CultureWatch

Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

The Prosperity Gospel

Apr 17, 2012

There are always plenty of twisted teachings and dodgy doctrines circulating in our churches. One is known as the Prosperity Gospel or the Health and Wealth Gospel. This has been quite popular in many circles for several decades now.

This teaching claims that all Christians should be well-off: materially, financially and even socially. Success and wealth are the birthrights of God’s children. We simply need to claim the victorious and successful life that has been promised us. Those who find themselves in poverty and hardship are living an unnecessary life of defeat. Such people need to redirect their thinking, strengthen their faith and expect a blessing. They need to claim the promises, walk in faith, and (as is often suggested) contribute their tithes and offerings to the prosperity ministries in order to release their own personal blessing and success.

Here I wish to simply look at some of the favorite passages appealed to by these teachers. One of the most popular passages marshaled in support of this doctrine is 3 John 1:2: “Beloved, I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth” (KJV).

The term ‘prosperity gospel’ is largely based on this passage. Newer translations clear up some of the confusion. The key phrase translated ‘mayest prosper’ in the KJV comes from the Greek word euodousthai which is the compound of eu, good, and odos, way or road. The verb here literally means “to be led along a good road” or “to have a good journey.” Its metaphorical meaning is to succeed, to prosper.

In verse 2b John in effect repeats what he wished of Gaius in 2a: physical health along with spiritual health. John’s desire is that Gaius may do well, in body as well as spirit. As such, the terms used here, along with the term translated “be in health” are standard expressions of good will: both “verbs belonged to the conventional language of letter writing” as John Stott notes. Thus we cannot read into this passage a prosperity gospel.

Interestingly, one of the leading American televangelists and prosperity gospellers, Jim Bakker, has admitted that for many years he had wrongly interpreted this passage: “I had preached on this verse for most of my ministry. It seemed to say exactly what I had believed: that God wanted His people to prosper. And I interpreted it to mean prosper financially and materially; in other words, to get rich.”

It was only when he lost everything – his ministry, his mansion, his millions, and his mate – and was languishing in prison that he came to see the real meaning of this and other passages. With hindsight he came to see that he never “really examined the true meaning of the text. . . I simply pulled the verse out of context and used it to justify my God-wants-you-rich theology”. His turn-around on this issue has been quite remarkable. He now even goes so far as to say that “the teaching and preaching of materialism is the most abominable thing that has happened within Christianity in the past three decades”.

A number of passages that have to do with giving are also appealed to in what has come to be known as the doctrine of “seed-faith giving”. Consider Luke 6:38: “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you”. The immediate context of this verse (6:37-42) is judging others and forgiveness. Thus giving in the sense of extending mercy may be in mind here as much as any consideration of material giving.

And the wider context of this passage (6:27-36, love your enemies) makes it clear that we should do what is right regardless of any hope for a reward (v. 35a: “But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back”). Thus this passage cannot be used in the way the prosperity gospellers do, since their whole emphasis is on giving so that God can give back to you even more. We might get a material return on our acts of kindness, but our eternal reward should be a sufficient motivation.

Another passage often appealed to is 2 Cor. 9:6: “Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously”. The context is the collection for the poor saints in Jerusalem (1 Cor 8, 9). Paul is here urging the Corinthian saints to fulfil their promise to assist the poor in Judea. Three things can be noted here. One, poverty can be the lot of Christians, even faith-filled Christians, as the Jerusalem believers undoubtedly were. Two, God expects wealthier saints to help their poorer brothers.

Three, God does not promise to give to us to satisfy our greed, but to meet the needs of others. Philip Hughes reminds us that “as the whole context shows, the Apostle is speaking of the quality, not the quantity, of giving. The source of the giving is not the purse, but the heart, as the next verse makes clear.” Given the emphases of the seed-faith theology in particular, and the prosperity gospel in general, what Hughes goes on to say is especially relevant:

“Goodness brings its own reward and indeed leads to an increase of goodness. Nowhere, however, does Scripture propose the gaining of rewards as a motive for goodness. Giving for the sake of gain ceases to be goodness flowing from a simple and unselfish heart; it is then that very form of giving which the Apostle deprecates here – giving which is governed by covetousness.”

