Book Review:

Feasting in a Famine of the Word: Lutheran Preaching in the Twenty-First Century. Edited by Mark W. Birkholz, Jacob Corzine, and Jonathan Mumme. Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick, 2016. Xxiv + 299 pages. Click here or here.

Lutheranism began as a preaching movement. While not often given the attention it deserves by scholars, Luther put a premium on his Postille, sermons published to serve as models for preachers and for Christian edification. Doctrinally sound, engaging, and Christ-giving preaching is a non-negotiable hallmark of the Church of the Reformation. This collection of seventeen essays by both younger and seasoned theologians and pastors will strengthen that conviction and provide substantive, meaty reflection on preaching today. It is fair to say that contemporary American society values therapeutic, pick-me-up, inspirational talks but not robust proclamation. Preachers who wish fearlessly to proclaim the truth will find their vocation empowered in these essays.

First in line, John Bombara describes the current milieu for preachers as consumerist. But obviously preaching cannot be tantamount to selling goods if it is to be faithful to the truth. He indicates that sermons can be modeled after a number of different structures, (1) textual (i.e., exposition), (2) thematic (i.e., topics), and (3) dynamic (i.e., narrative preaching style). But the key to Lutheran preaching “is the living dynamic of law and gospel applied to hearers (as primary discourse), which discursive and living dynamic can make use of virtually any type of sermon structure (including dynamic structures) toward the proclamation and application of law-and-gospel” (24). This law/gospel approach pits Lutheranism against consumerism: “Consumerism and Lutheranism are a clash of orthodoxies precisely at the point of justification. Lutheranism, however, is at home in the church as the church, while consumerism must remain alien to the church if the law and gospel are to be efficaciously preached and ‘the whole counsel of God’ broadcast” (26).

Developing a theme echoed by other essayists here, Mark Birkholz grounds preaching in truth. The scriptures upon which preaching is based are reliable. “The preacher’s words are certain, even if they are not judged so by the hearers. The certainty of the message of Jesus is testified to by its coherence with the preceding word of God (fulfillment) and by the witness of those who have seen and heard the events of salvation” (40). Paul Elliot notes that the time-honored approach to the Old Testament through typology, i.e., that the Old Testament throughout mirrors and portrays Jesus Christ, makes it relevant and powerful for Christian proclamation. Christ is the “link” between the Old Testament and today (61). Rick Serina appeals to a late medieval theologian, Nicholas of Cusa, noted for his role in education, theology, and the care of souls, in order to advocate that “the reform of the church—including anything resembling a reformation of preaching—would prove impossible apart from the reform of the clergy. Without well educated, theologically competent ecclesiastics and pastors who can bring their competence to bear upon their responsibilities within the church, there is no hope for changing thought and practice in a healthy, productive fashion. Reformation begins with the clergy” (75). Furthering the theme of truth, Roy A. Coates, appealing to Johann Gerhard, maintains that sound preaching needs systematic content. “Without systematic knowledge, preaching has nothing to instruct or refute, and no certain basis from which to encourage, correct, or comfort” (95).

Jacob Corzine appeals to Johannes Brenz’s articulation of a double faith (fides duplex) in order to help preachers who proclaim to those who oscillate between faith and doubt (as so many of us do) and rightly shows that faith rests on the objectivity of the means of grace (111). Jonathan Mumme builds from the distinction of preachers identifying with their audience (we) and differentiating themselves in proclamation (I and you). Ultimately, in proclamation it is Christ speaking through the preacher, and that is the basis for the preacher’s authority in preaching. That Christ is so present frees preachers from having to “actualize” the text for hearers (137). Steve Paulson notes that the preached word is a verbum reale or efficax, a creating word, and not merely one which persuades or instructs. John Pless similarly underscores the sacramental dimension of preaching in which the preacher “does the text” that kills and justifies the hearers (169). The liturgical undergirding of preaching is precisely sacramental. Countering antinomianism, Hans-Jörg Voigt claims that proclamation is not to be set in opposition to parenesis. Instead, in light of the gospel there is a third use of the law. The Christian is called to struggle against sin in his own life and to seek to better this world.

In light of the fact that the great homilies of the church fathers could be read in lieu of one’s own sermon, then why preaching? David Peterson takes on that question. In a word, the Holy Spirit creates faith for the assembled congregation through preaching. A parish pastor has a word that no one else can say since he is most in touch with the life of the parish. Esko Murto takes on the doctrines of election, the bondage of the will, and original sin that naturally offend all sinners. The answer to the question of election (“am I elect?”) is that preaching frees the conscience, brings the promise home to sinners, secures them in salvation; to the “bondage of the will,” preaching imparts Christ and so frees the despairing conscience; and, with original sin, we can be forgiven that we are unable to offer perfect contrition.

Realizing that many parishioners are in grief, Jeremiah Johnson advocates that we should preach from the lament psalms precisely because “they do not peddle easy answers or seek to resolve the eschatological tension between the present age and the age to come. . . . [T]he laments are also brazenly confident not only in the Lord’s past faithfulness, but especially in his future action” (238). Recognizing that most preachers care for souls, Jakob Appell develops the metaphor of preacher as “physician for the sick in spirit.” Ultimately preachers are not mere healers but share a word that unlocks death and hell (256). Again, appealing to truth, Daniel Schmidt notes that there are many methods for preaching, but ultimately a sermon is not to be judged by its method but its theology. Finally, Gottfried Martens unguardedly shares the exigencies of the preparation process for preaching. With time, the steps can be internalized. Sermons are best when memorized. “In memorizing the sermon the preacher steps, to a certain degree, into the shoes of the hearers, for that which lacks clarity of thought cannot easily be memorized and similarly will have a hard time sticking with the hearers. In being memorized the sermon is honed to a final sharp edge that also makes it better for the hearers to follow” (296).

These essays are of the highest caliber. The only way to have improved this book would have been for each author to have published a model sermon alongside his essay. That is where the rubber hits the road. Not many authors here refer to the “goal, malady, means” approach to homiletics, but I have puzzled over the fact that Luther’s sermons tend to be expository, didactic, personal, and direct. Luther never has a three-point sermon (which I ever heard as a child) nor does he have a sermon proportioned as half law and half gospel. Law and gospel shine through Luther’s sermons, but only as he exposits the word of God. Nor is Luther shy of admonition, as Voigt would remind us, especially when he preaches on the epistles.

Need a recharge in your confidence in the ability of God’s word to “bring home the goods”? Give this book a sustained reading and allow it to unsettle your despondency about preaching and empower you to joyfully proclaim the good news.

Mark C. Mattes

Grand View University

Des Moines, IA

Preaching Not to Kill God

—by Joel P. Meyer

When Stanley Hauerwas writes in his memoir that, “I live most of my life as if God does not exist,”[1] he makes more than a personal confession. He captures the cultural mood that frames Christian belief and practice in much of North America. Most of us can live perfectly coherent lives without ever once thinking about God. This does not mean that we have stopped believing in God or even that we have stopped going to church. It only means that Christians often do not take God very seriously in their own belief and practice. One way of expressing this mood is to say that God is dead. God no longer has constructive force and authority in our lives. In this paper, I will argue that God will have no constructive force and authority as long as the central form of Christian discourse about God, apostolic preaching, is eclipsed. In order to make this argument I will first demonstrate that our mood reflects an inversion of authority. Human beings assume the authority to give life and meaning to God. Then, I will argue that failing to distinguish between what Gerhard Forde calls explanation and proclamation reinforces this condition. Finally, I will suggest that a recovery of the Triune God’s authority will require that Christian preaching be apostolic in nature.

