Robert Schuller is an evangelist—first, last, and always. I admire his zeal to reach the ear of twentieth-century Americans and to win them to Christ and the gospel. But I am never quite certain what gospel they are being won to. I ask myself: "Is there something wrong with his message? Or is it just his method that troubles me" Yet that poses a problem. One cannot really separate message and method, for each shapes the other at essential points.
Perhaps my hesitation is a kind of sour grapes. When people complained to evangelist Dwight L. Moody about the way he preached the gospel, he replied, I like my way of preaching the gospel better than your way of not preaching it."
He Accepts Fundamentalist Doctrine
Robert Schuller is no liberal exhorting lost and helpless sinners to lift themselves. . . . [He] believes all the “fundamental" doctrines of traditional fundamentalism. He adheres to every line of the Apostles' Creed with a tenacity born of deep conviction. He offers no slippery acquiescence to the lordship and deity of Christ, but sets his feet solidly on Nicene and Chalcedonian Christology—one person, who is fully human and fully divine, and divine in the same sense as the omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent Father in heaven.
Probed by two very picky theologians (David F. Wells and Kenneth S. Kantzer), he avowed belief in a literal hell. He was not sure about its location, and the fire is to be understood figuratively; but on these points he aligned himself with most reputable theologians from Augustine through Calvin (see Institutes, III, XXV, 12).
He rings true on the Reformation doctrine of salvation by grace through personal faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. He even insists upon skirting at careful distance any subtle tendency toward salvation by works. We are not saved “by” faith as though our faith were a good work for which God rewards us. We are saved by grace and solely on the condition of faith. And the basis for divine forgiveness lies in the love of God, whose holiness is satisfied by the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
Holy Scripture, for Robert Schuller, is the written Word of God, the infallible authority for faith and life. And he prefers it in the King James Version. He affirms the Lausanne Covenant and does not blink at the word inerrancy. He was not questioned on such issues as redaction criticism, the authorship of Peter’s epistles or the Book of Isaiah, the date of Daniel, or the composition of the Pentateuch, because he is obviously not interested in such things. He simply accepts the Bible as it is. The Bible is Gods true Word, and he affirms it as the guide for his life and thought.
In his basic theology, Robert Schuller claims with good reason to be unequivocally orthodox—a Protestant in the mainstream of the Reformed tradition. What more could anyone ask?
What Troubles Many Evangelicals
Three things, so many believe, are lacking in the message of Robert Schuller: (1) A proper doctrine of sin: that is, an understanding of the human predicament for which the biblical gospel is the remedy. (2) A gospel message that is consistent with his profession of a biblical and evangelical faith. (3) A method of presenting his message that is consistent with the biblical gospel.
We understand better where Robert Schuller is coming from in the doctrines connected with the first two criticisms if we see that he is overreacting against an overreaction. He is reacting against a radical perversion of the doctrine of total depravity. Traditionally, as Schuller understands it, the church sees every unbeliever as a condemned sinner, utterly worthless, who must be threatened with the eternal punishment he so richly deserves. The sinner is rejected by God and stands outside his love. He must be made to confess his absolute worthlessness, grovel in mortification, and repent for his sin. Only then may he come to God and become the object of God’s love.
Schuller is also overreacting against a method—one that, in a 30-minute gospel message, allots 29 minutes to sin, the divine wrath against sin, and the need for repentance. Only at the last moment, almost as an afterthought, does it allow for mention of Gods overflowing heart of love for the sinner, his reaching out for the sinner in grace, and his call to faith.
Schuller’s Doctrine of Sin
What is the human predicament? According to Robert Schuller, the root problem of man is sin, and sin is essentially a weakness or a helplessness—an inability to trust anyone and, therefore, an inability to love or to be loved. As a consequence, humans possess a poor self-image and are beset with a tragic sense of their own worthlessness. For them life is, at best, boring and, at worst, despairing. Robert Schuller does not see sin as a will not to believe, or as a perversion of the will. He certainly does not see it as red-handed rebellion against God or even as centering in pride or human selfishness.
What kind of person is it, then, whom the evangelist is seeking to win? Schuller readily agrees that all humans are sinners and need to repent and seek divine forgiveness. But people today do not know that. They are secularists seeking to live without God and, therefore, without self-esteem; so they are desperately unhappy about themselves. To tell such a person he is a great sinner is pointless. He does not believe the Bible, and sin makes no sense to him. A stick of wood or a rotten tomato is not a great sinner. Only a being who recognizes moral values can know he is a sinner.
