You’ve seen their quotes shared on Facebook. You have heard such teachings deemed “inspirational”. The Bible even seems to be used in preaching. Yet, the message portrayed is a false message. The gospel preached is a false gospel. What is this gospel? The prosperity gospel.
What is the Prosperity “Gospel”?
The Prosperity Gospel goes by other names such as “Word of Faith movement”, “Word-Faith movement”, “Health and Wealth Gospel”, and “Positive confession”. David Jones lays out a summary of this supposed gospel, that it “teaches that God wants believers to be physically healthy, materially wealthy, and personally happy”. With wealth and health as the primary focus, talk of sin is at minimal, distorted, and even neglected. The gospel is, at best, assumed. The attention is on your potential and that God is for you and wants you well.
Who are Their Leaders?
Once we understand what this message teaches, it is pertinent to address the leaders of this camp. Before doing so, there may be people who object, “Is it really right to call out names?” Considering the fact that these leaders are preaching a false gospel, I believe Scripture gives us a directive. Observe two examples from the example of Paul:
By rejecting this [faith and good conscience], some have made shipwreck of their faith, among whom are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme.” (1 Timothy 1:19b-20).
But avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness, and their talk will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have swerved from the truth, saying that the resurrection has already happened.” (2 Timothy 2:16-18)
While a few more cases could be brought up, including Jesus calling out the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23, for our purposes it should suffice that from Scripture we see there are instances of calling out those who teach falsely and lead people away from the truth. Moreover, Paul tells Timothy in 2 Timothy 1:13-14, “Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you.” Exposing these false teachers and their message are a part of what it means to guard the good deposit, the gospel. As stewards of the gospel, we must not allow the gospel to be distorted but call Christ-followers to be discerning. To help in that effort, we expose. With that purpose in mind, we realize we cannot speak on all these teachers, such as Joyce Meyer and T.D. Jakes. However, let’s look at two, one who has been in the spotlight more recently and the other being likely the most famous one in this arena:
- Creflo Dollar
With a rather ironic last name, Creflo Dollar is probably the biggest prosperity gospel preacher who has been in the news recently, seeking donations for a pricey private jet. He has even authored a book You’re Supposed to Be Wealthy. In the product description Dollar is said to give “spiritual and practical wisdom on how to position yourself for financial increase…Anyone can reach the level of divine wealth that God desires for His people to talk in by doing what is necessary to receive the abundance that rightfully belongs to us as sons of God. You are supposed to be rich.”.
On his own website, Creflo Dollar writes, “ As the righteousness of God, your inheritance of wealth and riches is included in the “spiritual blessings” (or spiritual things) the apostle Paul spoke of in Ephesians 1:5. Based on Psalm 112:3, righteousness, wealth and riches go hand—in—hand. You have every right to possess material wealth—clothes, jewelry, houses, cars and money—in abundance. It is that wealth that not only meets your needs, but also spreads the Gospel message and meets the needs of others. The Bible says that wealth is stored up for the righteous (Proverbs 13:22, New American Standard). However, it will remain stored up until you claim it. Therefore, claim it now! You possess the ability to seize and command wealth and riches to come to you (Deuteronomy 8:18). Exercise that power by speaking faith-filled words daily and taking practical steps to eradicate debt. Like God, you can speak spiritual blessings into existence (Romans 4:17). Remember, doubt keeps silent, but faith speaks!”
- Joel Osteen
The guy with the grin. The man who can motivate. Joel Osteen attracts many people to a building every Sunday and has even won support with the likes of Oprah. If Creflo Dollar is the most recent prosperity gospel preacher in the news, Osteen is the most well-known one. To be sure, he is a great speaker. He motivates his people. There is a problem, though. The message he preaches is not the message of the gospel. What motivates the people is not the gospel. It is a message of self. Consider his book Your Best Life Now. His steps for fulfilling your potential include enlarging your vision and developing a healthy self-image. While the parts of the gospel may be implied in some areas, Osteen fails to represent how one can grow (and in reality, our best life is not now but is yet to come). Looking further, here is a statement made in his book,
God wants you to live in abundance. You were born to be a champion. He wants to give you the desires of your heart. Before we were formed he prepared us to live abundant lives to be happy, healthy and whole. But when our thinking becomes contaminated it’s no longer in line with God’s word.
