Osteen And The Bible
Lance King and Rafael Martinez, Spiritwatch Ministries
To Lance & Rafael's Spiritwatch Ministry Teaching
Every Christian's Obligation
Osteen has been rightly criticized for being a theological lightweight.
Undergirding his trademark fluffiness is an off-the-cuff hermeneutic which
permeates his reading of Scripture. Simply put, Joel misses the mark when
it comes to rightly handling God's Word.
of letting Scripture interpret Scripture, Joel reads meanings into the
text wherever it suits his purposes. He will sometimes focus on key words
or phrases, such as “far and beyond favor,” repeating the phrase with
little regard for the remainder of the verse. When Joel cites a complete
verse, he may interpret it in a fashion wholly unrelated to its original
context. At other times, he seizes upon a secondary detail in the text
while ignoring the central point of the passage. Joel clumsily wields the
sword of the Lord like a hammer, rather than as a precision tool that
divides truth from error.
Christians sincerely hold that we should never criticize a preacher. In
recent years, certain televangelists have furthered that belief by
cautioning viewers to “touch not God's anointed.”
These stern warnings
stifle critical thought for the devout. What Christian would want to be
found opposing a true servant of God? While Joel's style is clearly less
heavy-handed than nearly all of his predecessors, he does attract many
people who have been indoctrinated in this way of thinking by other
charismatic TV personalities. For these followers, to call into question
Joel's handling of the Bible is tantamount to attacking God's anointed.
Christian's authority for challenging any teacher is grounded in the
Bible's own claim to be God's inspired Word. In the Acts of the Apostles,
the Bereans were commended for refusing to uncritically receive the
apostles' preaching about Jesus (1). They compared the apostles' testimony
with the Old Testament, seeing if this message aligned with what had been
written concerning the promised Messiah.
New Testament is replete with warnings against false teachers who would
lead the church astray (2), and the apostle Paul pointedly warns against
those who would preach another Gospel than the one we have received (3).
Without applying this standard to popular teachers, the only standards
left are subjective – that is, we are forced to rely upon intuition or
even personal taste in evaluating truth claims. Even if a preacher says
things that are helpful and true, but then ignores or marginalizes the
gospel of Jesus Christ, he is effectively preaching another gospel by
omission. The proclamation of the Gospel demands boldness.
reason we may hold Joel to the standard of Scripture is that he claims
this standard for his own ministry. Lakewood Church's Statement of Faith
begins by affirming their commitment to the Bible as God's inerrant Word,
“on which we base our faith, conduct and doctrine" (4). This is a
commendable standard that invites fair comparison with Scripture to see
whether their leadership truly adheres to it. Any church worth its name
ought to be able to demonstrate that it lives up to to its own stated
Sunday, Joel begins his sermon by holding his Bible aloft and reciting the
following declaration with his congregation:
is my Bible. I am what it says I am. I have what it says I have. I can do
what it says I can do. Today I will be taught the Word of God. I boldly
confess, my mind is alert, my heart is receptive. I will never be the
same, in Jesus' name.
light of this declaration, the listener has every reason to believe that
Joel invites an honest comparison between his teaching and the Scriptures.
To say that he is not subject to the same investigation would elevate him
above the apostles who subjected themselves to that same standard.
Therefore we are not being unfair in studying how Joel makes use of the
looking more closely at Joel's use of the Bible, we should take a moment
to consider some general guidelines for reading the Scriptures.
of Biblical Interpretation
have always been skeptics who assert that the Bible is a “wax nose,”
meaning that one can prove nearly anything by appealing to Scripture.
Certainly a person could “prove” a variety of bizarre assertions by
randomly selecting quotes from Scripture. The same thing could be said for
any piece of literature where context is disregarded. One could easily
build a case for the benefits of inducing mental illness by selectively
citing psychological journals, or develop a justification for racial
discrimination by isolating partial quotes from Martin Luther King. Few
people would accept such arguments as having validity, but for some reason
the Bible is presumed subject to any pet theory people entertain.
reality, there are generally accepted principles of interpretation, also
called hermeneutics. While hermeneutics is a broad topic, there are
some basic norms that virtually all Biblical scholars agree upon. We might
summarize the most important interpretive principles under the following
categories: genre, audience, occasion, major themes, context, and word
are, of course, other considerations such as dating, authorship, and
grammar that are important for scholars. Our focus here, however, is on
how average Christians can benefit from studying
the Bible. Used with
discernment, many excellent resources can be found on the Internet, making
a vast array of materials available instantly and cheaply (5). Never in
human history has God's Word been as accessible as it is today.