Whatever Happened to God?

Already in the late nineteenth century, Friedrich Nietzsche realized that an epochal change had taken place, even though it had gone unnoticed by most. He saw that the basic structure of Western life and thought had turned upside down. God was no longer the source and ground of everything that exists. Instead, human beings had taken the place of God by assigning themselves the authority to give meaning and to determine truth.[2] In the Middle Ages, for example, the unquestioned assumption about the world was that the God of the Bible created it.[3] Everything that happened was explained in reference to his will and purposes, which seemed to permeate all things. But that clear and shining presence had darkened. And in God’s place, we human beings now stand as the source and ground of existence, even the existence of God.

One way Nietzsche expressed this change was to say that God is dead, and probably his most famous expression of God’s death can be found in a short tale he calls, “The Madman.” The story begins with a deranged man yelling out in the market place that God is dead and we are his killers. The man, in this case, is not an atheist but a reporter, telling us that the God who was once alive and well is now a decomposing corpse. Nietzsche’s sharp prose captures the magnitude of the event. The madman asks in amazement, “How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained the earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions?” The point is straightforward. If God is God, then God alone is necessary. Everything else is contingent on God. So without God, we have no orientation; nothing on which to base our judgments about what is good and evil or true and false except our own will to choose. But that is just the problem. Contingent creatures have killed God by making themselves the highest authority. The madman puts it this way: “Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?”[4]

The problem Nietzsche identifies is not that we Westerners no longer believe in God. Rather, the way we believe in God no longer assumes that God is the ultimate authority.  One example of our condition can be found in a book by Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton called Soul Searching.[5] The book summarizes the results of a large scale survey conducted by the National Study of Youth and Religion. Surprisingly, they report that American teenagers are fairly active and conventional participants in religious practices. Teens follow closely the habits of their parents, they have a generally positive attitude toward religion, and they participate in formal religious practices quite regularly on average. But at the same time, these same teenagers are extremely inarticulate about what they believe, they have great difficulty noticing what difference their beliefs make in their own lives, and they have a negative attitude to those who would pattern their life according to a set standard of beliefs. So while American teens are religious, “religion actually appears to operate much more as a taken-for-granted aspect of life, mostly situated in the background of everyday living, which becomes salient only under very specific conditions.”[6] 

This does not mean religion is unimportant, but only that it is important in a particular way. Religion still draws American teens insofar as it makes them happy and helps them get what they want out of life. “What legitimates the religion of most youth today is not that it is the life-transformative, transcendent truth, but that it instrumentally provides mental, psychological, emotional, and social benefits that teens find useful and valuable.”[7] This attitude is so pervasive among American teenagers that Smith and Denton summarizes their findings by suggesting that teens share one dominant kind of religion. Smith and Denton call it “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.”[8] This form of religion has three major components. First, it has a moralistic element: religion provides the impetus for being good, which naturally leads to happy and successful lives. Second, it has a strictly therapeutic element: religion helps teens feel better about themselves. And third, this religion believes in a certain type of God, one who is not demanding or an active part of their lives, but one who shows up when they need him to resolve a problem or give them help. 

The implications for the way American teens treat God are enormous. Rather than providing the beliefs and practices that make the world shine forth with God’s will and order, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism operates as a salve for teenage life. God is not important because he is the way, the truth, and the life. God is important insofar as he helps teens cope, insofar as they find him valuable or useful. If Smith’s findings are accurate, the madman is exactly right. God is dead. American teens have not stopped believing in God, but the form of their belief treats God as little more than a therapist. God is merely someone who helps teens make their way through life rather than the One who works life, death, and all in all. Put another way, human beings have the authority to assign meaning and life to God. But a God whose meaning and importance depends on the value humans find in him is a dead God.

The way American teens treat God is not unique, however. It only reflects the small place God has within the larger patterns of American culture. Building on the work of Alasdair MacIntyre and Robert Bellah, theologian John Wright identifies two poles of typical American life—the managerial and the therapeutic. “The public, managerial realm seeks efficiency in a competitive economic marketplace.”[9] In this realm, the most important concern is the bottom line. The goal of this realm is productivity. Managers, whose sole purpose is to match means to ends in order to achieve maximum efficiency, dominate this realm. Humans, along with other materials, are resources for the maintenance and growth of organizations. The managerial realm is impersonal and competitive, and often physically and emotionally draining. So the therapeutic realm exists to compensate for the toll of the managerial realm. “The private, therapeutic realm provides personal affirmation, meaning, self-fulfillment and expression—what has come recently to be called ‘spirituality.’”[10] This realm consists of all kinds of therapists, who help us cope with the impersonal managerial realm by giving us personal support and encouragement that heals or reenergizes us to go back to work. 

By marking out these two poles, Wright is not suggesting anything profound. The give and take between the managerial and therapeutic is as basic to American life as the pursuit of a job that pays us enough to enjoy life apart from work. What’s disturbing, though, is the place the church has within this cycle. Wright observes that typically, “Churches exist as therapeutic safe houses in an impersonal world,”[11] and pastoral care aims to mend exhausted and broken lives with psychological support couched in terms of divine love. Within this cycle, God only fits within the therapeutic realm. God does not help us make managerial decisions, for instance. God, in this case, only helps us get by as he gives us personal encouragement and individual purpose. God is nothing more than something in which we find personal value. 

These examples demonstrate what it means to say that God is dead. In typical American life, God is significant only insofar as we find personal value in him. Therefore, we stand over-against God as the authorities who give God meaning and significance. So in the remainder of the paper I want to ask this question: How does Christian speech about God reinforce or overcome this condition? In order to answer this question, I will turn from cultural reflection to systematic theology, and from Nietzsche to Gerhard Forde.

Explaining God to Death

Throughout much of his work, Forde worries that Christians have stopped observing Luther’s distinction between God preached and God not preached.[12] According to Forde, the distinction works this way: Apart from the preaching of the gospel we cannot get a grasp on God. God does many things for which we have no explanation. If God is a living God, he controls and effects all things. But that means God cannot be easily excused from tornadoes, car accidents, tumors, and viruses. God works life, death, and all in all. God as such presents a problem for us because he cannot be handled, contained, or explained. When a loved-one dies unexpectedly in a car accident, for example, we can say some nice and pious things about God. We might say something like “God did it because he wants something good to come out of it in the long run.” But explanations like this do not hold water. It does not take long before we realize that our explanations of God just make God all that more imposing. If God wanted something good to come out of a death, could not God have done it without killing the person? We might try to say the opposite: God had nothing to do with it all. But then God lacks either the will or power to stop it. 

