(Originally printed in the Spring 2012 Issue of the MCOI Journal )
In the early 1960’s, Newton Minow, Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, observed the content of much American television programming and famously concluded that it was a “vast wasteland.” Minow was distraught, because while television had tremendous power and potential to serve the public interest, it had been co-opted, instead, by commercial forces which merely served frivolous interests. Rather than educating and edifying people, television appealed to the lowest common denominator and served up a steady diet of empty entertainment.
Sadly, much of what passes for Christian television, these days, is a vast spiritual wasteland. It is dominated by programs advocating the “prosperity gospel,” which asserts it is God’s will for every Christian to be healthy, wealthy and happy in terms and means the average worldling can understand and appreciate. Christian television has great potential to serve the public interest—both within and outside the church. Much of so-called Christian television, however, consists of a steady diet of false teaching which appeals to worldly interests.
As a result, the teachings of the “prosperity gospel” have made great inroads into the church, including evangelicalism. Prompted by a deep concern for the advances of prosperity thinking and teaching, Dr. David W. Jones—Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and Dr. Russell S. Woodbridge—Assistant Professor of Theology and Church History (currently engaged in missions work in eastern Europe) have written a powerful, succinct and thoroughly biblical analysis and refutation of the “prosperity gospel.” Their book—Health Wealth & Happiness—surveys and describes prosperity teaching, and then answers its claims with biblical teaching. The subtitle of the book asks a disturbing question: Has the Prosperity Gospel Overshadowed the Gospel of Christ? Sadly, indeed, it has overshadowed sound theology and biblical teaching in the minds of millions of people all over the world. Their book serves as a clarion call to the church to confront false teaching with biblical truth and contend for the true Gospel. From the beginning of the church until today, it has always been necessary to do this as we are reminded by Jude in Jude 1:3:
Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. (ESV)
The authors begin their analysis with a couple of sad but true stories of persons who were duped by prosperity preachers. They are not shy about naming names and identifying ministries. One woman heard the message that if she would be faithful in giving, God would reward her with great financial prosperity. She gave faithfully to a number of ministries including Joyce Meyer, Paula White and Benny Hinn. But, even though she waited patiently, the promised financial reward never came. A man who was paralyzed from the waist down due to a congenital birth defect was told that if he simply had enough faith, God would heal him. He attended a faith healing crusade believing God would heal him. Unfortunately, the ushers at the crusade directed him to the back of the auditorium and ignored his pleas to be chosen for healing. This bitter and disillusioned man remains in his wheelchair today.
There are countless other examples of people, including people within evangelical churches, who have been led to believe this false gospel. Jones and Woodbridge say:
Evangelical churches are full of people who, perhaps unknowingly, regularly watch prosperity gospel teachers on television. Here is a common scenario: the polished, friendly motivational preacher asks for money in order to support his ministry; in return, he promises prayer on the donors’ behalf, as well as a financial blessing from God. The viewers then send money because they appreciate the positive teaching and could use a little bit more money to pay their bills. When an increase in income does not occur, however, consumers of the prosperity message often become self-critical, thinking that the failure rests in their own lack of faith, or they become disappointed and angry with God.1
How did we get here? How have so many otherwise orthodox Christians come to believe God exists in order to help us achieve personal success and serve as a means of attaining material prosperity? In many churches today, a new “gospel” is being preached. It is a “gospel” that omits Jesus and neglects the cross. Instead of promising Christ, this “gospel” promises health and wealth here and now. It tells people that everything they touch will prosper. If believers/followers will repeat positive confessions, focus their thoughts and generate enough faith, God will release blessings upon their lives. This “gospel” teaches it is God’s will for every Christian to live a healthy and financially prosperous life.
The “prosperity gospel” has been given many names such as “name it and claim it,” “health and wealth,” “word of faith” and “positive confession theology.” Whatever the name, though, the message is this: God wants you to be materially prosperous and healthy in the here and now. This gospel continues to grow and influence Christians all around the world. Of the largest 260 churches in the United States, 50 promote the “prosperity gospel”. Many prosperity teachers regularly appear on television and have influenced millions of people. Some of the better-known prosperity preachers include: Robert Tilton, Kenneth Copeland, T.D. Jakes, Joel Osteen, Frederick Price, Creflo Dollar, Kenneth Hagin Jr. and Eddie Long, as well as the aforementioned Joyce Meyer, Paula White and Benny Hinn. One of the most-watched religious television networks in the world is the Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN), and it constantly pumps out the prosperity message through numerous programs.
Given its departure from the historical, orthodox message of the church, we might think most Bible-believing Christians would reject this false teaching. Sadly, that is not the case. As the authors note, a recent survey in the United States found that 46-percent of self-proclaimed Christians agree with the idea God will grant material riches to all believers/followers who have enough faith. The appeal of the “prosperity gospel” is not a uniquely American phenomenon, however. It is on the rise in South America, Africa, India and Korea among many other places. Jones and Woodbridge note the startling results of an international survey conducted in 2006 by the Pew Forum of Pentecostals and other like-minded Christians:
In Nigeria, 96 percent of those who professed belief in God either completely agreed or mostly agreed that God will grant material riches if one has enough faith. Believers in the countries of India (82 percent) and Guatemala (71 percent) gave similar responses. Likewise, a significant number of those surveyed asserted their belief that God will grant good health and relief from sickness to believers who have enough faith. When the Pew Forum asked if faith in God was an important factor in people’s economic success, roughly 90 percent of those who responded in Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa said it was.2
Why has the “prosperity gospel” grown at such staggering rates all around the world? The authors point out the generally self-serving nature of the “prosperity gospel” which inherently appeals to our fleshly nature. They suggest, however, at least seven specific additional reasons.
First, the “prosperity gospel” contains an element of biblical truth, although it is highly distorted. God, indeed, is love, He does have the power to bless materially, and He is exceedingly gracious toward His creation. However, He does not promise prosperity for all people in the here and now. Rather, He promises something much better- Himself.
Second, the “prosperity gospel” appeals to the natural human desire to be successful, healthy and financially secure. While these desires are not inherently sinful, however, they can supplant the desire for God. We can become idolaters who are seeking out the gifts rather than the Giver of the gifts.
Third, the “prosperity gospel” promises much and requires little, portraying Jesus as one Who can help believers/followers help themselves. Rather than being portrayed as God’s answer to man’s chief problem— sin and, thus, death—Jesus is presented as the solution to our material wants.
Fourth, many advocates of the “prosperity gospel” have cultivated a winsome personality and a polished presentation of their message. They are good communicators who are skilled at motivational speaking. While we might say it is good to convey a message well, the message must be biblical, however, and that is not the case with prosperity preaching.
Fifth, many followers of prosperity preaching have little knowledge of biblical doctrine. They are ripe, therefore, for accepting the distorted teachings of the prosperity preachers. Many Christians simply lack theological discernment.
Sixth, many people have experienced success and/or healing (or, at least, claimed to have done so) and attribute that to the teachings of the “prosperity gospel”. For them, that seems to “validate” its message given the pragmatic nature of many people: “If-it-works, it-must-be-true.” Of course, any number of other factors may be at work, but the results are attributed to prosperity teachings.
Seventh, many in the modern church lack a general sense of biblical discernment, because they are more influenced by the secular culture than Scripture. Therefore, many Christians define happiness, joy and success by the world’s standards instead of using God’s standards. They view “success” as status, wealth and position rather than holiness, faithfulness and obedience to God.
Jones and Woodbridge write from the perspective that correct doctrine matters. Correct theological beliefs are essential to the believer’s relationship to God. And, the biblical gospel must be correctly proclaimed to the world. The “prosperity gospel” does not save; only the biblical Gospel is the power of God unto salvation (Rom.1:16, 1Cor.15:1-4).
The bulk of the book is divided into two parts. Part 1 is a critique of prosperity teaching. In this section, the authors skillfully lay out the foundations, teachings and errors of the “prosperity gospel”. Part 2 is a biblical correction of prosperity teaching. In this section, the authors present the biblical teaching on suffering, wealth and poverty, and giving.
The Foundations of the “Prosperity Gospel”
The teachings of the “prosperity gospel” did not emerge out of a vacuum. Jones and Woodbridge skillfully detail the philosophical theories and spiritual milieu which laid the foundations for prosperity preaching:
The prosperity gospel is built upon a quasi-Christian heresy known as the New Thought movement, an ideology that gained popularity in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Although the New Thought movement is unknown by name to most contemporary Christians, the prosperity gospel consists largely of the ideas of the New Thought movement repackaged with new faces, new technology, new venues, and a slightly altered message. While the prosperity gospel may look better than the classic New Thought movement, it still constitutes a departure from orthodox Christianity.3
The New Thought movement began in the nineteenth century and was also known by other names such as Mind-Cure, Mental Healing or Harmonialism. The goal of New Thought was to show one’s loftiest ideals may be realized through right thinking, and disease may be treated by spiritual and mental methods. There were also some religious beliefs not found in Scripture:
Examples of such beliefs include that God is a force; spirit or mind is ultimate reality; people are divine; disease originates in the mind; and thoughts can create and/or change reality.4
Philosopher William James noted New Thought drew from a variety of sources including Hinduism, philosophical idealism, transcendentalism, popular science evolution, and the optimistic spirit of progress. In effect, New Thought was a combination of many different pagan philosophies. Influential New Thought writers include: Emanuel Swedenborg, Phineas Quimby, Ralph Waldo Trine, Norman Vincent Peale, Ernest Holmes, and Charles Fillmore.
Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772) can be considered the “grandfather” of New Thought. He was a Swedish scientist and inventor who contributed to a number of fields including mathematics, astronomy, economics, political theory, and medicine. But, his most significant contribution was in the field of religion. Swedenborg claimed God had appeared to him and told him to publish new doctrine for the church. He said he spoke with the Apostle Paul for a year as well as Martin Luther and Moses. He also claimed to be a clairvoyant who possessed the power to look into Heaven, Hell, and other dimensions of the spirit world. He also rejected orthodox Christian beliefs such as the Doctrine of the Trinity, the Deity of Jesus Christ, and salvation by grace through faith alone. His writings were distributed widely throughout the world and came to influence individuals such as Ralph Waldo Trine and Warren Felt Evans and others who founded the New Thought movement.
Phineas Quimby (1802–1866) is considered the intellectual “father” of New Thought. Quimby theorized the mind had the power to create and influence. He believed sickness is a mental dysfunction and, therefore, can be cured by correcting false reasoning or error in the mind. Whatever one believes is reality, including illness. He denied the bodily Resurrection of Jesus, arguing that mind or spirit is good and matter is evil (a rehash of the ancient heresy of Gnosticism). He argued Jesus was just a man who had superior ideas: In order to cure people, Jesus simply changed people’s minds with His teachings. One of Quimby’s patients was Mary Baker Eddy, who would one day found the cult of Christian Science.
