. The trend setting novelist replied from his flat in Rome informing Sproul that he had been the first Christian to compliment him on the novel. Raised in a fundamentalist home, this author told Sproul that the familiar circle from which he was raised now denounces him and proudly brands his literature satanic. The only time it seems that evangelicals get involved in main stream society is to register some complaint, some degree of hostility. And when our bright, energetic, talented thinkers, artists and workers go out into the world to fulfill their calling as a calling, they are often gunned down by the brethren for selling out to the world.

Fundamentalists have always been hostile to the outside world, but now they are highly politicized. Their anti-worldly stance which was once kept within the four walls of the church building is now seen in mass rallies in public places. U.S. Senate chaplain Richard Halverson, an evangelical himself, recently said, “All evangelicals care about is their own agenda. They will keep all the phone lines in Washington busy and many of the callers are downright nasty, yet when it comes to hundreds of other issues Congress faces, they never hear from Evangelicals.” The only time we get involved in education is to protest public education. The only time, it seems, we get involved in the arts is to protest the public funding of obscene art. While pro-life leaders often confuse the issue of abortion with getting little red riding hood taken out of the public libraries.

Before, we were hostile to the world but we were separated from it. Now we are still hostile, but very much involved. That’s why our involvement is so harsh, so strident, and often so very negative. Until we see our role in this world in a positive light we will continue to come off as those who can only judge instead of contribute. We engage in discussions of politics as a disgruntled minority demanding its rights, its piece of the pie, while very often we know little and care less about the deeper philosophical and cultural issues of our time.

Culture wars–that is what this situation is being called as American society polarizes into two camps, each employing the language of the battle field poised, to gain control of the nation’s public institutions. In this issue we will walk you through the culture wars debate, with some additional essays on evangelism and apologetics. You might ask what all this has to do with evangelism and apologetics? Everything! Ask the average person on the street what an evangelical is and you are likely to get stereotypical images, or portraits of TV evangelists, or particular political or ideological positions, but how likely are you to hear the “evangel,” the gospel as the singular proclamation of the evangelicals.

Christianity Is Not A Culture

The first problem with the church being identified with the culture wars is a pretty basic one: Christianity is not a culture. It is a faith wrapped around a person who had a real life, a life of significance because he was God incarnate and rose from the dead as he promised. It is a system of truth claims. The gospel has succeeded in a variety of cultures and has thrived among groups maintaining vastly different values and mores, and has been just as good at reconciling socialists to God as capitalists. This past January in the wake of the inaugural festivities President Clinton gathered a group of Southern Baptists ministers to pray with him in Little Rock They assured the evangelical community and the secular media as well that President Clinton was a sound, solid, Bible believing evangelical. Why? How did they know that? They said because he even cried during the singing of some of the hymns. While all this was going on I did an interview with a Christian station in the Bible Belt and Clinton’s Christian convictions seemed to be the chief interest of the callers. One caller said, “Isn’t that amazing! Can you believe all that? Did you hear that just the other day Jerry Falwell responded–and good for him–he responded, ‘You can’t tell whether a person is a Christian or not just because he cries at the hymns. I want to know what is his position on abortion!'” I replied to the caller, “No, you are both wrong. The question is what is his view of Christ. Who does he say he is?” Neither group seemed to get the point. One group is influenced by pietistic sentiment, the other by political ideology. Now one might argue that one’s position on abortion must be consistent with his profession of faith, and I do believe that every Christian ought to seek the end of this worldwide holocaust, but abortion is not in the Apostle’s Creed! It is not an article of Christian faith!

What we’ve done is we have substituted the gospel for moral, political, and sentimental tests. That’s why Pat Robertson can’t be called into question, in spite of his serious doctrinal errors, while Tony Campolo, who is a little left of center politically, can be put on a heresy trail for his political views by a group of parachurch ministries whose supposed purpose of existence is evangelism. Today the basis of unity is ideology, not doctrine. What defines us politically is one thing, what defines us as Christians is a totally different set of questions. It is not to say that public policy issues shouldn’t be important to a Christian. Quite the contrary, every Christian ought to be interested in public policy issues, but as citizens, not as the church making stands on what the gospel is. Yet to often in the past twenty years we have equated the gospel with a particular cultural agenda. Surely no one would say that the late Francis Schaffer shied away from public issues, but he warned, “Equating any other loyalty, whether it is political, national, or ethnic, with our loyalty to God is sin, and we better get our priorities straight now.” He says,

There is a tremendous pressure to lose the Reformation memory as the years pass and our first task is not to align our message with the middle class establishment only to have our children rebel against our faith because of our politics, but to recover the lost truth of our Reformation heritage.

