Today we’re going to talk about the prosperity gospel, but the new flavor of it, what some have called the soft prosperity gospel, though I’m not sure it’s any less of a false gospel and less of a false prosperity gospel than the original, more traditional version.
Now, what am I talking about when I talk about the traditional prosperity gospel? The first thing would be that God wants you to be healthy and wealthy and successful. On its face, it comes right out and says that God’s will for you it to be healthy and wealthy. Now, if you’re any type of student of the Bible, hopefully you see that this does not actually fit with what we see talked of as the gospel. It also doesn’t fit the life we see of the apostles. But it also doesn’t fit what we see of Jesus. He certainly wasn’t wealthy. He couldn’t even pay his own temple tax. He went around and stayed with other people.
What about the whole health side of things? I think that’s called into question by the floggings and the beatings and the crucifixion. The health and wealth gospel doesn’t necessarily make good sense of Jesus being a person in the middle of God’s will and it doesn’t make sense of Paul and Peter and the other apostles either.
Some people over the last decade or so have come to see that the prosperity gospel is a bankrupt gospel. It actually doesn’t make sense of scripture. That the gospel is not about having your best life now. Actually, it’s about the fact that the best life is yet to come. If this earth is good as it gets, gosh, then what’s the future hope for Christians? If this is good as it gets, it can’t be better than this, right? It doesn’t actually fit well with scripture or the true understanding of the gospel and why Jesus came. Jesus did not come so we could be wealthy millionaires that are very healthy.
But, over the last decade, in spite of the fact that some of the largest churches in the United States are what you would call prosperity gospel churches, there has been this second wave of prosperity teaching that’s a little softer. It doesn’t come right out and say that God’s will for you is to be very wealthy. No, it’s kind of a more soft version. It’s a more friendly version that says something like, “God is for you. God wants you to be successful,” those sorts of things. Or, as some have said recently, if you get into a situation, you can declare some purpose on it. You can declare that that is a gate through which something good will come. This teaching is actually really popular. It’s actually popular in some surprising places.
One of the difficulties with the kind of newer “for you” theology is that it doesn’t have really hard, defined edges on it. It isn’t necessarily making claims like “God’s will for you is to own a yacht. God’s will for you is to live to 120 and never get sick.” It isn’t making those sorts of claims. It’s making a more fill-in-the-blank sort of claim, where God’s will for you is to be successful and you could define what success looks like. God wants your goals to be realized, those sorts of things. God wants you to be happy. Obviously, you fill in what that means for you.
It’s a softer version, but there are deep problems with it. Because a lot of times in these prosperity gospel “for you” situations and churches, the gospel, the true gospel, is actually absent, displaced, or even redefined. Now some have said that maybe the prosperity gospel is simply elevating to primary level the things that are secondary outworkings of the gospel-success and blessings and things like that. But I think this is false too. Because the New Covenant is different than the Old Covenant, and this is incredibly important.
Under the Old Covenant, yes, one of the signs of God’s blessings was material wealth and prosperity, having huge flocks, huge land, a lot of people under your control. That is certainly true. But the New Covenant is not like. The blessings in the New Covenant are spiritual blessings. In the Old Covenant, maybe you got a lot of cattle as a result of God blessing you. In the New Covenant, the blessing is God himself. The Spirit comes to commune with your spirit. You have hope of eternal communion with God in heaven, in a new heavens and a new earth when he finally comes back to judge the world in righteousness.
The point here is that the blessings of the New Covenant aren’t somehow secondary and second tier. No, they’re primary. They’re of so much more importance than the ones in the Old Covenant but they are not material things. They’re not worldly status sorts of things. If we take a step back and our conception of God’s blessings somehow fits really well in a 21st century western culture, those are probably not the blessings of God. I don’t know another way to say it. I think oftentimes the church today has adopted a view that has tacitly assumed that the blessings of God are the things that America was founded on and offer us in terms of wealth and prosperity and happiness and success and reputation.
When we start to cash it out that way, the soft prosperity gospel is not actually that soft. If the message that is proclaimed in the church to the people that come is “You are building your kingdom here and God is helping you,” that is totally opposed to the true gospel message, which is that we bow the knee to Christ and he is building his kingdom through us, not ours. The Spirit didn’t come so I could have a better western experience, an American dream.
The soft prosperity gospel also teaches often that we have the power to declare what our circumstances are or what they will be, and the way we think and what we say somehow can anoint a circumstance or has the power of God behind it such that what we say changes reality or forms the future. I would just simply say that this view does not square with the things Paul writes. Let’s look at some examples. Instead of the ability to speak and change his circumstances, Paul writes in 2 Corinthians,
“so I would not become arrogant, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to trouble me so that I would not become arrogant.”
God sent this thorn to Paul to keep him humble. He didn’t actually speak his circumstances and get out of it. No, God gave this to him, actually for his sanctification, not for his worldly success.
He says that “I asked the lord three times about this, that it would depart from me, but God said to him, ‘My grace is enough for you. My power is made perfect in weakness.'” “So,” Paul says,
“I will boast gladly about my weakness so that the power of Christ may reside in me. Therefore, I am content with weakness and insults, with troubles, with persecution and difficulties, for the sake of Christ. For whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”
Now what he’s not saying is God gave him the Spirit to accomplish the things that he wanted in this world, worldly things, western, American things. No, what he’s says is he is legitimately a weak person. God demonstrated in Paul the very thing that he said at Paul’s conversion, which was that he would teach Paul what it was like to suffer for his name. In so doing, God would be glorified. That’s what Paul’s talking about here. That even in Paul’s weakness he is accomplishing things for God because God is accomplishing those things for God’s kingdom through Paul, not for Paul’s kingdom. That difference is huge.