Ralph Waldo Trine (1866-1958) was the “evangelist” of New Thought. In the early twentieth century, a number of books containing New Thought ideas were published with the aim of helping people to achieve health and success. Jones and Woodbridge note:
In these New Thought works, one can discern some of the key recurring elements of the prosperity gospel: speaking the right words, invoking a universal law of success with words, and having faith in oneself.5
Trine’s works became enormously popular, even among many professing Christians. Considering that level of influence, it is important to examine his theological beliefs. He rejected the unique inspiration of the Bible by claiming Buddha’s writings were also inspired. He advocated theological pluralism by denying Jesus is the only means of salvation, and instead, he claimed every religion leads to God. Trine’s only interest in Jesus was in His moral teachings. There is no mention of the work of Jesus on the cross, sin, repentance or the Gospel. One achieves salvation by tapping into higher laws and achieving success in life. Despite the fact Trine’s writings held very little in common with biblical Christianity, they were embraced by many people, including orthodox believers.
Norman Vincent Peale (1898–1993) is considered the “pastor” of New Thought. He is best known for his book The Power of Positive Thinking (1952), which popularized New Thought ideas and techniques in America. Despite his Dutch Reformed Church background, Peale embraced New Thought ideas in his writings. Although he claimed to affirm the teachings of orthodox Christianity, he dangerously merged pagan philosophies with biblical ideas.
After discussing key figures in the history of the New Thought movement, Jones and Woodbridge examine some of the core tenets of New Thought philosophy that impacted the “prosperity gospel”. These core faulty tenants are summarized in five categorical pillars: (1) a distorted view of God, (2) an elevation of mind over matter, (3) an exalted view of humankind, (4) a focus on health and wealth, and (5) an unorthodox view of salvation.
The first pillar of New Thought philosophy is a distorted view of God. While not all New Thought writers had the same view of God, the general teachings deviate from the biblical Doctrine of God. Most New Thought writers rejected the Trinity. God and the world are of one substance, or the world is simply an extension of God (pantheism and panentheism). God is an impersonal life-force or energy that must be harnessed in order to be successful (“Use the force, Luke”). Jesus was merely a prophet—He certainly was not God.
The second pillar of New Thought philosophy is an elevation of mind over matter. Harnessing one’s mind or thoughts is the key to being successful:
According to New Thought advocates, this is the great secret of life- that is, if you think a certain way, then you can change reality. This is so because thoughts, spirit, and mind are what is real, while the physical world is an illusion. In other words, your mind is far more important than matter.6
One particularly disturbing promise is found in the book Success Through a Positive Mental Attitude (1960) in which author Napoleon Hill says:
When you make the discoveries that are awaiting you, they can bring you: (1) physical, mental, and moral health, happiness, and wealth; (2) success in your chosen field of endeavor; and even (3) a means to affect, use and control, or harmonize with powers known and unknown.7
Promise three there sounds like the “controller” of “powers … unknown” is, in fact, being controlled by the unknown powers of the spirit world!
New Thought teachers also believe there are laws of attraction at work in the universe. People attract whatever they think. The power to succeed is within each person as he or she directs thoughts toward that which they want to attract or achieve.
The third pillar of New Thought philosophy is an exalted view of humankind. New Thought philosophy asserts that people are essentially good, spiritual beings who have a potential for godlike—if not divine—status one day. People must open themselves up to the “divine influx.” Through this encounter with “god,” one becomes godlike. There is, of course, no mention of sin and redemption since people are fundamentally good and capable of becoming gods. There is no need for a sinless Savior to die as a propitiation for sin.
The fourth pillar of New Thought philosophy is a focus on health and wealth. If one is properly connected to “the Infinite,” sickness will not be manifested. People become sick because of negative thoughts or an improper connection with the Infinite Spirit. The solution to illness is to think about being well and have faith the “law of attraction” will work. Similarly, if one focuses the mind on wealth, the “law of attraction” will bring it into reality. Control your thoughts, and financial prosperity will follow. Form a clear mental image of whatever it is you desire (house, car, job, etc.), speak the correct words, and the universe will bring it into existence by the power of your mind.
The fifth pillar of New Thought philosophy is an unorthodox view of salvation. This should not be too surprising given the previous pillars of self-exaltation. According to New Thought, religion is not redemption from sin, but rather it is learning to love your neighbor. Jesus was not the Son of God, but merely a man whose spirit was raised from the dead. Thus, salvation is redefined to refer to ethical behavior and the attainment of everything you desire:
In summary, for New Thought, salvation is not placing one’s faith in Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, who died for the sins of humankind on the cross. Rather, salvation is a self-generated mystical experience with the Infinite, which entails channeling the divine influx for personal health, wealth, happiness and success.8
In New Thought, the key to obtaining everything you want is thinking, visualizing and speaking the right words. These ideas are often taught using biblical terms and concepts, and distorting Scripture.
The Teachings of the “Prosperity Gospel”
In presenting the basic teachings of the “prosperity gospel,” Jones and Woodbridge make it evident it is quite similar to the New Thought movement. The “prosperity gospel” has existed as an organized movement for about 100 years. While there were dozens of early proponents of prosperity thinking, two stand out from the rest: E.W. Kenyon and Kenneth E. Hagin. E.W. Kenyon was one of the first to give New Thought an explicitly Christian veneer. Hagin popularized the “prosperity gospel” through what became known as the Word of Faith movement.
E. W. Kenyon (1867–1948) was an evangelist, pastor and founder of Bethel Bible Institute in Spencer, Massachusetts. While rejecting some elements of New Thought philosophy, he incorporated many others into his theological system:
This is evidenced by Kenyon’s advocacy of positive confession theology, his deficient view of the atonement, and his elevation of human beings, as well as his explicit teachings on health and wealth.9
Kenyon’s ideas greatly influenced the “prosperity gospel” movement. He emphasized speaking the right words in order to bring about a new reality. He is credited with coining the phrase, “What I confess, I possess.” He believed positive confession was the key to health and financial prosperity. Kenyon writes:
Confession always goes ahead of healing. Don’t watch symptoms, watch the word, and be sure that your confession is bold and vigorous. Don’t listen to people. Act on the word. Be a doer of the word. It is God speaking. You are healed. The word says you are. Don’t listen to the senses. Give the word its place. God cannot lie.10
In April 1933 during a dramatic conversion experience, Hagin reported dying three times in 10 minutes, each time seeing the horrors of hell and then returning to life. In August 1934, Rev. Hagin was miraculously healed, raised off a deathbed by the power of God and the revelation of faith in God’s Word. Jesus appeared to Rev. Hagin eight times over the next several years in visions that changed the course of his ministry.11
In this story, we see a common feature of many prosperity teachers: A reliance on extra-biblical revelation from God. Many of them claim to have received special messages from God, and this gives them added authority and credibility in the eyes of their followers. Hagin called himself an “anointed prophet and teacher of faith,” and he claimed to have had several visitations from Jesus who provided new revelations to be taught to the church.
