The Gospel Coalition posted the first article in a series on the prosperity gospel. As I read through, 5 Errors of the Prosperity Gospel, and I’ll get to these points in a minute, I couldn’t help but think that calling it prosperity might be a bit misleading. Why do I say that? Because in reality, proponents of prosperity teaching don’t refer to it as such. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that many proponents of prosperity teaching would reject the notion that the aim of our Christian existence is to get rich and would be quick to label the Creflo Dollars of TV fame as charlatans. So I think by labeling it “prosperity gospel” might have the impact of turning a deaf ear to it’s troubling foundation.
Herein lies the subtle deception of prosperity teaching. The premise of what is called a prosperity gospel is simply put: material blessings are a sign of God’s acceptance and favor. One does not necessarily have to believe that riches are the goal to buy into prosperity teaching. This is evident in looking at the five points outlined in the article. More than anything, I think that many people who buy into prosperity teaching are well intentioned about the Christian faith and strive earnestly to live that faith out. But I believe the main contributor to prosperity promotion is a lack comprehension of what material blessings meant in the Old Testament. It is evident in the teaching (which I myself embraced for many years, that prosperity teaching fail to consider that the whole theme of Scripture is rooted in God’s redemption of his creation in an elaborate scheme that involved calling out a people called Israel as his own. This only serves as the basis of how he will unite Jew and Gentile as equal heirs to his promises fulfilled in Christ.
For the sake of brevity, I’ll highlight a couple of the five points in relation to point I’m making that prosperity teaching is more about the material blessings as the basis of genuine faith. But I encourage you to read all 5 points;
The Abrahamic covenant is a means to material entitlement.
The Abrahamic covenant (Gen. 12, 15, 17, 22) is one of the theological bases of the prosperity gospel. It’s good that prosperity theologians recognize much of Scripture is the record of the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant, but it’s bad that they don’t maintain an orthodox view of this covenant. They incorrectly view the inception of the covenant; more significantly, they erroneously view the application of the covenant.
In his book Spreading the Flame (Zondervan, 1992), Edward Pousson stated the prosperity view on the application of the Abrahamic covenant: “Christians are Abraham’s spiritual children and heirs to the blessings of faith. . . . This Abrahamic inheritance is unpacked primarily in terms of material entitlements.” In other words, the prosperity gospel teaches that the primary purpose of the Abrahamic covenant was for God to bless Abraham materially. Since believers are now Abraham’s spiritual children, we have inherited these financial blessings. As Kenneth Copeland wrote in his 1974 book The Laws of Prosperity, “Since God’s covenant has been established and prosperity is a provision of this covenant, you need to realize that prosperity belongs to you now!”
To support this claim, prosperity teachers appeal to Galatians 3:14, which refers to “the blessings of Abraham [that] come upon the Gentiles in Christ Jesus.” It’s interesting, however, that in their appeals toGalatians 3:14 these teachers ignore the second half of the verse: “that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.” Paul is clearly reminding the Galatians of the spiritual blessing of salvation, not the material blessing of wealth.
Fractured and disjointed reading of Scripture sets the stage for prosperity teaching. If we don’t consider Jesus’ fulfillment of OT covenant promises, it’s real easy to read the OT as if the promises of land and wealth belong to Christians. But this misses the point of God’s elaborate scheme of redemption through the Son. When Jesus said, that all Scripture points to him (Luke 24:26-27), he meant that all the types, promises, and allusions pointed to him. They were not models to emulate but had everything to do with his fulfillment of the Law and Prophets (Matt. 5:17). Galatians 3 makes pretty clear that the OT promises translated to the spiritual blessing received in Christ. It’s not that we disconnect from the physical world (God forbid that we succumb to Gnosticism), but that we consider living out our faith in the physical world as indicative of the spiritual blessings we received in Christ. (Read the book of Ephesians as whole letter and you’ll see what I’m talking about.)
