Prosperity and the Gospel

“We preach prosperity here!… God does not want us to be poor, or sick…” Those words from a pastor in a church we attended recently have set off a lively debate about the merits of Prosperity Teaching (hereinafter referred to as PT).

Background

PT is a recent development in Christian theology, being itself a product of the Pentecostal movement, which began in the United States in the early 20th century. Popularized on national television by Oral (“Something good is going to happen to you today!”) Roberts in the later part of the century, it has entered into the mainstream of the “charismatic” wing of Christianity. PT comes in a variety of forms, not all of them charismatic/Pentecostal. Greatly influenced by Norman Vincent Peale, Robert Schuller preaches a “positive” message. Paul Cho in Korea joins with Kenneth Copeland and others in America to declare that believers can expect the Lord to give them temporal blessings, including health and at least some degree of wealth. The largest church in Brazil promotes this message around the world. I once watched a video of an American PT preacher in the home of an Indian church leader in Kashmir. Jim and Tammy Bakker built a flourishing ministry upon this foundation until it crashed under the weight of scandal. (Apparently, the prosperity they preached applied only to themselves.) Some major themes of PT include an emphasis upon giving generously with the expectation that God will more than repay that generosity with temporal blessings; a belief that Christians can expect to live free from poverty and illness in this life; conviction that Jesus came to bring total shalom – well-being – not just spiritual restoration; that healing (and, by implication physical and temporal well-being of all sorts) is included in the Atonement; that temporal blessings attest to God’s favor upon His followers and thus attract non-believers to the Gospel. The distinctive message of PT is not that God will provide all that we really need in answer to believing prayer – all Christians affirm that article of faith in a heavenly Father who delights to care for His children. Rather, PT emphasizes that believers can expect the Lord to give them an unusual degree of health and material prosperity. Indeed, the speaker the other evening did not mention prayer (though I’m sure he believes in it), but urged us to recognize and acknowledge God’s favor as He bestows upon us one temporal blessing after another. It is the element of entitlement – God’s children are “king’s kids” and can expect to be treated accordingly – that sets PT apart from traditional teaching on the Christian life. As such, it represents a totally new development in Christian theology, unprecedented in church history.

Scriptural support

PT advocates adduce a number of passages from the Bible in support of their doctrine. They remind us that a number of God’s choicest servants were men of wealth: Job (even after his sufferings); Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Solomon, Joseph of Arimathea. Paul does not tell those “who are rich in this world” to renounce all their possessions, but to “do good, that they be rich in good works, ready to give, willing to share” (1 Timothy 6:17-18). Various promises of actual prosperity – as distinct from those that guarantee provision of daily bread and protection from enemies - can be found in the Old Testament: You shall be [temporally, materially, physically] blessed above all people…And the LORD will take away from you all sickness… Deuteronomy 7:14-15. See also 15:6 “For then you shall make your way prosperous, and then you shall have good success” Joshua 1:8 The Lord makes poor, and the LORD makes rich. 1 Samuel 2:7 “Both riches and honor come from You.” 1 Chronicles 29:12 “Bring all the tithes into the storehouses,… and try [test] Me now in this,: says the LORD of hosts, “If I will not open for you the windows of heaven and pour out for you such blessing that there will not be room enough to receive it.” Malachi 3:10 In addition to the multiple accounts of Jesus’ healing the sick and the two instances when He provided food for hungry followers, the New Testament also contains similar promises: “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for My name’s sake, shall receive a hundredfold, and inherit eternal life.” Matthew 19:29. Mark’s version of this promise adds, “in this time” at the beginning, and “with persecutions” at the end. Mark 10:30. “Give, and it will be given to you: good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over will be put into your bosom. For with the same measure that you use, it will be measured back to you.” Luke 6:38 And, finally, a verse often quoted by PT advocates: “Beloved, I pray that you may prosper in all things and be in health, just as your soul prospers.” 1 John 2 This expectation of prosperity falls within a larger theological framework, which is connected with a similar expectation that God will heal all those who pray with faith. Sin, guilt, death; sickness; poverty; etc., are results of the curse placed upon mankind after the Fall. Just as Jesus came to take away our sins, they say, so He also came to deliver us from all other consequences of the curse. Thus, “by His stripes [wounds] we are healed” is taken to guarantee physical healing to all who truly believe, in this life. (Since I deal with the question of whether healing is included in the Atonement in a separate essay, I shall here only respond to the question of whether prosperity also comes as a necessary facet of salvation in this life.) PT rightly points out that believers stand in a relationship of blessing with God the Father. We are no longer under His wrath and His curse. Numerous NT passages make this point, one on which all Christians agree. They reason, further, that this state of blessing and favor necessarily implies material prosperity (as well as physical health). In other words, “blessing” includes not only spiritual favor and gifts, but also material, temporal “blessing” as part and parcel of NT salvation. PT also emphasizes that believers can experience freedom from the power, as well as the penalty, of sin, in this life. They encourage people to trust God for power to overcome addictions, besetting sins, and the power of evil in general. Here, they have the agreement of much of Christendom. If the Holy Spirit is not able to empower us to “put to death the [evil] deeds of the body” and to produce the fruit of the Spirit in us, then the NT believer is left in the same pitiful state as the OT person under the Law. In this they seek to correct an emphasis in some other quarters, including Reformed Theology (RT), which sometimes speaks so much of indwelling sin and corruption that it neglects the promises of growth in grace, power over sin, and substantial increase in sanctification in this life.