The truth is this line of thinking is not in line with God’s Word. To say we were formed and prepared so we can live lives here on earth as happy and healthy is not the gospel; it is the American Dream. The American Dream does not save; only God can and does through the gospel. So, while the message may have God mentioned in them and have other biblical themes, if there is no cross, then the message was not truly biblical (1 Corinthians 2:1-5).
One last remark regarding Joel Osteen: it has been said he does not talk about sin. He is actually aware of this critique. Rather than admitting to it, he has said he does mention sin but just in a different way. And what way is that? He says he tells people how they can become better. He believes God has called him to bring hope to people and to lift people. Yet, the cross seems not to be of central importance for him as he desires to give people hope.
What’s Wrong with the Prosperity “Gospel”?
If the prosperity gospel is a false gospel, it is necessary to ask, “What is wrong with its teaching?” To be honest, a number of things:
One, reflecting on our topics in Discerning in Our Learning thus far, we have seen what the gospel is and the real definition of love. The gospel as found in the Word of God shows us our foundational problem is sin. We have rebelled against a holy and good God and due to receive the just punishment of eternal torment apart from Him. Christ has come to save us by becoming our substitute on the cross. Because of Him and only by His grace can we be saved through repentance and faith. To reiterate, our foundational problem is sin! What the prosperity, or health and wealth, gospel does is it names our foundational problem as poverty or sickness. To be sure, some of its preachers may mention sin every now and then but they do so without defining sin. Their big push is for people to grow in their self-esteem, in positive thinking, and in their prosperity. Yet, if sin is not addressed as the primary problem, then the solution will not be the gospel of Jesus Christ. The reality of God’s holy-love is a sanctifying love. True love confronts sin, calls sinners to repent, and trust in the One who is love. Therefore, if sin is not addressed or, worse, neglected entirely, as is and can be the case in the prosperity gospel, then it is appropriate to call this false gospel a loveless gospel. Just as it would be unloving for a doctor not to tell an ill patient they are sick, it would be unloving for a supposed pastor not to call people to repent of their sin and receive Christ.
Secondly, theological errors abound. David Jones, again, is of assistance here. He lists five the biggest errors: (1) The Abrahamic Covenant is a means of material entitlement, (2) Jesus’ atonement extends to the “sin” of material poverty, thus the atonement included physical healing, (3) Christians give in order to gain material compensation from God, (4) faith is a self-generated spiritual force that leads to prosperity, and (5) prayer is a tool to force God to grant prosperity. For more of an explanation of these errors, check out 9Marks Journal, pages 34-35 and the whole in general on this topic.
A third, and the most important, reason why the prosperity gospel is wrong is the testimony of Scripture. Does the Bible ever promise to Christians that we will be materially rich and wealthy? There should be a resounding “no!” Ironically, the New Testament paints a different picture. In the life of Jesus (Luke 9:58) and Paul, what we see is not a call to comfort in luxurious living; it is a call to die to self and suffer for Christ’s sake. Indeed, Paul is an example that suffering does not take away from the fullness of life. Ajith Fernando in an article titled “Is It God’s Will for All Christians to Be Wealthy” remark, “In his epistles he [Paul] presents his sufferings as part of the evidence that he was blessed and called by God (e.g. 2 Corinthians 4:8-18; 6:3-10; 11:13-33; 12:1-10; Galatians 6:17).” For a deeper conversation on God’s will for Christians concerning wealth, you can read the article in full here. The point to be made here is the in the testimony of Scripture, the blessing of God is not solely done in wealth and health. Can that be a part? Certainly. But it is completely wrong to assert this is for all Christians and that if they give financially, they will be rewarded by the same means and more. The Bible shows us the blessing of God can come through the means of suffering. It is this suffering that reminds us of the fellowship we have with Christ (Philippians 3:7-10) and this is what points us back to the gospel.
The prosperity gospel’s heart is not truly focused on God. Its main course is on the gifts, not the God of the gifts. Absorbed in this heresy is the mentality of entitlement. We are told essentially God owes us something and we deserve material wealth if we believe. Gone is the entrusted mindset. In all of our hearts, whether formal or functional, we struggle with this issue. We daily face the battle of entrusted vs. entitled. As Christ-followers, our call is to be stewards of all God has entrusted to us. The most important thing He has entrusted to us is not material possessions. It is the gospel. It displays true love, holy-love. We must guard it, love it, and share it.
- John Piper examines 6 Keys to Detecting the Prosperity Gospel http://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/six-keys-to-detecting-the-prosperity-gospel
- For real life examples of the prosperity gospel’s destructive impact, check out these two Gospel Coalition articles: