In yesterday’s post, we began an analysis of the packaged addiction program, Celebrate Recovery (CR). CR is founded on eight principles, taken from the Beatitudes, similar to the twelve steps of Alcoholic’s Anonymous (AA).
Created by John Baker and Rick Warren of Saddleback Church, CR claims to be a Christ-centered, biblically-based program. CR will be examined according to those claims, using the Leader’s Guide, by John Baker, as cited in yesterday’s post.
As stated yesterday, this review (completed with the help of Matthew Mumma, pastor of biblical counseling at Cornerstone Church) will demonstrate that CR contains two major problems: (1) Though claiming to be biblically based, its teachings are often constructed from a misuse of Scripture and an erroneous hermeneutic. (2) Though claiming to be Christian based, its theology often clashes with sound Christian theology. In today’s post, the second problem will be addressed.
2. Much of CR’s theology clashes with sound Christian theology.
Several examples will be examined here.
CR generally teaches a view of God lower than that of Scripture. For example, according to CR, God seems to not be sovereign over the hurt we experience in our lives. “You need to understand and believe that the harm others did to you was from their free will. It was their choice, not God’s. It was not God’s will” (192). Certainly those who hurt others certainly make an active choice to do so, for which they are culpable. And, sin against others is not God’s prescribed will. However, the lack of clarity with respect to God’s decretive will is troubling. Though being sinned against can be painful, we must say with Scripture, “In the day of prosperity be happy, but in the day of adversity consider—God has made the one as well as the other” (Eccles. 7:14). CR lacks clarity here, while failing to teach that we can trust the love and wisdom of God who is sovereign over all of our battles.
CR teaches that God is an unsovereign bystander in our salvation. Man’s salvation is up to his own will power. The sinner chooses God (11-13, 85, 90, 105-106, 167). “He loved us so much that He gave us a free will” (192). This clashes with Scripture, which teaches the sovereign grace of God in sinners’ salvation (e.g. John 3:3-8, 6:44; Rom. 8:29-30, 9:15-16; Eph. 1:4-5).
Additionally, CR teaches that God must be forgiven by the addict. Baker writes, “[O]n your list of ‘others to forgive,’ you might have forgotten about someone you may need to forgive; God. Yes, you heard me right. God” (192). No such thing can be found anywhere in Scripture. Now, CR teaches that God cannot and does not sin. However, elsewhere, forgiveness is described as a letting go and that “forgiving your enemy sets you one above him” (192). So, where does forgiving God place us in relation to him? Such teaching suggests that God is somehow accountable to man, thus dethroning him from his glorious position of Sovereign Lord and King (cf. Ps. 93:1-2).
Finally, in an inappropriate AA parallel, CR repeatedly refers to Christ as the sinner’s “Higher Power.” While it is a good start to mention him as the “only Higher Power” (41), the terminology does not go far enough in capturing Scripture’s teaching on Christ. Worse, the phrase too closely parallels AA’s reference to a subjective god of man’s making. Christ is not a power that is higher, but the omnipotent, uncreated, eternally-existing I AM, God, Creator, and sustainer of all things who. Incredibly, he loved sinners, demonstrated by absorbing the righteous anger of God due them (John 1:1-3, 8:58; Col. 1:16-17; Heb. 1:3; 1 John 4:10).
Even more, CR’s view of Christ is parochial: far more than the “Higher Power” who helps me in my recovery, he is the King of kings whom I am to worship (Phil. 2:10) and the only Savior through whom man can be acceptable before holy God (John 14:6, 1 Tim. 2:5-6). Yet, in the brief references to Christ now and then, CR does not speak of him in these terms.
Humanity and the Problem
In CR, man is reduced to an addicted creature with “hurts, hang-ups, and habits.” However, Scripture teaches that every person is a worshipping creature, made in the image of God for the glory of God. In CR, what defines man is his addictions and culpability to his self-actualization. In Scripture, what defines man is his image bearing and culpability to God (Gen. 1:26-27).
