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The Prosperity Gospel: A Biblical Evaluation

Contextual issues aside, the biblical and theological claims made under the umbrella of the prosperity gospel require careful attention.

I stood in the congregation of an independent Pentecostal church in Brazil enjoying the worship service. The music was loud and electrifying. At an arranged break in the music, the preacher announced from the pulpit that it was time to collect the offering.

The vast majority of the church’s members came from the surrounding neighborhood, which was visibly poverty-stricken. Yet I observed all the congregants holding their offering envelopes high in the air and affirming together their desire to give. Moved deeply, they prayed fervently for Jesus to fill their envelopes with money. Their goal was not simply to enjoy the blessings of financial well-being. They wanted to gain the capacity to give to God’s work. They had written on each envelope: “The Blood of Jesus.” This was the banner under which they claimed victory over poverty. The pastor encouraged them with the promise of prosperity through Jesus.

The hearty amens and hopeful looks left a lasting impression on me.

Prosperity Gospel Defined

It was clear to me that this church was familiar with the so-called “prosperity gospel.” Those who advocate it are part of a global movement. Promoted most frequently between Pentecostal and charismatic churches, other traditions sometimes teach it as well. Most of us have heard it before.

“Speak the word.”

“Only believe.”

“Obey by sowing the seed of a financial gift, and God will lavishly meet your needs ‘according to the riches of his glory’” (Philippians 4:19).

One interdenominational group of theologians based in Africa explains the prosperity message this way: “We define prosperity gospel as the teaching that believers have a right to the blessings of … wealth and that they can obtain these blessings through positive confessions of faith and the ‘sowing of seeds’ through the faithful payments of tithes and offerings.”1

There are different versions globally of this teaching; some emphasize financial prosperity more strongly than others, but they all focus on the simple assumption that the gospel promises prosperity to those who both believe for it and act on their faith by giving tithes and offerings.

Prosperity Gospel Explained

With this definition in mind, we can explain in greater detail what this message teaches so as to judge the degree to which it is biblical. People interpret the Bible in real-life contexts. As a result, it is possible sometimes to misunderstand what some people say when they speak to us from settings very different from our own.

For example, a person living in abject poverty in Brazil would most likely not understand the word “prosperity” in the same way as someone living in an affluent neighborhood in the United States. The poor person asking for “prosperity” might not desire much more than what most middle-class Christians in the U.S. take for granted as a blessing from God. Eighty percent of humanity lives on less than $10 a day.2 Many within that range live on much less. What Americans call middle class much of the world considers wealthy. We should keep this in mind the next time we criticize fellow believers from the global South for seeking “prosperity” as a blessing from God. We who are relatively prosperous should not criticize the poor for wanting what we have, especially if we are apathetic to their plight.

Contextual issues aside, the biblical and theological claims made under the umbrella of the prosperity gospel require careful attention. Those who defend this message often make four basic arguments.

The first argument deals with the nature of God. The prosperity message highlights the goodness of God, or God’s desire to bless humanity with good things (James 1:17). Specifically, prosperity preachers emphasize that God wills to meet all of our needs according to “the riches of his glory” (Philippians 4:19). The implication of this teaching is that poverty is not God’s will for humanity, especially not for those who trust in Christ. For prosperity preachers, the idea that God can will for someone to live in poverty or even mediocrity rather than success and blessing seems to contradict the nature of God.

The second argument of the prosperity gospel is based on the victory of the Cross and the Resurrection over sin and its consequences. Consistent with divine goodness, God has acted decisively in the Cross and the Resurrection to free humanity from the clutches of sin and its curse, understood as the curse of the Law. Since the blessing of the Law in the Old Testament involves prosperity (Deuteronomy 8:18; 28:2–4), it is thought that, by overcoming the curse of the Law, the Cross and the Resurrection grant believers an open door to prosperity. Freedom from this curse brings the covenantal blessings promised to God’s people through Abraham’s descendant, Jesus Christ (Galatians 3:13,14).

The third argument in favor of the prosperity gospel has to do with the power of faith to claim the financial prosperity promised to believers and offered through the victory of Christ. Drawing from this victory, preachers urge people to believe for their prosperity and speak positive words affirming it before it becomes a reality. They often blame financial hardship on doubt and defeatism. They say faith resists such doubt in favor of total reliance on divine goodness and blessing. God then answers according to the degree of one’s faith. They point to Jesus’ statement in Matthew 9:29: “According to your faith let it be done to you.” Another favored text is John 15:16: “Whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you.” In light of these texts, they view faith as the necessary requirement for defeating poverty and ushering in the blessing of prosperity.