Ironically, despite these many resources, we live in a day when many
professing Christians are biblically illiterate. This tragedy may be laid
in part at the feet of church leaders who have failed to ground their
members both in the content of Scripture, as well as failing to provide
them with the tools necessary to study the Bible for themselves
Bible makes use of a variety of literary
genres. Among these are
apocalyptic writings, wisdom literature, pastoral letters and narrative
texts. Some books may contain elements of multiple genres; for example,
Matthew contains extended discussion regarding prophetic events within a
narrative of Jesus' earthly ministry. Biblical writers make use of common
literary conventions: similes and metaphors, hyperbole, rhetorical
questions, and even the occasional sarcasm or irony. It is helpful to
familiarize ourselves with all of these literary elements, and which ones
are generally found in any given book. If you spent your last summer
vacation looking for a beast with seven heads to crawl up on the beach,
it's likely you have misunderstood a literary genre.
the original audience helps us to define the main purpose of the book.
Discovering that the original recipients of an epistle lived in a
multicultural port city awash in carnality (such as Corinth), helps us
make sense of the letter. Familiarizing ourselves with the occasion for
the writing can also help us apply it in our own lives in a meaningful
way. Prophets such as Jeremiah made their appearance when God's people had
gone astray from his Law and needed correction; they warned of judgment
for sin, while promising blessings for obedience. By studying the major
themes for any given book, we may avoid the pitfall of focusing on minor
issues at the expense of the main message.
we have considered the major themes, we can proceed to look more closely
at the immediate context of the passages within it. Most modern Bibles
provide some guidance in this area, often grouping verses under major
headings that identify those sections. While these descriptive headings
are only interpretive aids, they can be quite useful in seeing how
passages fit together. We sometimes forget that Luke or Peter didn't write
in chapters and verses. These features of our Bibles were added centuries
later for convenience. In fact, some chapter and verse divisions create
artificial breaks that can interrupt the flow of the text, so we should
never be slaves to reading the Bible as if the chapter divisions signaled
the beginning or end of the topic being addressed.
true about passages is true about individual verses; we can't properly
understand most verses without looking at the verses which immediately
precede and follow it. Narrowing our focus, we can look at the meanings of
individual words by consulting various Bible translations to get a sense
of shades of meaning that the word might convey (6). It can also be
helpful to look up the word in a Greek or Hebrew lexicon, which may
include detailed explanations about where a word is used in the Bible, as
well as providing historic information on its usage. Bear in mind that
words in Greek or Hebrew, just as in English, can have different meanings
depending on the specific usage. The popular assumption
that a biblical word has only one meaning has resulted in many
erroneous teachings over the years.
it comes to methodology, we must keep in mind that the Bible is not a
collection of unrelated, wise sayings. Each book inside is meant to be
read from beginning to end. Some Christians make a habit of letting their
Bibles fall open and seizing the first verse their eyes land upon as a
prophetic word for the moment. This approach closely resembles divination,
such as reading tea leaves or consulting one's horoscope. It can also lead
to disastrous results, particularly if the verse describes the behavior of
the ungodly rather than instruction for God's people, or if we mistakenly
take a prophecy intended for a specific person or nation and misapply it
to our present circumstances.
well-worn, anecdotal story used by many preachers over the years
humorously demonstrates the fallacy of randomly stringing together
unrelated Bible verses. It involves a fellow who opens his Bible seeking
spiritual guidance, and the first verse he sees tells how Judas went out
and hanged himself. Discouraged by this depressing word, he flips to
another verse where Jesus says, “Go and do thou likewise.” Reading the
Bible as a random series of instructions can lead to a dead end. Instead
of being like our misguided friend, we should strive to read God's Word in
the natural way that both the human author and the Holy Spirit intended.
these general principles will help us avoid many errors as we seek to
understand God's Word. We are not saying that interpretive difficulties
don't exist; scholars often debate whether a phrase should be translated
in a certain way or another. Generally speaking, however, the vast
majority of the Bible's contents are clear and understandable to the
average layman who seeks to grow in understanding. While we should seek
guidance from mature Christian leaders and those who have gone before us
in the faith, there's no reason for us to be completely dependent on the
teaching of others when God's Word is available to us.
Whom is Joel Preaching?
regularly ends each sermon with an invitation to receive Christ. There is
similarly an invitation on the last page of his books to pray a
“sinner's prayer,” and ask Jesus to be one's Savior and Lord. (This is
one of the only places in his books where we can recall him actually using the word
sin.) The prayer is similar to the prayers led by many an
evangelist in the past 50 years. Problematically, this invitation appears
at the very end of a book affirming God's blessings on nearly every
the prayer includes a confession of one's sins, the impact of human
sinfulness has already been downplayed by Joel to the point that sin is
merely something less than one's best – not a condition of
spiritual deadness that merits our eternal punishment. Until the reader
reaches the final page, she is led to believe that she is already a child
of the Most High God simply by virtue of being human. The role of
supernatural conversion through the new birth is never presented as the
means by which we can achieve our best lives now. Joel should be telling
sinners that God can make them into new creatures, but all he offers is a
“better” you. This promise falls far short of the Christian gospel. It
is, in fact, another gospel.
terms of practical impact, Joel's message is an updated version of
Pelagianism (7). Pelagius, a contemporary of Augustine, held to the
heretical view that mankind was not fallen and dead in sin; rather, we are
only influenced by the bad example set by our human father, Adam.