What, then, is the message by which this modern secular person can be won? Robert Schuller’s logic is as clear as his Crystal Cathedral. More flies are always caught with sweet, sticky flypaper than with a swatter. Tell people God loves them. They are important to him. They are, in fact, of infinite value. In Jesus Christ God has come down to meet us. So turn to him, have faith in God, and you will find in his nonjudgmental accepting love a sense of your own self-worth. You will come to have faith in yourself. You will be somebody! And as you discover your own value, you will gain self-esteem. You will find true dignity, purpose, meaning in life, and hope for the future; and you will come to feel good about yourself.
But some evangelicals protest: What about sin? And repentance? Has Robert Schuller not read the Book of Romans? Is not the gospel the good news that Christ died for our sins? Yes, Schuller replies. And that will come. But until the sinner knows God in Christ, he has no adequate standard by which to judge his sin. And until he knows his own worth, he has no motive to be saved. Eventually, through acceptance of the lordship of Jesus Christ, he will realize he is a sinner, seek forgiveness, and turn from sin. But the first step must be to recognize that he is worth something. Belief in ones self-worth is a corollary of belief in God, and is the threshold that must be crossed first. Then, in the knowledge of God’s love and acceptance, a person will discover that he is a sinner, repent for his sin, and turn to the preaching of the Word, the celebration of the sacraments, the fellowship of the saints, and the crucified life.
But to begin with sin is, according to Schuller, to reverse the right order and make true repentance impossible. The secular sinner is simply not prepared to handle the sin question. To heap guilt upon the sinner who already believes himself worthless is to drive him away from his only source of life and hope. So give him a pill containing medicine coated with sugar. He needs the medicine and will get it, but he swallows the pill because he tastes only the sugar coating—not the bitter quinine.
Learning from Schuller
Before considering method, we should note that Robert Schuller has grasped some important pieces of biblical truth. We live in a secular and disbelieving world (though it is impregnated with a large residue of biblical Christianity). Most of our contemporaries are unfamiliar with biblical terms. Three-quarters of the American people do not accept the Bible as their final authority.
Moreover, Gods love is not conditional. He loves sinners while they are yet sinners. We evangelicals must tell them that, and in addition show it in our own unconditional love for them. And God does not call sinners to renounce their self-worth. By creation he made them of infinite value, and by redemption he proves that he still considers them so. The gospel calls sinners to confess not that they are worthless, but rather that they are unworthy of God’s forgiveness and loving kindness because of their sin.
We can also learn from the fact that Schuller is now reaching more non-Christians than any other religious leader in America. At least in part, this is due to his unusual sensitivity to the secular mind. He has a handle on modern society that many of his critics do not see (or else they think he has too much of a handle on it, and is swinging with it).
We cannot respond to Self-esteem: The New Reformation merely by upholding Luther, Calvin, and Wesley as infallible authorities, and the Reformation confessions as above all criticism and incapable of reform—not if we are true to the Reformers. New light can break forth from Gods Word. We must also be willing to allow Robert Schuller to change his mind. Indeed, upon reading the text of the preceding interview article, he came to modify his original criticism of Paul’s methodology. He now believes his problem is not with Paul, but with “the way some negative Christians” misuse Paul’s doctrine of sin as they emphasize mortification rather than grace.
Nevertheless, a note is missing in the message of Self-esteem and the “Hour of Power.” We believe that to one tuned to the teaching of Holy Scripture, this message lacks the ring of truth. The missing note is a right doctrine of sin that, in turn, mars the gospel message, and finally determines the method by which the house of faith is to be built.
Schuller, the evangelist, is like the barker outside the gospel tent at a country fair, hawking his wares to the passing throng. He sees their unhappy faces and their lack of self-worth. And his root problem is simply this: he is so earnestly zealous to win people and make them happy, that he jeopardizes the possibility of making them holy. The problem is further compounded by his television program, where he can only bark his wares; there he has no tent into which he can herd those who respond and set them straight with a fuller Christian message.
Even the Crystal Cathedral is only a mission platform from which he can address the crowd that he hopes to lure into the more private ministries of the inner circle that constitutes the church.