This is why we must recover the biblical doctrine of the two kingdoms as Luther and Calvin did so clearly four and a half centuries ago. There are two kings and two kingdoms, each ruling a distinct sphere. I remember one of the leaders of the National Association of Evangelicals (N.A.E.) when Clinton was elected said, “Now what is to become of the kingdom of God” as though Clinton had anything whatsoever to do with the kingdom of God, that is, as a public official. In the kingdom of culture, what Augustine called “the city of man,” there are rulers, there are laws, there are customs which are regulated by human wisdom. In the kingdom of Christ, or “the city of God,” there is one ruler, our Lord Jesus Christ, and he advances his kingdom, not through marketing, not through legislation or police force, but by the proclamation of the Gospel and the administration of his holy sacraments. If we confuse these two kingdoms–and we have–we will no doubt confuse evangelism with cultural, moral, and political programs.

A Grand Obstruction

And that brings me to my second point: it is a grand obstruction for the people out there. What happens when we confuse evangelism with a particular social or political agenda? Well, we’ve seen it in history, haven’t we, in the crusades when evangelistic texts like “Go ye into the world and preach the gospel making disciples of all the nations…” was used as a justification for political expansion and the building up of an empire. When this confusion occurs it is very difficult to convince the South African victim of apartheid, or the Jewish victim of the holocaust, or those who suffered under the pro Czar Russian orthodox church, that Christianity is not a source of political oppression. And whether or not it is true or an unfair caricature by the secular press (I tend to think it is both), evangelical Christianity is now being widely perceived as one more dying gasp of one more ally of the status quo of middle American, white, middle class culture, unwilling to let go of its power. The issue is whether we confused culture values with the gospel, not whether those values are right or wrong. Billy Graham said,

It is an error to identify the gospel with any particular system or culture, that has been my own danger. When I go to preach the gospel I go as an ambassador for the Kingdom of God, not America. To tie the gospel to any political system, secular program, or society is wrong and will only serve to divert the gospel.

We have to ask ourselves whether the Gospel really is our main preoccupation these days. Just over a decade ago Jerry Falwell said, “The sad fact that is today the United States could only kill three to five percent of the Soviets.” That’s a great pro-life movement! That will really get the world out there to stand up and take notice of what the gospel can do. Meanwhile the same leader said, “We have to stay away from helping the poor because it is a complex issue.” The poor and unemployed had no reason to listen to our gospel with Falwell calling them “that lazy trifling bunch lined up in unemployment offices who would not work in a pie shop eating the holes out of doughnuts.” This same religious leader with argued during the 50’s that Christians ought not to stand up for the civil rights of the blacks. How can the gospel be advanced when it is perceived as a radical political and social agenda, when it always sides with a particular segment of society predictably, whether it is Jerry Falwell or Jesse Jackson?

I have always wondered why any homosexual would listen to us the way we talk about AIDS as the judgment of God. I have often reflected that it is a good thing that God does not hand out judgments for gossip and slander and greed and self-centeredness and self-righteousness or many of our evangelical churches would be empty. But there are other reaches of alienation. Gallup tells us that white evangelicals are more likely than any other group to object to having black or hispanic neighbors. Boy, that’s a gospel concern, isn’t it. That will sure help push the gospel along. Evangelicals just simply aren’t concerned about the gospel, the “evangel,” anymore. It’s about a culture. It’s about preserving traditional values for a certain segment of society. Francis Schaeffer was worried that evangelicalism would become so aligned with conservative middle class Americanism that any rejection of the establishment would entail a rejection of Christ, and that is exactly what happened in the sixties. God–all be it the unknown God of the pagans–fit in when Ike was president. After all, Eisenhower declared that “there can be no good government without religion, and I don’t care what religion it is.” But with the rejection of that particular cultural expression, and the growing diversity of the American population, there was not enough room for God. Why? Because we helped define God as a public mascot of society. As Os Guinness says, “He who marries the spirit of the age soon becomes a widower.” But the Holy Spirit will not honor any other gospel.

We have become the rock of offense rather than Christ. The irony is we have taken the offense out of the gospel–we don’t preach sin and grace anymore–and have taken it over for ourselves. We’re offensive for all the wrong reasons while we leave the gospel itself devoid of its power. The minorities, the feminists, the gays, and others who practice immoral lifestyles–people with whom we may not agree–will not give us a hearing at the end of the twentieth century. Not because we have preached the gospel and called them to repentance and they don’t like that, but because we have framed our communication with them in terms of a war for social, political, and cultural control. Contrary to the religious leaders of his day, Jesus was the friend of sinners. Prostitutes turned from their prostitution because, as Jesus said, “He who is forgiven much loves much.” The Holy Spirit will not convert a single soul through moral crusades. He will not convert a prostitute through Senate bill 242, or change the direction of the homosexual by prime-time denunciation from moralistic preachers. Yes, we are called to preach the good news and to call men and women to repentance, but that is not a political issue, that is not ultimate a moral issue, that is a gospel issue. Repentance can no more be coerced by the state than faith; both are the gracious gifts of God.

