Prosperity Gospel Critique

Prosperity Gospel Discussion 1

Miracles:

Introductory note: what is the purpose of a miracle? Take John 6:26, “Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.”

John uses the word “signs” intentionally. Jesus’s miracles were always pointing to deeper realities that he himself had come to address and overcome. When the paralytic was brought before Christ in Mark 2, Christ looked at the man and said “Your sins are forgiven.” There was a big ruckus as the people accused Christ of calling himself God. Christ responds and says, “Is it easier to forgive sins or to say to a paralytic RISE?” Then he says, “so that it will be clear to everyone who is watching that I have the authority to forgive sins I will heal this man.” So, Christ’s main concern is not to enable this man to walk again (or to supply loaves of bread like earlier), but rather to convince the listeners that he has the authority to forgive sins. The miracle, in Calvin’s terms, operates as a “badge” or “seal” that points to the most important issue; namely, the truth that is being proclaimed. In short, God authorizes his message with miracles. The message is central.

Using this as a starting point, then, we can see that all physical sickness is meant to lead us to the deeper and darker reality of our spiritual state. From there we recognize what Jesus’s ministry was addressing first and foremost and we can therefore hold what is central as central. We do not want to be like those in John 2 who suffer from a preoccupation with what Jesus can do from them, rather than coming to him on his own terms. John 2:23 “Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing. 24 But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people 25 and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man.”

Many prosperity preachers totally miss the significance of the word “sign.” They make the miracle the ultimate point, and fail to realize that it points to something more significant. And that Jesus responds negatively to those who are preoccupied with them. Joel Osteen on page 143-152 of Your Best life Now discusses John 5 and the healing of the paralytic. He writes “When the man did what Jesus told him to do he was miraculously healed.” But we see that in the passage it is just the opposite. It reads, “Jesus said to him, “Get up, take up your bed, and walk.” 9;And at once the man was healed, and he took up his bed and walked.”

Osteen makes this mistake because he is stressing his theology that if you do what God wants you to, you will be healthy and wealthy. But is that the point of the “miracle,” or the “sign?” No, it is not. The point of the miracle is the identity of Christ as the authoritative voice of God. How do we know that Jesus is such? The “sign” proves it. The identity and authority of Jesus Christ is the point of the story. He is central, and in the shadow of his crucifixion, the point should not be so easy to miss.

Our Inheritance:

So once we come to Jesus, rightly interpreting his miracles, we find Christ wanting to deal with our deepest and most crucial problem. He wants to go to the root of all of our problems; namely, we are alienated from God, condemned in our guilt. This is what the cross is about centrally.

The cross is about dealing with our true problem, through which the eventual restoration of all things is secured for all of God’s people.

Why use the word eventual? I use it for several reasons.

Let us consider three verses as supportive of my use of the word “eventual”:

1. 1 Peter 1:3 “According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you.”

What this verse is saying is that we possess an inheritance, right now, but that the fullness of it is reserved for us in heaven. Notice the connection between hope, and future inheritance.

2. Ephesians 1:11, In him we have obtained [past tense] an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will…13 In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is the guarantee [downpayment] of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.”

Fist we, those who have been predestined, have obtained (past tense) an inheritance. We are then sealed with the Holy Spirit. Paul says that the Spirit is actually the downpayment of our inheritance, its guarantee. So, a limited portion of what Christ died to purchase, is actually given to us now in the present, as a guarantee of our future inheritance. What is explicit in both of these verses is that we do not now have access to all of what Christ died to secure for us.

3.1 Cor. 15:51 “Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, 52 in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. 53 For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality.”

So, if we look at the arguments in 1 Corinthians 15, we see that Paul is saying that Christ by his death purchased for us immortal, imperishable resurrected bodies. What we know is that these bodies which we will receive are our inheritance because of what Christ has done. What we also know is that we do not yet have those bodies. It is clear then that we do not fully possess, right now, all of what Christ died and secured for us.

Concluding thoughts from this section: The inheritance that we have in Christ is not fully accessible now (hence the word eventual). This mistake is known as “over-realized eschatology.” Much or our enjoyment of our inheritance is through “HOPE.” Hope is a present enjoyment of a future fulfillment. We have God’s guarantee in the Holy Spirit that God will come through for us with our full inheritance. This will go a long way in understanding how Paul could maintain hope, joy, and peace in the midst of staggering pain, suffering, poverty, sicknesses, and the like. It was because he looked with Hope at his future inheritance, and he enjoyed the promise in spite of his devastating suffering. This point is clearly attested to in Romans 8:24 “For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. 26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought.” The point being, that you cannot see as a present reality, what you presently hope for. Hope will end in the sight and full enjoyment of what we once hoped for (i.e. hope is temporary).

