Joel Osteen is the senior pastor of Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas, touted by some sources as America’s largest and fastest growing congregation in America. According to the Lakewood Church website, he teaches approximately 38,000 adults attendees every week. His television sermon is seen by seven million Americans each week and is also broadcast internationally to almost 100 nations. In addition, he has had multiple best-selling books which include Your Best Life Now and Become a Better You: 7 Keys to Improving Your Life Every Day. Needless to say, his teachings reach a vast amount of people across America and the globe on a weekly basis.
Based on every interview I have ever seen of him, he seems to be genuinely kind, friendly, encouraging and outgoing. I have nothing against him personally and he is not usually a person that I have any interest in following as it relates to his ministry and teachings. However, because of his high profile ministry in America and regular appearance on major media outlets, I am aware of his latest book release, The Power of I AM, Two Words That Will Change Your Life Today.
Normally I would not take a second glance at one of his latest works, but in preparing for a recent guest appearance on the Apologetics.com Radio Show on The Word Faith Movement, I took some time to read an excerpt from the first chapter of his latest book. Before we get there, it’s important that you have some context for the broader movement in Christianity known as the Word-Faith Movement.
Now, the Word-Faith Movement is somewhat nebulous in the sense that it is not an explicit Christian denomination. There is no organizational or ecclesiastical hierarchy, there are no elected leaders, there is no formal confession or doctrinal statement that it holds teachers or churches to and there is no formal publication or membership figures to give you an accurate picture of its reach.
For that reason, it is perhaps better to describe it as a subculture that exists within the Christian Church, known primarily for the teachings that it emphasizes and a number of high-profile pastors and teachers, many with television programs on the Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN). Some names that you may be familiar would are Kenneth Hagin, Benny Hinn, Kenneth Copeland, Paul and Jan Crouch (founders of TBN television network), Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer, Joseph Prince, T.D. Jakes and Creflo Dollar.
If you are vaguely familiar with some of the names above and their teachings, it becomes apparent that there is a broad spectrum in terms of which doctrines are emphasized by some of these teachers and perhaps less emphasized by others. However, if you look into the common threads that run through all of their teachings, you will find that there is an emphasis on the pursuit of health and wealth, sometimes referred to as the prosperity gospel, which can be reached or attained through what is called “positive confession” or “acts of faith” such as donating money to a particular ministry or throwing away medicines. This act of ‘positive confession’ has also been referred to as “name-it-and-claim-it” theology or more disparagingly as “blab-it-and-grab-it”.
The logic behind positive confession theology is as follows: 1) God speaks things into existence 2) We are God’s offspring and created in God’s image. 3) Before the fall, man had the same ability to speak things into existence. 4) After being born again, we regain the ability to speak things, situations and circumstances into existence.
If you look deeper into the theology behind positive confession, the picture gets even darker as it relates specifically to the incarnation of Jesus Christ our Lord. Kenneth Hagin, often referred to as one of the fathers of the Word Faith Movement says it like this:
“You are as much the incarnation of God as Jesus Christ was. Every man who has been born again is an incarnation and Christianity is a miracle. The believer is as much an incarnation as was Jesus of Nazareth.” Hagin, Word of Faith, December 1980, p. 14
It is this false teaching, that we are as much an incarnation as Jesus, which Word-Faith teachers encourage Christians to mature in by making ‘positive confessions’ and activating what they call an ‘unalterable law of faith’ that God Himself is bound to abide by. It is here, where the Word-Faith teaching deviates from the biblical definition of faith. They teach that faith is something derived in what we say and what we confess:
“The key to the God kind of faith is believing with the heart and confessing with the mouth. Our lips can make us millionaires or keep us paupers. Our lips can make us victors or keep us captives. We can fill our words with faith or we can fill our words with doubt….Our faith will never rise above the words of our lips.” The God Kind of Faith – Kenneth E. Hagin
The emphasis here is on our belief, our confession, our words, our lips and our faith. We are the object of our own faith, in particular, through the words that we speak.