 The point is that God refuses our explanations. God simply is who he is and does what he does and nothing we say about it all will ever change or resolve that. God is much too great and abstract for us to handle. But that is just the point Forde wants to make. Since God is God, the only thing we can do about it is be silent and listen to God when he speaks for himself. The only way to deal with the abstractness of God is to let God break through it all and talk to us. God does exactly that in the preaching of the gospel. God breaks through the abstractness and actually speaks. “In and through Jesus, the crucified and risen one, a peculiar band has been unleashed on the world, commissioned and authorized to speak, not merely about, but for God.”[13] 

Forde calls this speech on behalf of God “proclamation.” “The proclamation is…the divine address, speaking not my words but the word God has commissioned me to speak, not what I think, but what God has ordered me to say.”[14] The preacher who proclaims stands in God’s place as God’s commissioned representative to speak on God’s behalf. Absolution is the paradigmatic example: “In the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ, I forgive you.” Because God has authorized someone to speak on God’s behalf, this person’s word to you is God’s word, as if God were standing here right now speaking to you face to face. The opposite of proclamation, however, is explanation. Rather than speaking words from God, explanation speaks words about God. Explanation says something in general. Rather than actual absolution, explanation says something like “God is a forgiving God.” Or, “God’s eternal disposition is merciful.”

Now Forde does not want to say that explanation is bad, but only that it has its place; namely, to prepare us for proclamation. We start running into trouble when explanations take the place of proclamation. For example, it is one thing to say about God that his eternal disposition is merciful. But just what does that mean when my brother dies in a car accident. Has God in his mercy decided to kill my brother? When explanations take the place of proclamation, the concrete reality of God more or less drops out of the picture. Rather than letting God be God in both his unsearchable majesty and his own spoken word, God becomes an idea that we can either assent to or not. Forde puts it this way: “Lectures about God are substituted for preaching God. Our personal difficulties with God are assuaged with a little theological tinkering—perhaps a new name, a new image, a new theology more to our liking.”[15] 

We should not miss the therapeutic undertones of Forde’s point. When an idea about God takes the place of God himself, whether in his absolute majesty or in his proclaimed word, God begins to bend to our demands and desires. Take again the example of a tragedy. If we start with the explanation that God in general is merciful, it doesn’t take long for us to start questioning that generalization. Is this how God’s displays his mercy? Well, once we have taken a step down the road of explanation, it is hard to turn back. Now, it seems, we have to give a reason why this tragedy happened that coheres with God being merciful in general. Maybe we say next that it happened because God wants something good to come out of it in the long run. Maybe that will satisfy us. 

In reality, though, our explanations rarely get that far. Usually we are satisfied to hear something nice about God in general on Sunday mornings and go on our way. “God loves sinners.” “God’s Son has paid the price for our sin.” “God forgives.” Speech like that is often enough to help us feel better about the one who does all in all. Once we have God in the grips of an explanation, God doesn’t seem as threatening. Explanations seem to secure us from God’s unpredictability. God is confined, predictable, and even rational, someone we can feel safe about. And that is just the problem. Wrapped in an explanation, God poses no serious interruption to our lives. We can go on just as we did before, but now with the comforting thought that God isn’t really the threat he seems to be. Explanation turns out to be good therapy. 

Preaching that Kills God and the Preaching of the Living God

There are lots of ways that explanation takes the place of proclamation, but none does more harm than in preaching. Christian preaching is supposed to be the place where proclamation happens, where God’s ordained servant speaks on God’s behalf just as he has been authorized and sent to do. But often, preaching tries to convey an idea about God. There are many ways that either explanation takes over the pulpit or proclamation happens there, but I want to focus on one fundamental instance: the preacher’s disposition toward the scriptural text.

When a sermon aims for explanation, the preacher will approach the text of scripture as a resource for information about God, as if there exists within it a kernel of truth that needs to be excavated and conveyed. The preaching task then consists of two stages. First, the preacher uses interpretive skills to locate that kernel of truth, which is thought to be the real meaning of the text. Depending on one’s religious preference, this kernel can be doctrinal in nature (the text reveals a doctrinal truth), or exegetical (the text reveals the author’s intent), or even moral/religious (the text reveals a truth about life). Second, once the preacher locates the central truth within a passage, the preacher then finds a rhetorically skillful way to convey that truth to his hearers. Such rhetorical skill aims to bridge the gap between the truth within the text and the hearer. Usually, the preacher bridges the gap by starting with an illustration that is attention grabbing and easy to grasp. Once that basic connection has been made with the hearer, the sermon goes on to show how the passage of scriptural text fits with the illustration. In the end, the preacher stands in the pulpit as a conveyor of information about God derived from the text.[16] 

Forde comments that,

The basic presupposition for such oral communication tends to be the freedom of choice. The words provide information about God and Christ which one is expected to appropriate or accept by an act of will. One may, of course, insist that such choosing is aided by grace or the workings of the Spirit…But even so the presupposition remains the same, that of the continually existing subject making its choice over against a battery of facts.[17] 

So rather than confronting us with God’s own present speech, the preacher associates God with an idea that we have to be enticed to believe on the grounds of the rhetorical persuasiveness of the sermon. If the sermon succeeds and we happen to find the idea persuasive, then that is exactly the problem: we find the idea persuasive. God fits into what we already know about the world and we remain the authorities on God.

If preachers want to maintain God’s authority over-against us, if they want their speech to honor God as a living God, then they must ask the question, “What does the text of scripture authorize me to say on God’s behalf?” When preachers proclaim from the pulpit, they have the authority and the obligation to speak in the stead and by the command of God himself. 

Speaking on behalf of God is doing something different than conveying information about God. In his book Divine Discourse: Philosophical Reflections on the Claim that God Speaks,[18] Nicholas Wolterstorff makes a helpful distinction between divine revelation and divine speech. According to Wolterstorff, the claim that God reveals something is different than the claim that God speaks. Divine revelation is an act by which God discloses some item of knowledge about himself that was hidden or previously unknown. That is to say, divine revelation is the act of conveying information. This might occur when God uses a written text in order to deliver a message. Or this might occur indirectly through God’s actions in history. In either case, divine revelation is characterized by the communication or transference of some item of knowledge. 

Divine speech, on the other hand, is something quite different. When talking about divine speech, Wolterstorff has in mind here what J. L. Austin calls illocutionary acts, such as asserting, commanding, promising, or asking. According to Wolterstorff’s account of speech, God does not simply convey information to us. God enters into a moral relationship with a person by assuming a normative standing. He explains,

Imagine, for example, a field worker uttering in the hearing of his fellow worker the words, “would you hand me a drink of water,” thereby requesting the other to hand him a drink of water. The standing of having issued that request is now normatively ascribed to him. And part of what thus having that standing entails is that if the addressee understands what was said, and the speaker’s request is not undercut for him, then the addressee is (prima facie) obligated to hand the speaker a drink of water…By uttering that sentence, the speaker has altered the moral relationship between himself and his fellow worker.[19]

One condition that would undercut the speaker’s request would be that the speaker does not have the authority to take such a normative stance. For example, an observer in the stands of a baseball game might declare that the runner was out at first. But the game will go on regardless of what the fan said because only the umpire has the authority to take up such a normative standing.