Consequently, Pelagius argued that we could pull ourselves up by our own
bootstraps and choose to live a pious life by the mere act of our will.
Jesus' death saved no one, but served only as an example to us. This view
has been universally rejected by Christians for the simple reason that it
contradicts the many Biblical passages that inform us about man's fallen
state, as well as the fact of Christ's substitutionary atonement for our
Joel declares his belief in Jesus as our Savior, by relegating this core
truth to a mere addendum of his teaching, and by not taking the sin nature
into account, he nullifies what he formally professes. The fact that a
preacher officially subscribes to orthodoxy is far less important than the
content of what he preaches every Sunday. A paper orthodoxy that
takes a back seat to pragmatism is of no real value. It just
doesn't do to affirm Jesus as Savior in a “sinner's prayer,” but then
deny so great a salvation by excluding the subject of redemption from
not clear whether Joel believes that all of those reading his books are
Christians, but he seems to take the spiritual condition of his readers
for granted at every turn. In multiple places he encourages his readers to
affirm that we are children of the Most High God, that we can rest sure in
the knowledge that Jesus' sacrifice proves our worth before God. At one
point he even asserts that we can find comfort in the knowledge that our
loved ones are sure to be “in a better place" (9). On page after
page, he takes for granted that all of his readers, along with all of
their dead loved ones, are already in a right relationship with God. No
distinction is made between the hope of the one who believes in Jesus and
the lost state of the one who does not believe. Not every dead loved one
is in a better place if Jesus is to be believed. Most, in fact, are not
Unbiblical platitudes like
this one are particularly troubling for a
book that's widely distributed in mainstream retail giants like Barnes
& Noble, Wal-Mart and chain grocery stores. His oversight in something
so important might be a consequence of living as a Christian among
Christians in the Bible Belt. Perhaps he doesn't actually know any
unbelievers in his personal life. Pastors do tend to be surrounded by
fellow believers most of the time; that's a common liability that comes
with being a professional minister, and one could hardly fault him for
that. We would like to believe that such is the case. It is precisely at
this point, however, that his own words betray him.
he is ambiguous about the identity of his audience in his books, Joel has
made it clear in various interviews that he consciously preaches to an unchurched
audience as much as he does to those who are already believers (11).
Countless unbelievers will buy his books and read them, wrongly believing
that all the promises of Scripture apply to them. Joel cherry picks verses
that speak of God's blessing, yet according to Scripture God's promises
are for his people and – particularly in the case of ancient Israel –
are often contingent upon their obedience. Non-Christians by definition
simply do not share in the gift of saving grace or heavenly rewards.
a day when “spiritual” advisors like Marianne Williamson regularly
appear on talk shows telling people that everyone is a child of
God, there is a great danger that Joel will mislead people into believing
that they are in God's favor when they are still dead in their sins. God's
righteous and holy wrath rests upon the “sons of disobedience"
(12), and only the atoning death of Jesus can save us from eternal
punishment. Joel labors admirably to reform people from their
“mistakes,” but, unlike the central redemptive role it occupies in the
New Testament, the Cross plays only a peripheral role in his theology.
makes no secret about the fact that he has no formal theological
education, and for many postmodern people that's actually considered a
selling point over traditional preachers. His calling card is his own
professed simplicity. Certainly God can use a man with no formal training
to do his work, but that is really beside the point. That God can use even
a donkey doesn't excuse a preacher from the duty to properly exposit God's
Word. There are countless Bible study tools available to any minister in
America today, even if he lacks the benefit of advanced training.
author Richard Young defends Osteen against his theological critics. In an
interview with The Christian Post, Young argues: “Critics say
Osteen lacks biblical references in his books and claim that he preaches
prosperity gospel. However, I found nearly 130 scriptural references in
'Become [sic] a Better You,' Osteen's newest book." (13)
than leaving it up to his readers to scramble for a concordance, Joel
usually provides direct citations in endnotes. Notwithstanding his
numerous citations and allusions, the fact that Joel liberally quotes the
Bible does not in itself disprove the charge that he preaches a prosperity
gospel. Nor does quoting 130 verses demonstrate that he is making
appropriate use of these verses. One can pick up any recent copy of The
Watchtower, the principle teaching vehicle of the Jehovah's Witnesses,
and find dozens of quotes from the Bible. Citing verses only demonstrates
that one is proficient in the use of a concordance. How those
verses are handled is the critical issue.
some instances, Joel's use of the Bible is fairly conventional, and he
most often cites verses that are well-known to a Christian audience. Where
he misuses Scripture might be classified in two broad categories: trivialization
and violation of context.
