A Biblically based commentary on current issues that impact you
Monvee—The New Evangelicalism about Me:
A Review of John Ortberg's The Me I Want to Be
by Bob DeWaay
Most CIC articles are prompted by reader request. And lately several have asked about the program Monvee, a new, technology-based approach to sanctification. People can subscribe on the Monvee Web site and take a personality test, and, based on the results of the test, receive a personalized plan for their sanctification. John Ortberg's book features the word ME on the cover in large text and is part of the plan.
I found reading the book to be a very distasteful exercise. Those who are truly regenerate know that the more they consider themselves, the more discouraged they get. True encouragement results from knowing what God has done for us and appreciating His magnificent promises. Discouragement comes from contemplating how far removed we are from the perfect holiness that awaits us at the resurrection. But Ortberg directs the reader to focus on "ME." I cannot think of a worse topic.
The problems with Ortberg's book and theology are many. He has no concept about God's means of grace. He assumes that mysticism is valid, and his heroes themselves are actually mystics. He further assumes that we must integrate psychology with the Bible if people are going to be helped. He supposes that his readers cannot process theological terminology but must be told a story every few paragraphs in order to maintain their interest. Most disturbing about the book and its content (but perhaps not surprising) is that Ortberg is a popular evangelical pastor. As such, the thinking as expressed in his book illustrates what is fatally wrong with modern evangelicalism. It is that concern that motivates me to write this article.
Being a Better "ME"
It would seem entirely appropriate to use Biblical terminology to write about an important topic like sanctification. In the first century Paul wrote to the Romans, whom he had not met. He assumed that these people, without the benefit of electric lights, computers, or printing presses and only a limited ability to read and write, could understand ideas like justification, sanctification, propitiation, the distinction between the flesh and the spirit, and so forth. Paul's letter probably had to be read aloud by someone in the church in order for all to get the message. So if these Romans could understand such concepts, why does John Ortberg assume that we cannot today? Why does he write a book about sanctification and never teach the Biblical doctrine of sanctification anywhere in the book? Evidently he assumes that we are incapable of thinking deeply about the matter.
Here is how Ortberg describes the topic: "He [God] wants to help you be the real you, the best version of you. He wants to help you be you-ier."1 It strikes me that if this is how we are to think about sanctification, then why doesn't the Bible describe it that way? The Bible speaks of dying to self, not becoming "you-ier." I cannot understand how someone who claims to believe the Bible to be true would write on a Biblical topic but fail to use biblical terminology.
The Bible describes sanctification as a process of becoming more like Christ. It never talks about an "idealized me." Consider this passage: "Do not lie to one another, since you laid aside the old self with its evil practices, and have put on the new self who is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created him" (Colossians 3:9, 10). Ortberg strays from Scripture, but so do many in the evangelical realm. Why is it that in the 21st century, supposed Bible-believing pastors cannot bother themselves to expound the scriptures that are most pertinent to their topic? This is a serious problem, and one that manifests itself in the current Christian publishing industry through the writings of popular pastors. Too many have an aversion to writing seriously about Christian theology. One can purchase this "ME" book, visit the Monvee Web site, get all of the offered services, and never hear or read serious theological discussion about Paul's writings in Galatians and Romans about the flesh and the Spirit.2 Evidently in Ortberg's mind, and in the minds of those of similar ilk, 21st century Christians cannot be expected to understand things known by first-century Christians.
Using a paraphrase of Romans 12:2 Ortberg comes to this conclusion: "Becoming the best version of yourself, then, rests on one simple directive: Think great thoughts."3 He also describes this as, "resetting our minds to a better frequency."4 This is not a reasonable exposition of Romans 12:2. Does it matter to Ortberg what the text really means? Apparently not. Romans 12:2 does not teach Norman Vincent Peale's philosophy.
Ortberg also mimics Emergent writers. Consider this:
One day there will be a glorious harmony between God and all that he has made. God wants no one left out. As you flourish, you help in God's re-creation of the world he wants to see.5
This implies universalism and glosses over the issue of coming judgment. God does not need our help to create the world He wants to see. He is coming again and is going to judge the present world. That fact never comes up in Ortberg's book. (In fact the gospel itself never comes up other than in a very truncated form on page 253.)