Divine speech, then, happens when God uses words to enter into an obligating relationship with someone. A principle instance of divine speech is when God makes a promise. Oswald Bayer, commenting on Austin’s work in reference to Luther, helpfully describes what takes place when God makes a promise. “What happens when this is said or heard? I place myself under an obligation. An activity is described, but it is not what is asserted by an uninvolved observer who says, ‘He is making a promise,’ but is rather an activity that actually constitutes a certain state of affairs. A relationship is created thereby that did not exist previously.”[20] So when God speaks, he does not merely use words to transmit knowledge about himself. God uses words to act in the present upon another. God takes a stand over-against us as a living and contemporary person that we have to deal with—a person who addresses us, and by his address obligates himself to us, and us to him.

When preaching aims at proclamation, the preacher will approach the text of scripture as directions on how to speak to his congregation on God’s behalf. Rather than serving as a resource for information, the scriptures authorize the preacher to stand in the pulpit as God’s own spokesperson. The task of the preacher, then, is to discern how God speaks through the scriptures. So the preacher must not simply ask what information about God lies at hand, but how God uses the scriptural text to speak.

How does the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ use the scriptures to speak? I can only sketch an answer to this question, and my basic description will try to follow the account given in the synoptic Gospels and especially Luke and Acts. The God of Israel sent Jesus to bring about God’s eschatological reign. Anointed by the Spirit, Jesus acted and spoke in the stead and by the command of this God. He healed the sick, cast out demons, and raised the dead and he absolved sinners of their sins. But Jesus’ own authority to speak and act on God’s behalf was challenged by the leaders of Israel. When Jesus would not back down from his claims to authority, they crucified him with the help of the Romans as a blasphemer: one who did not have the authority to speak and act on behalf of God. But God vindicated Jesus by raising him from the dead. Jesus then commissioned his disciples to go into the whole world with Jesus’ own authority to act and speak on his behalf—to forgive sins, to baptize, and to be witnesses to the things that had taken place concerning him so that all who believe in Jesus will be saved from the wrath of God’s final judgment. God sent Jesus to speak on God’s behalf. Jesus sent the apostles to speak on his behalf by bearing witness to the things God had done through Jesus. They considered their own words to be God’s words because just as God had commissioned Jesus, Jesus had commissioned them. The New Testament scriptures, then, are authoritative apostolic divine speech. God uses them to speak to us about his Son, so that we might trust in him and in his words.

Therefore, preaching will be proclamation when the preacher steps into the pulpit as part of the apostolic mission, speaking the apostolic word as he is commissioned by the scriptural text. Forde describes the mechanics of proclamation when he says, “the proclaimer should attempt to do once again in the living present what the text once did and so authorizes doing again.”[21] Exactly what that deed is will be determined by the individual text and the place it has within God’s purposes of speaking through the apostles to create a people for himself. That speech might be to make a promise concerning Christ. For instance, when Jesus promises in John 6:35 that, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst,” the preacher should aim to make the same promise about Jesus to his hearers. Or, the text might move to elect its hearers on God’s behalf, or to warn them of complacency, or both. For instance, in 1 Corinthians 10:1–13, Paul elects the Corinthians by typologically placing them within the story of Israel. Then he warns them not to put God’s election to the test. Then he promises that despite their unfaithfulness, God will be faithful. A preacher should aim to do the same to his hearers and speak in the present just as Paul spoke as an apostle of Jesus on behalf of God. 

In any case, when the preacher lets the scriptural text place him within the apostolic mission as God’s own spokesperson, God gets the final word. Rather than conforming to our own best ideas, God stands over-against us and speaks his own mind. If the Christian God is to be a living God, then, preachers need to fully embrace the apostolic mission for which they are ordained.

Rev. Joel P. Meyer is pastor of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Kingsland, Georgia

[1] Stanley Hauerwas, Hannah’s Child: A Theologian’s Memoir (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), x.

[2] Both my account of Nietzsche and my expression of the problem owe much to Martin Heidegger, “The Word of Nietzsche: ‘God Is Dead,’” in The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, ed. William Lovitt (New York: Harper, 1977), 53–112.

[3] See Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelley, All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age (New York: Free Press, 2011), 118–142, in their discussion of Dante.

[4] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, ed. and trans. Walter Kaufman (New York: Vintage Books, 1974),181–182.

[5] Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford: Oxford University, 2005).

[6] Smith, Soul Searching, 130.

[7] Smith, Soul Searching, 154.

[8] Smith, Soul Searching, 162–170.

[9] John W. Wright, Telling God’s Story: Narrative Preaching for Christian Formation (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 2007), 129.

[10] Wright, Telling God’s Story, 130.

[11] Wright, Telling God’s Story, 133.

[12] For Luther’s use of the distinction, see Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will (1525), in Luther’s Works, vol. 33, ed. Philip S. Watson (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1972), 138–140.

[13] Gerhard O. Forde, “Whatever Happened to God? God Not Preached,” in The Preached God: Proclamation in Word and Sacrament, ed. Mark C. Mattes and Steven D. Paulson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 44.

[14] Forde, “Whatever Happened to God,” 46.

[15] Forde, “Whatever Happened to God,” 38.

[16] See Gerhard O. Forde, Theology Is for Proclamation (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990), 152–55, as well as Wright, Telling God’s Story, 24.

[17] Forde, Theology, 147.

[18] Nicholas Wolterstorff, Divine Discourse: Philosophical Reflections on the Claim that God Speaks (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

[19] Wolterstorff, Divine Discourse, 84.

[20] Oswald Bayer, Martin Luther’s Theology: A Contemporary Interpretation, trans. Thomas H. Trapp (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 51.

[21] Forde, Theology, 155.

As an extension of LOGIA, LOGIA Online understands itself to be a free conference in the blogosphere. As such, the views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of LOGIA’s editorial board or the Luther Academy

Against the Heavenly Televangelists: A Lutheran Critique of the Televised Preaching of Joel Osteen and John Hagee

—by Richard Wolff

God speaks through the preacher in the pulpit. This I, Martin Luther, have said and believe … for preaching is an awesome responsibility. As I have written, “‘Here God speaks.’ God himself has said it, and I repeat it … whoever cannot boast like that about his sermon should leave preaching alone, for he surely denies and blasphemes God.”[1] Those who are not certain that God speaks through their mouths should be quiet. The Reformation placed great importance on the preached word. As a latter-day scholar of my work has written about how we Reformers thought of this matter, God draws near to us through preaching; indeed, “the word brings God with all God’s gifts.”[2] Those who would follow in my footsteps will abide by preachers of the pure gospel. My followers, who crave for “right understanding and for his holy, pure Word,”[3] will guard against false preachers, whose words and ideas mislead those thirsty for God.