tends to domesticate a verse or passage by quoting it in context and then
turning it in such a way that the central point is lost. One example of
this trivialization arises in telling the story of the Samaritan woman of
whom Jesus asks a drink (14). Joel begins to tell the story of Jesus'
offer of living water, and the woman's confused reply. He summarizes the
dialog between Jesus and the woman as follows:
wonder how many times God tells us that He wants to do something great in
our lives, that we are going to be healthy and well; we are going to get
out of debt. We feel it strongly, but like the woman at the well, we start
thinking about what we don't have, and all the obstacles in our path, and
before long, we've talked ourselves out of God's best (15).
offer of living water, and the ensuing conversation in which he reveals
himself as the long-awaited Messiah, is not a promise that she will get
out of debt or overcome career obstacles. It is a promise that if she will
but ask him, he will grant her eternal life. All other worldly concerns
are secondary to the promise of life that he offers her. In shifting the
focus away from Jesus' offer of salvation to one's own mundane concerns,
Joel rips the heart out of this momentous revelation.
order to experience God's best, Joel tells his readers that we should stay
focused on the “positive things of God”:
must continually choose to keep our minds set on the higher things. The
Bible says, 'Set your mind on the things which are above.' Notice again
there is something that we are to do – we must continually choose, day
in and day out, twenty-four hours a day, to keep our minds set on the
higher things. What are the things that are above, the higher things?
Quite simply, they are the positive things of God (16).
citation for this claim is Colossians 3:2, which in context reads:
then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above,
where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things
that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and
your life is hidden with Christ in God. (ESV)
Joel's emphasis on keeping in view the “positive things of God.”
Certainly our heavenly future is a positive thing, so there is a
grain of truth here. Yet the way in which he makes use of the verse
deadens its impact: We are to keep our mind on what's above because that's
where our Savior sits, interceding for his people. There's far more
entailed in such an attitude than merely pondering the “positive things
of God.” Stripped of its context, this verse loses its luster and sounds
as vacuous as any self-help guru telling us to think happy thoughts. Only
those who are “born from above" (17) can grasp what it really means
to think about what is above.
know that Joel may be about to reveal something really interesting when he
cites a Bible passage, and then follows it up with the phrase, “In other
words...” A particularly striking example occurs when he retells the
well-known story of Adam and Eve:
in the Garden of Eden, after Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, they
hid. In the cool of the day, God came to them and said, 'Adam, Eve, where
said, 'God we're hiding because we are naked.'
love the way God answered them. He said, 'Adam, who told you that you were
naked?' In other words, 'Who told you that something was wrong with you?'
God immediately knew the enemy had been talking to them (18).
to Joel's interpretation, the central issue for Adam and Eve was not that
they had sinned and disobeyed God. The problem is that they now
erroneously believed that “something was wrong” with them. The lesson
Joel draws is that Satan had told them that they were defective, and they
had believed the lie. They had forgotten their divine DNA.
passage is pivotal to understanding God's redemptive purposes in Christ,
whom the apostle Paul refers to as the “last Adam." (19).
Mankind lost far more than our self-esteem on that day; we died to God by
a willful act of disobedience. The overwhelming witness of Scripture is
that something was in fact wrong with the couple now hiding from
their Creator. The fellowship they had previously enjoyed with the Lord
had been severed, and they – along with all their offspring through the
ages – were eternally lost.
Joel's misuse of Scripture ended with the above examples, we might
overlook his errors as simple carelessness in handling the text.
Unfortunately, there are many additional examples of poor exegesis in his
writings. The degree to which Joel has been impacted by the false
prosperity “gospel” is evident in his misuse of Romans 4:17, cited for
the following claim:
the natural, physical realm, those statements may not seem to be true. You
may not feel up to par that day. Or you may have many obstacles to
overcome. The Scripture tells us that we are to 'call the things that are
not as if they already were.' (20).
we (presumably believers, though he makes no distinction), possess within
ourselves this tremendous power to create reality using the power of our
tongue, there is no limit to what we might achieve. Is that really what
the apostle Paul intended to communicate in this passage? This verse is
frequently misused by adherents of the Word of Faith movement as
justification for their false teachings.
the verse in its entirety, with additional context:
is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace
and be guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the adherent of the
law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father
of us all, as it is written, "I have made you the father of many
nations"—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives
life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist
facts become apparent when we read the verse in context. The promise being
referenced in these verses and in the surrounding context is clearly
referring to God's providential salvation that comes by faith (see verse
13). It's not a promise of anything that we might speak into existence.
Secondly, the subject of verse 17 is God, not us. It is not the
sinful, finite creature who speaks things into existence, but the
omnipotent Creator. Thirdly, the verse is not a command for us to follow
– as Joel wrongly asserts – but is descriptive of God's own activity.
Just as it is God who who gives life to the dead, so he also calls
into existence all that exists.
habit of citing verses without regard to their context has a long history.
A particularly striking example of this practice is found in this quote:
wants us to constantly be increasing, to be rising to new heights. He
wants to increase you in His wisdom and help you to make better decisions.
God wants to increase you financially, by giving you promotions, fresh
ideas and creativity. The Scripture says that God wants to pour out 'His
far and beyond favor.' God wants this to be the best time of your life.