Who are the "Evangelical Heroes"?
When I began reading about "ME" in this book I knew immediately there were problems with it. Ortberg has written curriculum with mystic Ruth Haley Barton. He praises false teacher Dallas Willard. He praises the Roman Catholic Saint Benedict. He praises Roman Catholic mystic Henri Nouwen. He cites New Age writer Teilhard de Chardin favorably. He cites the Roman Catholic Thomas Merton favorably. He promotes the Roman Catholic Richard Rohr's teaching on the Enneagram. It would not be unfair to say that there is no popular, "Christian" mystic he does not approve of.
The salient question is why those such as Ortberg, who promote Roman Catholic mystics, are considered evangelical. If the great leaders who should be emulated are Roman Catholic, why not just go back to Rome? The answer is that many are doing just that. I wrote an article about a Christianity Today issue that promoted mysticism and showed no respect for the Reformation principle of sola scriptura.6 I predicted that if sola scriptura was rejected as a formal theological principle, people would return to Rome. Indeed, after writing the article and hosting a radio show about it, I started hearing from evangelicals who had indeed gone back to Rome. One was a man I knew in seminary. In today's evangelicalism, to say that someone's teaching is a rejection of the principles of the Reformation is a pointless argument. They do not care. Obviously Ortberg doesn't care.
As I was reading this book, I remembered a book I read early in my Christian life by Francis Schaeffer entitled True Spirituality, published in 1971. It is on the same topic as Ortberg's book. Schaeffer's book is an amazing contrast with Ortberg's. If anyone wishes to study how evangelicalism has changed from 1971 to 2010, I would suggest he or she read both books and compare and contrast them. To conclude that what we have now is a totally different religion would not be unreasonable. Schaeffer's book starts with the gospel of Jesus Christ. He speaks of our guilt and need for Christ. Let me share an example from Schaeffer:
God exists, God has a character, God is a holy God, and when men sin (and we all must acknowledge we have sinned not only by mistake, but by intention) they have true moral guilt before the God who exists. That guilt is not just the modern concept of guilt-feelings, a psychological guilty feeling in man. It is a true moral guilt before the infinite-personal, holy God. Only the finished, substitutionary work of Christ upon the cross as the Lamb of God — in history, space, and time — is enough to remove this. Our true guilt, that brazen heaven which stands between us and God, can be removed only upon the basis of the finished work of Christ plus nothing on our part. The Bible's whole emphasis is that there must be no humanistic note added at any point in the accepting of the gospel. It is the infinite value of the finished work of Christ, the second person of the Trinity, upon the cross, plus nothing, that is the sole basis for the removal of our guilt. When we thus come, believing God, the Bible says we are declared justified by God; the guilt is gone, and we are returned to fellowship with God — the very thing for which we were created in the first place.7
This is from the third paragraph of Schaeffer's book. There is more Christian theology in that single paragraph than in the entirety of Ortberg's book. How can 40 years of history destroy a movement? How did our heroes become Roman Catholic mystics?
Knowing that history is complex, I believe I can provide a reasonable answer. Theology has been downplayed, if not removed and replaced, by sociology and psychology. Sociology underlies the church growth movement. Donald McGavran, who invented the movement by applying sociology to missions at Fuller Seminary in the 1950s, had a famous axiom: "People do not become Christians for theological reasons; they become Christians for sociological reasons." His book Understanding Church Growth was required reading for me at seminary.8 I do not think that McGavran's intent was to drive theology out of the evangelical movement, but eventually that was the effect. The church growth movement is based on McGavran's use of sociology to grow the church. It makes theology a side point.
Psychology's effect has been to change how the church views sanctification. Sanctification formerly was
something viewed as the effect of sitting in faith under the means of grace. God gradually sanctifies people, changing them through the normal means explained in the Bible. But in the 20th century the idea became prominent that we should use the new science of psychology to enhance the process. Ortberg's book is a grand illustration of the result. For example, he defines fellowship as "the flow of living waters between one person and another."9 But he doesn't specify that they both must be Christians and he never deals with Biblical material on the term such as that found in 1John 1. Rather he cites The Journal of Happiness Studies to promote the idea of "connectedness." He also cites a social researcher: "The single most common finding from a half-century's research on life satisfaction, not only from the U.S. but around the world, is that happiness is best predicted by the breadth and depth of one's social connections."10
Notice that sociology and psychology have pushed theology out of the picture. Ortberg speaks of connecting with "somebody," but that is not the Biblical concept of fellowship. We only have fellowship with one another if we have fellowship with God based on the blood atonement. Why do I need a supposed Christian book from a Christian publisher to learn psychological and sociological ideas stolen from the world? I do not. Frankly, the church doesn't need this tripe.
Schaeffer wrote: "Every human problem, as I have stressed in Escape From Reason, arises from man's trying to stake out something as autonomous from God, and as I have emphasized, as soon as anything is made autonomous from God, then ‘nature eats up grace.'"11 When Ortberg writes on the topic of "fellowship" he includes nothing that defines fellowship Biblically—nothing specifically Christian. Nature has eaten up grace. Evangelicalism has in fact pushed the means of grace to the sideline in favor of what can be gleaned from the natural world. Paul's teaching in Romans 1 about being able to know about God through nature does not indicate that such knowledge is a saving knowledge—rather it is a condemning knowledge.
Ortberg's Doctrine of Human Ability
Like fellow modern evangelical Rick Warren, Ortberg thinks we do not need more Christian doctrine. He writes: "People would rather debate doctrine or beliefs or tradition or interpretation than actually do what Jesus said. It's not rocket science. Just go do it."12 Obviously he assumes we can do what Jesus taught without means of grace. He also says, "You already know more than you need to know."13 That statement proves that Ortberg's theology is man-centered. He assumes if we know something, we have the ability to do it. Clearly we then would not need Bible teaching as a means of grace if we had read through the Bible even once.
Peter would totally disagree with Ortberg. Peter wrote: "Therefore, I will always be ready to remind you of these things, even though you already know them, and have been established in the truth which is present with you. I consider it right, as long as I am in this earthly dwelling, to stir you up by way of reminder" (2Peter 1:12, 13). Sitting under the teaching of God's word is one of His means to change us into the image of Christ. Why have the Lord's Supper if the church already knows what it means? The answer: because God uses it.
Furthermore, simply knowing something does not imply the ability to do it. Jesus taught this: "Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matthew 5:48). If Ortberg is right and all we have to do is go out and do what Jesus taught because it is not "rocket science," then all Christians could be perfected right now if we just went out and did it. But Ortberg says, "It is easier to be smart than be good. You don't need to know more from the Bible; you just need to do what you already know."14 This is appalling. No wonder Bible-teaching churches are disappearing from America. Our Christian leaders think we have a technological problem that can be solved by applying knowledge with the correct technique. God uses the teaching of the Bible to sanctify Christians. Sanctification is not a "how to" issue.
I suppose Monvee and Ortberg are the products of a long process dating back to the heretical Charles Finney.15 Finney taught the doctrine of human ability more fully than anyone since Pelagius himself. Finney believed that if God issued a moral law, then all people were capable of obeying it with no special work of grace. I cannot prove that Ortberg has studied Finney and learned his ideas from him. But they are the same ideas. It would not be overstating the matter to say that Finney ultimately destroyed American evangelicalism. In place of the gospel and the means of grace, we got the American ideal of pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps. Monvee merely carries Finney's ugly legacy from the 19th century into the 21st century.
Person-Specific Means of Sanctification
When I read books that I intend to write about, I make notations in the margins to help when I do the writing. As I flip through my notated book on "ME," I see that the most common notation throughout the book is "no means of grace." For example, Ortberg writes: "People often wonder how long they should be in solitude. You can experiment, because spiritual practices are about freedom."16 He holds to an idea called "the flow of the Spirit" which is found throughout the book as well. I do not know what that is. But whatever it is, one is instructed to experiment to see how they specifically may find it. Where does the Bible ever promise that if we sit in solitude, we will find something called "the flow of the Spirit"? The answer is never. It is no wonder Ortberg promotes Catholic mystics—they invented various ideas about experimenting to find God.