Hagin was greatly influenced by E.W. Kenyon, and in turn, Hagin has influenced a host of other ministries in the Word of Faith movement. Examples of these ministries include: Kenneth Hagin, Jr., Kenneth Copeland, Frederick Price, Robert Tilton, Benny Hinn, Charles Capps, and Jerry Savelle. The Trinity Broadcast Network, founded in 1973 by Paul and Jan Crouch along with Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, serves as a platform for numerous prosperity teachers including: Rod Parsley, Creflo Dollar, Paula White, Kenneth Copeland, Jesse Duplantis and Kenneth Hagin, Jr. The Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker financial and sex scandals in the 1980’s shook the Word of Faith movement, but it has recovered and flourishes again today.
The “prosperity gospel” is prospering in the United States, and it is being successfully exported around the world, especially South America and Africa. “Soft” advocates of the “prosperity gospel” such as Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer and T.D. Jakes are well-known names and have large followings. Jones and Woodbridge strike the right tone in saying:
Without question, many prosperity teachers are sincere, passionate, and excellent communicators, but these qualities do not excuse false teachings, whether intentional or not. Many genuine Christians listen to prosperity teachers but do not discern how prosperity teachers distort Scripture and the gospel. Of course, taken at face value, the prosperity message—God wants you to be prosperous in everything in the here-and-now—sounds good, but is not found in Scripture. Most Christians fail to realize that in addition to misunderstanding the true nature of the gospel, many who preach the prosperity message hold to heretical views of God, Christ, and people, among other errors. Given their emphasis on material prosperity, their views on such doctrines are not prominent in their popular writings, but are nevertheless present, and have been well-documented.12
Although there is a diversity of views and nuances within the movement; nevertheless, there is a significant pattern of doctrinal deviation. While prosperity teachers would almost certainly deny their teachings are rooted in the secular and pagan philosophy of the New Thought movement, a study of their teachings reveals otherwise. Using the five categorical pillars of New Thought from the previous chapter, Jones and Woodbridge examine the teachings of prosperity theology and find many similarities which, along with other errors, form the foundation of the modern prosperity movement.
The first pillar of both New Thought and prosperity teaching is a distorted view of God. Many believers/followers of the “prosperity gospel” do not realize several prominent prosperity teachers deny the biblical Doctrine of the Trinity. They reject the orthodox view of one God eternally existing in three Persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Rather, they believe God exists as one person who appears at various times in different modes as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This is the ancient heresy known as modalism. T.D. Jakes has said there is one God, who has appeared in three different “manifestations,” which is a term typical of Oneness Pentecostalism. (T.D. Jakes recently appeared in one of James MacDonald’s “Elephant Room” seminars. He attempted to clarify his view of the Trinity and defend it as orthodox. Very few were persuaded, however.) In 1990, Benny Hinn declared he had received new revelation from the Holy Spirit that each person of the Godhead is triune— meaning there are a total of nine persons. Creflo Dollar has said there is one God who has three different functions. Kenneth Copeland maintains a very brief (and arguably ambiguous) statement about the Godhead, which is problematic given his association with known modalists such as T.D. Jakes.
The second pillar of both New Thought and prosperity teaching is the elevation of mind over matter. Many prosperity preachers believe words—both thought and spoken—are a force and have creative power. Human beings are able to speak spiritual words that can manipulate and control the physical world. Creflo Dollar stated:
The spiritual world is the parent of the physical world. Everything came from God, who is a spirit. The physical matter, including circumstances and situations, is physical substance. We can use spiritual substance to change physical substance. Spiritual laws supersede physical laws. Jesus superseded the law of gravity when He walked on water… As believers, we have authority over this physical world.13
Purportedly, speaking the right words, combined with faith in those words, can produce amazing results, because God established the spiritual laws that govern this world. If God’s words have creative, miraculous power, then human words do as well, because we are made in the image of God. Kenneth Copeland says believers can have anything they speak, because God has created the whole world for human benefit. He also teaches it was God’s faith in His own words which created the world.
Since positive confession of words produces such blessing, some prosperity teachers provide lists of confessions for their followers to recite. Joyce Meyer has compiled a list of confessions to be said each day. She claims that if one repeats these confessions (and has faith, of course), they will materialize. According to Joel Osteen, you must see your success in your mind, because what you see in your mind is what you will produce. He also says:
Our words have tremendous power, and whether we want to or not, we will give life to what we’re saying, either good or bad… Words are similar to seeds, by speaking them aloud, they are planted in our subconscious minds, and they take on a life of their own.14
The third pillar of both New Thought and prosperity teaching is an exalted view of humankind. Prosperity theology inverts the relationship between the Creator and the creature. Human beings are at the center of the universe, and God exists to meet their needs and give them sound health, financial prosperity and good relationships. People are constantly reminded they have God’s favor on them in all aspects of their lives. Some prosperity advocates such as Paul Crouch, Kenneth Copeland and Creflo Dollar have even gone so far as to assert human beings are divine—little gods. T.D. Jakes believes human beings are made out of God’s DNA, whatever that means.
