A Conversation with Dr. Robert Schuller*
The following are highlights from a two hour discussion between Dr. Robert Schuller and Dr. Michael Horton on the White Horse Inn radio broadcast, Nov. 1992.
Michael Horton: Would you be willing to address your congregation as a group as sinners?
Robert Schuller: No I don’t think I need to do that. First of all, my congregation is a very mixed audience.
MH: But our Lord’s audiences were mixed with disciples and unbelievers both.
RS: Oh yes, but I’ll tell you, the audience is quite different that I talk to than what the Lord spoke to. I speak every week to millions, not a million but millions of people in Russia on channel one. And I speaking to a couple of million people every Sunday.
MH: Are you saying that it is the size of the audience that matters?
RS: No it’s not the size of the audience, it’s where are they at at this time. My only concern is: I don’t want to drive them farther away than they are! And I listen to so many preachers on religious radio stations…and by golly, if I wasn’t a Christian, they’d drive me farther away. I am so afraid that I am going to drive them farther; I want to attract them, and so I use the strategy that Jesus used. I preach the way Jesus preached. I don’t preach, probably, the way Paul preached….
RS: If we want to win people to Jesus we have to understand where they are at.
MH: I agree absolutely. And they are in sin, that is where they are at.
RS: They are in the state of condition called sin which means they don’t trust. They are lacking faith.
MH: I guess the difference would be our definition of sin, because what I see in scripture is that we’re dead in sin and cannot respond to God even if we were trusting.
RS: Oh no, you’re wrong, you’re wrong. And very seldom do use this language. People who know me say, “Schuller never comes across as if he knows the answers and others don’t. It is not my style. But I intuitively say to you, you’re wrong! The ultimate, deepest, most sinful problem that you can imagine is lack of trust. Hebrews 11:6, “For without faith it is impossible to please God.” I can show you people, they believe the Bible is the Word of God from cover to cover, they believe that Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary…but, they really don’t have a relationship with Jesus. They have that head knowledge, that head information and unless you have a wonderful warm relationship, which means you are mutually friends, then you really don’t have the faith. And there are people who live wonderful lives today. They don’t commit adultery and they don’t steal and they don’t kill…if you go by what is sinful behavior they seem to be leading very fine lives. But they don’t have faith….
MH: But isn’t it because faith is the instrument through which we’re justified before a God who otherwise would take account of us for our sins, not just our “not trusting…”
RS: We are not justified by faith.
MH: No, it is by grace through faith.
RS: By grace through faith, that’s right.
MH: But what I’m asking is this. Justified from what? The wrath of God?
RS: Oh! I’ll never use that language
MH: But the Bible does.
RS: Yes, the Bible does, but the Bible is God’s book to believers primarily. Listen, and then call me a heretic if you want to, but I’m interested in attracting people, and not driving them farther away. There is language I can and will use and there are times, if we are wise, there is language we will not use….If God is a God of love, how do we handle this concept of wrath? At the outset, on the surface, it appears to be a contradiction; maybe it is. I tell you this, I have come to the conclusion that I haven’t stepped into the center of truth until I’ve dared to step into contradiction. The Bible is a contradiction: Old Testament–Law, New Testament–Grace. Jesus is a contradiction; totally human and totally God.
MH: Of course we would say that that the dual nature of Christ is a mystery but not a contradiction.
RS: It is a contradiction, but you know what? Contradictions are ultimate points of creativity…
MH: Dr. Schuller, “The real problem,” you have written, “is that deep down we feel we’re not good enough to approach a holy God.” But isn’t that the truth about us. Isn’t that precisely why we need the cross because we cannot approach a holy God in our own righteousness. In other words, isn’t that fear legitimate; the distance between a holy God and a sinful people, isn’t that meant to drive us to despair of our own righteousness and flee to Christ.
RS: Maybe so, I wouldn’t quarrel with that. I have no argument with that.