But if you are going to receive this favor, you must enlarge your vision.
You can't go around thinking negative, defeated, limiting thoughts (22).
nobody is suggesting that Christians should mope about with a perpetually
negative attitude, Joel errs in his misappropriation of yet another Bible
verse. The footnote here cites Ephesians 2:7, which in context reads:
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— by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and
seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the
coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness
toward us in Christ Jesus (23).
don't even need to leave verse 7 to see that Paul's message about God's
immeasurable riches of grace (“far and beyond favor,” in Joel's
translation) is talking about a present reality that entails a future
dynamic - “in the coming ages.”
argument runs roughshod over the main point of God's redemption, which
reaches from the moment of our salvation and spills into the future. Joel
argues that “God wants this to be the best time of your life,”
contradicting the very verse he uses to bolster his teaching. The best
time of our lives lies beyond the grave at the resurrection when God's
plan for redeemed humanity is fully realized. Imagine the despair a
Christian in the underground church in China would feel if Joel somehow
convinced him that the persecution he suffers now is the best time of his
a chapter entitled “Being Good to People” in BABY, Joel encourages his readers
to care about the needs of others. Of course that is a good thing for all
of us to do. There's no question that we live in a self-absorbed, even
narcissistic age. Focusing on the needs of others will help us avoid the
pit of selfishness. Once again, though, Joel forces an idea into a passage
that is entirely unrelated to the point he wants to communicate. A good
example is the following quote, referencing 2 Timothy 3:1-5:
Scripture says that in the last days the love of the great body of people
will grow cold. That simply means that people will be so busy, they'll be
focused on their own needs, they'll be so caught up in their drive for
success they won't take time to make a difference (24).
point of fact, this passage is not merely talking about people who are
self-absorbed. It is a description of the utter godlessness that will
characterize the last days. In context, Paul warns Timothy:
understand this, that in the last days there will come times of
difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud,
arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy,
heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not
loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of
pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness,
but denying its power. Avoid such people (25).
is a difference between being overly busy and the kind of depraved living
that Paul describes in this passage. Words like unholy, heartless
and brutal are considerably more emphatic than describing a person
who is just preoccupied with selfish concerns. Is this the worst misuse of
the Scriptures that someone has ever committed? No, but it does serve to
demonstrate that Joel habitually reads an alien meaning into passages (a
practice known as eisegesis), thereby redirecting the meaning in a
way that the writer did not intend. This practice violates the basic rules
of interpretation, and sets a precedent for further error.
final example relates to the unorthodox definition of “faith” that
Joel employs in his writing. In trying to build up the faith of his
hearers, he writes:
Scripture says, 'God is effectually at work in those who believe.' Notice,
His power is activated only when we believe. God can work in your behalf
your whole lifetime and you never really get the full benefit of it
because you didn't believe (26).
Scriptural citation provided is 1 Thessalonians 2:13, which reads as
we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of
God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but
as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers. (ESV)
Joel's interpretation, faith is the agent that causes God to work in us.
That is, by believing, we unleash God's power. By not believing, we tie
God's hands so that he is unable to do the good things in us that he wants
to accomplish. In this model of spirituality, man is at the center of the
world, and God is akin to some cosmic force that we can tap into to
improve our relationships or get a promotion. Elsewhere, Joel develops
this idea by urging that faith that can be positive or negative (27).
Faith, for Joel, is a neutral power that can be harnessed for good or
evil. He comes dangerously close to the Eastern mysticism popularized as
the dark and light side of “the Force” in the Star Wars movies.
in their original context, Paul's words to the Thessalonians have nothing
to do with “activating” anything. It is the Word of God which works in
the believer, and not some hidden power inherent to our faith. Our
response to God's Word shows that his Spirit is at work in us. He is, in
short, doing his own work in us. God is not summoned by some quality that
resides within us, as though he were a genie awaiting our bidding..
of Joel's misuses of Scripture defy easy classification. Consider, for
instance, his “double for your trouble” doctrine. This teaching
appears twice in YBLN. He says:
you will keep the right attitude, God will take all your disappointments,
broken dreams, the hurts and pains, and He'll add up all the trouble and
sorrow that's been inflicted on you, and He will pay you back with twice
as much peace, joy, happiness, and success. The Bible says, 'God will give
us a twofold recompense for our former shame.' If you'll just believe, if
you'll put your trust and confidence in God, He will give you double for
your trouble (28).
each instance, Joel cites Isaiah 61:7 as proof of this teaching. In
context, this verse is talking about God's promise to restore Israel to
their homeland following their captivity by the Babylonians. This passage
also has a strong Messianic significance; Jesus applied the opening verse
of this passage to himself as the fulfillment of prophecy (29). The
chapter proclaims the year of God's favor, in which the cities of Israel
would be rebuilt from ruins, and the Jews would once again prosper as
one thing this passage doesn't provide is a guarantee that Christians will
be rewarded “double for your trouble” in this life. The Bible teaches
that our citizenship is in heaven, as is our eternal reward. We cannot
properly isolate a verse that specifically applies to national Israel and
extract from it a general principle for worldly gain. As Christians, our
eternal hope was only foreshadowed by the land of milk and honey, just as
Old Testament sacrifices of bulls and rams prefigured the atonement
wrought by the true Lamb of God. Ours is a different, and infinitely
better, covenant in Christ (30).