The fourth pillar of both New Thought and prosperity teaching is a focus on health and wealth. Several prosperity teachers have claimed neither Jesus nor His disciples were poor. Robert Tilton believes being poor is a sin, because God promises prosperity. There is an inordinate focus on giving. The reason? Because the alleged “law of compensation” states that when Christians give generously, God will give back much more in return.
Prosperity teachers make promises to their followers that are not true. They teach it is always God’s will for them to be financially successful and healthy:
Kenneth Copeland stated, “You must realize that it is God’s will for you to prosper. This is available to you, and frankly, it would be stupid of you not to partake of it.” Paula White agrees, “Do you believe that God wants you to live in the abundance of and the overflow of His goodness, His mercy, and His provision? King David declared that God takes pleasure in you prospering. God is not magnified when you are broke, busted or disgusted.”… Joyce Meyer tells her audience, “If you stay in your faith, you are going to get paid. I am now living in my reward.”… Listen to Hagin’s claim: “I believe that it is the plan of God our Father that no believer should ever be sick… It is not—I state boldly—it is not the will of God my Father that we should suffer with cancer and other dread diseases which bring pain and anguish. No! It is God’s will that we be healed.’’ While Hagin’s claim may be true from an eternal perspective, he fails to incorporate the temporal effects of the fall of humankind into his theology.15
Prosperity teachers base their confidence in such bold assertions of healing, because they believe God provided full physical healing for the here and now in the death of Jesus on the cross. Verses such as Isaiah 53:5 (“by his stripes we are healed”) and 1 Peter 2:24 (“He himself bore our sins on his body on the tree… by his wounds you have been healed.”) Of course, the true message in both those passages is that believers are healed of their sin by Jesus’ death on the cross. That does not stop them from asserting, however, that God wills for all believers/followers to be healed here and now.
Finally, the fifth pillar of both New Thought and prosperity teaching is an unorthodox view of salvation. Some prosperity teachers such as Joyce Meyer, Creflo Dollar and Joel Osteen have made statements that sound orthodox about the need to trust in Christ for salvation. However, upon further examination, several problems arise.
First, some prosperity teachers have a skewed view of the Christ in whom they encourage people to trust. Kenneth Copeland, for example, teaches Jesus emptied Himself of His divinity while on earth. According to Copeland, Jesus ceased to be God during His Incarnation.
Second, prosperity teachers misunderstand the death of Jesus on the cross for the sins of the world. Kenneth Hagin limits the Atonement to Christ’s spiritual death, not His physical death. Frederick Price teaches the physical death of Jesus on the cross did not save us. Rather, we are saved because Jesus went into Hell for us.
Third, although some prosperity teachers appear to teach an orthodox view of salvation, an important question to ask is, “From what does Jesus save people?” The biblical answer is sin and death; but for prosperity advocates, one might conclude we are saved from a non-prosperous life. While many prosperity teachers do offer the plan of salvation, they undermine it with the rest of their teaching.
Errors of the “Prosperity Gospel”
All believers are theologians, because we all have beliefs about God, moral issues, the church and many other subjects. There are good theologians, and there are bad theologians:
Good theologians believe what accords with Scripture and compare all teachings with the Word of God. Bad theologians, however, use Scripture to justify their preconceived ideas instead of allowing the text to inform their beliefs—a practice often referred to as proof-texting. … It is the contention of this book that despite the good intentions of some of its proponents—especially among the soft advocates—the prosperity gospel is constructed upon faulty theology.16
It is not the authors’ intention to examine and elucidate every error of all doctrines associated with prosperity teaching. However, there are several fundamental doctrines which are examined in order to illustrate the nature and extent of the theological errors within the prosperity movement. Jones and Woodbridge focus on errors relating to the Gospel, faith, the Atonement, the Abrahamic Covenant, the mind, prayer, the Bible and giving.
The authors first sketch the biblical Doctrine of the Gospel. The biblical Gospel asserts God is holy and perfectly righteous. Every person has sinned against a holy God and cannot meet God’s standard of moral perfection. No one is good enough to merit God’s grace, and we all stand condemned to Hell for our sin. The triune God sent Jesus to earth to accomplish redemption. Jesus is both fully God and fully man. He lived a perfect, sinless life of obedience to His Father. He lived the life we could not. He then willingly gave His life on the cross as an offering for our sin. He became sin for us, and fully satisfied the wrath of God against sin. Jesus is our substitute, and through His death on the cross He took the punishment for our sin. By the substitutionary Atonement of Christ on the cross, God has made peace with sinful humanity. The debt of sin has been canceled, and sins are not counted against those who believe. God raised Jesus from the dead for our justification. Through the Resurrection, God demonstrated He approved Jesus’ sacrifice and, thereby, ensured salvation for all who believe. A person becomes righteous before God by repenting of sin and turning in faith to Jesus and His completed work of redemption on the cross. Salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone. The life, death, burial and resurrection of Jesus are the central tenets of the Gospel. Anything else is a false Gospel.
The “prosperity gospel,” however, marginalizes several key components of the biblical Gospel: Jesus, the cross, God’s judgment and the sinful state of the human race. But, if any of those elements are left out, there is no Gospel. In a telling paragraph describing Joel Osteen’s appearance on 60 Minutes, we are told this:
Byron Pitts summarized what he perceived to be the emphases within Osteen’s message. Pitts commented, ‘God is a living, forgiving God who will reward believers with health, wealth and happiness. It’s the centerpiece of every sermon… To become a better you, you must be positive towards yourself, develop better relationships, embrace the place where you are. Not one mention of God in that. Not one mention of Jesus Christ in that.’ Osteen replied, ‘That’s just my message.’ This is a remarkable statement for an evangelical pastor in light of the apostle Paul’s call to preach Jesus Christ as Lord and Him crucified.17
Also, the “prosperity gospel” turns the Gospel of Christ into a human-focused religion. The followers of the “prosperity gospel” dictate the terms of their lives to God as they seek after health, wealth and success as they desire. The “prosperity gospel” does not point lost people to the risen Savior. Instead, it points them toward the lust of the eyes, the lust of the flesh and the pride of life (1John2:16, cf. Gen.3:5-6).