A Grand Offense

And finally it is a grand offense to God. At this year’s National Religious Broadcasters (NRB) convention in Los Angeles, the star of Murder, She Wrote, Angela Lansbury, was asked to address the delegates, but the planners were going to cancel her appearance at the convention because in an upcoming movie she was to play a prostitute. That morning, the hosts of Good Morning America could not keep from making there comment, “Wow if that is not an irony! A convention of televangelists barring someone from their convention for playing immoral roles.” Recently I was asked to appear on a secular talk show with an ACLU lawyer to discuss the so-called “culture wars.” The host admitted I was her second pick since the pastor/church leader she had previously chosen had just been arrested for embezzlement. I also happen to know right now prominent Christian leaders who were writing books about traditional values while one left his wife for another woman, another one was having an affair, and another (a pro-life activist) was counseling his daughter to have an abortion. As we look across the Christian landscape right now I don’t know how we have the gall to muster together out of our hypocritical selves the fire in our belly to attack the world for being worldly! Gallup and Barna hand us survey after survey demonstrating that evangelical Christians are as likely to embrace lifestyles every bit as hedonistic, materialistic, self-centered, and sexually immoral as the world in general. The statistics are about neck and neck. That is why pollster Lou Harris reports, “After ten years of piety and ideology the American people have about had it with the approach of religious types.” When are we going to realize that God is looking in our direction with his charge, “Because of you my name is blasphemed among the gentiles.” How many evangelists will we have to see disgraced on national television for their own moral bankruptcy before we can say with the apostle Paul, “I am not ashamed of the Gospel for it is the power of God unto salvation for everyone who believes.”

At the end of the day the culture wars are not only misguided theologically and biblically but even strategically. It is simply an illusion to think that there is any possibility of putting the lion back in the cage. Secularism is here for awhile and will only be turned back with better ideas. Secularism is the result of a vacuum which we created. Tim LaHaye and his battle for the mind asserted that secular humanism is moral, not theological, but that’s the root of the problem. That people like Tim LaHaye have thought that the problem is ultimately moral and not deeper, not theological. If you believe that our society’s greatest problem or any individual’s greatest problem is behavioral, you have a weak view of sin, and the consequent weak view of grace. If you view sin in terms of actions and not primarily in terms of conditions, you will see the answer primarily in the terms of moral reform, not in terms of throwing yourself on the mercy of God. That is why Charles Finney, who said, “A revival is the work of man not God; it’s simply the right use of means,” was also the father of the temperance movement. You don’t need a cross in this scenario, you need a kit to help you put your life back together or a law or a rule to govern your behavior so you don’t get out of hand. No, I must insist secular humanism is a theological issue and when we put it in its natural theological habitat a strange thing happens; we realize that we ourselves are the secular humanists. LaHaye observes that the chief mark of secular humanism is to place man at the center of existence. But that is exactly what I see being done in churches across America. Aren’t our testimonies designed to show people how God made me happy, how he satisfied me, how he worked for me? Aren’t our worship services for our tastes very often and not for God’s? Don’t we tell people that once they become Christians they too will experience the abundant life? What we should be telling people is that salvation isn’t a matter of God making sure we are happy with him, but his making sure he is happy with us, and that is why we have the cross at the middle of it all. But churches don’t center anymore on the old rugged cross, where God saved us from himself by putting his own son in our place to bear the wrath justly meant for us. No, that would make us unhappy, to talk about wrath and hell. More often church services center on us as if our happiness was the goal of the universe. But, Tim LaHaye, this is exactly what you call secular humanism. I am not the first to see this irony. Historians Hatch, Nolan & Marston write,

Humanism or faith in humanity has been mixed with virtually every American religious heritage including evangelicalism and fundamentalism. Most commonly, since the 19th Century many Americans, including many evangelical Christian Americans, have tended to believe in the essential goodness of humanity and the importance of believing in oneself, in self-help and the ability of a free people to solve their own problems.

Sounds like a litany of an average Christian book store these days. Further, the same people who protest the erosion of moral absolutes are often quite willing to accept the erosion of doctrinal absolutes. It is an amazing irony! I can be absolutely certain that God has a published position on the Panama Canal treaty but remain basically unsure about justification and election! If we are as apathetic about moral issues as we are about doctrinal issues, then we are really in trouble, then we are put in the dog house.


We propose a two-fold strategy. First, we will have to clear up this confusion about the gospel and cultural values. Being pro-choice I believe is morally wrong, but it is not heretical. God will never be anyone’s mascot and will never allow himself to be worshipped in either the carved image of the donkey or the elephant. We cannot impose our will on the American electorate anymore and we will have to stop it. We’ll have to stop shaking our fists at our neighbors. We must call the church to a cease-fire with the world over gays in the military and engage in spiritual warfare for their hearts and minds for the first time perhaps in forty years. Second, we’ll not only have to recover gospel proclamation, but we’ll have to learn how to interact positively again with our culture. When the church was facing a really hostile culture in the first century–a lot more hostile than ours–Paul instructed the early Christians to “Make it your ambition to lead a quite life to work well with your hands so that you may win the respect of outsiders and have enough to give those in need.”

In God’s charges against Israel recorded in Hosea, the moral breakdown is credited to the fact that God’s people had grown ignorant of the God they worshipped. Truth again lies slain in the streets, slain not by villainous secular humanists, but by self-congratulatory believers. A people without understanding will always come to ruin. Not a people without enough laws, not a people without enough police, not a people without enough rules, not a people without enough moral values, for ultimately a people’s morality is an expression of deeper convictions. But a people without understanding! T. S. Elliot once observed,

To justify Christianity because it provides a foundation of morality for the general culture, instead of showing the necessity of Christian morality from the truth of Christianity, is a very dangerous inversion. It is not enthusiasm but dogma that differentiates a Christian from a pagan society.

For those who will tear down the cardboard and tin shacks and go for the quality materials, building on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone, there is hope for the future. For those who will lodge their anchor on this rock and know no other message than Christ and Him crucified, there is the promise, “I will go on building my church and not even the gates of hell will prevail against it.” “For what does it profit a man,” our Lord asked, “if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?”

Michael Horton is the J. Gresham Machen professor of apologetics and systematic theology at Westminster Seminary California (Escondido, California), host of The White Horse Inn national radio broadcast, and editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation magazine. He is author of several books, including Power Religion, A Better Way, Putting Amazing Back Into Grace, God of Promise: Introducing Covenant Theology (Baker, 2006), and Too Good to be True: Finding Hope in a World of Hype (Zondervan, 2006).

And Another Thing…

This Post grew out of a response I gave to a question posited by “Bob” in a thread on Toby’s Classical Presbyterian Blog.


Considering a good 90% of modern American Christians are at the least Semi-Pelagian you have quite a question that I believe needs to be SERIOUSLY considered and prayed about in a manner befitting Gethsemane. We fret over (albeit very serious as well) sexuality issues while allowing many of our “evangelical” conservative brethren to preach a gospel of Works Salvation that is in many ways more endangering to the future and health of Christendom than the ills of Liberal social ethics. We tolerate the abominable teachings of Finney, Graham, and others while fighting the onslaught of liberalism in a separate arena. Both problems, Arminianism and Liberalism, ultimately are cut from the same cloth hermenuetically. They each want to place the value of Salvation upon the unworthy shoulders of beings that cannot bear the weight of their own sin. Whether in Finney’s theology (see an excellent critique here) that weight is paid by generic “good works” or Liberalism’s “Social Gospel” salvation, which like Finney, comes to embrace Process Theology (a modern-day heresy in its own right) and the idea that Christ’s death and resurrection is not enough for salvation but merely places one in the position to move in the direction of salvation by checking off various benchmarks on the way to earning a place in the kingdom through various “good works”.

The point here is that while it is good that “evangelicals” are fighting the false diversity of Liberal social ethics at the same time they are no better if they deny Sola Fide in the process. To paraphrase something I heard Michael Horton say one time on the White Horse Inn it strikes me as odd that a term like “evangelicalism” can encompass such a broad spectrum of people to include both Benny Hinn and R.C. Sproul who could not be farther away systematically if they tried but are seen as the same because of their shared views on a very narrow slice of theological pie. My Reformed brethren we have to be careful with whom we lie down with and cast our arm around to win secular political battles when in doing so we put ourselves in danger of losing the Kingdom entirely.

Sunday Theological Moment

Joel Osteen and the Glory Story: A Case Study

By Michael S. Horton

“Name it, claim it”; the “health-and-wealth” or “prosperity gospel”: these are nicknames for a heresy that in many respects is only an extreme version of perhaps the most typical focus of American Christianity today more generally. Basically, God is there for you and your happiness. He has some rules and principles for getting what you want out of life and if you follow them, you can have what you want. Just “declare it” and prosperity will come to you.1 God as Personal Shopper.

Although explicit proponents of the so-called “prosperity gospel” may be fewer than their influence suggests, its big names and best-selling authors (T. D. Jakes, Benny Hinn, Joel Osteen, and Joyce Meyer) are purveyors of a pagan worldview with a peculiarly American flavor. It’s basically what the sixteenth century German monk turned church reformer Martin Luther called the “theology of glory”: How can I climb the ladder and attain the glory here and now that God has actually promised for us after a life of suffering? The contrast is the “theology of the cross”: the story of God’s merciful descent to us, at great personal cost, a message that the Apostle Paul acknowledged was offensive and “foolish to Greeks.”

Joel Osteen: Another Verse of a Really Long Song
The attraction of Americans to this version of the “glory story” is evident in the astonishing success of Joel Osteen’s runaway best-seller, Your Best Life Now: Seven Steps to Living at Your Full Potential. Beyond his charming personality and folksy style, Osteen’s phenomenal attraction is no doubt related to his simple and soothing sampler of the American gospel: a blend of Christian and cultural elements that he picked up not through any formal training, but as the son of a Baptist-turned-prosperity evangelist who was a favorite on the Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN). However, gone are the eccentric caricatures of “prosperity” televangelism, with its flamboyant style and over-the-top rhetoric.