Verse 11 of chapter nine is also appealed to: “You will be made rich in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God”. While the immediate context is again that of material giving, the wider context refers to the riches of God’s grace. As R.P. Martin comments, “‘You will be made rich’ … recalls 6:10 and 8:9. Indeed, it fixes the meaning of these references as Paul’s talking of God’s enrichments of grace, not material prosperity per se.”

Related to this passage is 2 Cor. 8:9, often appealed to in the prosperity literature: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.” Much of what was said above applies here also. Once again the context is the collection for the poor in Jerusalem. The riches promised in this figurative statement appear to be metaphorical/spiritual in nature. They speak of the riches of salvation, righteousness and the spiritual gifts Paul has been discussing throughout the epistle.

No serious commentator takes this verse to mean a simple promise of material wealth. The theological message is much more important and much weightier. In a few brief words, the pre-existence of Christ is here declared (but not defined), his incarnation and messianic task is set out, the matchless grace of God is exhibited, and the example set for believers is given. Such great and rich spiritual truths should not be watered down by such questionable interpretations.

Philippians 4:19 is another such text: “And my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus”. A simple reading of this text should be sufficient to answer the prosperity teachers. The meeting of need is promised here, not riches and wealth. As one commentator puts it, “God will grant all our needs – not all our greeds.”

Moreover, the context of this passage (4:10-20) undermines the whole prosperity doctrine. The context shows that Paul was in financial need, and it was only by the gifts of the Philippians that he was able to get through this testing time. According to the prosperity teaching, if Paul really had faith, he never should have been poor in the first place. But he clearly was.

Not only that, but even in that poverty and hardship, he was content (and presumably fully in the will of God!): “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want” (Phil 4:12). Our position in Christ, not in the social ladder, is what matters.

The truth is, God doesn’t want us rich, or poor. He wants us holy. That is his main concern, that we be conformed to the image of his son (Rom. 8:29). If we can become that in wealth or poverty, fine. But if God knows that our ultimate end (conformity to, and fellowship with, himself) is best achieved by the absence of wealth or health, then he is quite willing to allow that to occur.

Success in this life, at least as the New Testament presents it, is not measured by material wealth. The values of the kingdom often turn on their heads the values of the world. As Proverbs puts it, “Keep falsehood and lies far from me; give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, ‘Who is the LORD?’ Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of my God” (30:8,9).

We must conclude that the prosperity gospel is a good reflection of modern hedonistic “me-first” culture, but is a poor reflection of the gospel message. We are here to serve and worship our Lord, not to see what material benefits we can weasel out of Him. A gospel which seeks to answer the question, ‘What’s in it for me?’ has got it quite backwards. The real question should be, ‘What’s in it for God?’

[1662 words]

20 Responses to The Prosperity Gospel

  • Good article.
    Mandee Anderson

  • I agree with what is said, but must point out that the message would be stronger if Philippians 4:19 was not misquoted. The word need in the verse is singular and not plural. The message of the verse is that our greatest need is spiritual and God will meet that need even if it means going thirsty or hungry for a time. Deuteronomy chapter 8 serves as a good reference point. Man shall not live by bread alone. We must have the Word of God and sometimes it takes a barren wilderness to make us realize that.
    Tim Hitchcock

  • Very insightful Bill, thank you for explaining further some of these passages. Correct Biblical interpretation has much to do with reading the passage in its context and investigating the original language and culture. So often we memorise verses of scripture and them make them fit into our own cultural setting or to satisfy our own desires.
    I like your comment that it is God’s desire for us is to be Holy.
    Michael Dawson

  • Thanks, Bill. I was hammered every Sunday, in some form or another, with this wealth & health prosperity gospel when I first became a Christian. I felt so uncomfortable with it, as it came across so contrary with the lives of Christ and the disciples. I was led to think, after many long conversations with elders and church members, that there was something wrong with my understanding of the scriptures. The above verses you quote, especially Luke 3: 38 was the mantra. I always noticed that these ministers had the best cars and houses, yet they were still fleecing the poor in there congregation. Here’s a great short you tube of John Piper
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rU7rnDw1Ekw
    Trevor Grace

  • G’day Bill.