What about the Doctrine of Faith? The biblical Doctrine of Faith asserts it is trust in the person of Jesus Christ, the truth of His teaching and His redemptive work He accomplished at Calvary. The “prosperity gospel” teaches faith is something quite different; faith is an active “force” or “energy:”
In his book The Laws of Prosperity, Kenneth Copeland writes that “faith is a spiritual force, a spiritual energy, a spiritual power. It is this force of faith which makes the laws of the spirit world function… There are certain laws governing prosperity revealed in God’s Word. Faith causes them to function.” This is obviously a faulty, if not heretical, understanding of faith. Later in the same book, Copeland claims, “If you make up your mind… that you are willing to live in divine prosperity and abundance… divine prosperity will come to pass in your life. You have exercised your faith.” According to prosperity theology, faith is not a theocentric act of the will, stemming from God; rather, it is an anthropocentric spiritual force, directed at God.18
Regarding the Doctrine of the Atonement, the “prosperity gospel” predictably focuses on physical healing and financial prosperity, claiming they have been provided for in the Atonement. Several key Scripture passages are misinterpreted by prosperity teachers: 2 Corinthians 8:9; Isaiah 53:5 and 1 Peter 2:24.
2 Corinthians 8:9 says this:
For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich. (ESV)
Isaiah 53:5 says:
But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. (ESV)
And 1 Peter 2:24:
He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. (ESV)
Based on passages like these, prosperity teachers assert physical healing and financial prosperity are included now in the Atonement. However, is that what these verses teach? Hardly. The focus and context clearly indicate spiritual healing from sin is in view here. While it is true that there will not be any sickness in heaven or on the new earth, these verses are not promising immediate physical healing and prosperity now. It is shameful, too, that “prosperity gospel” teachers, in my view, denigrate the majesty of the humble servant Christ in these verses, and ignore His call to “deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matt.16:14, ESV).
Prosperity teachers also misinterpret the Abrahamic covenant, which is found in Genesis 12:3:
I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed. (ESV)
Prosperity teachers claim that since Christians are Abraham’s “spiritual” children, they are heirs to the physical, material blessings of faith. Just as God blessed Abraham and made him materially prosperous, so too the “spiritual” children of Abraham can claim this verse as a promise of temporal material blessing. In fact, Creflo Dollar claims God is obligated to bless Christians with material wealth on the basis of this covenant. But, is that what this verse is teaching? No. God assures Abraham He will bless Him and protect him; and one day, all the families of the earth will be blessed when the Messiah comes through Abraham’s family line. It is a promise of spiritual blessing (salvation) for all who believe in Christ—the descendant of Abraham, who “believed the LORD, and He counted it to him as righteousness” (Gen.15:6, ESV).
Regarding the place of the mind in prosperity teaching, believers/followers are encouraged to make positive verbal and mental confessions of what they desire. The faithful then should focus their minds on such things as increased finances, better health, success in the workplace and healthy relationships. While there is nothing inherently wrong with these things, the “prosperity gospel” asserts it is the function of the mind to concentrate upon these things and, therefore, bring them into reality. By contrast, the biblical teachings regarding the mind is that believers are to cultivate “the mind of Christ” (1Cor.2:16, cf. Phil.2:5), and dwell on those things that are true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable and worthy of praise (Phil.4:8). We are to be transformed into the image of Christ by the renewing of our minds.
Regarding prayer, prosperity teachers often note that, “we have not because we ask not” (James 4:2). They say believers/followers ought to pray for personal success in all areas of life. Thus, prayer becomes a tool in the hand of the believer/follower in order to obtain personal desires. They also stress one must pray in faith in order that one may receive everything one wants. The biblical teaching on prayer, however, recognizes prayer is a means of fellowship with God and is an act of worship. Prayer is talking to God and asking that God’s will be done, not our own. And while we, indeed, are commanded to pray boldly and confidently in faith (Matt.7:7-11), that does not override the sovereign, wise will of God.
The hermeneutics* of the prosperity movement are, to put it bluntly, a disaster and a disgrace. Bible verses are quoted with no regard for such things as context, historical setting, grammatical considerations and the entirety of biblical teaching. Verses are consistently ripped out of context and interpreted subjectively in order to make the passage say whatever the teacher wants it to say.
Finally, prosperity teaching also distorts the biblical concept of giving. Prosperity teachers say one must “sow a seed of faith” (give money), and then they will be rewarded financially for their gift. The more one gives, the more God allegedly will bless and give back. It is couched in terms of guarantees and certainty. The biblical teaching regarding giving, however, is that believers are to be good stewards of their resources. Part of good stewardship is regular, generous, sacrificial, cheerful giving in order to support the work of the church, help meet the needs of others and bring honor to God. And, while I can personally testify to the fact God has been faithful and generous with me as I have trusted Him with my finances and given faithfully, this is not an absolute, ironclad guarantee God will always give back to me many, many times over what I give. A believer is to give with a cheerful heart (2Cor.9:7), not because one is expecting more and more back in return.
Having critiqued the foundations, teachings and errors of the “prosperity gospel”, Jones and Woodbridge now turn their attention to presenting brief portraits of the biblical teaching on suffering, wealth and poverty, and giving.