instance in which Joel just plain gets it wrong is his explanation as to
why Israel ended up wandering in the desert for 40 years. He uses the very
same illustration in YBLN as he does in BABY. The fullest presentation of
his view can be found in his earlier work:
when God led the Hebrew people out of Egypt, where they had lived in
slavery for four hundred years, they headed straight toward the Promised
Land. It was an eleven-day journey, but it took them forty years to get
there. Why? Why would they wander around in the wilderness, going around
the same mountain, time after time, not making any progress? After all,
God had prepared the land flowing with milk and honey. It was a place of
great abundance, a place of great freedom. But God's people had been
beaten down by their oppressors for so long – mistreated, used, and
taken advantage of – now, even though God wanted to do a new thing, they
couldn't conceive it. They couldn't make room for it in their own
thinking. Instead of moving forward with an attitude of faith, expecting
good things, they insisted on going around with a poor, defeated
mentality. Around and around they went, focusing on their problems, always
complaining, fretting about the obstacles standing between them and their
calls this same attitude a “victim mentality” in BABY. In all
fairness, there is an element of truth contained in the above statement.
Certainly the Israelites had complained often regarding their
circumstances; at times they pined for the old days in Egypt, missing the
comparative comforts they had enjoyed there even as slaves. At other
times, they were overcome with fear, such as the time when Caleb and his
companions went to scout out the land and his companions came back with a
negative report regarding the strength of their enemies. On other
occasions, the people – with the full participation of Moses' own
brother, Aaron – engaged in rank idol worship, denying the true God who
had delivered them.
Joel's contention that their “victim mentality” was the reason they
wandered for forty years is considerably off the mark. The biblical reason
they wandered for forty years is that God was weary of their idolatry and
unbelief, and he determined that an entire generation would not be
permitted to enter the holy land because of their faithlessness (32). It
was God's decree that kept them from entering, not a victim
mentality. In Joel's theology, man is the center of the story, which
accounts for these kinds of errors. No amount of positive thinking was
going to secure the Israelites double for their trouble after God had
declared his judgment.
related to this misuse of Scripture is Joel's teaching on sowing. He has
this to say regarding the subject:
today you are believing for your marriage to be restored or some other
relationship to be improved. Perhaps you are hoping to buy a new home or
to get out of debt. Sow a special seed that relates to your specific need.
We can't buy God's goodness, but like Cornelius we can exercise our faith
through giving (33).
Joel's careful qualifier that “we can't buy God's goodness,” this is
exactly the message that comes through loud and clear. A bribe by another
name is still a bribe. That he is speaking of financial seeds reaping
financial benefits is clear not only from the above statement, but from
many similar examples in the book. In this instance he is referencing the
story of Cornelius recorded in Acts 10. Joel makes much of the fact that
Cornelius' prayers and giving of alms had been noticed as a “memorial”
is some basis for believing that Cornelius, while not yet baptized, had
already heard and possibly believed the Gospel (34). Nonetheless, the fact
that Cornelius was instructed by an angel to send for Peter should not be
taken as a kind of reward for “planting a seed” to obtain some desired
result. Joel misuses the Scriptures when he suggests that it was
Cornelius' charitable actions that planted the seed for his salvation.
Likewise, nowhere in Scripture is the believer encouraged to give as a
means of obtaining earthly reward.
on in BABY, Joel is clear that divorce is not “God's best” for us. He
argues that married people should try to work out their problems and not
look to divorce as an easy way out of relational difficulties. Further on
in the same book, he shares a story from his own ministry in which he
counsels a woman not to remain in an abusive marriage (35), asserting that
this is not God's best for her. She ultimately decides to “close the
door” on her relationship.
upon the limited details he provides, it appears that Joel had shaky
biblical grounds for his counsel. If adultery was involved, it seems
strange that Joel would omit that important detail. While secular
counselors would endorse Joel's counsel, following his advice may
have caused this woman to violate Jesus' teaching that marital
unfaithfulness is the only legitimate grounds for divorce (36).
While domestic violence is a serious breach of the marriage vow, and
inexcusable in every case, there is never justification for a minister of
the gospel to give counsel contrary to the teaching of Scripture. If we
are to obey God's Word, we must look for solutions other than divorce in
these situations (37).
particularly problematic aspect of Joel's teaching is that certain
Biblical principles work for anyone, regardless of whether that person is
even a Christian. This unqualified assertion strongly suggests that Joel
makes no categorical distinction between believers and unbelievers in
preparing his messages. In his earlier book, Joel cites the example of a
man from Saudi Arabia who was known for his generosity. Citing him as an
example of giving, Joel asserts the following:
doubt that the Saudi man practices the Christian faith, but the principles
of giving are spiritual principles. They work regardless of nationality,
skin color, or even religion. If you give unselfishly, it is going to be
given back to you. If you meet other people's needs, God will make sure
your own needs are supplied in abundance.