Biblically and historically, this is in conflict with saving faith. Saving faith has three necessary aspects: notitia, assensus, and fiducia, Latin for knowledge, ascent, and trust. First, we need to have certain knowledge about God and who He is. Second, we need to not only know about God, but we need to assent to, or be convinced that what we know about God is in fact true. And third, we must entrust our lives completely to God and His Word, which will thereby affect every aspect of the way we live out our lives. James 2:19 tells us that the demons believe in God. They know all about Him but they live in rebellion rather than in trust and obedience to His Word.
James 2 also tells us that if all we have are words to demonstrate our faith, than we don’t really have faith at all:
14 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? 17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. v. 14-17
The same can be seen in the entire chapter of Hebrews 11. Known as the “Hall of Faith”, this chapter recounts the faith of past saints by describing how they lived, how they trusted God, and how their faith was shown not through the words they spoke but through their obedience.
Additionally, much can be said in regards to the errors of these teachings but it only takes a simple Berean-like search of the Scriptures to see if what these teachers are saying is true. As it relates to the divine nature, only God has a divine nature (Isaiah 43:10, 44:6, Gal 4:8) and Jesus Christ is the only eternal (John 1:1-2) incarnate (Isaiah 9:6, John 1:14), Begotten Son of God (John 3:16m Rom 1:3, Gal 4:4). We also know that God Himself is the object of faith (Hebrews 12:2) and that any faith that we have is itself a gift from God (Ephesians 2:8-9) and does not originate in ourselves.
The Apostle Peter, a man who worked powerful miracles through the Spirit of God even refutes the idea that he was anything other than a man:
When Peter entered, Cornelius met him and fell down at his feet and worshiped him. 26 But Peter lifted him up, saying, “Stand up; I too am a man.” Acts 10:25-26
So how does all this relate to Joel Osteen and his newly released book? Perhaps simply reading the title of the book again, after looking at some basic teachings of the Word-Faith Movement, you can see the direction that this book is heading: The Power of I Am: Two Words That Will Change Your Life Today.
You can read chapter 1 online for free for yourself, but I’ll save you the trouble and show you the highlight reel from just the first couple pages:
Lacy began to describe how she wasn’t fulfilled; she was lonely and she perceived her coworkers as more talented. She made statements such as, “I am unattractive. I am unlucky. I am a slow learner. I am always tired.” After five minutes of listening to Lacy, I knew exactly what was holding her back. Her “I am”s. What follows those two simple words will determine what kind of life you live. “I am blessed. I am strong. I am healthy.” Or, “I am slow. I am unattractive. I am a lousy mother.” The “I am”s coming out of your mouth will bring either success or failure. p. 1
So the things holding Lacy back in life were her words. As the doctrine of ‘positive confession’ teaches, it is our words that bring things or situations into existence. In this particular literary work, he gives a formulaic incantation of sorts right up front that the reader is to speak in order to bring things into existence and change the direction of their life. Page 2 reinforces this formula:
Here’s the principle. Whatever follows the “I am” will eventually find you. When you say, “I am so clumsy,” clumsiness comes looking for you. “I am so old.” Wrinkles come looking for you. “I am so overweight.” Calories come looking for you. It’s as though you’re inviting them. Whatever you follow the “I am” with, you’re handing it an invitation, opening the door, and giving it permission to be in your life. p. 2
So here you have an example of ‘negative confession’ where you are speaking negative things into existence because they happen to follow the two magic words “I am”. The language used here suggests that you are inviting, opening doors and giving permission for things to be in your life. Now in light of the negative things that you could summon into your life with these words, it brings him to announce the “good news”:
The good news is you get to choose what follows the “I am.” When you go through the day saying, “I am blessed,” blessings come looking for you. “I am talented.” Talent comes looking for you. You may not feel up to par, but when you say, “I am healthy,” health starts heading your way. “I am strong.” Strength starts tracking you down. You’re inviting those things into your life. p. 2
Far from being the good news that Jesus Christ died to pay the penalty for our sin so that we might become children of God through grace alone and faith alone in Jesus Christ, we see the good news here reduced to us getting to choose the words that follow the “I am” incantation. Now as long as we choose things that are “good”, then that is precisely what we will get. Still no further than page 2, we read:
You need to send out some new invitations. Get up in the morning and invite good things into your life. “I am blessed. I am strong. I am talented. I am wise. I am disciplined. I am focused. I am prosperous.” When you talk like that, talent gets summoned by Almighty God: “Go find that person.” Health, strength, abundance, and discipline start heading your way. p. 2
So here we have a picture of Almighty God who is shown to be nothing more than a divine butler, waiting to be called upon through the “I am” formula and then, in turn, summoning that which has been requested by the speaker, or perhaps medium is a more apt description in this context.