    This article is long overdue, and boy, am I glad you’ve finally written it. Many of the people I worked with in my ministry comes from a background of poverty and debts, and it is both heart breaking and frustrating to see some of these people being taken in so deeply by this prosperity doctrine that they’d give away what little money they had to these prosperity preachers instead of using it to pay off debts or to buy basic necessities. They’d keep on giving for years with the believe in the doctrine that they have to be faithful in their tithing in order for God to eventually cancel their debts and release wealth to them. Their resistance to reasoning is so strong that when anyone tries to tell them that prosperity doctrine is wrong, they’d defend it by saying that the people who are against it are just jealous. I have copped this accusation many times.

    Why are they so resistant? There are two very powerful psychological theories at play here, one of them planted into the mind of the people by the prosperity gospellers. They tell you what you want to hear. They preach that you need to have faith and wait on the Lord and you will eventually be rewarded for your faithfulness, even if it takes years. And in the meantime, keep tithing into their ministries – give even when they don’t have. This means you got to borrow and get deeper into debts in order to prove you are faithful.

    The second psychological theory is what keeps gamblers in the game. Keep betting with the hope that one day you will not only recover your losses, but strike it rich as well. So, after “seeding into the kingdom” (or the evangelists’ wallets), for a year, they’ll hang on to the hope that God’s gonna make it all happen. And God’s kingdom is made into a casino.

    Prosperity-believing readers will accuse you of being jealous of the wealth of these prosperity evangelists. I’m praying that some will be touched by the profound truth that’s in your article. God bless you, Bill.

    Eddie Sim

  • Bless you Bill, this is a hard hitting truthful message. We all need to take notice from this. We live in highly prosperous times, that is, for some countries. With such circumstances we can easily be fooled to believe in a prosperity gospel.
    As baby boomers in the West, most of us have only known prosperity. I do believe we are highly accountable for our riches. I am sure we will be questioned on how we disseminated our wealth when we could.Thanks again for powerfully reminding us of our responsibilities. At least Jim Bakker was given the opportunity to come good on his falsehoods.
    Bill Heggers, Perth

  • Well, that certainly is an eye opener to what some sects teach. This is just one of the reasons we are seeing an apostatising in the Christian faith.

    Thanks for exposing this snippet of info Bill, very useful indeed.

    Neil Waldron

  • Great article Bill, it is especially relevant for me. My sister’s mother in law once implied that my present woeful financial condition was because there was something wrong with my relationship with God. I can honestly say that my relationship with God and his son Jesus Christ have never been better. I have learned that my life is about glorifying God, not being happy. If I can glorify God in my poverty more than in wealth so be it.

    I’ve often wondered about tithe however and was reminded about it by some comments above. I believe in tithe but have often felt guilty for not doing it. At the moment, if I tithed, I could barely afford the interest on my debt let alone (slowly) working myself out of it. I’ve also wondered whether God was punishing me for not tithing when I probably could have. What are your thoughts on this and tithe in general?

    Luke Belik

  • Thanks Luke

    Good question – probably requires a full article to properly answer. But my short answer is this: while the tithe features prominently in the Old Testament, we have no clear command for it in the New. 2 Cor. 9:7 is a good operating principle here it seems.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Jesus does say that where you treasure is, that is where your heart is. So many people are rich monetarily, but are poor in the area that counts, and that is Spiritually.
    Ian Nairn

  • Thanks Bill
    Just when I thought God has given me enough major breakthroughs for the week (phew). Like Eddie has experienced I too have been bombarded over the years with these messages of prosper. And I have been frowned upon not because I don’t have 3 houses, no because I don’t want 3 houses. Besides why would we come to Jesus so as to become rich, when we could just stay in the world and do that.
    Daniel Kempton