Bible says, 'When you help the poor you are lending to the Lord.' That
Saudi man has developed a lifestyle of giving, especially to the poor, and
not surprisingly, that which he sows comes back to him exponentially. He
has lent to God by helping the poor, and God will not be in debt to any
reduce the teachings of Scripture to “principles” that anyone can use
to their advantage sets a dangerous precedent. What other principles of
blessing might we falsely derive from Scripture? If, as the Bible says,
“God loves a cheerful giver," (39). Does Joel suppose that an
unbeliever can merit God's love through his personal generosity? We have
already seen that God's blessings are not necessarily temporal, and
certainly the unbeliever cannot store up treasures in heaven. Scripture is
particularly clear concerning the fact that even the best works of
unregenerate people are unacceptable to God. No one, not even a generous
and kind businessman, can please God apart from faith in Jesus (40). God
certainly owed this man no debt. Scriptural promises made to believers,
which are contingent upon a right relationship to God through Christ,
do not apply to the non-believer. We shall see in our last article
where Joel's reduction of Scripture to broadly universal moral laws lead
those who are in need of Christ in the case of another Muslim.
teaching suffers from ambiguity regarding biblical promises. As a general
rule, Joel does not concern himself with the object of God's
promise in any Biblical passage. Where God promised material prosperity to
Abraham, the same is held as a promise to the individual believer today.
Where God promised victory to Israel in her military campaigns, Joel takes
this to mean that we will be victorious in achieving a promotion at work,
or in overcoming bad habits. While he sometimes measures success in
spiritual terms, more often he upholds earthly blessings as examples. Joel
makes no apparent distinction between Old Testament promises to national
Israel and the riches of God's grace displayed to believers in Jesus under
the new covenant. Jesus' assurance that the world will hate us because it
also hates him (41), never gets airtime.
Jesus taught us to store up our treasures in heaven rather than on earth,
Joel's focus is on – well, your best life now. Perhaps he figures
that readers would be disappointed if he didn't deliver on the hope of
earthly gain. Jesus was, after all, a world class disappointment to those
who followed him merely for the fish and the loaves. They enjoyed the
display of his miraculous power, and the food he provided for them, but
they took offense when he claimed to be the true bread of life necessary
for their spiritual sustenance (42).
Responds to the Critics
BABY, Joel finally addresses some of the charges of his critics in
writing. As evidenced in multiple television interviews, Joel is aware of
the frequent charge that his message is light and fluffy. In response, he
called to plant a seed of hope in people's hearts. I'm not called to
explain every minute facet of Scripture or to expound on deep theological
doctrines or disputes that don't touch where real people live. My gifting
is to encourage, to challenge, and to inspire (43).
rejoinder explains Joel's view of his ministry
(Click to hear Joel clarify his calling in a Real Video clip) , just as it also reveals
his view of doctrine. Few people would argue that sometimes a pastor
fulfills the role of encourager. It is also his duty, however, to teach
about sin, the fall, the terrors of hell that Jesus mentioned so often in
his ministry, the centrality of the cross in God's redemptive plan – in
other words, the full counsel of God. Where in Joel's teaching is
the recognition of our alienation from God, apart from the grace shown to
us in Christ? It would seem that Joel considers these truths to be among
the “deep theological doctrines that don't touch where real people
other conclusion could we possibly draw from his neglect of these central
Biblical truths? How can Joel offer genuine hope when his hearers have no
concept of their very real rebellion against a Holy God? It's good that
Joel apparently affirms these doctrines, at least formally. If, however,
he considers these basic truths irrelevant to where real people live, then
he is neglecting the fullness of his calling as a minister to preach the
word, to reprove, rebuke and exhort the people of God.
it be that Joel is unwittingly feeding into the rising trend within
evangelicalism of those who refuse to endure sound teaching? Paul warned
his ministerial apprentice Timothy against the dangers of only preaching
to people's “felt needs”:
charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the
living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the
word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort,
with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people
will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will
accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will
turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for
you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an
evangelist, fulfill your ministry (44).
fact that his biggest critics are Christians, and not the world,
ought to give Joel pause. It's possible that his Christian critics are not
merely jealous of his success, as he claims in his latest book (45).
a vastly larger market today for ear-scratching than exists for
Gospel-preaching. While it's been that way since the earliest days of the
church, the trend seems to be growing in American evangelicalism. Consider
the Christian book industry. Books on achieving financial success,
overcoming bad habits, and “inspiring” fictional stories sell by the
boatload, while books by classical Christian authors on important
theological issues require special ordering. Fluff sells, and there's
little room on retail shelves for anything else.
