The Prosperity Gospel: A Global Epidemic
Prosperity is a hot topic in the church. Does God care if a pastor drives a nice car or lives in a nice home? Does God command that all who follow Him take a vow of poverty and starve their families in a protest of earthly comfort? Bible teachers sell millions of books and accumulate mass amounts of wealth, are they in the same league as other wealthy preachers? Some will have deep convictions about attaining any measure of wealth, while others will be content use their wealth to give back to their church. Some will use their wealth to fund a child’s college tuition, or even scholarship a seminary student. Others will invest their wealth with the goal of giving even more away in the future. Stewardship comes in all shapes and sizes but one thing doesn’t—God’s ability to weigh a man’s heart and motives. It is a man’s heart that God is most interested in and the gospel a man proclaims that God will judge most. When Heaven’s final bell rings and every man is recompensed according to his deeds, God will have the final say. The issue will not be whether that pastor took home a six-figure salary; the issue will be what that man taught and wrote while representing the gospel of Jesus Christ.
In this article, the prosperity gospel is placed front and center as one of the deadliest teachings in the world today. It has attached itself to the Bible, and to Jesus Christ—though it has no business doing so. Countless people in third world countries chase after it in search of stability and hope. Yet, all those who live and die trusting in the prosperity gospel for salvation will be left wanting in both this life, and the next.
What is Prosperity Gospel Theology?
Obviously, the prosperity gospel is not “good news.” Therefore, let’s understand that it’s no “gospel” at all. That said, I use the term because it’s so widely recognized when discussing these kinds of issues. A very basic definition of the prosperity gospel can be described as this: God’s plan is for you to live your best life now. Health, wealth, and happiness are guaranteed on Earth for all who follow Jesus. Heaven is simply the eternal extension of your temporal blessings. The prosperity gospel’s theological foundation can be traced to at least three twisted versions of biblical truths. Prosperity preacher’s twist these in order to legitimize their version of the gospel.
1. Christ’s Atonement Means Abundant Life Now
The Bible clearly teaches that Christ died to atone for our sin (Isaiah 53) and that because of what He accomplished through His death and resurrection, we’ll experience the abundant life that He came to give us (John 10:10). Though we enjoy some benefits of the atonement now—such as the forgiveness of our sins and assurance of salvation—His atonement guarantees eternal promises that won’t be fully be realized until Heaven. We’ll receive a glorified body, there will be no death, no sin, no pain, no suffering, and no disease! Those are just a few of the eternal benefits of the atonement. Best of all, we’ll enjoy perfect fellowship with our God forever more. Prosperity preachers teach that health and wealth were “paid for” in the atonement—just like sin. Therefore, this twisted interpretation allows them to teach people to expect complete healing, monetary riches, and total victory in every area of their earthly life. Instead of telling people to put faith in Jesus Christ and excitedly await their best life in heaven, they offer an empty gospel that promises people their best life now.
2. God’s Covenant with Abraham Means Inheritance Now
There’s an old children’s song that goes something like this: “Father Abraham had many sons. Many sons had Father Abraham. I am one of them, and so are you. So let’s just praise the Lord!” It’s used by many faithful Christians as a way to teach children about the great joy associated with God’s covenant with Abraham. Specifically speaking, the Abrahamic covenant (Genesis 12:1-3) has much to do with redemption, and God’s promises to His people. However, prosperity preacher’s use the covenant as a means to promise an inheritance (usually land and money) for their followers now. This has become their most common use for it. In the prosperity gospel, God’s covenant with Abraham is littered with statements like, “If you’ll sow a seed of faith like Abraham, God will bless you”, or “If you speak it and live it by faith like Abraham, God will prosper you.” These type of statements are a way to present any temporal or eternal inheritance that awaits God’s people as a blanket guarantee. If these twisted versions of the Abrahamic covenant were true, then the millions who trust in the prosperity gospel would become millionaires and land-owners overnight. Thus far, it is mainly the prosperity preachers who are benefitting from the offerings of those they deceive.
3. Faith is a Force You Can Use to Control God
The Bible teaches that Christians are justified by faith (Romans 5:1), that Christians overcome the world through faith (1 John 5:5), and that Christians live by faith because of what Christ has done (Galatians 2:20). The list of verses on the blessings of faith is endless! Faith pleases God, is directly related to salvation, and is the evidence of trust in God for the believer. Prosperity gospel preachers depart from this orthodox teaching on faith when they often add in “Word of Faith” teachings into their sales pitch. They teach that faith is a force you can use to get what you want from God. In other words, you were able to obtain salvation and justification by faith, so why can’t you obtain a Ferrari the same way? Prosperity theology is centered on the notion that God’s will is to save you and make you rich. In such a theological system, right believing, right thinking, and right speaking are all linked with faith in order to create physical blessings. This is where the word of faith movement often hybrids with the prosperity gospel.
How Did the Prosperity Gospel Get So Popular?
