The Deformed Theology Of Seeker Sensitivity


By: Don Matzat

We are living in a society permeated with the concept of self-esteem. The gurus of humanistic psychology have convinced us that feeling good about ourselves is one of our basic felt needs. A positive self-image has become the sine qua non of human growth and success.

Many evangelical churches, including many who find their roots in the Reformation, have attempted to Christianize such thought. They have adopted the concept of seeker sensitivity in the desire to grow their churches. The gurus of the Church Growth movement have convinced many pastors and church leaders that we must be sensitive to the felt needs of the culture. Thus seeker sensitivity has become the sine qua non of church growth and success.

When you join a culture permeated with the desire for self-esteem and a church seduced by the concept of seeker sensitivity, you create a diabolical mix. Such a combination demands that the Christian message be adjusted. The felt need for self-esteem is not compatible with the biblical concept of human sin and depravity. The concept of human sin, or what has been called the church’s “worm theology”, is actually detrimental to the sensitive human psyche. Dr. Robert Schuller, a self-esteem advocate and pioneer in developing the concept of seeker sensitivity, put it this way:

I don’t think that anything has been done in the name of Christ and under the banner of Christianity that has proven more destructive to human personality, and hence counterproductive to the evangelistic enterprise, than the unchristian uncouth strategy of attempting to make people aware of their lost and sinful condition.

Since the central Christian message offers the death of Jesus Christ on the cross as the divine solution to the human sin dilemma, the elimination of the clear proclamation of human sin and depravity demands a major adjustment in the preaching of Christ. The basic, central message of the Gospel must be redefined. To claim that our sins caused the death of Jesus can be potentially debilitating to the impressionable human psyche pursuing a sense of self-worth. The pitiable inner child may become hopelessly bruised and beaten by such an insensitive message. This is how Dr. Ray Anders, a professor at Fuller Theological Seminary, put it:

If our sin is viewed as causing the death of Jesus on the cross, then we ourselves become victims of a ‘psychological battering’ produced by the cross. When I am led to feel that the pain and torment of Jesus’ death on the cross is due to my sin, I inflict upon myself spiritual and psychological torment.

For those seduced by the concept of seeker sensitivity, Jesus can no longer be the suffering servant bearing the sins of fallen humanity to a bloody cross. Such a message is irrelevant. One highly successful seeker sensitive center in Chicago has chosen not to display a cross in their sanctuary. To this group’s way of thinking, Jesus is not primarily our Savior who died to forgive our sins; rather, he is our friend who helps us make it through the day. He is our example for living. He meets our felt needs. He wants us to become better people and in order to do that, gives us principles whereby we can improve our family relationships, put our finances in order, and live more productive and successful lives. “Oh, how we love Jesus!”

To illustrate how far this way of thinking deviates from the understanding that characterized the sixteenth-century Reformation, compare the statements of Schuller and Anderson with statements of the two great Reformers: Martin Luther and John Calvin.

In defining the purpose of mediating upon the passion of our Lord Jesus, Luther wrote:

The main benefit of Christ’s passion is that man sees into his own true self and that he be terrified and crushed by this. Unless we seek that knowledge, we do not derive much benefit from Christ’s passion…. He who is so hardhearted and callous as not to be terrified by Christ’s passion and led to a knowledge of self has reason to fear.

If John Calvin were alive today, this is the assessment he would make of those who eliminate the message of human depravity under the guise of appealing to the culture:

I am not unaware how much more plausible the view is, which invites us rather to ponder on our good qualities than to contemplate what must overwhelm us with shame, our miserable destitution and ignominy. There is nothing more acceptable to the human mind that flattery…. Whoever, therefore, gives heed to those teachers who merely employ us in contemplating our good qualities… will be plunged into the most pernicious ignorance.