CR teaches that humanity is not entirely dead in sin, but capable, by his will, of choosing God in salvation (11-13, 85, 90, 105-6, 167, 192). Humanity’s problem is often described as a low self-esteem, low self-love, and the need for self-forgiveness (167-8). For example, Baker writes that the root of his enslavement to alcohol was low self-esteem (14) and a “lack of positive self-image” (167). This lack of self-esteem is taught to be the root of all sin from which other negative behaviors arise (167). Such lack of positive self-image is what causes an individual to engage in addictive behaviors. Therefore, CR teaches that humanity’s deepest problem from which all sin springs has to do with self-image and self-esteem.
The problems with CR’s understanding of man and his problems are numerous. First, man is fundamentally an image-bearer of God, created to worship him (Gen. 1:26-27, Isa. 43:7). However, all humanity since the Fall of Adam and Eve are conceived with a sinful nature, which is incessantly hostile towards the true God (Rom. 3:10-18). Consequently, with the full capacity and desire to worship remaining, our hearts (the seat of our will) rebelliously cling to and crave created things in worship over and above God (Rom. 1:18-23). The product is as bad as it gets: man is both relentlessly religious and entirely sinful. Thus, in our natural state, we are relentless idolaters, in constant violation of our great obligation, privilege, and purpose to worship God with the full capacity of our hearts. To be sure, it is not simply the drunkard or drug user (as I once was) who are addicts. All humanity are addicts: motivated by love for self and enmity towards God, we are rebelliously enslaved to give loyalty to anything except God. Consequently, some worship alcohol and its effects; others, food; still others, things like body image, sex, money, reputation, kids’ performances, comfort, exercise, approval, and moral performance.
However, underneath all idolatry is not low self-love, but the contrary: we worship idols out of an extreme devotion to self. Thus, self-esteem is not the answer. As somewhat of a case study to prove the point, God has recorded for us a tragic-comical moment in history, displaying the product of man’s high self-esteem. At the Tower of Babel, man’s self-esteem drove him to build praise for himself by attempting to construct a tower so high that, perhaps, he could not only avoid another flood, but look God in the eye so as to self-cure his proud inferiority complex (cf. Gen. 11:4). We know how that ended.
At no time does God’s word instruct us to better love ourselves. In fact, quite the opposite. Paul warns Timothy that one symptom of increasingly unchecked human depravity is that “men will be lovers of self” (2 Tim. 3:2). Our problem is not that we are poor self-lovers with “hurts, hang-ups, and habits that didn’t work” (74), but, being lords of self, we feed ourselves with whatever idol will soothe, exalt, please, praise, comfort, venerate, and prefer self. Man is naturally a colossal lover of self, adoring and worshiping himself. Sons of Adam naturally loathe and resent any threat to his self-rule and self-exaltation.
Contrary to CR’s teaching, character defects are the consequence of our sinful self-devotion (Prov. 4:23, Jer. 17:9, Mark 7:14-23, Gal. 5:19-21, James 1:14-15). We are dead to God, unwilling and unable to please him in this state (Eph. 2:1-3). Without ever having to be taught or conditioned, every human being is born in extraordinary religious devotion to the anti-Luke 10:27-28, loving the lord himself, with all his heart, and all his soul, and all his strength, and all his mind, and hating his neighbor as much as he loves himself.
Therefore, man is in gross violation of God’s good and holy moral requirements (Rom. 3:23). Our due punishment corresponds to the greatness of the One whom he has violated. As such, we deserve to endure the righteous wrath of God for eternity (2 Thess. 1:8-9, Rev. 20:11-15). A boost in self-esteem will only compound the problem. We may feel better, but we remain incessant self-worshipers, facing eternity in hell. Tragically, CR omits virtually all of these truths on the nature and standing of humanity, thus, harming its participants and setting itself up for an anemic gospel.
In CR, salvation is recovery from addictive behavior. CR’s process of salvation could be captured as follows: man is an addicted being beset with hurts, hang-ups, and habits. Through CR, he learns to manage his hurts, hang-ups, and habits through forgiving God, others, and himself, belief in the Higher Power, Jesus Christ, and improved self-love and self-esteem. The curbing of the addictions and enthusiastic involvement in CR demonstrates his healing. He continues involvement in CR, as a “believer who struggles with [insert addiction].”
