The prosperity gospel promises health, wealth and success this side of heaven. Its message is dangerous, but not just because it raises unrealistic expectations. Andrew Heard argues that the real problem lies in its representation of Christ.
In some Christian circles at the moment, another gospel is making itself known. It looks a lot like the gospel that we received—the gospel of Jesus Christ who died and rose again to bring us reconciliation with God—but it has an emphasis upon physical healing, material blessing and success that is very different from traditional evangelicalism. The difference doesn’t lie in the conviction that God can and does bless his people with physical healing or material prosperity, as this has always been accepted as biblical; the difference lies in the conviction that Christians ought to expect God to bless them physically and materially here and now.
This is what many now call the prosperity gospel. It teaches that Christ’s death has not only overcome the curse laid upon us at the Fall (Gal 3:10-13), it has also overcome the effects of this curse—for example, sickness and poverty (cf. Deut 28:15-68) in this age. So Christians ought to expect, in this age, not only forgiveness of their sins but also—in equal measure and with the same certainty—health and wealth. If they live in sickness and poverty, they have failed to exercise true faith in God. For proponents of the prosperity gospel, this would be as offensive as a Christian continuing to live in sin: it dishonours the Christ who died that we might be healthy and rich.
It is not difficult to find these convictions expressed by prominent teachers today. Passages such as Joshua 1:8, Psalms 34:10, 35:27 and 37:25, Job 36:11, Mark 10:29-30, 2 Corinthians 8:9 and 3 John 2 are regularly used to support these views —usually without much regard for context. An older example is seen in the writings of Kenneth Copeland: “You are an heir to the blessing which God gave to Abraham. This blessing, found in the 28th chapter of Deuteronomy, covers every area of your existence: spirit, soul, body, financially, and socially.”1 Elsewhere he says, “[H]ealing is just as much a part of the plan of redemption as salvation, the Holy Spirit and heaven as your eternal home”.2 Jerry Savelle, an American televangelist once associated with Copeland, agrees: “Not only is it God’s will to heal, it is God’s will to heal all! Satan is the author of sickness and disease. By the authority of His Word, God has made provision for our healing. It is not the will of God that anyone be sick with any sickness or disease or pain whatsoever—from hangnails to tuberculosis!”3
The prosperity gospel has also been taught in Australia. Brian Houston, senior pastor of Hillsong Church in Sydney, has written, “the Scriptures … [are] full of promises of prosperity … Is it God’s will for you to prosper? … the answer is undoubtedly YES”.4 There is no doubt he meant material prosperity, given the book’s premise:
If you and I can change our thinking and develop a healthy attitude toward money, I believe we can all walk in the blessing and prosperity that God intends for us. We will never have a problem with money again.5
Houston’s words highlight another aspect of the thinking that drives the prosperity gospel. Many of its teachers believe that Christians don’t walk in the prosperity that has been promised because they fail to step out in faith, and name and claim what is theirs by right, or they fail to live according to the ‘rules’ of prosperity found in Scripture. When Christians pray, they must pray believing that what they are asking for is theirs. Prayers that include the words “If it is your will” are faithless prayers and can’t expect blessing. After praying for blessing, Christians must then follow this up with ‘positive confession’, thanking God for all that he has given them. Even if sickness or financial stress remain, the believer must transcend these things and rest secure in the promises of God and his word. Giving is also essential: on the basis of passages like Mark 10, Kenneth Copeland preaches, “Do you want a hundredfold return on your money? Give and let God multiply it back to you.”6
This is not to say that preachers of the prosperity gospel are seeking to promote crass selfishness (although some of them do). Houston and others rightly emphasize the need to be generous with our prosperity. They insist that God prospers us so that we might be generous. Gloria Copeland, for example, writes, “Don’t just believe God to meet your needs. Believe Him for a surplus of prosperity so that you can help others”,1 and Houston has said, “When a person understands that the resource that’s in our lives is about the purpose of God, it releases you to believe God to resource your life”.8
As commendable as this is (and in its best expressions it is very commendable), the foundation it is built on—false expectations of God’s promises for prosperity— make the entire package wrong. The prosperity gospel not only misuses the Bible, it seriously misrepresents Christ. This is why a number of leading Bible scholars and pastors, including John Stott, have declared it to be a ‘different gospel’—not because it denies fundamental biblical teachings but because it adds false and misleading doctrines to them.9
There are a number of approaches I could take to demonstrate this point. One way would be to examine each of the proof texts to determine whether they have been exegeted correctly.10 Another approach would be to consider the pastoral impact of this theology and the damage it does. But none of these take us to the core problem—the problem that makes the error so serious. We need to consider this gospel in light of the cross, and one good place to do this is Paul’s correspondence with the Corinthians.11
The Corinthian church was full of problems—not the least of which was an immaturity which led them to cling to worldly ways and ideals, despite the blessings they had received in Christ (1 Cor 3:1). Paul’s deep concern for this church led him to write at least four letters, the second and fourth of which are our 1 and 2 Corinthians (as far as we can tell). In these letters, it is possible to discern a progression: in his first letter, he writes with great warmth and tenderness, naming them as “saints” of the “church of God” (1 Cor 1:2). But by his fourth letter (2 Corinthians), the problems have grown so serious, he finishes his letter by urging them to “[e]xamine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith” (2 Cor 13:5). What has given rise to this concern? They appear to be on the path of accepting “another Jesus than the one [Paul] proclaimed” and therefore “a different gospel” to the one they had originally accepted (2 Cor 11:4).