Sin Has Never Been Popular

It is a gross fallacy to suggest that this culture, in its quest for self-esteem, is unique. The Christian Church has always been confronted with unbelievers who want to feel good about themselves and who work very hard at avoiding any personal guilt or blame. This is certainly not new to this culture. Being victimized and playing the “blame game” is as old as Adam getting out from under his guilt by blaming the woman, and, of course, Eve blaming the snake. Being born “in Adam,” such a defense mechanism is natural to fallen humanity. Swiss therapist Paul Tournier writes: “In a healthy person…this defense mechanism has the precision and universality of a law of nature…. We defend ourselves against criticism with the same energy we employ in defending ourselves against hunger, cold, or wild beasts, for it is a mortal threat.”

For this reason, the thinking of those who are willing to jettison the truth of human sin and depravity in favor of seeker sensitivity is inane. They act as if they have discovered some new technique for reaching people. It is obvious that people do not want to be confronted with their sin and failure. If you can create a “religious” environment in which they can be made to feel good about themselves, you will gain a crowd. To stand in awe of the crowds who frequent casinos or buy lottery tickets. Having more money is also a felt need.

Appealing to the felt needs of a fallen culture is not appealing to their real needs. French philosopher Blaise Pascal explained:

As soon as we venture out along the pathway of self-knowledge, what we discover is that man is desperately trying to avoid self-knowledge. The need to escape oneself explains why many people are miserable when they are not preoccupied with work, or amusement, or vices. They are afraid to be alone lest they get a glimpse of their own emptiness…. For if we could face ourselves, with all our faults, we would then be so shaken out of complacency, triviality, indifference, and pretense that a deep longing for strength and truth would be aroused within us. Not until man is aware of his deepest need is he ready to discern and grasp what can meet his deepest need.

This diabolical combination of self-esteem and seeker sensitivity produces a “religion” that is no longer Christianity. Since proclaiming the message of sin and grace, or Law and Gospel, is the very essence of the faith, eliminating or subordinating that proclamation causes a departure from historic Christianity. But more than that, the forgiveness and eternal salvation of the people who are seduced by the appealing seeker sensitive message are put in jeopardy. The success of a Christian congregation is not determined by how many dill the pews on a Sunday morning but rather how many will eventually gather around the table to celebrate eternally the marriage feast of the Lamb who was slain for the forgiveness of sins.

The Right Combination of Guilt and Grace

To stand in awe of the numbers who flock to seeker sensitive congregations is similar to standing in awe of the crowds who frequent casinos or buy lottery tickets. Having more money is also a felt need.

It is the Holy Spirit’s central purpose to bring every person to a knowledge of sin through the proclamation of the divine Law so that the message of God’s grace in Christ Jesus (the Gospel) can be applied to those suffering the pangs of guilt. The Apostle Paul writes in Romans 3:19: “Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God.” Again he writes in Romans 5:20: “The law was added so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more.” The proclamation of the Good News of what God has done for us in Christ Jesus is, so to speak, “set up” by the knowledge of our own sinful condition. Martin Luther wrote:

A doctor must first diagnose the sickness for his patient; other wise he will give him poison instead of medicine. First he must say: this is your sickness; secondly; this medicine serves to fight it…. If you want to engage profitably in study of Holy Scripture and do not want to run head-on into a Scripture closed and sealed, then learn, above all things, to understand sin aright.

The message of the divine Law is intended to set before us the demand of Almighty God for moral perfection. God demands perfect holiness. The preaching of the Law, which is intended to show us the depth of our sin, presents us with an impossible plight. What God demands, we cannot accomplish. The Good News of the Gospel tells us that what God demands he has provided in the blood and righteousness of Jesus Christ. The proper preaching of sin and grace of Law and Gospel should turn us away from ourselves so that we embrace the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ as the divine solution to the human dilemma. This is the central truth of justification by grace through faith because of Christ alone. Werner Elert defines Luther’s understanding of the knowledge of sin as being a necessary precondition for justification.

The righteousness imparted through justification presupposes, of course, the ‘self- accusation” of the sinner. Accordingly, Luther counts it among the effects of Christ’s suffering “that man comes to a knowledge of himself and is terrified of himself, and is crushed. To have Christ as Savior is to need him”….The necessity for self-accusation, without which there is no justification, holds true of the whole natural and moral “inwardness”…. Faith however clings constantly only to the other Person—the Person who I am not—to Christ.”