In the Wal-Mart era of religion and spirituality, every particular creed and any denominational distinctives get watered down. We don’t hear (at least explicitly) about our being “little gods,” “part and parcel of God,” or the blood of Christ as a talisman for healing and prosperity. The strange teachings of his father’s generation, still regularly heard on TBN, are not explored in any depth. In fact, nothing is explored in any depth. Osteen still uses the telltale lingo of the health-and-wealth evangelists: “Declare it,” “speak it,” “claim it,” and so forth, but there are no dramatic, made-for-TV healing lines. The pastor of Lakewood Church in Houston, TX, which now owns the Astrodome, does not come across as a flashy evangelist with jets and yachts, but as a charming next-door-neighbor who always has something nice to say.

Although remarkably gifted at the social psychology of television, Joel Osteen is hardly unique. In fact, his explicit drumbeat of prosperity (word-faith) teaching is communicated in the terms and the ambiance that might be difficult to distinguish from most megachurches. Joel Osteen is the next generation of the health-and-wealth gospel. This time, it’s mainstream.

As community philosopher Karl Marx said of a consumer-driven culture, “All that is solid melts into the air.” Religion, too, becomes a commodity-a product or therapy that we can buy and use for our personal well-being. Exemplifying the moralistic and therapeutic approach to religion, Osteen’s message is also a good example of the inability of Boomers to mourn in the face of God’s judgment or dance under the liberating news of God’s saving mercy. In other words, all gravity is lost-both the gravity of our problem and of God’s amazing grace. According to this message, we are not helpless sinners-the ungodly-who need a one-sided divine rescue. (Americans, but especially we Boomers, don’t take bad news well.) Rather, we are good people who just need a little instruction and motivation.

“Law-Lite”: Salvation From Unhappiness By Doing Your Best
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.

A TIME story in 2006 observed that Osteen’s success has reached even more traditional Protestant circles, citing the example of a Lutheran church that followed Your Best Life Now during Lent, of all times, “when,” as the writer notes, “Jesus was having his worst life then.” Even churches formally steeped in a theology of the cross succumb to theologies of glory in the environment of popular American spirituality. We are swimming in a sea of narcissistic moralism: an “easy-listening” version of salvation by self-help.

This is what we might call the false gospel of “God-Loves-You-Anyway.” There’s no need for Christ as our mediator, since God is never quite as holy and we are never quite as morally perverse as to require nothing short of Christ’s death in our place. God is our buddy. He just wants us to be happy, and the Bible gives us the roadmap.

I have no reason to doubt the sincere motivation to reach non-Christians with a relevant message. My concern, however, is that the way this message comes out actually trivializes the faith at its best and contradicts it at its worst. In a way, it sounds like atheism: Imagine there is no heaven above us or hell below us, no necessary expectation that Christ “will come again with glory to judge the living and the dead” and establish perfect peace in the world. In fact, one would be hard-pressed to find anything in this message that would be offensive to a Unitarian, Buddhist, or cultural Christians who are used to a diet of gospel-as-American-Dream. Disney’s Jiminy Cricket expresses this sentiment: “If you wish upon a star, all your dreams will come true.”

To be clear, I’m not saying that it is atheism, but that it sounds oddly like it in this sense: that it is so bound to a this-worldly focus that we really do not hear anything about God himself-his character and works in creation, redemption, or the resurrection of the body and the age to come. Nothing in the past (namely, Christ’s work) nor in the future (namely, Christ’s return in judgment, raising our bodies in everlasting life) really matters. Maybe I haven’t heard enough of his talks on TV, but I have never heard anything that approached a proclamation of any article mentioned in the Apostles’ Creed. Despite the cut-aways of an enthralled audience with Bibles opened, I have yet to hear a single biblical passage actually preached. Is it possible to have evangelism without the evangel? Christian outreach without a Christian message?

If God matters, it is for the most trivial concerns-or at least those quite secondary to the real crisis that the gospel addresses. One could easily come away from this type of message concluding that we are not saved by Christ’s objective work for us, but by our subjective “personal relationship with Jesus” through a series of works that we perform to secure his favor and blessing. God has set up all of these laws and now it’s up to us to follow them so that we can be blessed. I can think of no better illustration of what sociologist Christian Smith has identified as “moralistic, therapeutic deism”: the gospel of American Religion.

