Some of the largest “churches” today in America teach something called the prosperity gospel. Now, this is not the true Gospel, as we’ll get into, but they claim it is. This is what they generally teach. (We’re putting all these people in one bucket, but they do share some commonalities.) It generally goes something like this. They might say that God wants to prosper you. He wants to make you successful. He wants to make you wealthy. He’s for you. In fact, he wants you to live up to your potential and he wants to bless you with things and make you healthy, and wealthy, and have great relationships.
This goes on and on, and what’s said is that you need to just claim these promises that God has said, where he’s going to give you these things or make your life better in these ways. You just need to have more faith, because God is just standing there waiting to bless you, so you need to claim these promises, have a stronger faith, live better, more righteously (whatever it may be) and God will bless you with these things.
Now, the prosperity gospel exists on a spectrum, from “if you’re really righteous, you’re going to drive an Audi,” to “you know you might just get that job if you have enough faith, or that sickness will go away if you pray harder,” and everything in between. I actually think that while most Evangelicals today do not adopt the “Joel Osteen God – wants you to be wealthy” prosperity gospel, we do have a tendency to think that if we just behave well enough God is going to give us the things we pray for, or at least he’s more likely to. Where how God treats us and the way in which we get things, or in the way in which our circumstances get better, is dependent on how we act. Where God might give us more things if we behave better. The fact is, is nothing could be further from the biblical Gospel.
The biblical Gospel said that I cannot earn my righteousness, that none is holy before God, that all of my righteousness on my own equates to filthy rags before God, not something worthy of merit or reward.
Now, it is true when we look at the Old Testament, we do see that the way God showed his blessing for righteous acts, and living, and faith was oftentimes through physical prosperity. You look at David, or Solomon, or Moses, or even Job. These people had a lot of wealth by worldly standards, and it was because, in part, that they were Godly, upright men.
Sometimes people will read their Bible and they’ll see that and they’ll say, “See, it should be the same today.” Here is one of many problems with this view. Here’s the main antidote to that type of gospel poison, if you want to think of it that way. That concept of holiness is not even big enough for Jesus, or for Paul. Here’s what I mean. If the sign of holiness, if the sign of God’s blessing as a result of your holiness is wealth, if it is better relationships, and if it’s better health, then Jesus was not very holy.
Here’s what I mean. Let’s tackle the health aspect of it. Jesus, was he in good health? Well, he was ultimately killed by crucifixion. That’s not a very healthy thing. It doesn’t really do too well in the health department. Now, we’re not told very much about Jesus’s health throughout the rest of his life. I imagine he got sick just like everyone else did. He was, after all, human, living in a fallen world, even though he himself was not fallen. He certainly didn’t have a very peaceful, tranquil demise at the end, did he? No, he was tortured, and treated horribly unfairly, and ultimately killed on a cross, so he didn’t do too well in the health department.
What about the relationship department? Did he have great relationships? Is that how God the Father showed his blessing on Jesus? Well, not so much, because his life got started with Herod trying to kill him. In fact, Herod was having all of the young people in the area killed to try and kill Jesus, this threat to his throne. That’s not a very great start in the relationship department.
Furthermore, some of his followers were doubters. They didn’t believe he was who he said he was, and more than that, one of his followers even sold him out for money. After his death, people that were close to him, like Peter, denied knowing him. So, he didn’t do too well in the relationship department either.
That doesn’t even take into account the fact that his own people, the Jews, wanted to execute him. He came to love them and tell them the truth, and they wanted to kill him. So far, Jesus and his holiness doesn’t fit in the prosperity gospel mold. It doesn’t fit in the health or in the relationship category.
What about wealth? If physical prosperity is a sign of God’s blessing, what do we do with Jesus? He was born to a poor family and laid in a feeding trough. His family couldn’t even find room to have proper lodging. More than that, during his ministry he didn’t even have his own home. He couldn’t even pay his own temple tax. He had no place to lay his head. He was not wealthy by any standard of the imagination.
I hope what you see, just quickly at a glance, is regardless of whatever biblical passages are pressed into service and distorted to show that physical prosperity, and health, and relationships are a sign of God’s blessing that that surely cannot be, because Jesus was fully man, and he didn’t have the health, wealth, or prosperity that is said to exemplify holiness and a strong faith.
What’s more, you might say, “Well, he’s a special category because he’s God.” Well, you would think though it’d make him more holy. But what about Paul?
Paul was fully man, and did Paul have great relationships? Not so much. After his conversion to Christianity people kept trying to kill him. He was beaten with rods multiple times. He was shipwrecked. He had a thorn in his flesh. We’re not really sure what that was, but it was definitely something unpleasant. More than that, he was whipped with 39 lashes, 5 times. He was under arrest for 2 years without a trial. None of that I have ever had to experience at all. Nothing close to that, but Paul is one of the great saints of the faith, one of the great Christian heroes who wrote a large portion of the New Testament.
The prosperity gospel and its concept of holiness is not big enough for Paul. He had to make tents. He had to ask other people to help support him so that he could actually go around sharing the Gospel. He was not a wealthy man, and he was often not well-liked. He didn’t have great relationships with everyone.
His health was extremely poor. There’s great evidence that his eyesight was quite bad, and that he was kind of a squatty man who walked with a limp perhaps. He was not the figure that you would ever picture if you listen to Joel Osteen or other people teach, because the fact of the matter is is that the prosperity gospel is no gospel at all. Any gospel that says you need to act a certain way for God to bless you is not the Good News.
What the Gospel says is: Jesus did it, you couldn’t. Jesus accomplished it, you could not, and you cannot. We can never hope to add to what Jesus accomplished on the cross.
I can never become more righteous than the righteousness God already credits me as having because of what Christ did. It is just foolishness, in addition to some form of idolatry and blasphemy, to think I could ever add a single scintilla of goodness to the goodness that has already been credited me from the infinite worth and righteousness of Christ.
There’s so much more that could be said about the prosperity gospel and how to think through it, but sometimes the easiest way to address a problem is to come up with an extremely clear counter case and say, “We can work out the details of how we get from your assertion to your conclusion, but your conclusion must necessarily be false because of this other thing.”
Just to make that a little more clear, if someone says that true holiness is marked by health, wealth, and prosperity, regardless of whatever Bible passages you try to press into service, that conclusion must necessarily be false because there are other clear case biblical examples that contradict it. Like we looked at, it’s not big enough for Paul. It’s not big enough for Jesus. Yeah, we could get in the weeds on individual passages, and how they might be interpreted, and how they might be applied, but what we can’t do is come up with a conclusion that flies in the face of extremely clear biblical teaching and extremely clear biblical examples.
Our goal should always be to harmonize scripture, not round off the sharp edges that we don’t like. Really, what we have to come to understand is that the Gospel means that I live out my life after having received the grace of God and salvation because of what Christ has done, because of the righteousness that I’ve been credited with, because of the grace I’ve been shown. I don’t do that to earn righteousness, to earn grace, or to earn God’s favor. I already have it, and I didn’t deserve it when I got it before, and I don’t deserve any grace I continue to get today except for the fact that when God looks at me, he sees the adorned splendor and righteousness of Christ.
I would encourage you this week, if you encounter someone who’s teaching the prosperity gospel, to ask them how that accounts for Jesus. Ask them how that accounts for Paul. More than that, in your own life focus on the fact that when you wake up in the morning you need to remind yourself that how we live should be a credit to what Christ has done, not in any effort to earn something that the Bible says we could never earn to start with.