Personal experience

PT believers can cite many experiences of God’s material blessing in their lives. The speaker the other night recounted several, including much-needed funds for transporting medical supplies, a parking space, and even unrequested food at a fair. They adduce these as evidence that God delights to “give good things to those who ask Him” (Matthew 7:11). Healings in answer to prayer also confirm the present power of God and His willingness to demonstrate His kindness through deliverance from sickness. Though some in RT circles deny the possibility of real miracles in this life, I do not. Their exegesis, too, is flawed, and defies the experience of millions of believers around the world and throughout the ages. PT Christians point also to marvelous acts of deliverance from the grip of sin experienced by those who simply trusted God for the Spirit’s work in their lives.

Difficulties

Despite all this apparent Scriptural and experiential proof for their doctrines, however, PT faces some formidable difficulties in seeking agreement from other branches of the Christian church. The first – and foremost - is its failure to do careful exegesis. Scriptures are quoted out of context and applied improperly, while others seem to be neglected. For example: 1. Those OT promises of prosperity are conditioned upon perfect obedience to the Mosaic Law. Read the context of the promises in Deuteronomy for confirmation of that vital point. Even Joshua 1:8 hangs prosperity and perfect success upon absolute conformity to the Law of Moses. Two points are important here: 1. Most Evangelicals believe that we are not bound to the Mosaic Law. 2. No one can keep the Law perfectly. Thus, no one can expect these promises to apply to his life in this world. In other words, PT must choose: Either we are under the Mosaic Law, and thus entitled to its promises, or we are not. Second, if we can claim the promises, then we must fully obey the Law. If they are to teach the promises, PT advocates must also enjoin full adherence to the details of the Law of Moses – which, to my knowledge, they seldom do. 2. 1 Peter 2:24-25 shows that the primary meaning of “by whose stripes you were healed” is spiritual, for the Apostle explains, “For you were like sheep going astray, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.” (See the attached essay for more on this point.) That does not mean that healings in answer to prayer do not take place today as evidence of God’s favor towards us in Christ Jesus (as proved by Matthew 8:17), but that the primary reference in Isaiah 53 is to spiritual healing.