As the New Testament repeatedly affirms, those who want to be saved by their own obedience need to know that God doesn’t grade on a curve. His record-keeping is bad news, not good news, unless Christ’s obedient record has been credited to us through faith alone. God’s law says, “If you want to be saved by your own effort, here are the terms: Do all these things and you’ll go to heaven; fail to do them and you’ll go to hell.” The revivalists of yesteryear came up with their own list, but it was basically the same threat: “Do or die.” The kinder, gentler version is, “Try harder and you’ll be happier; fail to do them and you’ll lose out on God’s best for your life here and now.” No heaven, no hell; no condemnation or salvation; no perfect obedience of Christ credited to us: Just do your best. Remember, God is keeping score! Christ becomes totally unnecessary in this message.

Osteen reflects the broader assumption among evangelicals that we are saved by making a decision to have a personal relationship with God. If one’s greatest problem is loneliness, the good news is that Jesus is a reliable friend. If the big problem is anxiety, Jesus will calm us down. Jesus is the glue that holds our marriages and families together, gives us purpose for us to strive toward, wisdom for daily life. And there are half-truths in all of these pleas, but they never really bring hearers face to face with their real problem: that they stand naked and ashamed before a holy God and can only be acceptably clothed in his presence by being clothed, head to toe, in Christ’s righteousness.

This gospel of “submission,” “commitment,” “decision,” and “having a personal relationship with God” fails to realize, first of all, that everyone has a personal relationship with God already: either as a condemned criminal standing before a righteous judge or as a justified co-heir with Christ and adopted child of the Father. “How can I be right with God?” is no longer a question when my happiness rather than God’s holiness is the main issue. My concern is that Joel Osteen is simply the latest in a long line of self-help evangelists who appeal to the native American obsession with pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps. Salvation is not a matter of divine rescue from the judgment that is coming on the world, but a matter of self-improvement in order to have your best life now.


1 This position is extensively documented in Michael Horton, ed., The Agony of Deceit (Chicago: Moody Press, 1990).[Back to text]

2 Joel Osteen, Your Best Life Now: Seven Steps to Living at Your Full Potential (NY: Warner Books, 2004) 41-42. [Back to text]

3 Ibid., 57. [Back to text]

4 Ibid., 66. [Back to text]

5 Ibid., 119. [Back to text]

6 Ibid., 262. [Back to text]

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.

Two Book Recommendations

I am currently reading two wonderful books as a distraction to the Greek class I am taking this summer (by the way Greek is 100 times easier for me than Hebrew). Here they are:

The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination
by Loraine Boettner

This book is an excellent resource for pastors looking for help in teaching the “laity” about the Reformed Doctrine of Predestination, just like the title implies :). It is in an easy to understand format with more than enough Scripture references to keep you busy for hours. Boettner’s prose is light and gives even the most basic reader no troubles. He even includes chapters on the most common critiques of Predestination by Arminians and others to enable your congregations the ability to fight off attacks from their neighbors.

Power Religion:
The Selling Out of the Evangelical Church?
ed. by Michael Horton
w/ essays by Charles Colson, J.I. Packer, R.C. Sproul, Alister McGrath, and others.
A work that gives a detailed and disciplined polemic against the so-called “power gospel” that is currently infesting the “Evangelical” world. Although the book was written way back in the mid-90’s it is
eerily current and equally full of keen insights and bothersome revelations about the future of the American Church.

Just How Pro-Life Are You Really?

This is an excellent article I recently found by Michael Horton. The man is beyond measure in his genius among modern theologians.

Just How Pro-Life Are You Really?
Michael S. Horton, D.Phil.
(First published in Modern Reformation, July/Aug 1992 issue)

This essay first appeared in the July/August1992 issue of Modern Reformation magazine, when it was under the auspices of CURE (Christians United for Reformation), the predecessor to White Horse Media.

Readers familiar with CURE know that we are a group committed to recovering the essence of the Christian message. That means that what you see and hear from us will usually be in the form of doctrinal discussions, issues, and debates written with the thinking layperson in mind.

Nevertheless, there are some practical issues that walk that razor’s edge between faith and practice, to the point where it is difficult to tell whether one who engages in a certain practice is actually denying a certain essential doctrine by doing so. If, for instance, one were to cast one’s gaze on an attractive body at the beach for more than passing appreciation (it’s not difficult to figure out in which part of the country I live), that would be a sin (lust, since many of us have forgotten), but it would not involve a matter of doctrine. I can and, in fact, do engage in sins that do not affect my faith in God, in Christ, or my convictions about the way in which I am saved. While sin tolerated can often undermine confidence in any doctrine that fails to flatter our own indulgences, most of our daily failures to conform to God’s revealed will are of a practical rather than doctrinal sort.

But, as I say, there are exceptions. Abortion is one such exception. In order to engage in this serious sin, a Christian must actually deny a cardinal doctrine of the Christian faith. He or she must deny that God is the Sovereign author of life who alone has the power and right to give and take away human breath, and we also deny the creature we destroy his or her dignity as an image-bearer of God himself. In Christian belief, the significance of human beings over all other species of animal life resides in the image of God (imago Dei) stamped on each person, as an artist signs his masterpieces. Although God created all things, only humans bear his likeness, and they bear it from conception. As Calvin put it, “Though the primary seat of the divine image was in the mind and the heart, or in the soul and its powers, there was no part even of the body in which some rays of glory did not shine” (Institutes 1:15.3). Bavinck, the great Reformed dogmatist, argued that “as long as Man remains Man, he bears the image of God,” however tarnished and effaced.

If this doctrine is lacking in the church, surely it will be lacking in society. Before the late Francis Schaeffer, a Reformation thinker, reminded the evangelical and fundamentalist world of this biblical doctrine, there was virtually no response from the evangelical church to the atrocity of abortion. Roman Catholics, of course, had a theological impetus behind their opposition, but it was obscured by their inclusion of birth control as well as abortion.

And now, thanks to the efforts of the Schaeffers and their many co-laborers, a wide cross section of the evangelical movement supports the protection of human life in its most vulnerable phase. Clearly, humanity is determined by the imago Dei, not by concepts such as “viability.” Nevertheless, because we evangelicals over the last two centuries have been given to feverish activity without much theological reflection (“Don’t bother with all that ‘head stuff’ – let’s just get out there and get it done!”), we are single-issue people. We can only handle one issue at a time. As important as the abortion debate is, the anger that people such as Francis Schaeffer felt in response to it was motivated by a theological conviction–the same well-spring that produced anger at the pollution of the environment (cf. his freshly released Pollution & the Death of Man), outrage at the racism rampant in evangelical circles (cf. Two Contents, Two Realities), and frustration over the injustices of the powerful over the weak.

The abortion debate has been led, like the abolitionist and civil rights movements, as a protest against the oppression of the weak by the strong, picking up on the rich biblical language. “Blessed is he who has regard for the weak” (Psalm 41:1); God “will deliver the needy who cry out, the afflicted who have no one to help. He will take pity on the weak and the needy and save the needy from death. He will rescue them from oppression and violence, for precious is their blood in his sight” (Psalm 72:12-14). And yet, while many evangelicals oppose abortion, there is a curious silence on nearly every other issue where the pro-life ethic, commanded by Scripture, is at risk. One cursory glance at a concordance will reveal how concerned God is about the treatment of the homeless, the poor, the weak, the minorities (“aliens and strangers”), and others too often marginalized.

Words like “oppress,” and pejorative barbs from God about “you cows of Bashan on Mount Samaria, you women who oppress the poor and crush the needy and say to your husbands, ‘Bring us some drinks!'” (Amos 4:1). “‘1 will tear down the winter house along with the summer house; the houses adorned with ivory will be destroyed and the mansions will be demolished,’ declares the Lord” (Amos 3:15). The people of God are entrusted with a special obligation to social justice: “Defend the cause of the weak and fatherless; maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed. Rescue the weak and needy” (Psalm 82:3-4). God hates oppression with the same intensity with which he hates abortion, but are we as consistent in our righteous indignation?

Like abortion, apartheid is a theological as well as an ethical question. To deny life and justice to the unborn or to the un-white is not only a serious sin (such as selfishness or racism), but a deliberate system, complete with biblical proof-texts twisted beyond recognition. While those committed to being faithful to the Christian creeds and Reformation confessions declared apartheid in South Africa a heresy, evangelicals here at home have shown more ambivalence. While Jerry Falwell and other leaders of the Christian Right courageously defended the human rights of the unborn, Falwell returned from his trip to South Africa declaring that Archbishop Desmond Tutu, whose pleas for a peaceful transition from apartheid to democracy have kept south Africa from bloodshed thus far, was “a phony” and urged Christians to support the racist government of P.W. Botha. In the meantime, Jessie Jackson expressed outrage at Democratic presidential nominee Bill Clinton’s criticisms of a rap song encouraging black violence against whites. When will “reverends” transcend pagan party lines?

Think of our other issues involving the doctrine of the image of God. It is the motivation behind our concern for the victim of a savage murder; our horror at seeing children searching for food in garbage bins behind a restaurant while their mothers hold up signs that read, “Will Work for Food and Diapers.” It is that conviction that breaks our heart when we see a prostitute selling her body to keep alive, while others (including those who participate in the same industry through pornography and other forms of sexual entertainment) pour shame and contempt on her. It is that conviction, that religious belief, that binds us to our neighbors and to their interests, regardless of whether they are believers or share our same values or our ethnic, cultural, or linguistic heritage. Not long ago, a friend and I went through the drive-through window at a fast food spot. The fact that the server had a thick foreign accent, characteristic of fast food franchises in Southern California, and that my friend never shied away from making his racism a matter of public record, made me cringe as I prepared for the inevitable. Sure enough, this friend made some typically racist remark. The sad thing is, he’s a pastor. The odd thing is, he’s a rabid opponent of abortion. But is he consistently pro-life?