Long before the Catholic Church was selling indulgences, the correlation between ministry, money, and manipulation was crystal clear. The Bible even describes Simon the Sorcerer (Acts 8:9-24) as a magician who thought he could buy the gift of God with money. Specifically speaking, the modern day roots of the prosperity gospel go back approximately seventy years. It was during the 1950’s that this divergent gospel pioneered its way into the mainstream evangelical scene and nobody at the time could have imagined that it would spread across the globe. Born in 1918, Granville “Oral” Roberts was, in many ways, the lead prosperity pioneer. He went from being a local pastor, to building a multi-million dollar empire based on one major theological premise: God wanted people to be healthy and wealthy. Oral Roberts didn’t mince words about his version of Jesus or the gospel. He adamantly taught and defended his belief that Jesus’ highest wish is for us to prosper materially and have physical health equal to His peace and power in our soul.[i] He twisted the Bible to make his point and would teach that it was Jesus who said, in 3 John 1:2, “Beloved, I wish above all things that thou may prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth,” when in fact that was the Apostle John’s loving way of greeting his readers at the time. John’s greeting is comparable to the first line of many of our modern day e-mails that begin with, “Hi! I hope everything is going well for you.”
Bestselling books by Roberts often brought the two distinct teachings of the prosperity gospel and the word of faith movement together under one roof. His books brandished catchy titles such as, If You Need Healing Do These Things, The Miracle of Seed-Faith, A Daily Guide to Miracles, and Successful Living through Seed-Faith. Desperate crowds could hardly resist his big promises and they ignored the fact that Roberts was butchering Bible—namely, the true Gospel of Jesus Christ. Big crowds and big money had blinded both Roberts, and those who followed him.
Today, the prosperity gospel has exploded to become one of the most popular teachings in the world. It has overtaken continents like Africa, and South America as it continues to breed pastors and people who are looking to land a serious pay-day.
How Can a Pastor Preach Against it?
It’s a proven fact that the best way to spot counterfeit money is to become an expert in what real money looks (and even feels) like. Knowing the right stuff about the real thing protects you from being fooled. The best way that a pastor can strengthen his flock and protect them from being deceived is to teach them faithfully about the truth. Any seminar, series, or conference on false teaching should always be paired with clear biblical truth, not merely a protest concerning errors.
Here are three ways that a pastor can move from only protesting errors, to also preaching the truth:
1. Teach a Biblical View on Prosperity
The people of God need to know and understand that prosperity does not validate a person’s salvation. No amount of money, awards from an employer, or inheritance from relatives can act as a “sign” that God’s hand is upon someone’s life. The blessing of salvation can rest upon an orphan just as much as a king. God is not a respecter of persons. Next, a biblical view of prosperity will teach people that the preacher’s message is not validated by his own wealth. For example, many prosperity preachers will use their own net worth as proof that God is blessing them and therefore, their message is trustworthy. This is unacceptable. Finally, prosperity does not validate a church’s doctrine. Much like the pastor’s message, a church may think big offerings and big crowds are evidence that God is pleased with their ministry. Undoubtedly, God is more likely pleased with a church of 80 who is faithful yet poor, than He is with a church of 8,000 who is rich yet false.
2. Teach a Biblical View of Sovereignty
A pastor will raise up a healthy and humble congregation if they are consistently taught that God controls all things—including prosperity. While it is man who is encouraged to work hard (Proverbs 6:6-8) and to be wise stewards (Proverbs 21:5), it is God who graciously pours out riches on whom He desires (Proverbs 10:22). It is also God who allows the poor to have joy while in poverty! Paul taught, in 2 Corinthians 9:6-15, that Christians ought to be generous, but it is God who gives most. His grace is seen through the care of His children. This may include monetary wealth, or it may not. Trusting God unconditionally is the best way to live. Job learned this lesson well as he humbly said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall return there. The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away. Blessed be the name of the LORD” (Job 1:21).
3. Teach a Biblical View of Eternity
What debunks the prosperity gospel as well as anything? A high view of Heaven to come! What causes the church to shift its focus from obtaining earthly riches and putting energy into the Great Commission? A view of Heaven to come! Pastors must preach that our best life now is obeying Christ, that our best life now is spreading the gospel, and that our best life now can never compare to heaven. Mission-minded churches have very little time and energy to waste on being money-minded. Stewardship is to be employed for the furtherance of the gospel. Fundraising campaigns must have gospel-centered visions. The pulpit ministry is to be consistent in presenting money as a vehicle for doing more ministry—not having more “stuff”.
What is the Next Step?
One final note on how pastors can preach against the prosperity gospel: Get involved with organizations who are training pastors and sending resources to continents where this false gospel is an epidemic. There are many bold missionaries who know firsthand that the prosperity gospel is infiltrating their mission field more than any other type of teaching. They need our help.
If pastors will enter the pulpit full of zeal for the truth, and people will leave the pew full of zeal for their commission, perhaps by God’s grace a generation will crush the momentum of the prosperity gospel for the glory of God, and the joy of future generations.
[i] Roberts, Oral, If You Need Healing Do These Things (Garden City, NY: Country Life Press, 1950), 15.