In context, it seems that new teachers or “super-apostles” (2 Cor 11:5, 12:11) were now ministering in the church, and their style was very different from Paul’s. He describes them as “false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ” (2 Cor 11:13) because they brought a different gospel and a different Jesus.
How was their gospel different? Some have suggested it was a heresy similar to that of the Galatians. However, evidence for a works theology is slight and subtle. The visible and dominant issue is what has been called ‘triumphalism’: these new teachers brought a ‘gospel’ and a ‘Jesus’ of power and glory (triumph) without weakness and shame, and they had brought these things to a congregation already enamoured of such things (cf. 1 Cor 4:8-10).
It wasn’t long before the Corinthians were led to believe that being in touch with Jesus would lead to victory, power and success (all defined in worldly terms). The new teachers showed evidence of this themselves: they came with letters of recommendation (2 Cor 3:1), they had the right background, they were impressive speakers, and they performed signs and wonders to support their teachings (cf. Paul’s critique in 2 Cor 12:11-13).
By comparison, Paul was regarded as second-rate. He didn’t march into town and start mega churches; on the contrary, he was run out of most of them. He wrote decent letters, but he wasn’t a trained speaker and he wasn’t very impressive in person (2 Cor 10:10). He got sick and he suffered (2 Cor 11:24-12:10). The Corinthian attitude towards Paul began to cool, and the church became in danger of not only leaving Paul behind but also leaving the One he pointed to behind.
How did Paul combat this problem? He taught the Corinthians about the true Jesus, the ministry of the cross and his own ministry. Jesus didn’t walk in triumph according to the standards of the world. He suffered and was crucified. Therefore a true apostle doesn’t live triumphantly (according to worldly standards). Instead, true power and true wisdom are found in weakness. This is why Paul reminds them of the very beginning of his ministry among them when he focused on the cross (1 Cor 2:2). He wanted the Corinthians to know that God’s ways are not man’s ways and that God’s power is seen in weakness—particularly in the humiliation of the cross (1 Cor 1:18). Jews thought that miraculous signs were evidence that a person was in touch with the powerful God, and Greeks thought sophisticated rhetoric was proof of the divine, but Paul preached Christ crucified, “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Cor 1:22-24). But for those who have the Spirit, it becomes miraculously clear that this is where true power and true wisdom are found (1 Cor 1:24; cf. 2:9-13).
Paul was once no different from the Corinthians. Before his conversion, he judged Christ by worldly standards— “according to the flesh” (2 Cor 5:16). Like other first-century Jews, Paul thought that Jesus was an imposter because he didn’t come at the head of a great army—the triumphant Messiah (cf. Ps 2). But when Paul’s eyes were opened by the Spirit, he saw Jesus in all his glory. He saw that Christ’s weakness was actually his strength and wisdom (1 Cor 1:25). He saw too that following Christ would also mean suffering (Acts 9:16). For Paul, true spiritual power is found in what the world regards as weakness. So he says,
Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Cor 12:9-10)
This was a great rebuke to the Corinthians and the false apostles. Paul was saying that in the ministry of the weak, God shows his true power. Conversion, maturity and church growth all demonstrate the true power of God, because nothing in the clay vessels God uses can explain the outcomes (2 Cor 4:7ff). The growth of the Corinthian church, for example, was clear testimony to the power of God because it began from news about a crucified Messiah, declared through a minister as weak and nervous as Paul (1 Cor 2:3-5). Paul was so confident that God would bless his ‘weak’ words, he was never tempted to spice them up or play games; he proclaimed them without adornment (2 Cor 4:2).
At this point, the seriousness of the error Paul was combating needs to be highlighted. The Corinthians were in danger of making exactly the same mistake Paul and his Jewish contemporaries made about Jesus. By focusing on the triumphalist Messiah, the Jews were completely uninterested in the true Messiah when he came—the suffering one. The Corinthians, in embracing a triumphalist Christian life, were in danger of recasting Jesus as a triumphalist Messiah, and so effectively following a new Jesus (2 Cor 11:3-4). The evidence was that they were growing cold towards the true Messiah’s apostle (2 Cor 1:1).12
This highlights a very important principle: we are what we follow. The life of Christ and the shape of Christian ministry are intimately tied together. This is just what Jesus taught in Mark 8:34: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me”. If you follow the crucified Messiah, you must be prepared to go the way the Messiah went—along the road of rejection, suffering and death. In fact, we are only “fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Rom 8:17).