MH: Well on what texts would you base your definition of sin as “any act or thought that robs myself or another human being of his or her self-esteem.”
RS: Try some other questions because I think your question isn’t uh, isn’t…I don’t understand it.
MH: Okay. If the definition of sin is “any act or thought that robs myself or another human being of his or her self-esteem,” then, first of all….
RS: Okay, okay, I can handle that. That’s a little piece. Any sinful act that arises out of the sinful condition, and I have to repeat, sin is a condition before it is an action.
MH: Absolutely. We would agree a hundred percent on that. But what is that condition?
RS: That condition is, you are separated from God, totally and completely. And therefore you don’t have the emotional and spiritual affirmation that only comes out of a relationship. And when you have a hostility between two persons instead of a trusting relationship, the normal inclination naturally is to become rebellious or “defensive;” we speak of this a defensive behavior (I come from a psychological background so I use probably different terminology, but there’s no problem). So any behavior that is “sinful behavior” is obviously going to space you farther from the possibility of a closeness with the God that alone could affirm you through grace of your value as persons. And I keep saying, the single most important thing for people to know is what God thinks of them. And I’ll tell you what God thinks of you: if you were the only person that didn’t have this wonderful relationship with him, why he would take his son and crucify him as your saviour.
MH: But why would He have to do that Dr. Schuller if in fact the only problem that I have with God is that I am non trusting and lack self confidence?
RS: Wait, wait, wait, wait! The “only thing!” That’s everything! That’s Hell!…To be non-trusting is the ultimate sinful condition.
MH: Dr. Schuller, how could the cross as you write, “sanctify the ego trip,” and make us proud, in the light of passages that say, “I hate pride and arrogance (Prov. 8:13), “Pride goes before destruction” (Prov. 16:18),”The Lord detests all the proud” (Prov. 16:5), “Do not be proud”(Rom. 12:16), “Love does not boast it is not proud” (1Cor 13:4). In fact Paul warns Timothy that in the last days men “will be lovers of themselves” (2Tim 3:2). Why should we as Christian ministers, myself included, why should we do anything to encourage people to become “lovers of themselves” if Paul in fact warned others that that would be the state of godlessness in the last days?
RS: I hope you don’t preach this, I hope you don’t preach this!
MH: What, the texts?
RS: No, what you just spoke into the microphone right now. I hope you don’t because you could do a lot of damage to a lot of beautiful people. But maybe if you preach it, maybe you will demonstrate your knowledge of human relationships and maybe you’ll demonstrate a sensitivity of caring about these pathetic, pathetic people that are so lost in pain and suffering because of their sinful condition, and I think you’d want to save them. I think you’d want to bring them to Jesus. And so if you preach that text, oh man, I sure hope you give it the kind of interpretation that I do or, I’ll tell you, you’ll drive them farther away and they’ll be madder than hell at you and they’ll turn the Bible off, and they’ll switch you off, and they’ll turn on the rock music and Madonna. Just because it’s in the Bible doesn’t mean you should preach it. And if you do, you have to say, “Who’s listening to me? Will they understand? And will the love of Jesus come through my words and through my message; through my personality. Will it come through my spirit? Will I come across as a humble person or will I come across as a person who’s kind of mean and know-it-all: I’ve got the answers and when people like Schuller come along, they’re heretics! Be careful, it is so difficult to preach some of those texts and not come across as lacking humility…
MH: You write that “the essence of sin is not thinking you’re good enough” and that the reason unsaved people reject the gospel is that they “believe they’re an unworthy sinnner.” Again you state that “the unsaved person cannot perceive himself as worthy of divine grace and hence rejects it.” But how can a person deserve “undeserved favor”?
RS: No I never said that….I didn’t say that the essence of sin is not thinking you’re good enough.” I never said that. I know my words. Someone read what I said, re-wrote it, put these words together very carelessly. One adjective placed or misplaced tips the meaning….
MH: How about the next phrase…
RS: I never said that see….so I really don’t think the rest of the paragraph deserves the time and attention. Thank you. (The program goes out to a break and returns with Mike’s promise to check his citation with the original — which incidentally was later found in Schuller’s book, Self Esteem, The New Reformation — then Mike asks the following):
MH: But Dr. Schuller, did you write “The unsaved person cannot perceive himself as worthy of divine grace and hence rejects it.”?
RS: I may have said that because I am inclined to believe very definitely that the person who is lost and unsaved is afraid of the light. The person who is only used to darkness is afraid of the light and I think unsaved people do not consider themselves worthy enough; I think that’s absolutely true, “While we were yet sinners Christ died for us.”
MH: But not while we were worthy Christ died for us?
RS: Listen, if Christ had died for somebody who wasn’t worth anything that would have been a lousy deal. God is a good steward and he teaches us to be good stewards. God knows the worst sinner is worth saving so that he would die on a cross for us.
MH: But how can we deserve undeserved favor?
RS: You tell me! I don’t have to answer that question. You’re asking me how we can be saved by grace. It’s because of the love of God, and we are saved by grace.
MH: But if we are worth it, then it is not grace, it’s merit.
RS: No, no. It means that we are still creatures of God, we are still sons of God. We have value. We still have value.
MH: I agree with you to the extent that we are created in the image of God…
RS: And even the value of a human being who is not a Christian is worth dying for on the cross. That’s what God said. Don’t ask me why, that’s his evaluation of who we are.
MH: But isn’t it really the goodness of God that moved him to put Christ on the cross, seeing our misery, rather than God seeing something in us worth redeeming?
RS: Well… I think…. yes and yes. Yes and yes to that one….
RS: I do let people know how great their sins and miseries are. How do I do that? I don’t do that by standing in a pulpit and telling them they’re sinners. I don’t do it that way. The way I do it is ask questions. Are you happy? Do you have problems, what are they? So then I come across as somebody who cares about them because every single human problem, if you look at it deeply enough, is rooted in the sinful condition. We agree on that. So the way I preach sin is by calling to attention what it does to them here and now, and their need for divine grace!
MH: But what about what it does for them in eternity?
RS: Listen, I believe in heaven. I believe in hell. But I don’t know what happens there. I don’t take it literally that it’s a fire that never stops burning.
MH: As Jesus said it was?
RS: Jesus was not literal. See, now this is where you have differences of interpretation. I went to a different theological school than you did. And there are different denominations, like about four hundred in the United States of America, and we don’t belong to the same denomination. In my denomination, Jesus stood outside Gehenna, the city dump, and said that’s outside the walls, that’s hell. And in the dump there were always worms, and there were fires….
Various Questions from the “Call-in” Segment
CALLER: Could you explain your concept of Original Sin with regard to infants?
RS: …I had a Doctor tell me once, “The stuff these Christians teach is ridiculous! Some of these churches teach that every baby is a born sinner. That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard! Look at a little baby. They don’t lie, they don’t kill, they don’t commit adultery, their perfect.” I said, “Just because the child hasn’t done anything doesn’t mean he’s is perfect though, that child is born with a sinful condition.” He said, “Explain it to me.” And at that point in my life, even though I had a very good theological education, I couldn’t explain it to him. I did a lot of praying and studying, until I concluded of course, that it is first expressed in the ego with all its damnable sins. But the ego is the destructive force in human personality that rises when a person is not deeply inwardly secure enough to be relaxed without egotistic activity, and that comes through salvation. And so the human condition is that the child is born non-trusting.
MH: Although you say it’s not charged to his children…
RS: What did I say?
MH: The direct quote is, “His rebellion should not be charged to his children and his children’s children. Adam chose to rebel.”
RS: That’s out of context and without seeing it in the whole chapter…I don’t think it’s a fair question.
CALLER: Dr. Schuller, Paul called the gospel an offense. You seem to have a gospel that is a “kinder, gentler” kind of thing.
RS: Thank you. I try to make it that way.
CALLER: How do you reconcile that?
RS: Because I think it honors the name of Jesus.
CALLER: Dr. Schuller, what do we tell someone who says, “I’m already happy and fulfilled, so why do I need the gospel?”
RS: I don’t know…I can’t relate to that.
CALLER: Dr. Schuller, as a Calvinist with your belief in eternal election…how can anything we say drive a person away from being saved?
RS: That’s a good question. I don’t have the answer.
CALLER: My question is directed to Kim Riddlebarger there on the panel. I’d like Kim, and then Dr. Schuller to both explain for me what Question 2 of the Heidelberg Catechism means when it talks about “the greatness of my sins and wretchedness,” (this is a paraphrase of the caller’s question).
Kim Riddlebarger (co-host of The White Horse Inn): Well I would go, as Dr. Schuller knows, to question 7: “Where does this corrupt nature come from?” And the answer, “From the fall and disobedience of our first parents Adam and Eve in paradise. This fall has so poisoned our nature that we are born sinners corrupt from conception on.” Question 8: “But are we so corrupt that we are totally unable to do any good and incline toward all evil?” Answer: “Yes, unless we are born again by the spirit of God.” I would go right along with the catechism on this, that we are poisoned in our nature and we are corrupt from birth on…
RS: I have no problem with that except the part that states, “are we so corrupt that we are totally unable to do any good and incline toward all evil.” The answer in the catechism is yes, but I don’t think I would accept that answer. And I’ll tell you why I wouldn’t; I know people that are not Christians, who are not born-again, but they are very kind people. And in today’s culture, if we take these words and use these words the way they are used in contemporary culture–I have to say [there are people] who do a lot of good. So I don’t think I would accept question and answer 8, but the rest of it I have no problem with…
KR: And you would want to argue then, against somebody like me who says those answers come right out of the biblical text, that I was misinterpreting the texts upon which those answers to the catechism were based?
RS: Well, I’d have to go look at all those Bible references. Would you say that unless a person is born again he absolutely does not do any good at all in his whole life? That’s what that question seems to say!
KR: Yes, I would agree with that, but I would say yes and no. A non-Christian can do a lot of good things [humanly speaking] but if that good is done apart from faith, it is not meritorious, and does not count before God.
MH: It’s the distinction the reformers made between civil and moral righteousness.
RS: Okay, but the question and answer here, taken in context, doesn’t make the fine distinction that you now read into it.
MH: Would you agree that unbelievers can do good that men can accept, but that they cannot do good that God can accept?
KR: That’s what the catechism is referring to: the good that God can accept.
RS: Well, you’re elaborating with your interpretation, and I’m not going to argue the point…
MH: Well the Apostle Paul says, “There is no one who does good, no, not even one.
RS: Well, I’m not going to say that because I just think that leads ultimately to “holier-than-thou-isms,” self-righteousness, etc., and that comes out of the personality of the preacher and does an untold damage…
The Rev. Dr. Horton is the J. Gresham Machen professor of systematic theology and apologetics at Westminster Seminary California, host of the nationally syndicated broadcast of The White Horse Inn radio program (www.whitehorseinn.org) editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation magazine, and a minister in the United Reformed Churches of North America.
Kim Riddlebarger is pastor of Christ United Reformed Church (Anaheim, California) and co-host of The White Horse Inn radio broadcast. He is author of A Case for Amillennialism: Understanding the End Times and Man of Sin: Uncovering the Truth about the Antichrist.
This interview is fascinating. I can’t help but wonder what this says about American Christianity. Does it really say anything about American Christianity at large? Or is this an isolated approach to church and the Gospel?
For what it’s worth…
NOTE: I’ve removed the link to the audio until I hear further that the church hosting it had permission to do so.
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