  • Bro Bill,
    Thank you for such a detailed explanation of the prosperity gospel. I hope this article will circulate around esp to the Mega churches members for them to clearly understand the meaning of God’s prosperity. Sometimes as human as we are the message shared at the pulpit is somewhat double meaning and many can be deceived and misunderstood!!!
    Continue to do the good work that God has given you.
    God bless you and your family.
    Molly Lim

  • A nice clarifying remark there which i think is great…

    “The truth is, God doesn’t want us rich, or poor. He wants us holy. That is his main concern, that we be conformed to the image of his son (Rom. 8:29). If we can become that in wealth or poverty, fine.”

    But this article is too loaded on the ‘my 4 & no more’ side. I’d argue that in this day and age MONEY that is so poorly earned & managed by Christians is in need of discussion more than ever before. If indeed holyness is attained and $ does not corrupt the spiritually mature then why should it not flow through OUR hands instead of the world?

    Theres are hundres of sciptures to the contrary where wealth is in the hands of the righteous & God knows the kingdom is in need of it for many purposes in these politically correct days.

    “Praise the Lord, Blessed is the man who fears the Lord, who finds great delight in his commands. His children will be mighty in the land; The generation of the upright will be blessed. Wealth and riches are in his house, and his righteousness endures forever.” -PS 112

    William Brophy

  • Thanks William

    There are certainly hundreds of Scriptures warning against riches and being seduced by money and the world’s values. But a great majority of the texts you would want to cite refer to the nation of Israel, with their very this-worldly blessings and curses (eg Deut. 28-29). The land was the primary arena of the good and bad that befell Israel. Thus obedience brought productive crops, healthy livestock, peace from external enemies, etc. The very material OT blessings and curses are appropriated quite differently by the NT writers. At best we get spiritualised versions of these in the NT. Our blessings are very much now in the heavenlies, eg. But I speak to this a bit more here: http://www.billmuehlenberg.com/1998/09/08/silver-and-gold-have-i-none/

    Neither wealth nor riches should be our aim, but God himself. And yes if he blesses us with wealth, then it should be used for the purposes of extending the Kingdom, not heaping riches upon ourselves with a fifth plasma TV, a third European vacation, and a fourth Mercedes. Given that the great majority of my readers are Westerners, I hardly need to warn them away from poverty and a dislike of riches. Quite the opposite: the faithful minister in the West will speak to the sins of the day, and here it is obviously materialism, consumerism, love of money, greed, and the like.

    The prosperity gospel of course feeds right into that sinful and carnal mindset. Thus we in the West need to take the biblical warnings against riches very seriously, and not cater to these carnal gospels.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • A comment posted on the John Piper youtube message that Trevor gave us says it all, “Without any prosperity, what would make anyone else feel like accepting Jesus as their savior? What will they have to base their faith on?”
    Des Morris

  • Bill,

    A very good and timely article, indeed! As one of my beloved former profs used to say, “A text without a context becomes a pretext.” It would be difficult to find a better illustration of that principle than the the issue you dealt with here.

    Yes, we can certainly be thankful that Jim Bakker has received of the grace of God, repented, and is now publicly proclaiming the truth. We can only pray that many others will also have their eyes opened to this deception and follow suit.

    We, of course, all have our blind spots, so I want to be careful, but it does seem that this particular perversion of the gospel could only flourish on a wide scale under certain historical and sociological conditions, which happen to be current at this juncture in our part of the world, namely a conjunction of generally diffused material abundance with a simultaneous biblical and historical ignorance and indifference of high proportions.

