". . . and having done all . . . stand firm." Eph. 6:13


The Gospel Should Make You Feel Bad (At First)

February 18, 2024

The tragic shooting at Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church in Houston is another sad reminder that sin is irrational, evil, and enduring.

The mayhem caused when a woman with a rifle opened fire led Osteen to say, “In the face of such darkness, we must hold onto our faith and remember evil will not prevail.” That’s good theology: In the long run, the God of the Bible triumphs. But that long run is much less temporal than it is eternal. Christians know no immunity from pain in a world cursed by sin. Instead, they look to a universe cleansed from sin and everlasting life in the presence of their Lord and King.

Osteen seems eager to talk about other things. According to him, “We’ve got to make our [church] services good. They’ve got to uplift people. They’ve got to walk away saying, ‘You know what, I feel better today.”’

Walk away feeling good? “Uplift?” Is this why God became both a man and, on the cross, the very essence of sin (II Corinthians 5:21)? This is Christianity without Christ, a spiritual oxymoron that removes the center of the gospel and then throws only a shadow of hope on those in desperate need of transformation. It is grace reduced to psychological slobber and truth as a buffet from which you can select only those things you find appealing.

Lakewood’s statement of belief is sound, although basic. It’s my hope that Osteen and those on his large staff truly believe in the necessity of new birth in Christ and the need for faithful obedience to Him. But these things are not what Osteen preaches. His best-selling “Your Best Life Now” is hundreds of pages about how to obtain fulfillment without a single mention of dying to self and the cost of following Jesus. Instead, Pastor Joel recommends “letting go of the past” and tells us that we must “find strength through adversity.” In themselves, these things can aid you in regaining your emotional equilibrium. But is that it? Is this the message of the cross? Is this why, all over the world, martyrs are dying for their love of Jesus?

John Piper has outlined six problems with the “feel good” gospel. His analysis is a useful summary of where preachers like Osteen go far afield from “the faith once delivered” (Jude 1:3). According to Piper, such ministries as Osteen’s are characterized by:

  1. An absence of a serious doctrine of the biblical necessity and normalcy of suffering
  2. An absence of a clear and prominent doctrine of self-denial
  3. An absence of serious exposition of Scripture
  4. A failure to deal with tensions in Scripture
  5. Church leaders who have exorbitant lifestyles
  6. The prominence of self and marginalization of the greatness of God

The “serious exposition” of the good news of Christ involves things sinners often dislike hearing. As theologian Ray Ortlund reminds us, “The good news of the gospel begins with some really bad news. Our sins only provoke a bigger problem: the wrath of God. Our real problem is not our sins but God. He is angry, he isn’t going away, and there is nothing we can do about it.”

Nothing. We. Can. Do. About. It. No self-talk, no therapy, no learned technique to quell genuine guilt or silence the voice of divine conviction. This is the broad way against which Jesus so vividly warned, the way of Oprah and mysticism and prideful self-reliance. It might indeed lead to transient happiness but invariably takes one through the gates of hell.

The bad news of human sin and our inability to redeem ourselves is not the end of the story. “You were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked … and were by nature children of wrath,” Paul writes to the Christians in Ephesus, “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.” Once dead, now alive: this is the key to your best life now and forever. “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:1-9).

Followers of Jesus should pray that God would so arrest the heart and mind of Joel Osteen and all like him that they would repent of the false gospel they so happily broadcast and issue a new message, one that announces the righteous anger of a holy God and the gracious offer of a loving Father. He is one and the same, and His offer of hope, meaning, transformation, and life itself never changes.

Rob Schwarzwalder, Ph.D., is Senior Lecturer in Regent University's Honors College.