The fourth argument connects financial giving with prosperity. People plant seed faith when they put their faith into action through tithes and offerings. These teachers say God has already given us the ability to obtain wealth as part of the covenant blessings channeled to us through Christ: “But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your ancestors, as it is today” (Deuteronomy 8:18; cf. 6:3; 28:2–4).

Malachi 3:10 connects this promise of wealth specifically to tithing. God promises to “throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it.” Prosperity will supposedly come if one puts action to their faith by sowing the seeds of giving to the work of God. “A man reaps what he sows” (Galatians 6:7).

Prosperity Gospel Evaluated

Evaluations of this teaching should not be reactionary and one-sided. Christians can gain valuable insights from this message. God is indeed good and generous, faith does resist defeatist attitudes, and those dedicated to God and to the way of Christ will experience a flourishing or prosperity of life that involves both body and soul.

The vast success of the prosperity message globally is not simply due to deception by preachers who prey on the false hopes or greed of their congregants. People sometimes abuse the prosperity message in this way, but that isn’t always the case. This preaching connects with the hunger of many to discover a life that flourishes because it is generous and moves in harmony with a generous God. A biblical response to the prosperity message must respond to that desire in a way that preserves the best of what it upholds but offers a more biblical framework for understanding it.

A careful study of what the Bible says about prosperity of life exposes the prosperity gospel as dangerously one-sided, especially in some contexts. In general, its strong emphasis on financial and material prosperity stands in stark contrast to the Bible’s emphasis on spiritual blessing. By spiritual, I do not mean something entirely otherworldly, removed from one’s concrete cares and concerns. Rather, spiritual here refers to something that is rooted in our deepest yearnings for God as well as for community, purpose, and value.

Jesus said, “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). To live on bread alone is a living death. Even living primarily on bread is misguided and lethal to the spiritual life. Jesus reminds us that we must always seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and then trust God for the rest (Matthew 6:33). Our prayer for daily bread follows our prior prayer for the arrival of God’s kingdom (Matthew 6:9–11). We are meant to flourish and prosper in life by living primarily from something deeper than financial blessing — namely, devotion to God, following in the self-sacrificial way of Christ, living by the leading of the Spirit, joining with the community of the faithful, and caring for the lost and the outcasts. This is our most essential “food.” Jesus thus said His food was doing the will of His Father (John 4:34).

The prosperous life does involve wholeness of spirit and body but only as we place the priority on the kingdom of God in the world. Financial health can be a component of a Christian’s experience of wholeness, but we must not single out this element and grant it dominance over everything else. A distortion occurs when that happens.

Neither can the concern for financial prosperity dominate the Atonement. In Galatians 3:13,14, the blessing of Abraham that comes as a result of Christ’s bearing the curse on the cross is justification by faith and the gift of new life in the Spirit. One can claim by faith both reconciliation with God and the gift of new life in the Spirit according to Galatians 3 (verses 1–5, 13,14), but one cannot claim material prosperity with the same confidence.

Paul knew in the Spirit that he was a child of God (Romans 8:15,16), and he received in the Spirit a foretaste of liberty from the burdens of sin and death in the world. Yet he still groaned for the full liberty from this burden (8:21–23). He implies that the groaning will continue throughout this earthly life. The expectation that one can claim material blessing in the same way that one can claim forgiveness or new life in Christ often leads to unrealistic expectations and crushing disappointment.

In God’s kingdom, everyone is equally valued (Galatians 3:28), regardless of social status. Christ’s followers face trials and frustrations, but they bear one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2). The blessing of the justified and Spirit-filled life carries profound implications for a life that flourishes in every way, but only as God wills and directs.

Within this biblical framework of the prosperous life, we discover God’s generous grace in times of want and in times of plenty. Paul wrote about this in Philippians 4:11–13. In business ventures and in all areas of life, we learn to yield to God and submit to His will (James 4:13–17).

Faith does indeed resist defeatist attitudes. But the Bible writers do not harness faith to a hard and fast principle of sowing and reaping that applies in every situation. God is good, but He is also sovereign. We cannot reduce Him to a dispenser of financial blessing on demand. Scripture acknowledges that sometimes the unrighteous prosper financially while the righteous suffer hardship (Jeremiah 12:1). But true prosperity of life comes from a deeper source. Though God’s ways are not always easy to understand, we know that His love makes us more than conquerors, even in the face of famine or nakedness (Romans 8:35–37).

According to 1 John 5:14, “If we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.” Even those texts that say we will receive what we ask in Christ’s name (John 15:16) imply a harmony with God’s purposes for the world as revealed in the story of Jesus. To approach God in Jesus’ name, we must first submit to Jesus’ authority and lordship. That name implies a Spirit-led path dedicated to God’s purposes for the world. That name is not a magic formula guaranteeing the acquisition of whatever one desires. Not all prayers are fittingly in Christ’s name, even if the name is used.

