Skip to main content

Mere sponge cake

The problems with Stanleyism

Mere sponge cake

Frequently asked question by WORLD members: What do you think of Andy Stanley’s book, Irresistible (Zondervan, 2018)?

Answer: I’m impressed and depressed. Stanley notes rightly that “skinny jeans and moving lights” won’t keep many young people from abandoning Christianity. But he argues that the way to hold them, and win others who say they’re “spiritual,” is to abandon the hard things in the Bible and emphasize a smiling Jesus. C.S. Lewis brought us Mere Christianity. Pastor Stanley brings us Mere Sponge Cake.

Is that a harsh review? Let’s take a run through Irresistible. Its first 80 pages winsomely and validly critique vanilla church life. Stanley’s complaints get more pointed on page 90 when he complains about Old Testament “leftovers” (and does that five times in five pages). He clarifies this on page 137: “The Ten Commandments have no authority over you. None. To be clear: Thou shalt not obey the Ten Commandments.”

How bad is the OT? On page 144 we learn, “It only takes a small dose of the wrong thing to corrupt the whole thing. Even a pinch of the old covenant will corrupt the taste and texture of the new covenant.” But—page 166—the OT “is a fabulous source of inspiration. Old Testament narratives are rich in courage, valor, and sacrifice. Everybody faces a Goliath or two.”

If we unhitch the church from the Old Testament, we lose its powerful documentation of how deep our sin problem is.

That sounds like Steve Martin’s comically inspirational speech about a bandit leader in Three Amigos: “In a way, all of us have an El Guapo to face someday. For some, shyness might be their El Guapo. For others, a lack of education might be their El Guapo.” How many bad sermons start with a Bible verse, turn to contemporary issues or what the pastor did on his vacation, and never get back to what the Bible is actually saying?

But back to Stanley’s book: His prescription on page 227 is, “If we love well, all is well. Period. That’s it. Love well, and you’re in the light.” That’s different from the OT teaching he describes on pages 251 and 257, “In the Old Testament [God] got so angry, he drowned ’em all. … He allowed his own temple to be torn down and then put everybody in time-out. … [Now,] he’s not angry.”

What’s the problem with Stanleyism? First, his description of the two testaments—anger-suffused old vs. love-infused new—is inaccurate. The OT more than 20 times shows the “angry” God emphasizing compassion. The New Testament concludes with Chapter 9 of Revelation showing one-third of mankind slain, Chapter 14 reporting a 180-mile-long, 4-foot-deep stream of blood, and Chapter 16 describing plagues worse than those in Exodus.

Second, Jesus warns against attacks on the OT. He says in Chapter 16 of Luke, “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.” Jesus in Chapter 5 of John tells critics that if they don’t believe what Moses wrote, “how will you believe my words?” He declares in the Sermon on the Mount, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” Stanley mentions on page 168 one verse countering his thesis, “All Scripture is God-breathed,” but he doesn’t engage with it. Stanley doesn’t even mention other Biblical teaching that undercuts his thesis.

Third, if we unhitch the church from the OT, we lose its powerful documentation of how deep our sin problem is: Choose a people, give them chosen leaders and prophets, give them a land and good laws, and they still mess up. Plus, the OT repeatedly points to the NT: Abraham’s almost-sacrifice of his only son makes no sense unless it’s preparing us for God the Father’s sacrifice of His only Son. Stanley makes it seem he’s discovered something, but he’s largely repeating the 1,900-year-old anti-OT errors of Marcion and the 100-year-old errors of liberal preachers and writers such as Harry Emerson Fosdick.

Fourth, Stanley’s wrong to say that it’s his way or the highway for postmoderns. New York pastor Tim Keller’s full-Bible exegetical preaching has reached thousands of those Stanley sees as unreachable unless we jettison the OT. The intelligent design movement is showing we don’t have to worship Darwin. Maybe Stanley can draw in readers and listeners with sponge cake, but they will need more nutrition.


You must be a WORLD Member and logged in to the website to comment.
  • VISTA48
    Posted: Sun, 10/14/2018 05:56 am

    Good old Chuck Missler (RIP) had a saying: "The New Testament is in the Old Testament concealed; the Old Testament is in the New Testament revealed". Not to mention, there are prophecies in the Old Testament that have yet to be fulfilled. Who could do a study on Revlation without also studying Ezekiel and Daniel?  When you excise anything from the Bible, you also remove clarity. 

  • Rich277
    Posted: Sun, 10/14/2018 08:00 am

    Amen, Marvin.  Some churches are so focused on being seeker-friendly they have taken the focus off of God entirely.  We see in the Ten Commandments the very essence of our relationship with God and with others.  Jesus put it this way:

    (Matt 22:34-40 ESV) 34 But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. 35 And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 37 And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”    (see also Deut 6:5 and Lev 19:18)

    This pandering to seekers’ feelings only reinforces the notion that their feelings are the ultimate measure of all things.  I don’t know how you then get to the personal brokenness of a sinner standing before the God who is; a sinner in need of a Redeemer; a God and Redeemer worthy of all our focus and all our love.

  • PaulC
    Posted: Sun, 10/14/2018 09:54 am

    Nine of the ten commandments are repeated in the New Testament.  The exception is the keeping of the Sabbath.  Very interesting that both circumcision and the Sabbath preceded the law, were incorporated into the law, and then we are specifically told that we are not to be judged about Sabbath keeping (Colossians 2:16)  or required to be circumcised, Acts 15.  Jesus used the OT to explain why it was necessary that the Messiah suffer, die, and rise.  The Old Testament sets the stage for the need of the New Testament.  Jesus tells us that man lives by EVERY word that proceeds out of the mouth of God, Matthew 4:4, and Proverbs 30:5 tells us that EVERY word of God is tested.  Thank you Marvin for the sad but necessary warning about the book by Andy Stanley.  Why hasn't his father Charles Stanley corrected his son on this?  Would he knowingly allow his son to write such things?  

  • Woodman
    Posted: Fri, 10/26/2018 05:04 pm

    I believe there's tension between father and son that first surfaced over Andy's muddled view of sexual ethics.

  • Mark EP
    Posted: Sun, 10/14/2018 10:37 am

    Truly, what Christians need to "unhitch" from are Stanley's questionable teachings.

  • JerryM
    Posted: Sun, 10/14/2018 05:20 pm

    "For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear." 2 Timothy 4:3

    I heartily agree about the "skinny jeans and bright lights" and also agree this "teaching" Andy brings is not of God.  What of God's Holy character!  What of David's delighting in God's laws and 1 John 5:3?


  • CJ
    Posted: Mon, 10/15/2018 08:15 am

    Apart from the OT nothing about Jesus, his person, work, sacrifice, and resurrection make any sense. I am thankful for the teachers who remain faithful to the entire Gospel, which includes the foundation laid in the OT.

  • RC
    Posted: Mon, 10/15/2018 11:14 am

    Marvin excellent book review!  It looks like Andy Stanley has been worn down by the needs of the seekers and is losing his own way?  If God’s truth was easy, the way, would not be “narrow”. Matt 7:13

  • SamIamHis
    Posted: Mon, 10/15/2018 02:34 pm

    Andy Stanley is in the Joel Osteen camp of a feel good gospel, without the depth or fullness of the God we are freely invited to serve at a price of unfathomable worth.  The very simplidity of the Gospel is the stumbling block to those who are lost.  The simplicity does not replace the call to dying to self and becoming new creatures in Christ, fully pardoned and now willing bond servants.  This is so missing in Andy Stanley's teachings and sadly, it has been missing for a long time.  I had hoped for him, with time, to show evidence of maturity and the laying down of Andy Stanley for the sake of the Gospel.


  • Bob Hinkley
    Posted: Tue, 10/16/2018 10:21 am

    I teach an adult Sunday school class. Our current topic is "Knowing God". I cannot imagine how any Christian could attempt to teach about Almighty God without relying on the entire Bible, Old Testament and New Testament.

  •  Brendan Bossard's picture
    Brendan Bossard
    Posted: Tue, 10/16/2018 09:37 pm

    Preaching the Bible is hard work.  Understanding it is harder.  I wonder whether people like Andy Stanley study their material with the proper oomph.

  • TB
    Posted: Thu, 10/25/2018 04:32 pm

    World magazine, through the years I've gained much from Marvin Olasky's insightful articles and comments, but I was surprised to read what he to say in his review of the book "Irresistible" by Andy Stanley. So before I present my review of his review let me say up front, Mr Olasky has an impressive background and intellect, is highly educated and dedicated to the cause of Christ.On the other hand I have a meager education, an undistinguished career and also care deeply about the cause of Christ. Marvin probably reads more books in a week than I do in a year, maybe five. But I can read, and I feel the book being discussded has been mischaracterized, in fact after reading his review, I was left wondering if we had read the same book! In the first paragraph Marvin begins with an incorrect assertion, that Pastor Stanley is saying we should "abandon the hard things in the bible and emphasize a smiling Jesus," Wow, did he read the whole book? It certainly appears that statements are 'cherry picked," taken out of context and given meaning Andy Stanley never intended. Which is exactly what the secular world does with the bible. I'm not one to write letters to the editor, but this review sure bit me, because as my wife and I have been reading it we want to tell others to read it. Andy does a great job of exposing the hypocrisy of the church in mixing and matching O.T. and N.T., a major focus off his book which Marvin conveniently omitted. Why is that?  If "Irresistible" is "Sponge Cake" then your critique is "Upside Down Cake."

    Tim Bernethy



  • Woodman
    Posted: Fri, 10/26/2018 04:44 pm

    Very well said. Willow Creek launched this 'it's all about me' sofistry 30 years ago. If pastors resist preaching about our depraved human condiditon no one will repent and trust Jesus. The law was given to convict the heart of sin (Ps 19:7) and confront us with our need for a Saviour. Accordinng to James 3:1 pastors who mislead by failing to preach the full counsel of God will be judged harshly. Even though I'm not a fan of Andy Stanley for reasons beyond excluding the teaching the forshadowing of Christ in the OT I have no joy in my heart saying so.