A kinder, gentler path to legalism

tsslogo.jpgLast night 60 Minutes aired a segment on popular pastor and author Joel Osteen. Michael Horton, Professor of Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California, appeared briefly. Horton has spoken out with concern over Osteen’s message. Here’s one concern that strikes me:

“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.’ …

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. 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.’ That’s all: ‘…simply obey his commands.’

Everything depends on us, but it’s easy. … 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.’

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.”

– Michael S. Horton article, Joel Osteen and the Glory Story: A Case Study

Horton’s comments are reminiscent of J. Gresham Machen’s view that the theological liberalism of his own day was not a new path of freedom but a “sublimated form of legalism” [see Christianity and Liberalism (Eerdmans: 1923) pp. 143-156].

Instead of preaching that God “has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places,” the popular trend says, “God blesses you with all physical blessing because you have asked enough and obeyed a certain way to unleash the blessing.”

Horton and Machen both recognize that while contemporary shifts in preaching may seem to liberate the believer, the opposite happens — God’s promised blessing becomes contingent on personal obedience. This is the very bondage to the Law Christ frees us from!

So why has God blessed your life? Why do you have life? A job? Money? Food? Clothes? Are your successes expected because God likes you more than others? Are you blessed because your obedience is superior? The proper answer is that all of God’s blessing comes to us in Christ. We don’t get what we deserve (His wrath), we get what we don’t deserve (grace, forgiveness and blessing from God through the death of Christ).

At the end of the day the prosperity gospel is a radical break from Scripture that tells us we have already received everything necessary from God in Christ.

The Gospel – the message that sinners are justified by faith alone in the perfect life and work of Christ alone – is the true path to eternal blessing and freedom. When this Gospel is clouded (or even forgotten), we no longer get a clear view of God or eternal reality by which we interpret our world, our job, our pain, our successfulness.

In the end, to presume God’s blessing is an award for obedience is bondage to age-old legalism, albeit with a kinder and gentler face.

———–

RELATED POST: A short essay answering the question, What is legalism? (5/22/07)

RELATED POST: “Like pangs of death”: Letting go of legalism (3/19/07)

RELATED POST: Cross-centered obedience (08/16/07)

RELATED POST: Deeper into the Glories of Calvary (09/03/07)

RELATED POST: Sinclair Ferguson on supporting the imperatives to holiness (07/23/07)

RELATED: What constitutes ‘relevant preaching’? … “The Christian is in the midst of a sore battle. And as for the condition of the world at large — nothing but the coldest heartlessness could be satisfied with that. It is certainly true that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now. Even in the Christian life there are things that we should like to see removed; there are fears within as well as fightings without; even within the Christian life there are sad evidences of sin. But according to the hope which Christ has given us, there will be final victory, and the struggle of this world will be followed by the glories of heaven. That hope runs all through the Christian life; Christianity is not engrossed by this transitory world, but measures all things by the thought of eternity.” Machen in Christianity and Liberalism (Eerdmans: 1923) pp. 147, 149.

11 thoughts on “A kinder, gentler path to legalism

  1. Excellent, timely post, especially in a day when as far or deep as many go re: justification (at least in southern bapt. churches) is “just as if I’d never sinned.”

    Thank you, Tony.

  2. “At the end of the day the prosperity gospel is a radical break from Scripture that tells us we have already received everything necessary from God in Christ.”

    Wise words Tony, specially in a world where people seek material things, instead of, as you said, seeking all that we have received in Christ, by grace, through the faith God gave us.

  3. Thank you Ben! That “as if I never sinned” sure overlooks the perfect work of Christ, doesn’t it? Getting back to zero sins doesn’t save. Praise God for your faithfulness. Press on my friend! Tony

  4. Hi Tony,

    In light of the idea of “health/wealth” gospel, I’m curious how Sovereign Grace Ministries, which, as far as I know, believes in the perpetuity of the supernatural gifts, such as the gift of healing and the gift of tongues, is received by the Reformed community it rubs shoulders with. In particular, how do fellows like Michael Horton respond to SGM’s commitment to “charismatic” Christianity?

  5. Hello “Tom” — I cannot speak for SGM or Horton. I can say the reformed-charismatic branch (which continues to grow) is quite unique in drawing off the incredible richness of the reformed faith. From my exposure, reformed-charismatics have been widely accepted by reformed non-charismatics. I think there is growing unity around the gospel and this means growing unity among reformed folk of all stripes. This unity can be attributed in part to men like Wayne Grudem, Don Carson and John Piper.

    Let me also say that for me (a r/c blogger) Gospel fidelity is priority number one. So when I see someone — even one I would disagree with on other matters — contending for the Gospel in the face of popular misrepresentation I take note and thank God for their efforts!

    Blessings to you!

    Samwise

  6. I a new here, found your blog through a series of links…glad I stopped by.

    I kept thinking if God never blesses me again, does that change my devotion towards him? NO. He died on the cross and saved me from death, what more could I want? As much as we (I) love blessings, that is not why Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior. When I accepted Christ as my Savior I recieved all I ever needed.

    Thanks for the thoughts. Will be saving this site ;)

  7. I live in Houston, and am frequently surprised by how local Christians act like Osteen is the best preacher they’ve ever seen. People who at other times seem to be responsible, discerning believers accept everything he says. It’s bizarre.

    I’m not sure why this happens or what to do about it.

    Any thoughts?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s