Unclear use of words

Here, as in their Biblical exegesis, PT advocates demonstrate a lack of carefulness. “Prosperity” PT confuses the issue by linking provision for daily needs – in which all Christian believe – with prosperity as an expected part of Christian life. We do not argue over whether God will provide all that we really need, in answer to believing prayer. Evangelicals do object that we can expect prosperity because we are in Christ. Prosperity and provision are two different things. So, when the preacher said, “God does not want you to be poor,” we must ask what he meant. Did he want us to trust God for our daily bread? Or did he want us to expect first-class seats on an airplane as part of God’s salvation now? He was not clear (although I did not get the impression that he expects to fly first-class all the time). This lack of clarity leads to several very serious misunderstandings: “Blessing” PT speaks of “blessing” in ambiguous ways. On the one hand, they affirm the Biblical truth that we are under God’s blessing, not His curse, if we trust in Christ for forgiveness. They believe in all the spiritual blessings that other Christians do. On the other, they tend to use the word almost exclusively to refer to temporal “blessings.” So, when they say that God will bless us, or has conferred blessings on us, they tend to mean that some physical, material, or otherwise temporal good will come our way. Their focus is on the health and wealth promised to obedience people in the Old Testament, and definitely not on the spiritual benefits of faith in Christ. This is definitely NOT the emphasis of the New Testament, which a simple word study on “blessing” will demonstrate. “Hope” PT aims to give hope to people bound up in despair. This is good, of course. Jesus does give us peace of mind, substantial freedom from the penalty and power of sin, and wisdom and faith to face life with new confidence. Trusting in Him, we can overcome Satan’s temptations and gain significant victories in our fight with sin. We are confident, too, that God will enable us to do our daily work, provide for our families, and go through life with joy and contentment. On the other hand, a simple study of the word “hope” in the New Testament shows that we are to set our fully on the grace to be brought to us at the revelation of Jesus Christ (that is, when He returns; 1 Peter 1:13). “Hope” in the New Testament refers almost exclusively to the future, when Christ comes back for His people and we receive new bodies and live in a new earth (see Romans 8:18-39). Our “hope” in this present life is that God will give us all we need, including strength to endure all the trials He sends our way. It is not defined as material well-being in this life, at least not in the New Testament. “Salvation” By thus using words in a confusing manner, PT gives a very mixed message, one that does not correctly reflect Biblical teaching. It is true that “salvation” in the Old Testament could – and usually did – refer to physical, temporal, deliverance, vindication, and sometimes prosperity; and that in the New Testament the word “save” sometimes means “heal.” Nevertheless, the fundamental distinction between Old and New Testament teachings on salvation centers on the latter’s emphasis upon deliverance from sin – its penalty, power, and eventual presence. Search the New Testament for references to “salvation” and “save” and you will find the vast majority of passages deal with the spiritual nature of this rescue. Believers are saved from God’s wrath; from the demands of the Mosaic Law; from the crippling effects of sin. Almost never does the word connote deliverance from poverty or sickness.

Wrongly-motivated “faith” in Christ

One of the difficulties of PT, as far as other Christians perceive it, is that people will be attracted to Christ for the wrong reasons. The New Testament (NT) apostolic preachers most emphatically did NOT preach “prosperity”! They called people to repentance for sin and faith in Jesus Christ as Savior from sin and from the judgment to come. A simple study of the Acts of the Apostles and of the Epistles will demonstrate this clearly. Nowhere is prosperity or health offered as a consequence of faith in Christ; nowhere are people told to trust in Christ for these things. Everywhere – without exception – they are told to turn from sin and idolatry in order to escape the wrath to come and to be reconciled with God. The one possible exception to this is the prayer at the beginning of 2 John. But that is a prayer, not a proclamation, and certainly not a promise. Of course we pray for others to prosper in every way! We want them to be healthy and happy. The Apostle speaks for all of us when he opens his letter that way. But he does not do this as a promise, or as the message which he proclaims to non-believers. We know what he promises and what he proclaims from his Gospel, the First Epistle especially, and the Revelation. On the contrary, many religions of the world, especially the more primitive ones, offer frankly material benefits. I am most familiar with popular Chinese religion. Devotees go to the temple to ask for a son, or a job, or a wife, or a child, or good health. Almost never do they request forgiveness for sins. Imagine how PT sounds to the Chinese: It is their old religion with Jesus added on. Chinese are constantly asking me, “What is the benefit of believing in Christ?” I have to tell them that physical, material benefits may not come, but that believers will be reconciled with God, transformed inwardly, and guaranteed of eternal life. Of course, when my non-Christian Chinese friends ask me to pray for them to be healed, or find a job, I comply, and with faith. I believe God can answer these prayers, and that sometimes, perhaps often, He will, in order to draw them to Himself. But never do I promise that these temporal benefits will surely come, as part of the Gospel offer. I urge them to seek God for Himself, to worship Him because He alone deserves it, to pursue eternal life and spiritual blessings. You have probably heard of the term “rice Christians.” It describes those Chinese who accepted the message of the missionaries because they thought some temporal benefit would accrue to them. The term itself carries the connotation of one whose faith is shallow and quite contingent upon prosperity. If things don’t go well, this sort of “believer” falls away quickly. A recent report on the Chinese church said, “Millions of Chinese Christians are one unanswered prayer away from falling away and going to another religion.” They became “Christians” for the wrong reasons.

Disappointment with God

That brings me to another, and very serious, difficulty with PT. It can induce false hopes. “Believe in Jesus and you will enjoy health and wealth.” Who wouldn’t accept such a message? And who wouldn’t reject it if their prayers for temporal benefits were not answered? What if they had been led to believe that health and wealth were an essential part of salvation, and then failed to enjoy either? Would they not be tempted to jettison the entire Gospel message? Yes, it happens, and all too often. Let’s face it. Even mature believers are discouraged sometimes when things don’t go well for us. Illness, or conflict in marriage, or losing a job – all can make us wonder whether God really cares for us. That’s a common spiritual struggle. The antidote to such doubt is not to shout louder, “God doesn’t want you to be poor, or sick, or unhappy!” but to set our minds on things above, where Christ is, and to fix our hope entirely on Him.

Emphasis

PT teachers affirm that material benefits are part and parcel of the Christian life. In fact, they speak of them so much that one sometimes wonders how much the spiritual blessings – election, predestination, adoption as sons, redemption = forgiveness, eternal inheritance, etc. (see Ephesians 1, for example) really mean to them. They would deny this, of course, for they believe in Christ as others do, but from the content and emphasis of their teaching one gets another impression. For instance, we have been told that the preacher the other night regularly speaks that way before the offering is taken. He really does “preach prosperity.” From his writing, we know that he believes in Jesus just as much as other Christians do, and looks to Him alone for forgiveness and eternal life. But from his oral presentations, one would not know this. Something is not quite right here. It’s a matter of emphasis. But emphasis matters. People know our hearts by what we say. And they know what really concerns us by what we bring up most frequently. Sports fanatics talks about sports; politicos can’t help but talk about politics; Amway people have to bring up Amway. Out of the heart the mouth speaks. And PT people seem to have to talk about PT, not about forgiveness, new life, obedience, fellowship with God, and all the other really cardinal doctrines. Paul preached Jesus “Christ and Him crucified.” Can you imagine him preaching prosperity?! Why do Protestants have such a negative view of the Roman Catholic Church? After all, RCs affirm the major truths of the Bible, just as we do. It’s not what they deny, it’s what they add: Mary, the pope, the sacraments, the church, the saints. All these add-ons distract from the core. So much so, that the Reformers rejected the entire system as anti-Christian. We would not go that far in our criticism of PT, but the principle is the same. Whenever we preach “Jesus and…” we have left the essence of the Gospel. Jesus and America. Jesus and nutrition. Jesus and capitalism. Jesus and tongues. Jesus and…. Once anything is added to message about Jesus, He is, in effect, subtracted.