When CR describes the event of salvation, man is in charge as he chooses God. God must be permitted to act (166, 170). The word repentance is mentioned, being described as taking God’s point of view on our lives over our own, while turning away from our sins and turning towards God (107). This was one of the high-points of the book. However, the event of salvation can be triggered by the sinner praying a formulaic prayer to accept Christ.
In all of the testimonies in the book, few, if any, contained the true gospel. They go back to the moment in time they prayed a prayer, walked an aisle, sat in CR for the first time, or experienced healing from addiction. CR’s gospel is addiction recovery.
The problems here are significant. Our needs are more serious than CR teaches.
First, our need is not to recover from an addiction, but to be forgiven our infinite sin debt (Rom. 4:7-8). God’s law brings focus to our condemnation before God (Rom. 3:19-20). Our only hope is that he might respond to our cry of mercy by forgiving our infinite debt so as to remove the hell we deserve.
Second, our need is reconciliation to God (Isa. 59:2). By nature and deed, we are his sworn enemies (Rom. 5:10). In our incessant idolatry, we are in perpetual rebellion against him. To remain there would mean eternal hell.
Third, our need is a righteousness with which we can stand acceptable to our Creator, not a few principles to assist with addictions (Phil. 3:9). Man’s problem of the ages is not addictions but a woefully inadequate righteousness before God.
Fourth, our need is an entire change of nature (John 3:3, 5). More than recovery from poor behavior, we are in desperate need of a new heart that worships Christ, not cravings (2 Cor. 5:17). Since our problem stems from worship, we need to be repaired at that deepest level so as to be willing and able to please God.
Fifth, man’s need is not to love himself, but loathe himself. Christ presented self-hate as necessary for following him (Luke 14:26, cf. 2 Cor. 7:10-11). In fact, in a passage which describes the future salvation of Israel, God describes the consequence of receiving his grace of regeneration by the Holy Spirit as follows: “…you will remember your evil ways and your deeds that were not good, and you will loathe yourselves in our own sight for your iniquities and your abominations” (Ezek. 36:31). So, a recovery to spiritual health (if we might put it in such terms) will not look like a greater self-love, but self-loathing. By nature, we so crave our own lordship, that it takes nothing less than the power of Almighty God in regeneration to pry our self-venerating claws off the throne of our hearts and place himself there.
Of course, the problem with these needs is that we are incapable of providing them for ourselves. If God does not act, we are hopelessly lost. We may be able to rotate idols so as to appear more socially acceptable, but we would remain condemned idolaters before God, headed for a miserable eternity. CR attempts to present a system of salvation-recovery, while, tragically, failing to address these greatest of man’s needs. A possible consequence of self-esteem theology is he externally assures himself with Bible verses and Christian principles, but remains an incessant self-worshiper under the banner of Christianity. He remains his own lord, but has recruited an unbiblical Jesus to assist in his self-centered agenda.
Unlike CR’s teaching, it is with self-denial, not self-love, that we come to the Lord Jesus Christ in repentance, and not for mere behavioral recovery, but reconciliation to God (Luke 9:23). Salvation is more than belief in Jesus for addiction therapy. Christ, being fully God, stepped out of heaven, became a man, and lived a perfect life in full obedience in thought, word, and deed, to the requirements of God’s law (Gal. 4:4-5). At no time was he sinfully enslaved to idols. Instead, he worshiped God perfectly (Heb. 4:15). Motivated by his own mercy, he willingly went to the cross where he suffered and died, bowing under the righteous wrath of God due us, so as to eliminate our condemnation (John 10:17-18; 1 John 4:10; 1 Pet. 2:24). He was then raised for our justification and ascended to heaven as exalted Lord (Rom. 4:25, Heb. 12:2). Man is called then to repent of his sin and surrender to Christ as Lord (Acts 17:30-31). By faith in Christ, God counts the penalty for all our sin to have been served in the death of Christ, while simultaneously counting us righteous in Christ, so as to be at peace with him (Rom. 5:1, 2 Cor. 5:21).
Contrary to CR’s teaching, salvation occurs, not by man’s permission, but God’s sovereign act of grace on the dead sinner (John 6:44, 65). By his mercy, he causes the supernatural work of regeneration by the Holy Spirit, in which a new nature is given (John 3:3-7, Titus 3:5). It is instantaneous and accomplished by the power of the Spirit through the instrumentality of the word of God (John 5:24), when the repentant sinner, as enabled by the Spirit, responds in faith to the gospel (Eph. 1:13-14). That is the good news of God’s grace in Christ, which meets humanity’s greatest need.
The Risk of Promoting False Assurance
But CR risks promoting false assurance of salvation. A few pages into the CR Leader’s Guide, an unbiblical view of salvation is purported in the author’s testimony. He writes, “I asked Christ into my heart at age thirteen” (14), then describes nearly two decades of no fruit bearing. However, the writer asserts, “I knew that if I died I was saved, but my Christianity was not reflected in my lifestyle, business practices, and priorities” (15).
Though perhaps unintentionally, this immediately sets the stage in CR for a view of salvation that does not square with Scripture. Jesus taught, “Every branch in Me that does no bear fruit, He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit, He prunes it so that it may bear more fruit…I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing” (John 15:2, 5). “The one who says, ‘I have come to know Him,’ and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him” (1 John 2:4). Contrary to the author’s testimony, Scripture gives no assurance to individuals who persist in a life without fruit bearing (cf. Eph. 2:10, 1 John 2:3-6).
Additional false assurance is risked with addiction-recovery akin to salvation in CR. With little to no teaching on man’s incessant idolatry and violation of God’s holy law, the consequent punishment of hell, and the need for justification, CR endangers its participants. If a CR participant says a prayer, affirms belief in Jesus, and experiences behavioral improvement, assurance is given. However, it’s possible to have swept the soul clean, leaving it unoccupied by the Spirit (Luke 11:24-26).
CR teaches that the path to change is to “let go and let God” (17, 95, 166). By embracing the eight foundation principles, change is expected to occur (142). Growth and lasting change seem to be centered on perpetual CR attendance. Cessation of attendance and working through the 8 Principles and 12 Steps is not suggested (167).
Scripture offers a more comprehensive, promising transformation in the process of sanctification (Rom. 8:29-30). God’s work is not limited to perpetual addiction recovery, but conforming the whole soul into christlikeness (2 Cor. 3:18). And, contrary to CR, enslavements no longer affix to the identity of God’s children. Such things were we (1 Cor. 6:11). But, by the regenerating and sanctifying work of the Spirit, we are not merely getting help with hurts, hang-ups, and habits, but putting our entire sin nature to death (Rom. 8:13-14, Col. 3:5). Through regular immersion in the means of grace (e.g. biblical preaching, Scripture reading, prayer, repentance, one anothers), the Spirit ministers transforming love to the soul. However, the means of grace are not mentioned in CR. Instead, the CR program is the means of grace. But, with incorrect interpretations of Scripture and erroneous theology, both salvation and sanctification are hindered.
In psychology’s teaching, deep-seated problems can be solved only by the professional counselor’s therapy. In AA, enslavement is treated through perpetual AA involvement. CR parallels both, in that the enslavement is treated through perpetual recovery in the CR system of therapy.
Participants are functionally taught to put faith in the CR system. Christ is mentioned as the “Higher Power,” but only in name. Little is said about his attributes, deity, righteousness, and sin-bearing work. Instead, CR participants are, perhaps inadvertently, conditioned to depend on the packaged methods and ideas of the program. In reality, then, since individuals are addicts in perpetual recovery, they cannot survive apart from the CR system. Thus, CR replaces Christ’s institution, the church.
Furthermore, the goal is to feel “safe at Celebrate Recovery” (73). I am guessing that CR’s creators are not attempting to replace Christ’s church, but, with this approach, they risk doing so. It’s as if CR says, “Well, for those battling with addictions, Christ’s church is not quite adequate for you. You need something more. What you need is what we have created; Celebrate Recovery.” Shepherding is through perpetual CR attendance (29, 37, 59, 167-8). One’s choice of a local church is irrelevant (59, 167-8). While attending a church is mentioned as good idea, it is not promoted as necessary (242). Baker writes, “If you aren’t ready to get involved in your church, that’s your decision” (146). So, CR participants need not come under the shepherding and accountability of biblically qualified elders for God’s best kind of care. Instead, they may perpetually remain in CR and assured that all is well. Even so, CR claims that “[Jesus] is the rock, the foundation, of the Celebrate Recovery program” (29).
Consequently, it cannot be concluded that Christ is the head or foundation of CR. As a program which misuses Scripture, whose theology is erroneous, and replaces the church, it brings itself under another head.
However, if Christ is a sufficient God, then that one organism which he builds must also be the sufficient organism to shepherd broken and enslaved people. Christ taught that he builds and blesses one institution; the church (Matt. 16:18). CR, however, suggests that one can be devoted to Christ yet detached from the church. We would be hard pressed to suggest saving union with Christ while indifferent union with his Bride (Eph. 5:25-27, Rev. 19:7), Body (Eph. 1:22-23), and flock (John 21:15-17). The individual with indifferent involvement in the local church should probably not be encouraged to be a better Christian, but evangelized to become one.
Those in CR who are not actively involved (or encouraged to be) in a sound, New Testament local church, are deprived of God’s kind of care. They risk missing out on the joy, security, and privilege of relationship with and submission to biblically qualified elders (Heb. 13:17, 1 Pet. 5:2-3). They miss out on frequent, meaty feeding through expository preaching (1 Tim. 4:13, 2 Tim. 4:2). They miss out on sanctification and cultivating their Spirit gifts in the context of people much different than them in the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:7, 12).
Finally, we might ask, “Was there a people in biblical times who struggled with various enslavements to whom writers of Scripture ministered? If so, what did they do without CR?” Take Corinth for example. From Paul’s writings, we know people were enslaved to things like alcohol, drugs, stealing, homosexual and heterosexual sin, and other destructive behaviors (cf. 1 Cor. 6:9-11). What was the solution? Create a special program? Christ’s local church with all her normal, often-unexciting means of grace sufficed. Go to church. Sit under Christ-crucified preaching and teaching. Get shepherded by elders. Repent of sin. Read Scripture. Take communion. Love people. Practice the one anothers. Pray. Repeat. For Paul, that was enough. Addictions are not a special set of sins requiring something more than Christ’s church.
When it comes to packaging an organized program, CR has done a fantastic job. Potential participants and leaders have everything they need to jump in. The program is well-structured, creative, and contains an incredible amount of ingenious acronyms in each lesson. CR’s creators certainly have put much work and thought into the program.
However, as far as a Christ-centered, biblically-based program, CR falls significantly short. Though claiming to be biblically based, its teachings are often constructed from a misuse of Scripture and an erroneous hermeneutic. Though claiming to be Christian based, its theology often clashes with sound Christian theology. Therefore, a Christian church looking to shepherd people struggling with enslaving sins should rethink using Celebrate Recovery.
Superior Alternatives to Celebrate Recovery
Those who have turned to CR in attempt to bring Christ’s love to souls ought to be commended for their desire to care. The church must do something to minister to such needs. However, there are several superior alternatives.
First, church leaders ought to equip themselves and members to counsel people biblically. No substitution exists for unrushed, rigorous training in how to accurately handle and minister the Scriptures (2 Tim. 2:15). It is the church’s high, exalted calling from her Lord to give herself fully to raising up mature men and women, competent in God’s word (2 Tim. 2:2). No shortcuts exists here, nor should they be sought (1 Tim. 5:22).
Churches can seek outside help for such training, for example, from the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors. Once a leader or two are certified, then they can train others in the church and even work towards becoming an ACBC-certified training center. Churches will not be able to construct something as quick as a CR program. But that is not a bad thing. The goal is not to get something going that appears to work, but that is biblical.
Second, several resources exist as biblical alternatives to CR. For example, the book, Addictions: A Banquet in the Grave, by Ed Welch, is a must read. Welch also created a workbook called, Crossroads, which is designed for either one-on-one counseling or a group study. Mark Shaw has a handful of resources targeted at multiple issues from a biblical perspective at theaddictionconnection.com. His books, The Heart of Addiction, and, Relapse, are great resources, as well.
Finally, let God’s people trust that giving ourselves to the correct, biblically-prescribed means of grace will prove abundantly sufficient to effectively minister to the greatest of needs. May our Lord give us grace in these privileged labors.