I was teaching on this once and someone challenged me to prove that we cannot create our own ways to come to God or grow in God. The answer is found in the scripture. Paul is speaking of various religious practices invented by men. He writes: "These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence" (Colossians 2:23). The term "self-made" can also be translated "self chosen piety." Self chosen piety is precisely what Ortberg teaches and Paul forbids. The means of coming to God and growing in God are revealed in scripture and are the same for all people. If we have different needs as we go through life they are covered by God's providence—not by signing up for a personality test.
Further proof that the Biblical writers did not teach person-specific means of sanctification can be seen in this section of scripture:
Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God. Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God. (1Corinthians 6:9-11)
They were all justified and sanctified through New Testament teaching and the gospel Paul preached. There was no sanctification plan for fornicators that was different from a sanctification plan for swindlers.
One very bad idea churches have chosen is to divide people into fellowship groups based on their former sin. This only happened after evangelicalism began to believe that psychology could sanctify people. Therapy groups soon were brought into churches to replace normal fellowship. The great thing that Christianity has to offer, and found nowhere else, is the forgiveness of sins. If we were justified and sanctified as Paul said, then we can leave the past behind.
Paul elaborates on this theme in the 2nd epistle to Corinth:
Therefore from now on we recognize no one according to the flesh; even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him in this way no longer. Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come. (2Corinthians 5:16, 17)
Somehow we have come to believe that for sanctification we must use modern psychology to study each person's past and assume we are going to find answers for them. But God has released us from our sinful past and made us new creatures in Christ. We should be studying the Bible to see what that means.
This means that the basic premise of Monvee is false—the premise is that we need a person-specific sanctification plan, that studying self is a means of sanctification. Monvee is a similar idea to Rick Warren's SHAPE program, which also is a plan to study self. The concept of dying to self as Jesus taught has been laid aside in modern evangelicalism and replaced by the idea of studying self.
The prescribed means of sanctification is the same for all Christians—the person-specific means God takes care of through providence. We must put ourselves under the Biblically prescribed means of grace. If there is something else we need, God will make sure it happens. He is committed to conforming us to the image of Christ.
We must return to biblical theology and stop thinking that sociology and psychology will sanctify Christians. Consider what Francis Schaeffer wrote in 1971:
If men act upon the teaching of the Word of God, and as proportionally men live according to the teaching and commands of the Bible, so they have in practice a sufficient psychological base. God is good to his people. To the extent that a man lives in the light of the command of the revelation of Scripture, he has a psychological foundation. Find me the faithful pastor in the old village, and I will find you a man dealing with psychological problems on the basis of the teaching of the Word of God, even if he never heard the word psychology, or does not know what it means.17
The contrast between Schaeffer and Ortberg could not be more stark. In 40 years the evangelical movement has gone from being Biblical to something else. Monvee illustrates what is wrong today.
In Ortberg's thinking, we need to be more "you-ier." The biblical concept is to be more Christ-like. We have gone from Christ-centered to self-centered. We have jettisoned the means of grace and replaced them with technology and the study of self. We are in serious need of repentance.
I never thought I would see a Christian book like Ortberg's published with the title "ME," but now I have. This is one of the worst "Christian" books I have ever read. May God raise up Christian writers more like Francis Schaeffer. We need them desperately.
Issue 119 - August/September 2010
- John Ortberg, The Me I Want to Be; (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010) 94.
- For such a discussion see CIC issue 115
- Ortberg, 90.
- Ibid. 91.
- CIC Issue 105
- Schaeffer, F. A. (1996, c1982). The complete works of Francis A. Schaeffer : A Christian worldview. Westchester, Ill.: Crossway Books
- Donald A. McGavran, Understanding Church Growth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans; revised edition, 1970).
- Ortberg, 182.
- Robert Putnam as cited by Ortberg, 183.
- Schaeffer, F. A. (1996, c1982). The complete works of Francis A. Schaeffer : A Christian worldview. Westchester, Ill.: Crossway Books.
- Ortberg, 112.
- Ibid. 113.
- See the CIC article on Finney:CIC Issue 53
- Ortberg, 54.
- Francis Schaeffer, True Spirituality; (Wheaton: Tyndale House, 1971) 145.
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