Certainly, a giving and generous spirit will prosper in life but not primarily or always in ways that involve material wealth. God is faithful to provide in times of hardship but not always to the degree that one might wish. Just confessing it will not make it so. God’s Spirit is not a power for humans to use as they wish. In the Book of Acts, the Spirit — not the Church — directs and leads. The Church follows the Spirit.

Testimonies in the Christian media abound of God’s generous provisions in life, but prosperity preachers often silence or ignore testimonies that do not have perfect endings. What about testimonies from folks who did not receive the provision for which they prayed but still made it through by God’s sufficient grace? Are we helping the people of God if these stories never see the light of day? Abundance of blessing cannot always be measured in dollars and cents. We need bread to live, but there is something even more important at the core of life than this.

Prosperity Gospel and Poverty

Of course, all this might be easy for someone writing from a middle class environment to say. What about people living in poverty or sustained financial hardship? They have a need that requires an answer. How can we say God wills this hardship for them? Does not God wish for them to prosper? These questions represent the greatest challenge of the prosperity message.

Of course, God does not will poverty for humanity. Poverty is our doing, not God’s. The Psalmist says confidently of God: “I know that the Lord secures justice for the poor and upholds the cause of the needy” (Psalm 140:12).

The Bible instructs us to help those in need out of obedience to God: “Defend the cause of the weak and fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked” (Psalm 82:3,4).

There is no question that God wills to deliver people from poverty and to use people of good will to accomplish His purpose. In response to this need, one cannot deny that the prosperity message has had a positive effect in some parts of the world in generating financial health for the church and the surrounding community. Hope can be a powerful force among the poor. Giving to the work of God has in certain contexts allowed a church to open up opportunities for financial well-being for its members and others in the community. A church dedicated to rallying around those most affected by poverty can be an immense source of strength and wholeness.3

Moreover, hospitality is a marvelous way to show gratitude to God for a home and a regular job that puts bread on the table. Those who are generous will flourish in life. And God will multiply the Church’s gifts to others so that they will bear fruit in their lives and, through them, in the lives of many others.

Yet, while all of this plays a vital role in a biblical understanding of the prosperous life, it is not enough to address the larger problem of poverty. The causes of poverty involve more than an individual’s defeatist attitude or lack of faith. It involves more than the need to give to the work of the Church. It involves issues related to education, housing, and unjust social institutions and structures that sustain poverty and make it difficult to reverse. The Church’s role in addressing this complex area of human suffering will involve more than encouraging faith and generosity among the faithful.

A Call for Balance

In the midst of the Church’s witness in the world, it is vital to reach for a balanced message. Especially needed in offering a biblical understanding of the prosperous life is a message that discourages giving primarily for the motive of getting back. The motive in giving cannot simply be one’s desire to get a “bigger piece of the pie.” Instead, the motive should be accomplishing God’s will for humanity.

Obedient giving has its own rewards, even if there is little tangible return. Biblical motives for giving are listening to the Spirit’s voice, following Christ in the world, and drawing closer to the heart of God.

Extravagant testimonies of financial wealth through giving implicitly place the priority of faith in the wrong place. Giving is all about God and caring for others, not building a little garden for me and mine to enjoy. Life prospers best when prosperity is not the motive: “Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:39).

It is understandable for people struggling in hardship to pray for bread and envision a better future. But the communities of faith that embrace them should help them expand their vision from the context of their own needs to a Christ-centered yearning for a better world. All giving and flourishing of life should remain focused there.

We are to pray for our daily bread and for the flourishing of our lives for the purpose of abounding “in every good work” in service to others (2 Corinthians 9:8). The prosperity message can remain relevant to the Church if it keeps its focus clearly moving in this direction.

Richard L. Dresselhaus

FRANK D. MACCHIA, is professor of systematic theology at Vanguard University. He has recently published, The Trinity, Practically Speaking (Biblica, 2010).

NOTES

1. “A Statement on the Prosperity Gospel,” Lausanne Theology Working Group, Africa Chapter, Ghana, October 2008 and September 2009, introductory paragraph, http://www.lausanne.org/en/documents/all/twg/1099-a-statement-on-the-prosperity-gospel.html.

2. Anup Shah, “Poverty Facts and Stats,” Global Issues, http://www.globalissues.org/article/26/poverty-facts-and-stats

3. See Amos Yong and Katherine Attanasi, eds. Pentecostalism and Prosperity: The Socio-Economics of the Global Charismatic Movement (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).

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