Now I’m not a huge fan of Harry Potter, but in one sense, we have here an incantation formula for both dark and white magic. If you follow “I am” with negativity, you are in the realm of dark magic because bad things will happen. But if you speak “positively” then you would be using white magic. I might be able to understand if this were part of J.K. Rowling’s story where Severus Snape was teaching young, impressionable, aspiring wizards and witches how to live their ‘Best Life Now’, but it’s not. It could even be somewhat humorous when you read it for the first time and you read about calories coming to look for people and wrinkles coming out of hiding and strength tracking people down. But it is not humorous at all when you realize that this is the sort of teaching that leads Christians to conclude that we can speak things into existence, that we are as much an incarnate god as Jesus Christ and that we have a faith that does not originate from God alone but rather from within our own god like self. At the end of the day, this is a book written specifically for professing Christians, which is why I find it even more unacceptable and shameful. This is a book that can be found in Christian and non-Christian bookstores under the category of ‘Christian Living’. I almost think the worldwide ‘Potterheads’ would be ecstatic to find this sort of book, if only they knew where to look for it.
My hope is that if Christians truly understood the theology behind these teachings and how they exalt man and dishonor God, that they would be swiftly abandoned. And yet, as it stands today, this book has spent 13 weeks on The New York Times best-seller list in addition to being on the CBA’s best selling book list for multiple months since its October 2015 release.
So why do so many people flock to these sorts of teachings? I don’t think we have to look much farther than the first few pages of the Bible to find our answer:
“But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. 5 For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Genesis 3:4-5
“In Genesis 3:5, we can clearly see that the teaching that man is ‘a god’ or can become ‘like God’ in relation to the divine essence originates not with God, but with Satan, who brought about the fall of man by deceiving Eve and then Adam into believing they would be like ‘gods’.” Ye Shall be as Gods, The Agony of Deceit: What Some TV Preachers are Really Teaching, 1990, p. 97
Psalm 12:3-6 also warns those who make great boasts with their tongues and declares that it is the Words of the Lord which are pure:
“May the Lord cut off all flattering lips, the tongue that makes great boasts, 4 those who say, “With our tongue we will prevail, our lips are with us; who is master over us?” 5 “Because the poor are plundered, because the needy groan, I will now arise,” says the Lord; “I will place him in the safety for which he longs.” 6 The words of the Lord are pure words, like silver refined in a furnace on the ground, purified seven times.”
So what is the remedy?
If there is one attribute of God that simply cannot be overstated or overemphasized it is His holiness. The holiness of God means that He is transcendent above and separate from all of His creation and all of His creation’s corruption. There are two places in the Scriptures, Isaiah 6:3 and Revelation 4:8, where God’s holiness is declared three times by the angels in heaven who cry out “Holy, holy, holy…” These are not men addressing God, but sinless angels who, regardless of their splendor, can no more stand in the presence of God than could any other created being without bowing their heads and crying “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty!” If this one attribute of God were properly understood by those who adhere to the Word-Faith Movement, the idea of equating themselves and their words with god-like power to bring things into existence would be utterly irreverent and abandoned in light of Who God is and what His holiness truly means.
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.” Proverbs 9:10
May it be so. That those who are teaching these doctrines and those who are caught up and deceived by them may understand the holiness of God and the fear of the Lord so that they would gain wisdom and be drawn out of this unbiblical and ungodly movement.