Therefore, I must speak out against twenty-first century preachers who corrupt the gospel, sending messages via an invention called the television—a marvel that is similar to what the printing press was to us in the sixteenth century—reaching souls far and wide. To those who hear such corrupt messages, I send an “earnest, sincere warning and admonition,” as I warned of those misleading the faithful in an earlier age.[4] So I say, concern yourselves with “faith and good conscience before God,” and not “with what glitters and shines before reason and the world”; be on your guard, “for God nonetheless always holds his grace firmly over the world, so that he permits no false prophets to attempt anything except something external, such as works and subtle minute discoveries about external things.”[5] Indeed, these cautions apply to the likes of Mr. Joel Osteen, who uses the pulpit and Bible to spread a message of personal wealth and success in worldly terms, and Dr. John Hagee, a fire-and-brimstone preacher who uses stage and scripture to spread a message of morality and national exceptionalism in apocalyptic, triumphalist terms. Guard yourselves against both Mr. Osteen and Dr. Hagee! The first exemplifies preachers of the “prosperity gospel,” the gospel of “self-help and self-love,” who trace their lineage to the writings of Norman Vincent Peale. The second exemplifies preachers of triumphant “apocalypticism,” who draw on the “left behind” writings of Timothy LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins.[6] Both are false preachers and misuse the gospel.

My undertaking, friends in Christ, is to provide “sincere counsel and warning” for you against such televangelists and their messages—misuses of the gospel, which rightly proclaims the power of faith in the crucified and risen Christ.[7] Mine is an important task, for when “errors arise among Christians, … these deprive consciences of such a comforting knowledge, lead to error, and unconsciously turn the spirit from inward grace toward external things and works.”[8] I shall therefore say a word about the importance of preaching in reaching souls with the gospel, discuss Mr. Osteen’s and Dr. Hagee’s preaching and how their messages reflect broad trends in twenty-first century theology, and use my own writings and thought to critique and respond to these false preachers. To achieve this, I shall draw on crucial terms I discuss in my Preface to Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, what I called the “purest gospel.” In the end, I seek to expose these televangelists for how their preaching and misuse of the Bible run counter to my own writings on the gospel, and outline what good preaching should proclaim.

Even as I believe that God speaks through preachers, nonetheless—lest preachers “become arrogant and domineering” in their awareness of speaking for God—I have one abiding principle to guide them: “Nothing except Christ is [to be] preached.” One should preach Christ as savior— “his passion and resurrection.”[9] This is the gospel, which I loved. It comes not only through preaching Christ as savior, but also focusing on his words more so than his deeds, for Christ’s words “bring us life.”[10] A preacher must be “a servant of the word.”[11] As I have written:

Whoever, therefore, does not know or preach the gospel is not only no priest or bishop, but he is a kind of pest to the church, who under the false title of priest or bishop, or dressed in sheep’s clothing, actually does violence to the gospel and plays the wolf in the church.[12]

Introducing the Wolves

And now, before undressing them, I shall introduce two of these wolves.

The first is Joel Osteen, a televangelist whose preaching is broadcast from a mega-church in Texas. His recurring message is that blessings await those who believe and do good—that is, worldly blessings, such as increased wealth and property, successful relationships and overcoming depression. His prosperity gospel also connects with a history of triumphalism, whereby God exalts faithful followers on earth, such that a sign of one’s salvation is economic success; hence, one would see “God’s approval in growing personal wealth.”[13] To this end, a recent sermon included Mr. Osteen making the following assertions: “with every act of obedience, God will reward you”; “when you obey, dreams come to pass, health is restored”; “when you obey, a blessing is attached to it”; and “you can’t out give God.” He shared several examples, such as his purchase of a subpar home, on faith that God would provide (which happened when a developer bought the property and Mr. Osteen made a profit) and an acquaintance getting a job for which she was unqualified, because she obeyed God.[14] Another sermon used the example of the release of Hebrew slaves to allegorize that God will also free faithful followers from financial burdens, career problems, addictions, sickness, relationship problems and bad habits, because “you have an advantage as a child of God,” for which God will “lead you to fulfillment” and “take you places you never dreamed of.”[15] Although this sermon never mentions Christ, others do, often as an example of good, ethical behavior – such as by discussing the mercy Christ showed to the criminal on a cross, in a sermon on loving others.[16]

Another sheepskin-wearing wolf in the church is Dr. John Hagee, a televangelist who preaches from another mega-church in Texas. Although his style and message differ from Mr. Osteen’s, Dr. Hagee’s sermons also concern me. His sermons trace their history through another strand of triumphalism—one that sees the need to purify the nation by adherence to an unchanging, uniform code of morality, and seeks political influence in order to impose this vision.[17] Hence, “it attempts in rhetoric and action to pursue a theocratic worldview, marked by an otherworldly spirituality that becomes self-righteous, judgmental, and tyrannical facing opposition.”[18] To motivate listeners, Dr. Hagee’s sermons tap into a history of moralism, which uses a “fear of punishment on earth and idealistic promises of heaven,” to give listeners a (false) “sense of spiritual security” (and, indeed, superiority) that they are assured salvation by following a moral code[19]—and what is more, that salvation is tied to imposing this code via political influence. Seeing a clear, Biblically-based distinction between Christian and secular morality, Dr. Hagee “[applies] this distinction at times to moral and political life, usually out of an almost paranoid fear that American is being threatened by evil forces aimed at the eradication of our original ‘Bible-based civilization.’”[20] He expects his followers to “obey unconditionally” what he tells them to believe and do, demanding “strict adherence to moral and political norms” as he defines them, resulting in a “defense of a ‘civil religion’ which undergirds a capitalist culture by celebrating the virtues of family, country, monogamy, work, frugality, sobriety, and other aspects of a ‘Protestant ethic.’”[21] Finally, Dr. Hagee’s preaching involves an apocalypticism which sees America’s place in the world as part of God’s plan to bring about “the gradual fulfillment of the book of Revelation,” and sees the duty of “true” Christians to restore God’s moral principles in America, so to lead other nations to God and bring them to salvation.[22]

Hence, Dr. Hagee’s preaching features the rhetoric of fear, triumphalism, morality, nationalism, and apocalypticism. One recent sermon concerned the kinds and implications of wealth. Starting with a distinction between the “provisions” that humans and God may provide, Dr. Hagee extolled the virtues of giving, saying we are never more like God than when we give (and “when you give, you prosper”), and encouraged listeners to tithe to the church. Along the way, he related wealth and power to the “culture wars” by name, and encouraged listeners to fight against abortion, the ACLU, welfare, restrictions on domestic oil drilling, the overreaching power of the current government, and to use their power to combat all this evil, because, through faith in Christ, “victory belongs to you!” He admonished listeners to follow a strict moral code, and believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible.[23] In another sermon, Dr. Hagee proclaimed that in heaven people will hold ranks based upon their accomplishments on earth, and that all will receive triumphant glory, but some more than others; this would be determined by one’s performance in battle, and “the battle is now!” The church, preached Dr. Hagee, is at war with this world. “America,” he sermonized, “is laughing at the gospel message of morality”; those who are righteous and will find salvation on judgment day are those who confront sins and follow the code of morality.[24]