    Among the multitude of lessons we can all learn from this, at least two seem to me to be of particular urgency. One, that those of us who are charged with teaching the Word of God in any capacity must bear in mind that we stand as stewards under God who, as James warns us in plain language, will be judged more strictly than others, given our degree of influence and the gravity of being ambassadors of our Lord Jesus and bearers of His titanic and glorious message. Two, that each of us as individual Christians must shoulder the responsibility for personal Bible reading and study, to the best of our abilities, and “prove all things, holding fast to that which is good.” (I Thess. 5:21) While we should have a proper respect for church leaders and those in authority over us, we are not to be unquestioning or undiscerning in our allegiances. Unless we are in the position of having no access to a reliable copy of the Scriptures or are illiterate, which are relatively rare circumstances in modern Western culture, we probably have little excuse for not searching the Scriptures ourselves. Perhaps I should also add a third lesson we as teachers can learn: we must be open to correction and instruction, not only from the Lord himself but from other other brothers and sisters who have questions or concerns about the content or spirit of our teaching and our lifestyle. We should be humble enough to learn and grow without resentment, realizing that God may be trying to protect us and those under our care from error and falsehood. Seen in that light, we should be grateful to the Lord for it. I also believe we should consciously and invite and encourage other Christians to check out what we teach, as a protection both for ourselves and for them. I would say, without hesitation, that any teacher or authority who resents or bulks at such questions or examination from others ought not to be trusted and, if you find yourself under such an authority who, after appropriate admonition, remains unapproachable, it is time to seek a more faithful under-shepherd or body of believers. If, after following the appropriate Biblical steps (e.g. Matt. 18 and other NT passages) to try to resolve the situation, and much prayer and counsel, you conclude that it is necessary to leave for your own spiritual safety, just be sure you do so with a right spirit so that you won’t hinder God’s work in your life and in those you influence.

    Blessings to all,

    Lamar Boll

  • Dear Bill thank you for being a true messenger of Gospel. It is so precious gift that is sent by God for modern world. Husband and I find lots of joyful and insightful moments when we share the Word of God by reading and listening to the letters of St Paul every day. Our conscience is rewarded to detect worldly and godly messages. In the time of Paul declares what counts is faith expressing through love and a new creation no matter if one was circumcised or not (Gal.5:6, 6:15). The God of Jesus Christ is worshipped and adored here in Spirit and served in the care of our neighbours now. Thank you. Wife of BT and please excuse my chinese english.
    B T Walters

  • Hi Bill. As usual a great article on the blab it and grab it doubt it and do without it teaching of WOF. I have personally heard many of the exponents years ago and even met and spoken with a few of them. Many of them came to the bible college I attended. Though there has been much written about them possibly one of the best, a must read, is “A Different Gospel “By D.R McConnell. I think also the incredible video clip from one of their leaders conferences put up by Dr Joseph Chambers (40 years an AOG minister), I saw speaks volumes.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jdzSseghu58

    Regarding 3 John 1:2 I believe it was Gordon Fee who discovered that it was a common form of greeting used something like we use a handshake and in no way can be used to justify the prosperity gospel.
    I must say I have spent years banging my head against a brick wall presenting evidence of the dangers and falsity of the prosperity gospel to numerous friends including information of the thousands whose faith has ended up shipwrecked. Yes it works but only for those at the top of the pyramid who manipulate the rest.These days many use a management consultancy in Dallas Texas (where I lived) who come up with never ending gimmicks to part people from their money with the promises of false hope.

    Rob Withall

  • I should note for anyone who looks at the Utube clip I cited to slide along to the 44 Minute mark as this is the hour long version. Here is a short version.
    If somebody thinks this is the Spirit of God in action it is certainly not the one I know. This is scary.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yDDCULdnLrQ
    Rob Withall

  • Whilst you may find it difficult to find specific tithing scriptures in the New Testament, it is never spoken against. On top of that, the New Testament states that the saints gave up everything and had all things in common, which suggests to me that tithing is a bare minimum to give to the storehouse (or home church). Anyone who is in attendance at a church should tithe, and should be giving God their first fruits in the faith that God provides.

    That means tithe comes before the rent, the bills, the loan, the wife’s birthday present etc. Bill is right in stating that we should not give with the expectation of receiving riches, but we can definitely depend on God to provide our needs when we put His kingdom and the love of His house first.

    Mario Del Giudice

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