Evangelicals raise no qualms when the United States commits millions to Israel or spends millions on a military campaign to free a tiny, but wealthy, oil state with no regard for democracy, but when it comes to talking about the emergency in Somalia, Africa, with hundreds dying every day from starvation, the sentiment seems to be, “We have our own problems here at home.” Evangelicals rightly protest the murder of the unborn and decry the silence of those who refuse to defend those who have no voice to defend themselves. Nevertheless, that same silence hovers secretly over the same impassioned group when children die senselessly after they are born. Shouldn’t there be an outrage of equal proportions? Isn’t life life? Or are we just caught up in the glitz and glamour of political debates? Are we really pro-life?

Until Christians put their theology first, their activism will be little more rationally motivated than that of Hare Krishnas passing out flowers in airports. We will be moved along, one issue at a time, by charismatic and energetic leaders and our internal contradictions (such as calling ourselves “pro-life” when in truth we rarely speak up for the poor and oppressed after they’re born) will not win for evangelicalism respect in the eyes of the world for having the courage of its convictions. What convictions? Activism, agendas, and practical involvement are not convictions. Indeed, these things mean nothing without convictions, and convictions come from deeply held beliefs about God and ourselves. And folks, that’s theology.

The Evangelical Reality

The Silent Intruder

We have come to a point in our journey where we have lost the meaning of the Reformation. How many of us count Evangelicals as “partners” in the fight against liberalism yet conveniently forget that they are not spiritual partners of any measure. Our focus on morality as the cause de jour of the age has left us at the point where we can pass over the doctrines which make us Reformed in favor of reconciling a law-based salvation with moral values. Do not misunderstand I do not intend to defend liberalism in any fashion nor would I consider it a possibility. However we tend to forget that what Luther was fighting against was a Catholic Church that measured salvation through the works of the flesh not the work of Christ on the cross. Luther was also fighting against the work of men like John Tetzel, who sold salvation through three easy payments of $19.99 (plus s+h). What we have today in the Evangelical movement is this same type of Roman Catholicism minus the Pope and as Dr. Michael Horton says, “without the sacraments”. In a-I think-wonderful song by Hank Williams, Jr. he says, “they want you to send money to the Lord but they give you their address.” It pretty much sums it up does it not? The Arminian heresy that is modern Evangelicalism receives a pass for most of us. Our combined passion and motivation lie in the fight against the normalization of homosexuality, same-sex marriage, and the evil of abortion. While these are the moral problems of the age and we must not discount their importance, the Reformed among us tend to focus more on these perverse sexual sins than on Salvation by Faith Alone. If you look at Martin Luther’s Freedom of the Will you see that he writes nearly 200 pages without speaking directly about the salvationary value of morality but focus’ directly on SALVATION BY FAITH ALONE. I was sitting in Magee-Womens Hospital in Pittsburgh waiting for my wife to finish her glucose test when while reading Jonathan Edwards’ Justification by Faith Alone when a young lady leaned over and asked what I was reading. I told her what it was-not expecting much-and she asked “what kind of God stuff is that?”. While I may be a poor explainer of the Doctrine of Salvation by Faith Alone she was completely blown away by the concept that the works of her flesh will not gain her entrance into heaven. This concept was one she was completely unaware. She began telling me stories of the life she had led-which incidentally had brought her to be at Magee Women’s that morning-and the depravity of which she was describing (I have always found it interesting how people will tell complete strangers things they wouldn’t tell their own family) blew me away. I asked if she had ever attended church and she told me no that she never felt that she was “good enough” to be a Christian. And while I was listening to that sentence I felt as if the building was crumbling around me and no one else was noticing. I thought to myself, “This is the problem. We have so allowed the error of Arminianism to permeate the idea of Christian faith that the problem does not lie in rooting out the sin of the law but in preaching the Gospel of Salvation of Faith Alone.” Then after telling her in a pastoral way-at least my feeble attempt-that the behavior she was engaging in was harmful not only to her but to the baby she was carrying I began to explain to her the glory that awaited her if she would repent and seek Christ. However what was important is that instead of feeding her the typical works-based salvation that she was used to hearing and used to dismissing I explained to her more what Salvation by Faith Alone means and then unfortunately before I could get to the basics (me and my long-winded mouth) she had to go to her appointment. I sat there thinking about the conversation that I had just said and the reality of it blew me away. While I was replaying the event in my head it struck me. It hit me that the problem with the Reformed church today is that we have forgotten why we are Reformed. We believe-unlike the vast majority of the church-going public-that Salvation is not through the works of the flesh but by the death and resurrection of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
We cannot have salvation without the intercession of the Son. I know some of you are saying, “why does he keep saying this stuff?” I realize that I have already stated Salvation by Faith Alone a good 10 times already and in the fear of being redundent I’ll say it again. We as Reformed Christians have lost the fight against Arminianism. Worse than that we have lost the case for Salvation for millions of our brethren. In favor of moral battles we have given up the battle for salvation.