The Biblical Teaching on Suffering
Prosperity teaching speaks in positive terms focusing on the temporal, material blessings, health and good relationships. There is a deliberate avoidance of personal suffering. Pain and suffering are common among biblical characters, however. Abraham spent his later years as a nomad in a foreign land, and he experienced marital and political strife (see Genesis 11-25). Jacob experienced profound dysfunction in his family, including the rape of his daughter, and health problems that included diminished eyesight and a crippled leg (see Genesis 25-35). Joseph was treated unjustly by his brothers and spent years in prison for a crime he never committed (see Genesis 37-50). Job lost nearly everything he held dear including his children, his possessions and his health (see book of Job). David endured ridicule from his family, persecution from his enemies, public humiliation and the loss of children (see 1 and 2Samuel).
There are numerous examples of suffering believers in the New Testament as well. Jesus was “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3, ESV). The Apostles were all persecuted and martyred, with the exception of John. The Apostle Paul endured great hardship and heartache for the sake of the Gospel (2Cor.11). The “Faith Hall of Fame” in Hebrews chapter 11 lists many people of faith who suffered greatly, and they were commended for their faith.
Believers are not called to always try to escape or avoid suffering. Rather, they are called to embrace it, and recognize it as an instrument in the hand of God to sanctify and accomplish glorious eternal purposes (2Cor.4:16-18). While the work of redemption has been done, we still live in a fallen world which is subject to pain and suffering. We experience natural evil such as weather disasters, diseases, genetic defects, accidents, injuries and death. We also suffer from moral evil as a result sinful choices—both ours and those of other people. Because of the curse on the created order, our sinful choices, and the sinful choices of others, suffering and pain are a reality in the world. Christians are not exempt from all of it. We have overcome the world in Christ, but we have not yet escaped this world and its sorrows. That is a blessed future event (Rev. 21:4).
The Biblical Teaching On Wealth and Poverty
As the authors ably state, the best defense against the teachings of the “prosperity gospel” is a holistic understanding of scriptural teaching on wealth and poverty. Beginning in Genesis, we see God created people with material needs as well as the ability and the desire to work to meet those needs. The biblical Gospel encourages people to work in order to meet their needs (2Thess.3:10), while the “prosperity gospel” encourages people to try to conjure up mystical, magical forces of faith to provide for themselves. After The Fall of human beings into sin, there were drastic consequences, including a curse on the earth. The work of man now would be toil. The woman would no longer be a willing helper to her husband—the work for which she was created. The Lord also subjected Creation to futility in hope—hope the curse would drive people back to the God from Whom they had fled (Rom.8:20). Not surprisingly, it is the poor—those who most feel the material effects of The Fall—who come to Christ in the greatest numbers.
The biblical Gospel focuses on meeting the material needs of others, especially the poor; whereas the “prosperity gospel” focuses on meeting one’s own needs and accumulating more and more. The biblical gospel warns about the dangers of accumulated wealth, while the “prosperity gospel” is consumed with the accumulation of wealth. When Jesus taught on wealth and poverty, He focused on the spiritual impact of wealth or poverty upon the individual (Matt.6:33, 1Tim. 6:17-19).
Finally, there is no direct connection between material wealth/poverty and spiritual wealth/poverty:
Given that neither wealth nor poverty is explicitly commended or condemned in Scripture, it is better to conclude that while there can be a tie between material wealth/poverty and spiritual wealth/poverty, any such connection is nonrequisite. Rather than claiming—as proponents of the prosperity gospel do—that material wealth is a barometer of spiritual wealth, it is better simply to recognize that on account of the moral traits that accompany spiritual wealth (industry, honesty, diligence, etc.), material wealth often follows. Yet, this is not a quid pro quo transaction. It may be that a spiritually wealthy person is in a low paying job, gets laid off, is cheated, becomes ill, or simply chooses to divest him- or herself of wealth in order to meet the needs of the poor, as did Christ.19
The Biblical Teaching on Giving
In addressing the subject of the biblical teaching on giving, Jones and Woodbridge tackle the matter by asking and answering three questions: Why should Christians give? How much should Christians give? To whom should Christians give?
Why should Christians give? The believer is called to be a faithful steward. We are to faithfully manage that which has been entrusted to us. One aspect of faithful stewardship is giving, and the Bible provides several motivations for giving. First, giving is an act of obedience to God. He has commanded us to give to support the work of ministry and to assist those in need. A second motivation for giving is love for God and love for others. Believers are to be motivated by love for others. How can we say we love if we are unwilling to help meet the material needs of others? A third motivation for giving is to bring glory to God. When believers give generously to help others, God is praised. A fourth motivation for giving is the Gospel itself. Christians ought to use their possessions to show the world that God and His kingdom are more important than the things of this world. A fifth motivation for giving is reward. Every believer will face the Judgment Seat of Christ to be rewarded for the things done while in the body (2Cor.5:10). While the exact nature of these rewards is not known, God clearly exhorts believers to seek eternal reward, rather than the rewards of this world and this life.
How much should Christians give? Christians debate about whether or not the tithe is still in effect for Christians today, but regardless, the Bible is clear Christians are to be generous givers. Based on the teaching found in 1 Corinthians 16:1-2 and 2 Corinthians, chapters 8 & 9, Jones and Woodbridge suggest five principles for giving. First, giving is to be periodic. Second, giving is to be personal. Third, giving is to be planned. Fourth, giving is to be proportionate. Fifth, giving is to be plentiful. A person’s heart which is dedicated to Christ cannot help but be generous toward God and people, and they often will give more than 10 percent.
