So when we could stand it no longer, we thought it best to be left by ourselves in Athens. We sent Timothy, who is our brother and co-worker in God’s service in spreading the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you in your faith, so that no one would be unsettled by these trials. For you know quite well that we are destined for them. In fact, when we were with you, we kept telling you that we would be persecuted. And it turned out that way, as you well know. For this reason, when I could stand it no longer, I sent to find out about your faith. I was afraid that in some way the tempter had tempted you and that our labors might have been in vain.
- Thessalonians 3:1-5
My wife and I went on a television date a few days ago where her smart TV is located, to see American Gospel: Christ Alone on Netflix. We were impressed and moved by the documentary. I saw a recommendation of the documentary on The Wee Flea, Rev. David Robertson’s blog, and the first thing said in the documentary had me hooked to watch more.
“… Every time I connected with a Christian, I realized that they didn’t know why they believed what they believed. The Christians around me wouldn’t share the Gospel with me, and I never realized why. I concluded either they did not believe the Gospel was true or if they did believe it, they didn’t care if I went to Hell.”
- Nabeel Qureshi (1983-2017)
Nabeel Qureshi was honest in his testimony, wanting people to first, understand the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but second, to be able to spread the Word of God to the ends of the earth. This statement is damning to the many so-called Christians in America (and the world), but also to the true believers that remain mute. Do you really want those non-believers around you to go to Hell? Think about it.
I thought about it, and kept on watching, and kept on taking notes. In my “sermon notes” notebook, a usual sermon would fill about a half page. I wrote eight pages of notes. I told someone that I had written six pages, but I guess two pages stuck together. Okay, part of the difference is that a sermon might last 45 minutes, and this documentary is 139 minutes, 2 hours and 19 minutes, about three times the length of a sermon. Even then, that would mean a page and a half of notes. It is well worth watching, again and again, nearly every morsel is a gem.
First the boilerplate, the documentary was published by Transition Studios in 2018. The director was Brandon Kimber. The listed “cast” are a variety of people, some theologians, some pastors, some listed as ‘resident’ – laymen. There are four listed as “rest of cast” in IMDb and only seen through archive footage, but there were a few others on archive footage not mentioned in IMDb, like the first one seen, Joel Osteen.
Second, my concern: I taught people the proper way of operating a combustion furnace for about 20 years. I could never know when the trainees in the class were listening and when they were not, so I could never say anything wrong, for liability reasons and for my own conscience. If you pay attention to the documentary carefully, you get the message that they intend, but if your attention drifts in and out, you might hear Kenneth Copeland scream “Money Cometh to me” and miss the point that the film is about Jesus, and Jesus Alone, and that the preachers who preach the prosperity gospel are preaching well-crafted lies and using Christianity as a smokescreen.
That brings us to the theme of the documentary. After Nabeel Qureshi’s intro, Paul Washer states in the opening credits that it is a pain to know that Christianity is being distorted. Costi Hinn (Benny Hinn’s nephew who turned away from the ‘family business’) then states that everyone knows “the American Dream.” And then Sean Demars states that America is exporting the very worst of what Christianity has to offer.
That is the theme of the documentary. We need to focus on Christ, Christ Alone. The promises made throughout Scripture of God’s lavish generosity has a provision attached. When we have Christ in our hearts and our heart’s desire is to be more like Christ, God will give us our heart’s desire. For those who may stumble through Logic or basic Grammar, God gives us Jesus in our hearts, and God throws in taking care of us and never leaving us as extra benefits. Indeed, God is lavish in that He gives us what we do not deserve, to be brothers with Jesus Christ. Yet, even in those opening remarks, you get clips of Joel Osteen and Kenneth Copeland saying the opposite, feeding upon our greed and our feeling of being ‘really good inside,’ if you just send in your ‘seed money,’ money that makes them billionaires while you lose out on your dream. You didn’t give enough is their built-in excuse.
And as for the faith healing part of the Word of Faith Movement, they show one trick made by a faith healer, and they interview Justin Peters who has cerebral palsy. Being obviously handicapped and needing healing, he was not allowed near the stage at faith healings (multiple attempts). Only those who seem whole were allowed near the stage, and through believing that they were healed through the placebo effect, they would shout the praises of the faith healer. Meantime, those with machines to keep them alive in the back of the room were ignored, and they left with no hope. Justin Peters’ father confronted a faith healer after his son was not permitted near the front of the room, and the faith healer used the demand for money.
What is so refreshing in the documentary is that you hear from a variety of people. You don’t just hear the words of a few theologians who speak in flowery language with a lot of big words. You don’t just hear a well-known pastor. Katherine Berger, with her husband Russell, gives her story of severe suffering with medical issues that led both of them from atheism to Christianity. And Katherine does not apologize when she says that the Scriptures state that we will suffer, as she speaks slowly with the oxygen tube at her nose.
The residents of Holland, Michigan have a home church. They might gather for worship in a home or under a tree when the weather is good. For the times when the documentary went to their worship service, it reminded me of when I was part of a first century style worship service, fond memories.
Julius Kim, a theologian, and Phill Howard, a pastor, both gave laments regarding America swallowing the allure of getting rich because God is generous. Both state the concern of America, or at least American preaching, is becoming Christless.
One of the graphical representations that they use is to illustrate the difference in the two religious concepts. In the Word of Faith movement, you do in order for it to be done for you, meaning do for others, give more money, etc. But in true Christianity, Jesus has paid the price for our sins. That’s done, but as the love of God flows through our veins, we do for others. The true Christian’s ‘doing’ is not to glorify themselves, or even feel good inside; it is to glorify God. Rev. Bryan Chapell states that the message of “just be good” damns people in one of two ways. Either to despair, for we can never be good enough, or to self-pride and delusion.
In this part of the documentary, Catholics and some other denominations may get a bit uncomfortable as they call out the Catholic concept of Christ plus, talking of Christ plus penance, Christ plus sacraments, or generally Christ plus doing accomplishes salvation. No, there is nothing that we can do to be saved. We trust in Christ. That is “Done.” Any subsequent “doing” pours forth from God’s love within us to glorify Him.
I have hardly scratched the surface of my notes, and being on Netflix, I had to rewatch a few segments to make sure my quotes were accurate even then. As God moves me, I may bring up the documentary again.
Transition Studios has a second documentary out in this series, American Gospel: Christ Crucified. It is not yet on Netflix. It is nearly three hours. I may need a new notebook.
Soli Deo Gloria. Only to God be the Glory.