Good Intention/Faulty Diagnosis

I do not question the intentions of those who have adopted the seeker sensitive agenda. I believe that these church growth advocates honestly desire to reach people and to positively affect lives. They desire to make the Christian message relevant. They want to see the Church of Jesus Christ become a dynamic force for moral change in the midst of a perverted generation. Yet, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

There is no doubt that the quality of life that exists in many Christian congregations is not what it ought to be. The problem is not that we have been too bold in our proclamation of sin and grace, Law and Gospel, but rather that we have not been bold enough. If those in the pew do not see the extent of their sin and the perversion of their human nature, they will not seek the life- changing grace of God. Even though the Bible says to “pursue” spiritual growth and sanctification, to be engaged in “fighting” the fight of faith, and , like newborn babes, “crave” the pure milk of the Word of God, those admonitions will fall on deaf ears if the reality of our condition is not faced.

In the Book of Revelation, our Lord Jesus addresses and warns the various churches of that day. One of those churches, the Church at Laodicea, was guilty of spiritual apathy. Jesus describes their “lack of need” as being lukewarmness. In addressing this church, Jesus minces no words. “You say ‘I am rich…and do not need a thing’, but you do not realize that your wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked” (Rev. 3:18)

The dynamic of the Christian life is fueled by the combination of a deep sense of sin together with a deep appreciation for divine grace. If you read of the experiences of Christians who progressed in their relationship with the Lord Jesus beyond the norm you see their deep sense of sin and failure coupled with a deep appreciation for what God accomplished in Christ Jesus. Men like Martin Luther, John Calvin, C. S. Lewis and Francis Schaeffer were not afraid to speak of their sinful natures and even boast of their weaknesses, because they recognized the reality of divine grace. They knew their sin, but they also knew the Gospel. The profound level of spiritual depth and biblical insight of such men causes the theology of seeker sensitivity to look feeble indeed.

Martin Luther’s discovery of the great doctrine of justification by grace was not an isolated incident. A great deal led up to the day when his eyes were opened and he was able to clearly understand that God had forgiven him and actually declared him to be righteous through Jesus Christ. His very keen sense of sin and failure was the driving force behind his discovery. In fact, he stated that when he was at the point of despair over his sin, he was then actually the closest to grace.

John Calvin, for example, was referred to by his friends as “the accusative case” because of his intense spiritual introspection. He was aware of his guilt.

This necessary combination of sin and grace is not difficult to understand. A person who is not willing to face his sickness will not desire the services of a physician. If something isn’t broken, you don’t fix it. If you do not see your sin, you will have no desire for God’s grace. And, if you don’t know the brokenness of your human condition, you obviously do not require the provision that God offers. Dr. Paul Tournier wrote,

This can be seen in history; for believers who are the most desperate about themselves are the ones who express most forcefully their confidence in Grace…. Those who are the most pessimistic about man are the most optimistic about God; those who are the most severe with themselves are the ones who have the most serene confidence in divine forgiveness…. By degrees the awareness of our guilt and of God’s love increase side by side.

Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard pointed out that a man who is remote from his own guilt and failure is also remote from God, because he is remote from himself.

The Bible is very clear in revealing the divine estimate of human nature. Being born out of the root of Adam, we are the children of wrath (Eph.2:3), totally unable by nature to grasp the things of the Spirit of God (I Cor. 2:14). The Bible tells us that we were shaped in iniquity and born in sin (Ps. 51:5) and that the imaginations of our hearts are evil (Gen. 8:21). Within our human flesh, there dwells absolutely no good thing. Even though we may desire to do good and to be good, we are unable to accomplish our lofty ideals because our nature is wrong (Rom. 7:18-19) we are in bondage to the law of sin and death. (Rom. 7:21)

Put simply, from God’s perspective, our lives are a mess! Our real need is for self-accusation, not self-esteem. We need grace, not acceptance and understanding. We need a crucified Savior, not a support group.