As noted at the outset, the problems at Corinth weren’t identical to the modern prosperity gospel. But in many modern manifestations of it, it’s clear this gospel has sprung from the same root. It isn’t just that future blessing has been mistakenly assumed to be ours now; it’s that the nature of the Christian life and the nature of Christ himself have been profoundly skewed. For prosperity gospel teachers, Christian suffering is out; triumph and worldly success are in. We ought to expect victory in our finances, victory over sickness, and power to march through life successfully. We are encouraged not to pray like older faithless Christians, but instead to pray with power and claim our requests now. Triumph, success and prosperity will be the evidence that we are in touch with the ‘powerful’ Jesus. Our churches ought to demonstrate this same power: if we build ‘successful’ churches (large and prosperous ones), the world will be won over by how impressive they (and therefore we) are. Our ministers should be powerful and influential. If we dress like we are a success, success will follow. None of this is very different from the ‘theology of glory’ Luther railed against in the medieval church; it has just reasserted itself in a modern guise.
Some of the leaders who teach the prosperity gospel have actually explicitly reshaped Jesus. We are now told that he was, in fact, wealthy (we are told the evidence for this lies in the fact that his robe was seamless). We are therefore to live like he lived—in wealth. But other teachers aren’t so obvious in their reshaping of Jesus. They make little mention of him. Even so, the life and ministry they promise Jesus’ followers is so at odds with the life and ministry of the true Jesus, it will inevitably cause many to imagine a different Jesus to the Jesus revealed to us in the Bible.
Certainly the prosperity gospel is teaching a whole generation of young Christians to measure their leaders by the same standards the super-apostles measured Paul. As a result, like the Corinthians, many modern church-goers are rejecting humble, faithful, godly servants of Christ for the super version of the gospel which is really no gospel at all.
But the key to spiritual success will not be found in following a different Jesus. The key to spiritual success is utter dependence on the God the Apostle Paul followed. We don’t need more positivism. More and more the church is depending on lighting, amplification, looks, emotionalism, reward, hype and appeals to selfishness to increase in number and influence. But we must not be blinded by such worldly ways of thinking. These churches may look like they are in touch with the power of God, but their unreadiness to proclaim the offensive message of the cross, to condemn materialism and greed, and to call people to stand with the crucified one (even if it won’t bring any earthly rewards) is really spiritual faithlessness to the true gospel.
Our lives and ministries should be shaped by the saviour we follow: we are to walk the way he walked. This doesn’t mean delighting in poor lighting, bad music, boring preaching and lack of emotion; rather we should place our confidence where it ought to be—in the power of the cross and the glory of the crucified one. If we get the Christian life wrong, it’s because we have a wrong understanding of the true gospel of the true Jesus. We need more leaders who truly believe that God is powerful to save through the foolishness of the cross—leaders who won’t be shaped by modern skepticism and led to despair—leaders who will faithfully, urgently, persistently and unashamedly preach his powerful gospel. The irony here is that preachers like this will be confident, courageous and spiritually powerful, even though they may not look this way in the eyes of the world.
1 Kenneth Copeland, Welcome to the Family, KCP Publications, Fort Worth, 1979, p. 22.
2 Kenneth Copeland, You Are Healed, KCP Publications, Fort Worth, 1979, p. 7.
3 Jerry Savelle, God’s Provision for Healing, Harrison House, Tulsa, 1981, p. 8.
4 Brian Houston, You Need More Money: Discovering God’s Amazing Financial Plan for Your Life, Maximised Leadership, Castle Hill, 1999, pp. 10, 55.
5 ibid., p. 3. Although this book has been removed from publication, in a series of talks published in 2004 called Prosperity with Purpose, Houston states, “If I had my life over, one thing I would do is write a similar book but I’d definitely change the title”. Although the talks are very strongly against selfishness in prosperity (and very helpfully stated), the claim that we are to ‘believe for prosperity’ still grounds the thinking.
6 Kenneth Copeland, The Laws of Prosperity, Kenneth Copeland Publications, Fort Worth, 1974, p. 67.
7 Quoted by Dennis Hollinger in ‘Enjoying God Forever: A Historical/Sociological Profile of the Health and Wealth Gospel’, in The Gospel and Contemporary Perspectives: Viewpoints from the Trinity Journal, ed. Douglas Moo, Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids, 1997, p. 16.
8 Brian Houston, Prosperity with Purpose, Maximised Leadership, 2004 (audio CD).
9 Some helpful comments by John Stott can be found in Issues facing Christians Today, Marshall Pickering, London, 1990, p. 244.
10 Books like Brian Rosner’s Beyond Greed do this well (Matthias Media, Sydney, 2004).
11 It needs to be noted upfront that the problem at Corinth isn’t what we call the prosperity gospel. Rather, many of the manifestations of the prosperity gospel are expressions of the same error.
12 If it is the case that the dominant error was triumphalism, then Paul’s point is that although you can have orthodox theology at every point (grace alone, faith alone, etc.), if you add triumphalism to this, you have adopted a new Jesus and a different gospel. See The Cross and Christian Ministry: Leadership Lessons from 1 Corinthians by DA Carson (Baker Books, Grand Rapids, 2004).