The Apostle Paul: A Test Case for the Prosperity Gospel

In General, the Prosperity Gospel makes a claim: If you Trust in Jesus Christ, specifically in his gospel, then that gospel guarantees health, material wealth, and prosperity in this life to those who have an adequate amount of faith.

One balancing remark: The prosperity gospel preachers are not distinct in that they emphasize trusting God for prosperity, health, and the like; but, they are distinct in saying that the gospel, if believed properly, guarantees those things in this life.

So lets set up a normal prosperity gospel assertion and test it. If you trust in Christ and live for him while keeping a positive attitude, you will gain material wealth and prosperity and health in this life. Let Paul the apostle be the test case. He had faith, perhaps the greatest faith of any follower of Christ in history, and he had an indestructible positive attitude.

Now consider 1 Corinthians 4:10-13: “For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels, and to men. 10 We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute. 11 To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless, 12 and we labor, working with our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; 13 when slandered, we entreat. We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things.”

If Paul would have preached what prosperity gospel preachers teach, that such things as they claim are universal and certain, then Paul himself would have been a cast away because he wouldn’t have possessed what his gospel promises to deliver. If Paul’s gospel promises and guarantees HW&P in this life, and he doesn’t have it himself, then either his gospel is a failure, or he doesn’t have the sort of faith and he is teaching others to possess.

This section can be extended in a large degree if we considered the fact that God willed that Paul would be sick so that he would preach the gospel to the Galatians and as a test for them (Gal. 4). God also permitted Paul go through serious suffering as recounted by Paul in 2 Cor. 11: 25-31. He also sent a demon to buffet Paul with a thorn in the flesh. None of these things should lead us to believe that Paul lacked faith. They should lead us to believe that Paul did not believe that his gospel guaranteed HW&P in this life.

We will consider one more key text from Paul from Phil. 3: “8 Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— 10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”

Paul actually goes the opposite route of the Prosperity preaching and says that he has suffered the loss of all things “For Christ’s sake.” Following Christ sometimes entails that we become materially poorer not richer (it did for Paul); following Christ sometimes means that you get sicker, not healed (it did for Paul.) He lost all of the stuff that this world prizes. All he got was Jesus and the promise of a future resurrection and inheritance. The continuation of Joy and peace and hope in the midst of such loss made him the most effective minister of the gospel the world has ever known.

It is at this point that a new definition of prosperity needs to be given.

A New View of Prosperity
Romans 5: Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. 2 Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.

Paul rejoices in what in the hope of the glory of God on the grounds of the grace he received through faith in Christ. Then he says that this is not all that he is rejoicing in. He is also rejoicing in something else:

Romans 5:3: “Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings.”

Why would Paul rejoice in his sufferings? Why does he not think that his faith should exempt him from poverty, torture, martyrdom, going hungry and homeless, etc… Why is it that he does not conceive of Christ’s work for him as somehow protecting him from sickness (Gal. 4); from thorns in his flesh (2 Cor. 12), from being homeless and hungry, from being the scum of the world (1 Cor. 4:10-13)? Here is the reason: He believe that his suffering was not only temporary, but that his suffering was increasing his inheritance; he believed that his suffering was making his inheritance bigger and better; specifically the inheritance that is “kept in heaven.”

Recalling Jesus’s command to lay up treasures for ourselves in heaven, rather than on Earth, Paul viewed suffering from the perspective that his suffering was working for him an eternal weight of glory that far surpassed any amount of material wealth, or physical health could possible offer him in this life. When Jesus said that God would never give us a stone when we asked for bread, Paul applied that to all of his situations. When he asked God to remove his thorn, and God refused and gave him grace to endure, Paul believed that God was giving him something far better than mere physical healing. This explains why Paul rejoiced in God’s refusal to heal him!

Application

So, if I pray for God’s protection in my life, that doesn’t mean that I will not experience some sort of calamity at some point in my life. What it does mean is that I am called to trust that God is working out a plan for what is best for me even when what is best is staggeringly painful. If I lose my affluence, my health, and my family in one biblical Job event; I am called to trust in God, have joy in him, and to continue to walk without anxiety because my eyes are fixed on Christ and his promised reward for me.

This also accounts for those who, after trusting in Christ, were put in prison, beaten, tortured, and later killed (Paul had his head cut off under Nero; John the Baptist the same under Herod; Isaiah was sawn in two according to Hebrews 11; Stephen was stoned.) For those who live in places hostile to Christ (Middle east for ex.), professing faith in Christ does not guarantee HW&P, sometimes it guarantees persecution, death, poverty, similar to Paul’s experience in 1 Cor. 4:10-13. When they suffer like that, it is not because they have a lack of faith, but actually because they have an abundance of it. Those who suffer for Christ are actually increasing their inheritance. That is what Jesus taught us in persecution, he said that if we rejoice in our suffering our reward will be great for it.