To understand Robert Schuller, you must mot think of his television program as a church service planned for faithful worshipers scattered across the nation. It’s strictly “Show-Biz.” It’s competing with the Astrodome and professional sports. It’s competing with soap operas and newscasts from Washington, the Middle East, and Central America. It’s competing with “20/20," “The Little House on the Prairie”; with “Wild Kingdom" and "Sesame Street.” It’s competing for the souls of men.
And you must not even think of the Crystal Cathedral as a church. Robert Schuller’s theology is too good for that. The Crystal Cathedral is a mission station—to attract to it the lost, the spiritually hungry, the desperate of this world. The church is a much smaller body that meets for Sunday school, Sunday evening study, and midweek Bible study; and that works in the ministry of the gospel. In this, Schuller is like John Calvin, who allowed that maybe as many as one-fifth of those coming to his St. Peters church were real believers.
Nevertheless, the biblical gospel is not just good news about the value of the human soul (Robert Schuller’s “self-esteem”), and its invitation is not merely to those who would like a lift from their depression. The biblical gospel probes more deeply to the root of the human predicament—and finds it in the issue of sin. It calls for a change at the heart of the sinner. Man chooses to create idols instead of trusting in God. He centers his affection on something other than God. He is proud. He is selfish. He is red-handedly rebellious. And he is infinitely clever in disguising his motives—even from himself.
Yet by the very act of choosing anything other than God, he may (if he is consistent) recognize that he has lost any reason to believe in his own worth. He has no proper grounds for self-esteem, but is a part of the flotsam and jetsam drifting on the vast and unfriendly sea of a chance universe.
The biblical gospel calls him to turn from his cleverly disguised selfishness and his rejection of God. He must turn to the God who has already accepted him for Christs sake, and find full forgiveness, meaning, and value for life, and a new power to live the kind of life to which God calls us.
The Example of Our Lord
Here the preaching of our Lord sets a model in proper balance. He does not grind the sinner into the dust, or demand that he renounce his own worth as a human being. But neither does he gloss over human selfishness and the ability of humans to deceive themselves as they substitute their manmade idols for God. Avoiding both extremes, he strikes a balance that acknowledges the truth in each.
No one stresses more than our Lord the infinite value of the human soul. “What shall a man give in exchange for his soul?” Robert Schuller is on solid biblical grounds when he urges us to meet the sinner’s problem of a poor self-image. Our Lord is also extremely sensitive in his dealing with any person he is trying to win. Notice the delicate way he seeks to communicate to the woman taken in adultery (John 8). He has compassion for the crowds. His tender concern for those who come to him for help touches us all.
On the other hand, while he never seeks to humiliate the seeking sinner, neither does he avoid the sin question. Human sin and the need for repentance are recurring themes throughout his ministry. This is true not just of the Pharisees and lawyers who lead others astray. He deliberately calls all those he is trying to win to face up to the moral need of their life. Again and again by his probing analysis he shows up the devices we use to cover up our greed and selfishness. To the adulterous woman, in all tenderness, he has only this message: "Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more." Some evangelicals see only “Go and sin no more.” Robert Schuller sees only “Neither do I condemn you." Our Lord says both.
Right up front, he depicted the cost of discipleship even when it cost him a convert. He demanded that the rich young ruler give up all his possessions, because they had become an idol. The man turned away because he was rich. And though our Lord loved him, he permitted him to go. Jesus knew that those who followed him would have to pay a price. And many times he warned those who would make overeasy decisions, pointing out that they must count the cost before turning to him. His messages are full of woes against sin. He often referred to divine judgment and, in fact, spoke of eternal punishment more frequently than any other person in the Bible. Our Lord was always sensitive, always tender, always understanding, but he never stopped short of probing for the root of man’s grief insin.
Those who appeal only to the divine love and a gospel of sweetness and light may win all those who find sweetness and light attractive. But those who are won discover on the inside a holy God who does not condone sin. Our Lord never stopped short of presenting the gospel in its wholeness. He invited to his kingdom those who recognized the infinite worth of the human soul and who wished to turn from sin to seek the good. If our ultimate goal for humans is Christlike goodness, we must follow Jesus in presenting the wholeness of the biblical message.
Jesus Christ is Savior. It is important to say that he saves from a low self-image, one that fails to account for the value of a human soul.
But Jesus is not just that. He is also savior from sin and all its consequences. And we dare not divide the elements of the gospel which our Lord keeps together.
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