Bottom Line Of Joel's Use Of Scripture
don't believe that Joel is deliberately misleading people. We are inclined
to agree with other concerned Christians who maintain that Joel is a
brother in Christ who is ignorant of how to handle the Word. Unlike some
televangelists who are parasites and false prophets seeking only
personal gain, Joel seems to be the real deal with respect to his sincerity.
Nevertheless, his chronic abuse of the Scriptures, along with his
adherence to the so-called “prosperity gospel” and other theological
errors, seriously undermines his ability to teach with clarity, conviction
and power from God's Word.
acid test of a true minister of the Lord is that which distinguishes his
message from all other religious or spiritual alternatives. If a
non-Christian guru or therapist could offer the same advice, then that
minister is not being a faithful ambassador of Jesus Christ. No matter how
practical or sincere his teaching, Joel is neglecting the Gospel. So
central to the apostles was Jesus' redemption of his people that the
apostle Paul resolved to speak of nothing else when he was among the
Corinthians (46). By contrast, it would seem that Joel goes to great
lengths to talk about anything but Jesus' atoning sacrifice on the
cross – the one element of Christianity that the unbelieving world
considers a scandal. He argues that his message is “simple,” but what
part of Christianity is more simple, more basic to Scripture itself, than
the proclamation that Jesus Christ died to save sinners?
Joel offers much useful advice on building healthy interpersonal
relationships, treating others kindly and cultivating good habits, his
egregious lack of Biblical understanding compromises his effectiveness, as
does his unwillingness to preach the Gospel as being of first importance
(47). If we could excise from his writings every reference to God, his
church and the Bible, his books would make decent self-help
manuals. Taken as the gospel by the biblically illiterate, his teaching
can only distract from the cause of Christ. Joel could more productively
spend his time on learning to become a better student of God's Word.
our next article, we will take a look at how Joel's glaring lack of
in-depth Biblical understanding and immersion in the culture of Word of
Faith Charismatic Christianity resulted in his most well known teaching,
that of a literal "prosperity gospel." We will see what kind of
fruit has been harvested due to Joel's towering ignorance of the Bible's central themes
and magnified by a global media empire.
20:26-31; 2 Corinthians 11:13-15
(5) One such
resource is the free Bible Gateway (http://www.biblegateway.com/),
which allows online searches in multiple Bible versions. Another
excellent website is the Christian Classics Ethereal Library (http://www.ccel.org/),
which features hundreds of books by various authors that can be read
(6) A useful
translation that demonstrates the meaning of various words in context is
The Amplified Bible. This version is helpful for steering the
reader in the direction indicated by the original language. Where other
Bible versions decide upon one word (e.g., “believe”), the Amplified
Bible may suggest several synonyms that clarify the intended usage of
the word (e.g., “trust,” “rely” and “have faith in”). To a
lesser extent, paraphrases like The Message serve a similar
purpose in making the meaning understandable, but at the price of
2:1-6 is one such passage.
phrase is another possible rendering of the expression “born again”
found in John 3:3.
Corinthians 15:21-22, 42-49
Ephesians 2:4-7, ESV
Timothy 3:1-5, ESV
See Hebrews 10:1-14. The major theme of Hebrews is that Jesus came to
establish a new and better covenant than that which was symbolized by
the Old Testament sacrificial system. Joel sells the Gospel short by
focusing on temporal blessings rather than Christ's once for all
sacrifice (v. 11-14).
(31) YBLN, p.
30-31; see also BABY, p. 320
10:34-37 reveals that that the Gospel was apparently already known to
Cornelius and his household. This was the view of John Calvin and
others. Contemporary scholar John Piper takes exception to this
argument, however, and points out that that Acts 11:14 seems to suggest
that Cornelius was not yet saved. Neither position would affirm the idea
that Cornelius was planting the seeds for his own salvation, since
salvation comes by grace rather than good works.
(37) The only
other instruction we have on this matter in the New Testament comes from
the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:12-16, where Paul gives counsel
regarding the unbeliever who “abandons” a believing spouse. Paul is
careful to note that this was his own advice (v. 12), and not a
divine command. In the case of abandonment, it appears that the one
being abandoned is freed from their marriage bonds (not “enslaved”),
and may remarry if they so choose. Some scholars argue that abandonment
might refer to more than literal abandonment (encompassing also physical
or mental abuse), and that the one who so abandons their spouse might be
regarded as an unbeliever even if they are a professing believer. There
remains considerable debate surrounding both the authority of Paul's
counsel as well as how far his words might be applied to cases where the
divorce is based neither in adultery nor literal abandonment. Regardless
of where Christians stand on this issue, we must not allow the world's
reasoning on these matters to compromise our commitment to the final
authority of Scripture. Sadly, the church too often has adopted the
world's casual attitude towards what God instituted as a lifelong
Corinthians 9:7. In context, the passage is written to people who are
11:6, Romans 8:5-8
Timothy 4:1-5, ESV