At the same time, praying that God would prosper me is good. David Jones writes, “Of course, biblically speaking, there is nothing inherently wrong with desiring prosperity; yet, if personal flourishing begins to consume one’s thoughts, such desires have become idolatrous.” This is paul’s specific point in 1 Timothy 6: “But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. 9 But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. 10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs…..As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. 18 They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, 19 thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life.”

Asking, trusting, and desiring prosperity should never lead us into desiring riches (Paul said “those who desire to be rich fall into temptation”). For those who God makes rich should recognize that true life, true prosperity, lies in the the riches that God’s people store for themselves in heaven; clearly echoing Jesus’s command not to focus on the treasure that moth and rust can corrupt, that death can steal; but rather, to focus on that treasure that will be given eternally by God in the world to come. In other words, God is saying to the rich, “use your earthly prosperity (that I have blessed you with) to increase your true, eternal, prosperity.” So, a desire that God would prosper us in all areas of life is to be encouraged, but with the understanding that God has prepared a certain amount of suffering for each of us, and that we are to trust in our eternal inheritance that we have through Christ, and that we will be rewarded all the more through our suffering.

A couple of closing questions: If you tell a person that a lack of healing is always the result of a lack of faith in Christ; and you point them to the Mark 11 passage and say to them, when you ask in faith you will receive what you ask for; then if and when some are not healed, they should automatically think that they lack faith. Here is a big question though: If you lack faith in the promises of the gospel for health, what makes you think you do not lack the faith necessary for the forgiveness of sins as well. Is more faith required for physical healing than for spiritual? Is more faith required for material wealth than for forgiveness of sins? If people doubt their faith in the midst of poverty, suffering, or sickness, they also have reason to doubt the their faith which is necessary for their salvation.

Take a person in Africa, for example: this person is told that if you trust in Christ you are righteous and forgiven, and your pigs won’t die. So he trusts Christ, and his pigs die. He naturally thinks to himself, if I lack the faith to keep my pigs alive, then I surely lack the faith to be righteous in the eyes of God through Christ. I hate the preaching that leads to this sort of understanding because the guy should be taught to trust in God whether his pigs die or not.

In light of Mark 11: Did Paul have a lack of faith when he asked for his thorn to be removed? If he didn’t lack faith, then he didn’t receive what he believed was best for him. Did Jesus lack faith when he prayed “Let this cup pass from me”? If not, then he didn’t receive what he asked for in faith either.

This discussion up until this point has been mainly to put up barrier to prevent the error of prosperity gospel preaching. In no way is this an attempt to minimize the goodness of God’s blessings, or the place of trusting God for all of life’s blessings. Rather, this is an attempt to critique certain universal promises made by prosperity preachers by showing that God is Sovereign and that he wills that his people go through fiery trials which include, and are not limited to: poverty, torture, sickness, imprisonment, rejection, hunger, and even martyrdom. Such experiences are not at all inconsistent with the promises of the gospel and we should not feel ourselves to be especially exempt from such experiences due to our level of faith or morale. The knowledge that God may lead us through such valleys should not affect our peace, joy, rejoicing, or confidence, because we know that God will come through with his promises, that our suffering is working for us an eternal weight of glory, and that we have the greatest treasure of all in the person of Jesus Christ already. He himself is our prosperity, and we cannot lose him; therefore, our money can be taken, our jobs lost, our family killed, our freedom stolen, our health evaporated; and we can still rejoice that we possess Jesus Christ. If God is pleased to give us health, wealth, and prosperity, now in this life, Great! Let us use it to increase our true eternal prosperity. Let us ask that God will prosper us, and trust that he will in the greatest conceivable way. When it seems like he isn’t, we should rejoice because it actually means the opposite, He is doing something incredibly more valuable than what we thought was best for us.

This is the barrier on the side that would err toward the universal promise to people that material wealth and the like in this life are guaranteed if we have sufficient faith (or works). This guarantee is a lie, and like all lies has negative consequences.

We have yet to deal with all of the verses espoused by prosperity preachers though. Developing a more practical outlook on life that neither falls into the trap of believing that HW&P is guaranteed such that it estranges Paul and fails to account for the whole of Christian experience, and, neither falls on the other side by failing to recognize the inherent goodness of all of God’s gifts to us if they are received properly.

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