Theological thinness

PT takes a good truth – that God rewards faith and that living generously, lovingly, and with confidence in God can greatly benefit our lives under normal circumstances – and magnifies it out of all proportion. In the process, they miss what 20th century theologians called the “already/not yet” tension of eschatology. That is, the new age has already come, for Christ has come and has poured out His Spirit upon believers. But the full results of His victory will be realized only when He brings the new heaven and the new earth at the end of time. In other words, we live in between the first and second comings of Christ, in a period of tension. Paul affirms that the whole creation groans now in anticipation of its final redemption, being subjected to futility. Even we who have the firstfruits of the Spirit groan, eagerly looking forward to the new body which will someday be ours. How can PT explain the overall thrust and tone of the last half of Romans 8? Does it only apply to believers suffering persecution? In that case, “We know that all things…” has no relevance to someone who has been struck by a drunk driver, or felled by a terrible disease, or fired from a job. Surely the PT folk don’t believe that! But that’s what they seem to teach. It’s a shallow message that ignores the entire sweep of the Bible, especially of the New Testament. But then, PT preachers are not known for systematic expository preaching; telling moving stories suits them and their outlook more easily. I do not mean to be sarcastic here; it seems that this is simply the case. Please inform me if I am wrong.

Overall effect

It would seem, at least to outsiders, that PT produces temporary euphoria constantly menaced by either delusion or disappointment, with despair lurking in the background. Delusion, because millions of faithful and faith-filled believers continue to live in poverty and sickness, through no fault of their own. If you persist in promising health and wealth to followers of Christ, you must deny the massive evidence to the contrary. Either that, or you must re-define your terms so that they mean nothing more than what all Christians have always believed – God sometimes heals people miraculously and He always takes care of His children, until He decides to take them home through fires of persecution and pain. Disappointment and possibly despair, because those who have been led to believe PT have no mental, emotional, or theological equipment to handle the inevitable shocks of life. Unless PT advocates invoke the general category of “adversity” as the “yin” balancing the “yang” of “blessing,” – in which case they are simply re-stating, though in simplified form, and without proper qualifications, what other Christians have always held – they must hold that chronic sickness and suffering, if not in the cause of persecution, result from inadequate faith, hope, or love. In that case, the sufferer has to conclude that he is no longer in the favor of God – exactly the conclusion, by the way, to which Job’s “friends” wanted him to come.

Conclusions

On the one hand, we must acknowledge the enormous contribution that the Pentecostal/charismatic movement made to the worldwide church. If we search for the cause of their rapid, even phenomenal growth, they must include, at least, their faith. They really do believe in a living God, one who hears and answers prayer because He delights to give good gifts to His children. Their stress upon the goodness of a God who is intimately involved with the lives of believers comes as a welcome antidote to the functional theism of much Evangelical “orthodoxy.” On the other hand, it seems that their reputation for sloppy exegesis and shallow, experienced-based, Bible teaching has been well earned, and particularly by those who promote PT. But critics of PT must not be smug. Do we not all struggle when something “bad” – that is, hard to take – happens to us? Are we not really believers in PT at heart? Do we not also have to learn to set our hope fully on the grace to be brought to us at the revelation of Jesus Christ? How many “orthodox” Evangelicals believe that it has been granted to us, not only to believe in the Lord Jesus, but also to suffer for His sake? How many of us give as generously as the PT people do? How often do we trust God to work miracles, or at least wonders, in our lives? Do we not often act is He were somewhere off in another world, with little love and less power to intervene in our lives? Otherwise, how can we explain the epidemic of divorce among Evangelicals? “God does not want me to be so unhappy” is the common mantra of “Christians” trying to justify escape from a difficult relationship. “God wants me to be happy” seems to be a common article of faith among those who do not formally subscribe to PT. How self-centered we are! Where is the idea of laying down our lives for others in imitation of Christ? Of enduring trials patiently, like Job and the prophets? Of contentment with what God has given us? We who criticize PT are often as guilty as we say they are of living for material comfort in this world – perhaps much more, for it seems that they at least give generously.