Sober John and Smiling Joel: Two Visions of the Christian Life

Before you accuse me of a John and Joel fixation, hear me out. It’s John Calvin’s 500th birthday this year. So, naturally, I have been reading more Calvin. And, the smiling preacher’s face, (Joel Osteen’s), is everywhere. It was sheer curiosity that drove me to compare their two visions of the Christian life. Sober John Calvin’s vision is described in the small classic, GOLDEN BOOKLET OF THE TRUE CHRISTIAN LIFE, and smiling Joel Osteen’s vision is described in YOUR BEST LIFE NOW. How do they differ? Who is the more authentic voice of Evangelicalism? How would the suffering church today assess their validity? I think you’ll find this interesting.

Both men were pastors. Both had large congregations. Both revered the Bible. Both were leading spokespersons for Evangelical Christianity. But both men lived in very different settings and had very different messages. Smiling Joel lived and ministered in prosperous times in early 21st century America. Sober John lived and ministered in difficult times when Evangelicals were savagely persecuted in 16th century France.

Victory Now?
Pastor Joel says we can experience victory, joy and satisfaction every single day. He writes “God has destined you to live in victory.”(YBLN 194) That victory will come when we start believing good things will happen to us. We can have happiness and fulfillment today. We should start expecting supernatural promotion in every area of our life. Pastor John was not so optimistic about this life. He sought to embrace the common cause of all believers. In describing the church of his day, he said that it has “either been wasted with cruel slaughter or banished into exile, or so overwhelmed by threats and fears that it dare not even open its mouth.” (CI, 30)

According to Pastor Joel, “God wants to make your life easier. He wants to assist you, to promote you, to give you advantages. He wants you to have preferential treatment” and to prosper today (YBLN, 38). He has “more in store” for you. But to have this we must release our faith, dream and start trusting him for bigger things. Pastor John had a very different view. He said that as followers of Christ, we have to go through much strife on earth. This life is “full of unrest, trouble, and misery,” and not really happy from many points of view. (GB 69) While this world should not be despised, he said, “we are inclined to overestimate this present life.” (GB 70, 72) By our fellowship with Christ, however, adversities can become blessings to promote our happiness and salvation and prepare us for heaven.

Interestingly, for Pastor Joel, God is “always trying” to do something in our lives—to do something new, to promote us, to increase what we have. But He is frustrated—by us! Unless we make the first move, He can’t do anything. For Pastor John, God is sovereign over both prosperity and adversity. While faith and human responsibility have a real place, God is ruling rather than trying.

Self and Self Denial
Pastor Joel says a lot about the self, and nothing about sin or self denial. We must view ourselves, he says, as priceless treasures, as champions, as winners and as over-comers. We must know our great value. His emphasis is how much God makes of us. Pastor John, on the other hand, while affirming that we are God’s unique creation, said that “to live happily the evils of false ambition and self love must be plucked from our hearts.” (GB 29). He said, “there is a world of vices hidden in the soul of man, but Christian self denial is the remedy of them all.” (GB 24) Because of the freedom given by the gospel, Pastor John’s emphasis is how much we should make of God.

Cross Bearing
Pastor Joel decided that the cross would be out of place in his worship center. He says of his services, “it’s not a churchy feel. We don’t have crosses up there.” According to Pastor Joel, the cross is a barrier that keeps people from coming. Sin is never mentioned. Neither is the cross or atonement. Instead, he wants to focus on positive thinking and give people a boost for the week. Rather than have a cross on the platform, his central symbol is the world. Pastor John, would have a hard time understanding this. His view of the Christian life is rooted in redemption. The cross and the resurrection are the foundation for everything. He says, Christ calls every disciple to take up his cross and live under the cross. From this flow many benefits. Cross bearing makes us humble, teaches us obedience, brings repentance, and makes us hopeful for heaven. Pastor John says “there is no crown without a cross.” (GB 67)

When it comes to wealth and prosperity, Pastor Joel is very clear. “I believe God wants us to prosper,” he repeatedly says. He therefore exhorts readers to “shun negativity and develop “a prosperous mindset” as a way of drawing on God’s favor. His gospel is very much a prosperity gospel. Shockingly, Pastor John warns of the dangers of prosperity. It “can stupefy and numb our senses so that we disregard the grace of God.” We are not to despise his blessings, but “we should not be anxious to obtain riches and honor.” Rather, we should live with moderation. (GB 90)

Your Best Life Now Or Later
For Pastor Joel, the emphasis is clearly on “your best life now,” that is—this life. Hope is this- worldly. He is silent about heaven. For Pastor John, while he emphasizes taking this life seriously, he points to our best life later. “We are inclined to overestimate this present life,” he says (GB 70). All its blessings are unstable and passing. “What is earth compared with heaven?” (GB 74). Heaven is our father land. Earth is a place of exile. We are on a pilgrimage, traveling towards the heavenly kingdom. With such words, Pastor John gave hope to the persecuted church of his day, saying, “If we are massacred, we shall be received into eternal glory.” (GB 57)

Pastor Joel certainly walks his talk. He says, “one of the healthiest things you can do is smile more often.”(YBLN 277) And he does. Pastor John was a little more, well………sober. He said, “true saints have been disturbed by sorrow and harassed with grief.” “We are not required to be cheerful while we shake off all sense of bitterness and sorrow.”(GB 58) But we may have joy and cheerfulness when, though wounded by sadness and sorrow, we are thrown back on God. (GB 59)

While there is much more that could be said about these two very different visions of the Christian life, you will have to admit, that these two pastors, smiling Joel and sober John, certainly seem to be pointing in two very different directions.

NOTE: For more on this subject, see my earlier August 29, 2009 blog. Also, I encourage you to read John Calvin’s short, GOLDEN BOOKLET OF THE TRUE CHRISTIAN LIFE, published by Baker. Footnote identifications mean: CI—Calvin’s Institutes, GB—Calvin’s Golden Booklet of the True Christian Life, YBLN—Your Best Life Now.

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