Christians give in order to gain material compensation from God.
One of the most striking characteristics of the prosperity theologians is their seeming fixation on the act of giving. We are urged to give generously and are confronted with pious statements like, “True prosperity is the ability to use God’s power to meet the needs of mankind in any realm of life” and, “We have been called to finance the gospel to the world.” While such statements may appear praiseworthy, this emphasis on giving is built on motives that are anything but philanthropic. The driving force behind this teaching on giving is what prosperity teacher Robert Tilton referred to as the “Law of Compensation.” According to this law—purportedly based on Mark 10:30—Christians should give generously to others because when they do, God gives back more in return. This, in turn, leads to a cycle of ever-increasing prosperity.
As Gloria Copeland put it in her 2012 book, God’s Will is Prosperity, “Give $10 and receive $1,000; give $1,000 and receive $100,000. . . . In short, Mark 10:30 is a very good deal.” It’s evident, then, that the prosperity gospel’s doctrine of giving is built on faulty motives. Whereas Jesus taught his disciples to “give, hoping for nothing in return” (Luke 10:35), prosperity theologians teach their disciples to give because they will get a great return.
A sure sign of prosperity teaching is the promotion of sowing and reaping. What sowing and reaping philosophies fail to realize is that the cultural backdrop in which God intersected with human history was a very agrarian society. In God’s condescension of himself, he used what people knew to demonstrate his work of redemption. One only needs to look at the parables that Jesus used to understand that he was not basing the Christian faith on sowing and reaping, but on belief in himself. This was the whole point of his teaching – to people that we was the long-awaited messiah and God himself who would rescue and redeem.
Another point the author makes is how faith is construed as the channel through which God grants material blessings. I would consider this more in line with Word of Faith teaching, which is highly incompatible with the how the Bible describes faith as having the person as it’s object rather than faith itself.
Whereas orthodox Christianity understands faith to be trust in the person of Jesus Christ, prosperity teachers espouse something quite different. “Faith is a spiritual force, a spiritual energy, a spiritual power. It is this force of faith which makes the laws of the spirit world function,” Copeland writes in The Laws of Prosperity. “There are certain laws governing prosperity revealed in God’s Word. Faith causes them to function.” This is obviously a faulty, perhaps even heretical, understanding of faith.
According to prosperity theology, faith is not a God-granted, God-centered act of the will. Rather, it is a humanly wrought spiritual force, directed at God. Indeed, any theology that views faith chiefly as a means to material gain rather than justification before God must be judged inadequate at best.
This unfortunate understanding of faith undergirds the application of prosperity teaching to receive from God. And this leads to the deceptive nature of prosperity teaching. It espouses that God’s actions are contingent upon his creation for him to move. Again, I believe this is indicative of a disjointed reading of Scripture that does not consider the relationship of the Old Testament to the New Testament in terms of God’s redemptive acts through the Son. Whereas, prosperity gospel proponents consider faith as some kind of magical force, faith is actually putting trust in the person of the triune God, not our faith, our words or our acts.
God’s acceptance of his people is not based on their work but his. God’s favor rests in our union of Christ whereby he has clothed his elect with his righteousness. We do not have to conjure up faith formulas or sowing and reaping principles to earn God’s favor. We only need to trust in the means by which he has granted reconciliation and acceptance – the Lord Jesus Christ.It is faith in him and the work that he performed on our behalf that grants acceptance before God.
Lastly, the reference to the prosperity gospel as a gospel is highly misleading and just plain wrong. There is only one gospel and putting your trust in faith formulas, speaking the right words and financial giving is not it. But the real subtle deception of prosperity teaching is that it is mixed in with the truth of who Jesus is and what he came to do. This is precisely why Paul was so miffed at the Galatians because the Judiazers declared that faith in Jesus + something else was actually no gospel at all. I wrote more about this in Does Prosperity Teaching Deny the Gospel?. Check it out and see what I’m talking about.