We never see Paul where he’s somehow speaking reality into being. No, that sort of power, it’s God’s alone. He does not give it to us. We do not speak things into being. That is one of the marks of God and divinity.
Now what is interesting to me is this whole prosperity gospel-where God is for you, he wants you to have a good life and experience as often declared by western values-doesn’t fit with what Paul writes to Timothy where he says that “all of those who want to live godly lives in Christ Jesus will be persecuted,” not “will find themselves successful and having good reputations.” No, they’ll be persecuted. Didn’t Paul just say that? That he’s “content with weakness, with insults, with troubles, with persecution and difficulties,” not with cars and boats and prestige and power and reputation. No, the life of Paul actually looks the opposite of what “for you” theology and the new prosperity gospel teaches. They don’t fit.
The greatest saint, in some ways, in the New Testament, Paul, responsible for so much of our New Testament and our theology and our understanding of the gospel, does not even look like what the prosperity gospel teaches a faithful Christian would look like. That’s a huge problem. It doesn’t fit with scripture.
Let’s look at a little more of what Paul went through. He says that
“five times I received from the Jews 40 lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with a rod. Once I received a stoning, Three times I suffered shipwreck. A night and a day I spent adrift in the open sea. I have been on journeys many times in dangers from rivers, in dangers from robbers, in dangers from my own countrymen, in dangers from the Gentiles, in dangers in the city, in dangers in the wilderness, in dangers at sea, in dangers from false brothers, in hard work and trial through my sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, many times without food, in cold and without enough clothing. Apart from other things there is daily pressure on me for my anxious concern for all the churches.”
Wow, I don’t think any of us or many of us have gone through even one of those things Paul mentions there. He had more than enough suffering, in some ways, from our perspective, for many lifetimes. And yet, how does he end that list? He basically says, “Yes, there are all these material problems I’ve had, personal problems, suffering problems, but gosh, I’m anxious for the churches that I’ve been involved with.” Isn’t that just amazing? That in spite of the difficulty, or actually maybe because of the difficulty in Paul’s life, he was softened to the things of the Spirit and even had an additional concern for the people of God that he had been entrusted over.
Now this list here of all the things that happened in his life, why didn’t he just speak it to be different? Why didn’t he say when he was shipwrecked, “I will not be shipwrecked,” and then he suddenly wasn’t shipwrecked? No, it doesn’t work like that. Why when he was being beaten didn’t he say, “Go away in the power of God. I declare it to be so,” and people went away? No, because it doesn’t work like that. Actually, what we see is exactly what Paul wrote earlier, that God’s power was made perfect in Paul’s weakness because God takes the credit for his work. I mean that in both senses. God takes the credit for God’s work but God also takes the credit for Paul’s work. God was the one working through Paul. Paul was the instrument.
When you go to a music concert and you listen to a violinist play a beautiful song, yes, you appreciate the violin. But it’s the violinist who gets the credit. the violin is actually just an instrument. It’s a thing through which the violinist is expressing beautiful music. It’s, in many ways, the same with us. We are the instruments through which God is working. That’s just a radical paradigm difference from the soft prosperity gospel. God is not a tool in our hands to accomplish our purposes. We are but a tool, a vessel, an instrument, in the hands of God to accomplish his purposes, not the things we wanted before him. If the things that we are being told in a church and via a false gospel to want are the same things we wanted before Christ, they are not fruit of the gospel.
I don’t know another way to say it. If it’s appealing to our materialistic impulses and urges and desires, it’s not the gospel. If, on the other hand, it’s encouraging us to lay down our desires, to boast in our weakness so that God’s strength can be made seen, that sounds more like the gospel. If what I’m saying is the gospel is about me getting ahead in the world, it’s probably not the gospel. If, on the other hand, I’m being persecuted and shunned and looked down on for my beliefs, it might be the gospel.
Now what is the gospel? We’ve talked about that before. I certainly think it’s more than the teaching of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and the hope that’s found there, but it’s certainly not less than that. We need to be clear on what that is. If we are clear on what the true gospel is, we will hopefully see right through the lies that are out there today.
If we’re not the ones getting caught up, our friends or our family very well may be. Because a lot of times the churches that are peddling this sort of false gospel, they look attractive. The pastor is an attractive man. They’ve got great coffee and great lights. It’s a young crowd. It’s an energetic setting and people leave encouraged. How could you not be encouraged if you’re being told that God is for you and what your endeavors are? Of course you’d be encouraged.
But what we don’t need to be is encouraged in our sinful, non-Christian desires. We need to be told to confront those. We need to be presented with a new set of desires through the work of the Spirit and scripture. We have people that are getting caught up in this because it sounds good. It tickles the ear. It looks good. It may even feel good. But, that’s just for a time.
So we need to be clear on what the true gospel is. We need to be able to demonstrate from scripture just clear case examples of how what it is teaching is actually opposed to what scripture teaches from the life of Jesus, from the life of Paul, from the teaching of Paul, from the teaching of Jesus. “Take up your cross and follow after me” is not “Take up your Porsche and follow after me.” Not that having one is necessarily a bad thing, but it has to do with what the end is, the goal is, that Jesus came to accomplish and teach us to pursue after.
Is it things that fit very nicely in a western culture or is it a selfless pursuit of godliness? That is the question. Along the way we have to remember that the way God showed his blessing in the Old Testament is different than the New Testament. A lot of times these conversations go off the rails when we don’t appreciate that the signs of the Old Covenant and blessing are different than the signs of the New Covenant and God’s blessing.
I hope this has been helpful, and I will talk with you next week.