On the Preaching of Wolves

What then to say of the preaching of Mr. Osteen and Dr. Hagee? Is it good, sound, Christian preaching? Answer: no. They are false preachers who do not preach the risen Christ, whose death and resurrection mean all the faithful are saved, by Christ’s act, not people’s works. Indeed, their preaching has become so widespread that, as I did with the false prophets in my own day, I am compelled to refute what they say.[25] Both televangelists preach a false gospel, but for different reasons. Where they stand together condemned, however, is on the basis of a central criterion that I used to assess the relative standing of scripture—Was Christum treibet, or “what pushes Christ.”[26] The criterion I used to assess whether a work of scripture was built on straw or met a gold standard may also be used as “a tool for judging contemporary works”[27]—yes, including televised preaching. That standard is whether the work bears some “evangelical character,” preaching the gospel, the good news over everything else—the gospel of God’s love shown in “Christ’s saving crucifixion and his resurrection.”[28] The gospel is that which makes one alive upon hearing it proclaimed. Beyond the law, which condemns and makes us fearful before God, “we must also preach the word of grace and the promise of forgiveness by which faith is taught and aroused.”[29]

By this measure, Mr. Osteen and Dr. Hagee fall short. The first, with his promises of worldly wealth to the “faithful,” presents God as a “celestial Santa,”[30] one who will bring them riches of the flesh in this world, if they believe and approach life positively. The reward for saying you follow Christ, and have accepted him as your savior, is success. On the other hand, Dr. Hagee presents God as a “nasty lawgiver,”[31] one who bases salvation on accepting a morality Hagee himself defines, proof texting scripture for his own political purposes, saying good works (that is, adhering to Hagee’s interpretation of a national political agenda based on the Bible) make people good, thus reversing what I say is the authentic order of things: that “good people do good works.”[32] In both cases, the televised preachers stand condemned of not preaching an authentic “relation to God.”[33] They do not preach the God as revealed to us in the unexpected, as one who suffered on the cross out of love-born desire to reconcile us humans to God and make us righteous by faith. The God Mr. Osteen and Dr. Hagee preach is not the one revealed, but the one contrived in their preaching: as one who either died to bring about our worldly success, or one who expects adherence to a particular moral standard to achieve glory in terms first national, then apocalyptic. By so preaching, both deny listeners a true relation with the living God via proclamation of the true gospel.

And where might one find this true gospel? For me, the answer is in St. Paul’s epistle to the Romans, which I call “the chief part of the New Testament, and … truly the purest gospel.”[34] In my Preface to this work, I discuss Paul’s theology as developed over the course of the letter, but only after discussing the language Paul uses; for, as I say, without that, “no reading of the book has any value.”[35] Since a proper understanding of these key words is essential to understanding Paul’s articulation of “the purest gospel,” I will discuss these terms, comparing what I say Paul means by each to how Mr. Osteen and Dr. Hagee understand the same terms, as revealed in their preaching. My point shall be to demonstrate the conflict these false teachers evince with what is “purest gospel,” either by their misconstruing these terms, or neglecting some entirely. These terms are “law,” “sin,” “grace,” “faith,” “righteousness,” “flesh,” and “spirit.”

“Law” concerns not “what works are to be done or not done,” for that is how we understand human laws; God, instead, judges “according to what is in the depths of the heart,” in a manner that “cannot be satisfied with works.”[36] No one can keep the entirety of the law by doing (or not doing) deeds, because it is impossible to be righteous by such a standard; hence, due to of its overwhelming demands, people hate the law. This is why, properly understood, “the law is spiritual”—it is not of the body—and only a heart filled with the proper spirit can love and fulfill it.[37] For this reason I distinguish between “doing the work of the law” and “fulfilling the law.”[38] Any works one does trying to keep the law are in vain, for since no one can successfully keep all the law, one will ultimately despise it. Fulfilling the law, doing its works “with pleasure and love,” may only by done through faith—a faith that “alone makes a person righteous and fulfills the law.” And faith is a gift, a “divine work in us,” which changes us and makes us righteous, for the sake of Christ, who by grace died and was raised, to make us righteous before God.[39] Sin, then, is unbelief.[40] This is why preaching is so crucial, for “faith … comes only through God’s Word or gospel, which preaches Christ saying that his is God’s Son and a man, and has died and risen again for our sakes,” as Paul says throughout the epistle.[41]

If this is the standard by which to judge preaching, both Mr. Osteen and Dr. Hagee are false preachers. Mr. Osteen does not preach of God’s forgiveness of sins for the sake of Christ, who was crucified and resurrected; instead, he preaches of worldly prosperity, granted to those who accept Jesus as their savior. But, savior from what? Sin, in Mr. Osteen’s preaching, is absent, or reduced to not having faith enough to reach one’s potential in attaining earthly wealth, career advancement and happiness in human relationships. Indeed, there are no “laws” to speak of in his prosperity gospel; he preaches only of principles to achieve happiness, success and increased wealth. This is not to say he does not speak of works. A proper attitude is the “work” of which Mr. Osteen speaks, in service of attaining prosperity. Faith is not a gift from God that reckons us righteous; inasmuch as one’s success is a reflection of the sufficiency of one’s faith, even faith here is a work, without which one is not able to attain the worldly blessings Mr. Osteen preaches God bestows on those who accept Christ as their “savior” and follow His example.

Further, the “benefits” of which Mr. Osteen speaks are not spiritual. Whereas his preaching concerns how to find betterment of one’s present life, he exemplifies what I call “the flesh,” that is, a person “who lives and works, inwardly and outwardly, in the service of the flesh’s gain, and of this temporal life.”[42] His preaching is unconcerned with “the spirit,” which characterizes one who works “in the service of the Spirit and of the future life.”[43] God’s gracious act of giving his Son to suffer and die on a cross, so people might be reckoned as righteous via faith, is cheapened and degraded to God allowing his Son to suffer and die so “believers” might achieve fleshly glory: to get that big promotion, marry the spouse of their choice, and live in a house whose worth (they believe) reflects their level of faith. Often this is not by a focus on Christ’s words about redemption, or by faith in Christ and what makes him unique as one whose death and resurrection reckon us righteous before God, but by following Christ’s example, Christ here mentioned alongside other Biblical figures. This fails to appreciate what makes Christ unique. Mr. Osteen thereby becomes like other false prophets who direct attention “only to the work of Christ, wherein Christ is held up as an example, which is the least important aspect of Christ, and which makes him comparable to other saints. But turn to Christ as to a gift of God, or, as Paul says, the power of God, and God’s wisdom, righteousness, redemption, and sanctification, given to us.”[44]

Here, we have a false teacher who leads people astray from the true gospel. Focusing on faith as a work, the sufficiency of which bestows fleshly rewards as a measure of faith, subverts the good news. It convinces followers that God gave His Son for our worldly wealth, making people despair of their insufficient faith if they do not attain what they desire. They become condemned by the “law” for not living up to God’s expectations, as evinced by their lack of wealth; or they believe themselves blessed if they do receive worldly riches, unaware that their spiritual salvation must follow a different faith—one in a God found in weakness, a God who suffers, who is vulnerable, whose love for us is so great that God would suffer for our spiritual salvation … and what comfort this love brings! This is the theology of the cross, which does not lead people to find God revealed in their glorious attainment of earthly riches and worldly power, but finds God where God chooses to be revealed, “in the brokenness of the cross, the emptiness of unbelief, the guilt of sin.”[45] What works we do “inwardly and outwardly, in the service of the Spirit and of the future life,”[46] we do in response to the love which fills us, and to which we cannot help but respond, content with expressing our own overflowing love for the One who also loves us.[47] The gospel concerns God’s love and sacrifice, not our worldly wealth and prosperity; its central focus is “the Spirit and future life,” not that of the flesh and its gains; it addresses sin and grace, and how awareness of these leads to joy and comfort, not worldly lack or divine favor leading to earthly riches in keeping with the measure of one’s “faith.” To debase that truth with Mr. Osteen’s God-died-for-your-fleshly-happiness preaching makes him guilty of misleading souls hungry for the pure gospel.

As for Dr. Hagee, his preaching also does not measure up to the standard of “the purest gospel.” In Hagee’s sermons, moralism and triumphalism supplant the role of forgiveness and reconciliation. Righteousness, in his preaching, is established by adhering to his particular moral political agenda; sin is holding any other political, moral views. Only those who uphold this political agenda will be raised in glory for having helped establish America as the triumphant leader of the world. Hence, America serves as a savior to other nations, leading by a particular moral example. Accepting and supporting this morality, and fighting the political fight, is the work that distinguishes some Christians from others, and certainly nonbelievers. Thus, Hagee, like others, distinguishes his “Christian” morality from the “secular,” and applies this distinction “to moral and political life, usually out of an almost paranoid fear that America is being threatened by evil forces aimed at the eradication” of a civilization based on Biblical morality.[48] God condemns those who do not support this political agenda, in a manner that limits God’s grace from all those who have faith in Christ, to those “elect” who follow Hagee’s fleshly agenda and views. Indeed, Dr. Hagee’s preaching leads followers to base their salvation on law and their works of morality, making that which saves not Christ’s gracious, loving act on the cross, but something they do, and making enemies of those whose moral sense differs from theirs. Dr. Hagee’s preaching emphasizes fear, judgment and works, rather than joy, grace, and faith in a salvation freely given; he preaches prideful superiority based on morality, rather than faithful discipleship, that is, service freely rendered to neighbors.[49] 

Hence, in Dr. Hagee’s preaching, we are reckoned as righteous not by Christ’s act, but by our own works—acts of morality and politics, which make us worthy of salvation. This leads to a sense of supremacy, along with condemning and judging others, even though all fall short of the law, which no one can keep where it matters, in the heart.[50] Absent from his fire-and-brimstone sermons is talk of grace, forgiveness offered to all regardless of works, and the good news that we are made righteous not by keeping the law, but by faith in Christ’s death and resurrection. Indeed, Dr. Hagee looks not to a theology of the cross, which would find God revealed in weakness and suffering, but to a theology of glory, emphasized in his apocalyptic preaching. He ties this to his and his followers’ own quest for glory and power, as “they seek a powerful God to match their own claims to power, and a powerful Scripture as well,” instead of God as revealed, coming to us “humble and lowly.”[51] Their quest for power based upon morality makes of these principles an idol, “idealizing what they do,” “deriving behavior from rigid principles,” instead of love.[52] 

Further, instead of preaching the comfort to those seeking “God’s word of promise and hope,” Dr. Hagee condemns those whose morality is not bound with that which he preaches, based upon his interpretation of scripture.[53] What Dr. Hagee should realize, as one latter-day interpreter of mine has written, is that “we are neither pope nor emperor but fellow believers living with one another. This means that Christians cannot simply assert one interpretation of Scripture over another but must always respect the conscience of others with whom we may disagree.”[54] Consider this in relation to my discussion of moralism, above. In presenting his interpretation of scriptural morality as law, Dr. Hagee errs. So too does he err in preaching law without gospel—the pure gospel, which proclaims good news and comforts the terrified, unable to keep the law. While the law may bring us to repent before God, preaching the good news means comforting troubled consciences, that “through faith in God’s unconditional, gracious promise of forgiveness in Christ,” we are saved, reckoned as righteous for Christ’s sake.[55] Would that Dr. Hagee learn from this and proclaim this pure gospel, instead of the false one that he preaches.

Wherefore could both false preachers look to correct their wayward preaching? Answer: the gospel itself. That is, they could preach scripture. While I myself placed greater emphasis on the other Reformation solas, I nonetheless held a treasured place for scripture for its “Christological principle,” “precisely because this book alone pushed Christ.”[56] Indeed, the word for me was “not simply the Bible but its proclamation.”[57] Preaching the good news is proclaiming how a scriptural text pushes Christ, that is, the saving Christ. Part of the problem for both Mr. Osteen and Dr. Hagee is that their approach is to preach not on a scriptural text but on a theme of their choosing, based on their own brand of what one scholar has called “toxic Christian traditions,” which are each in their own way idolatrous.[58] To serve their predetermined message of prosperity, fundamentalism, triumphalism and/or moralism, they develop a message and selectively choose passages to support their views. Thus, they wrest a toxic message out of a source that, on its own terms, wants to “push Christ”; they thereby fail to proclaim the good news of forgiveness and salvation. To wit, they make scripture their slave, using it to serve the predetermined needs of their “poisonous” message. 

If they would but go “back to the sources” and let scripture be their guide—lectionary texts, which embody the good news—Mr. Osteen and Dr. Hagee too might preach “the purest gospel.” For it is by means of hearing the external word—God’s word, preached to us; not false preachers’ messages that mangle scriptural verses to serve their needs—that God reaches us. Instead, Mr. Osteen and Dr. Hagee “fill the world with their chattering and scribbling—as if the Spirit could not come through the Scriptures or the spoken word of the apostles, but the Spirit must come through their own writings and words.”[59] It is God’s word and the preaching of it that transforms us with its message of promise, forgiveness and salvation: the good news, centered on Christ. Indeed, as I show in my prefaces to the books of the Bible, one can find the good news throughout Scripture when one reads it for how each book “pushes Christ.” It is God’s work and word that saves, not anything imposed on it by false preachers. 

As is, both of these twenty-first century televised preachers choose a theme supportive of their preferred message, either the prosperity gospel or a triumphalist-moralist-apocalyptic reproach, and develop a message around these themes with proof-texts as needed. Hence, Mr. Osteen has preached sermons on themes like “Be Positive or Be Quiet,” “Take Control of Your Happiness,” “Healthy Families,” and “Have a Spirit of Excellence,” while Dr. Hagee has preached sermons titled “Can America Survive?” “Battle Cry,” “The War for the Soul,” “The Seven Secrets of Success,” and “Triumphant in the Days of Trouble.” They “impose their own direction” instead of letting the lectionary be their guide, and are led astray from preaching the good news of God’s “gracious word” and “saving power.”[60] Listeners are left remembering not a scriptural text, but the televangelists’ theme designed to enslave scripture in service of its own, imposed message.

We are brought back to the method for discerning what preaching is truest to the gospel. As scripture is “self-authenticating,” judged by its ability to transform us via the sharing of the good news, so we may use the same standard of “what pushes Christ” to assess all Christian writing and preaching.[61] That standard is the same for all writing and preaching, which is the authority of “the crucified and risen Christ.”[62] These televangelists, in not preaching on this authority but on messages of their own devising, may be said rather to preach “what pushes Osteen or Hagee,” or even “what Osteen or Hagee pushes.”[63] Realizing this, we must be careful, to “notice what kind of interpreter [is] speaking and what the fruits of his or her teaching [are],” and “whether the teaching brought the consolation of faith or simply more works.”[64] 

Ultimately Mr. Osteen and Dr. Hagee do not push Christ, do not preach the good news, and do not console terrified consciences with the message of salvation through faith in Christ; rather they preach works, the law, a fleshly reward instead of a spiritual, and a theology of glory instead of the cross. They preach of earthly prosperity, or a triumphalist, apocalyptic salvation conditioned upon a particular morality. Their preaching gives a “false sense of spiritual security,” inevitably resulting in a sense of inadequacy and fear.[65] This is not the good news. By preaching on matters other than the gospel, these false preachers separate us from the love of Christ. This is why they are wolves in sheep’s clothing. To those who wonder why this is of such import, I say because “it is perilous when … errors arise among Christians, for they deprive consciences of such comforting knowledge, … and unconsciously turn the spirit from inward grace toward external things and works.”[66]

This is why I warn of the threat these false televised preachers pose to the pure gospel, and to people’s very souls. For they “avoid, run away from, and are silent on the main points of Christian doctrine. For in no place do they teach how we are to become free from our sins, obtain a good conscience, and win a peaceful and joyful heart before God. This is what really counts.”[67] In preaching such false teachings, they thus are a menace. As I have written:

The greatest evil on earth is a false preacher. He is the worst man on earth. No thief, murderer or scoundrel on earth can be compared to him. They are not as wicked as a preacher who dominates people in God’s name … and leads them into the abyss of hell through [his] false preaching.[68] 

These televangelists are guilty of such preaching. Be assured, their sermons “are childish and foolish nonsense,” and they should instead preach “why Christ came, what he brought and bestowed, what benefit it is to us to accept him.”[69] Would that these televangelists preach the promises of God, proclaimed in the gospel! For “What person’s heart, upon hearing such things, will not rejoice greatly and grow so tender that he will love Christ in a way not possible by the observance of works or law?”[70] Dear Christians, let us thank our gracious God for his mercy and promises, and for the preaching of the purest gospel, in the twenty-first century as in my day. 

Richard Wollf is Professor of Speech, Media Studies and Religious Studies at Dowling College.

[1] Martin Luther, quoted in Fred W. Meuser, Luther the Preacher (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1983), 12.

[2] Ibid., 12–13; quotation 13.

[3] Martin Luther, “Against the Heavenly Prophets in the Matter of Images and Sacraments,” LW 40:80.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ross Douthat, Bad Religion: How we Became a Nation of Heretics (New York: Free Press, 2012), 52, 62.

[7] Martin Luther, “Letter to the Christians at Strassburg in Opposition to the Fanatic Spirit,” LW 40:67.

[8] Ibid., 66.

[9] Meuser, Luther the Preacher, 16, 19.

[10] Ibid., 17–18.

[11] Ibid., 16–17.

[12] As quoted by Meuser, 17.

[13] Eric W. Gritsch, Toxic Spirituality: Four Enduring Temptations of Christian Faith (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009), 104.

[14] Joel Osteen; all episodes reviewed as cablecast on WWOR-NY (Houston, Texas: KTBU): October 20, 2013.

[15] Joel Osteen: November 2, 2013.

[16] Joel Osteen: October 27, 2013.

[17] Gritsch, Toxic Spirituality, 85–131.

[18] Ibid., 130.

[19] Ibid., 149, 154.

[20] Eric Gritsch, Born Againism: Perspectives on a Movement (Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 1982), 98.

[21] Ibid., 99.

[22] Douthat, Bad Religion, 256, 261, and passim.

[23] John Hagee; all episodes reviewed as cablecast on Daystar (Dallas, Texas: Daystar): October 20, 2013.

[24] John Hagee: October 27, 2013.

[25] Conrad Bergendoff, Introduction to “Against the Heavenly Prophets,” LW 40:76.

[26] Timothy Wengert, Reading the Bible with Martin Luther (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013), 9.

[27] Ibid., 3, 6–7.

[28] Ibid., 3, 6, 8.

[29] Luther, “The Freedom of a Christian,” LW 31:364.

[30] Wengert, Reading the Bible with Martin Luther, 41.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid., 108.

[33] ibid., 41.

[34] Martin Luther, “Preface to the Epistle of St. Paul to the Romans,” LW 35:365.

[35] Ibid., 366.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Ibid., 366–367.

[38] Ibid., 367.

[39] Ibid., 368, 370.

[40] Ibid., 369.

[41] Ibid., 368.

[42] Ibid., 372.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Luther, “Letter to the Christians at Strassburg,” LW 40:70.

[45] Wengert, Reading the Bible with Martin Luther, 49.

[46] Luther, “Preface to Romans,” LW 35:372.

[47] Wengert, Reading the Bible with Martin Luther, 42.

[48] Gritsch, Born Againism, 98.

[49] Ibid., 100.

[50] Luther, “Preface to Romans,” LW 35:366.

[51] Wengert, Reading the Bible with Martin Luther, 52.

[52] Ibid., 73.

[53] Ibid., 77.

[54] Ibid.

[55] Ibid., 76.

[56] Ibid., 19.

[57] Ibid.

[58] Gritsch, Toxic Spirituality, 161, 4.

[59] Martin Luther, “The Smalcald Articles,” in The Book of Concord, ed. Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000), 322.

[60] Meuser, Luther the Preacher, 47.

[61] Wengert, Reading the Bible with Martin Luther, 8, 11.

[62] Ibid., 11.

[63] Ibid., 10–11 (adapting Wengert’s discussion to Osteen and Hagee).

[64] Ibid., 19.

[65] Gritsch, Toxic Spirituality, 155.

[66] Luther, “Letter to the Christians at Strassburg,” LW 40:66.

[67] Luther, “Against the Heavenly Prophets,” LW 40:222–223.

[68] Luther, as quoted in Mueser, Luther the Preacher, 44.

[69] Luther, “The Freedom of a Christian,” LW 31:357.

[70] Ibid., 70.

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PREACH IT BROTHER! The Importance of Sermon Delivery in the 21st Century

It is a singular blessing for the pastor to be authorized to proclaim the Word of God in purity and truth before a congregation of God's people. Few Christians are blessed with the opportunity and training necessary to carry out this task. However, often the routine of preaching becomes arduous. The rigmarole of pastoral responsibilities threatens the time needed to adequately prepare for a sermon. What the preparation process looks like may be open to interpretation, but some part of the sermon production process suffers. More often than not, the part of the sermon production process that suffers is not the doctrinal fidelity, or even the textual exegesis, but the one thing that makes a sermon a sermon: the public delivery itself.

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