To whom should Christians give? There are numerous worthy organizations, causes and individuals. How does one sort through the possibilities and give in a biblically responsible manner? The New Testament reveals three categories for giving: the local church, Christian organizations and individual people in need. It is important to give to ministries that exalt Christ. It is wise for Christians to exercise due diligence in selecting organizations for giving. The information from groups such as the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability and Wall Watchers can help an individual to give wisely and responsibly.
Health, Wealth and Happiness clearly sets forth the differences between the biblical Gospel and the “prosperity gospel”. Jones and Woodbridge have done a masterful job of succinctly and convincingly setting forth the case for biblical doctrine while definitely demonstrating the “prosperity gospel” is a false gospell. The authors are aware, however, that many sincere Christians have been deceived by the slick presentation and polished message of the prosperity preachers. The Christian veneer often given to this false gospel has led many genuine believers to buy into it. The “prosperity gospel” may be subtly influencing your church, your friends or even you. How can you tell if you might have succumbed in part to this false gospel?
Jones and Woodbridge suggest good questions can help us to discern what we believe. They present five questions/answers that explore the foundational ideas upon which the “prosperity gospel” rests. By interacting with these questions, the reader can gauge if there has been any influence or openness to prosperity thinking in his or her own mind. They can also help to answer whether or not a friend or family member has unwittingly succumbed to this false teaching.
First, Why does God exist, and what does He control in the world? The Bible teaches God is eternal and worthy of glory, worship and praise. He is sovereign over His creation and exercises complete control over everything. Human beings exist in order to worship and serve God. The Lord does whatever He pleases to accomplish His purposes. He directs our steps and works all things for good (Rom.8:28). When we start to think God exists for our desires and purposes, we usurp His place. Self is the focal point of prosperity thinking rather than .
Second, What is the purpose of suffering and how do I react when I suffer? Do you blame God? Do you think you deserve better? The Bible teaches suffering is designed to make one more like Christ (1Pet.1:6-7), but the “prosperity gospel” seeks to avoid or minimize pain.
Third, ask yourself, What do I deserve in life? The “prosperity gospel” asserts you deserve a good life full of riches, health and everything you desire. The Bible teaches, however, that we are to be content regardless of our circumstances (Phil.4:12-13). We have been given eternal life and every good thing by God’s grace and mercy alone.
Fourth, Why did God save me? Did God save you because He desperately needs you on the team? Did He save you so you could be rich and famous? No, God saved you on account of His mercy and love. He saved you so you would glorify Him forever. We were rescued to glorify God and do the good works which He has prepared beforehand that we should walk in them (Eph.2:10). “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent,” (John 6:29, ESV)
A final question is: Why do I give to God? Do you give out of obedience and to meet the needs of others? Do you give generously and sacrificially, expecting nothing in return? Or, do you see God as your ticket to great riches? Do you give in order to get something back from God?
Jones and Woodbridge conclude the book by offering some helpful suggestions on how to minister to someone who may be caught up in prosperity thinking. There is also a section which details some possible objections and answers when discussing the “prosperity gospel” with others.
In conclusion, if you are looking for an excellent resource to get a good understanding of the general teachings of the “prosperity gospel”, I can highly recommend Health, Wealth and Happiness. This respectful, well-reasoned, carefully researched and thoroughly biblical response to the “vast spiritual wasteland” that is the “prosperity gospel” is a perfect antidote.
*Hermeneutics is the art and science of biblical interpretation.
Dan Cox is pastor of the Wonder Lake Bible Church in Wonder Lake, Illinois. A graduate of Moody Bible Institute and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, he has served at WLBC since 2001. In addition to his pastoral calling, he has also taught philosophy at a local college and serves as the chaplain of the Wonder Lake Fire Department.
- Jones, David W. and Woodbridge, Russell S., Health, Wealth & Happiness. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2011; 14 ↩
- Jones, David W. and Woodbridge, Russell S., Health, Wealth & Happiness. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2011; 16 ↩
- Jones, David W. and Woodbridge, Russell S., Health, Wealth & Happiness. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2011;27 ↩
- Jones, David W. and Woodbridge, Russell S., Health, Wealth & Happiness. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2011;27 ↩
- Jones, David W. and Woodbridge, Russell S., Health, Wealth & Happiness. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2011;31 ↩
- Jones, David W. and Woodbridge, Russell S., Health, Wealth & Happiness. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2011; 38 ↩
- Jones, David W. and Woodbridge, Russell S., Health, Wealth & Happiness. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2011; 38 ↩
- Jones, David W. and Woodbridge, Russell S., Health, Wealth & Happiness. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2011; 47 ↩
- Jones, David W. and Woodbridge, Russell S., Health, Wealth & Happiness. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2011; 51 ↩
- Kenyon, E.W., Jesus the Healer. Seattle, WA: Kenyon’s Gospel Publishing Society, 1943; 26 ↩
- Jones, David W. and Woodbridge, Russell S., Health, Wealth & Happiness. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2011; 54 ↩
- Jones, David W. and Woodbridge, Russell S., Health, Wealth & Happiness. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2011; 56 ↩
- Jones, David W. and Woodbridge, Russell S., Health, Wealth & Happiness. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2011; 59 ↩
- Osteen, Joel, Your Best Life Now. New York, NY: Faith Words, 2004; 109 ↩
- Jones, David W. and Woodbridge, Russell S., Health, Wealth & Happiness. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2011; 66-67 ↩
- Jones, David W. and Woodbridge, Russell S., Health, Wealth & Happiness. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2011; 81 ↩
- Jones, David W. and Woodbridge, Russell S., Health, Wealth & Happiness. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2011; 86 ↩
- Jones, David W. and Woodbridge, Russell S., Health, Wealth & Happiness. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2011; 87 ↩
- Jones, David W. and Woodbridge, Russell S., Health, Wealth & Happiness. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2011; 140 ↩