What do Fred Phelps and Joel Osteen have in common? There’s no punchline, I really am going somewhere with this.
Fred Phelps is the pastor of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church. You’ve seen them in the news or online protesting military funerals and more recently posting statements of judgment on Twitter. I’ve never heard him say “Hell is hot and sin ain’t right” but I imagine he would agree with that statement. Phelps is completely occupied with God’s judgement. God does hate sin, and the wages of sin is death. That seems to be just about the only weapon in the Westboro arsenal. The message is a call to repent.
At the polar opposite end of the spectrum is Joel Osteen. He has never used the words wrath and God in the same sentence. Sin, the cross, the blood of Jesus, he quit preaching on those things years ago. He actually said in an interview that everybody has already heard those things. Osteen has his, um, church members hold up their Bibles each week, repeat some little mantra, then put them back down while he tells funny stories for another half hour. He is an excellent speaker – funny, polished, very encouraging – I just wouldn’t call him a preacher. His message is to think positive thoughts, believe that God wants to bless you, will bless you, and that nothing would please God more than to bless you. He has a million dollar smile, gorgeous wife, two books on the New York Times Bestseller List, and 50,000+ attendees every week at Lakewood “Church.” He’s doing much better in that department than Phelps, whose congregation consists mainly of his own family members.
Phelps preaches a message of sin, God’s wrath, and the need to repent. Osteen preaches (for the sake of argument) the power of positive thinking. There is nothing to repent of because the word sin is not in his vocabulary. So what could they possibly have in common? Neither of them are preaching the Gospel. Jesus preaches his first sermon in Mark 1, and in verse 15 says “Repent and believe in the gospel.” We have to acknowledge our sins if we are to ask forgiveness and repent of them. We depend on God’s grace and mercy, realizing that he is “faithful and just” to forgive as promised. Both elements are necessary, but it can’t be either/or.
Fred Phelps preaches sin and the coming wrath of God. Joel Osteen teaches God’s grace and blessings. Look again at Jesus’ sermon in Mark 1: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” There is a call to repent included in receiving the good news. God hates sin, and sin will be punished. In our natural state we still stand in God’s wrath. Phelps is right that most people are bound for hell. But God’s grace and mercy are limitless, and Osteen can never say enough about God’s desire to abundantly bless. But you can’t have one without the other. Neither sermon by itself is sufficient. An individual must be made aware of his or her sinful nature, realize that God is our righteous judge, and confess those sins to God and ask forgiveness. The good news is that Jesus received in himself the due penalty for our transgression. Confess with the lips and believe in the heart and then celebrate and rejoice in God’s great grace.
The Gospel is truly good news, but we must first share the bad news. God’s wrath and God’s mercy are two sides of the same coin, but our duty is to show both sides. The Fred type of Christians come off as self righteous, and after a while give the impression that everybody is going to hell. The Joel type talks about love and grace and mercy and love and blessings and love (I have two cavities from watching him smile, I swear to goodness) and the general impression is that God loves everybody so much no one is going to hell. Joel has a bigger crowd because he’s a lot nicer, but neither message alone is the Gospel.