Ben J. Ditzel
With his salesman smile and soothingly mellow voice, the orator, standing in the middle of a renovated sports arena, begins his pitch. Pastor Joel Osteen pulls a quote from his book, Your Best Life Now, 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential and proclaims, “If you want success, if you want wisdom, if you want to be prosperous and healthy, you’re going to have to do more than meditate and believe; you must boldly declare words of faith and victory over yourself and your family” (132). Pastor Osteen’s words sound like a recipe for accomplishment from a genie type of figure. According to Jesse Bogan’s “America’s Biggest Megachurches” on Forbes.com, Joel Osteen is a “best-selling author and pastor of Lakewood Church in Houston, the largest megachurch in the country” (Bogan 14 October 2013). Lakewood Church boasts an attendance of over 45,000 people each week. This magic potion for health and wealth stemming from following Christ is called the prosperity gospel. The opposition’s praxis in counteracting this false doctrine of health and wealth should be to seek truth in the context of God’s Word, recognise that Biblically guaranteed wealth is not the earthly type, and warn others against the snares of such a false gospel.
Debates and controversies in the Christian church have been present for many years. Looking at the book of first and second Corinthians in the Bible, the disagreements and the misunderstandings that were present even in the days of the early church are just as existent today. Therefore, it is no surprise that there are many discussions and opinions over God’s expectation of mankind and the way in which He blesses His true followers. However, lies such as the prosperity gospel have leached into the church, robbing church members of God’s truth. Quoting Robert Tilton’s “Is It God’s Will For You To Be Rich?” on BibleDollar.com, David Jones writes in The Bankruptcy of the Prosperity Gospel: An Exercise in Biblical and Theological Ethics on Bible.org,
“Simply put, this egocentric gospel teaches that God wants believers to be materially wealthy. Listen to the words of Robert Tilton, one of the prosperity gospel’s most well-known spokesmen: ‘I believe that it is the will of God for all to prosper because I see it in the Word [of God], not because it has worked mightily for someone else. I do not put my eyes on men, but on God who gives me the power to get wealth.’” (Jones; Tilton 08 October 2013)
But this gospel of prosperity and works only goes as far as the pulpit-talk pitches it. All of humanity has difficulties like financial stress, hurting relationships, or physical ailments. These factors are why the prosperity gospel appeals to so many. Just boldly declare words of faith and victory, and health, wealth and wisdom should follow. Prosperity gospel advocates say that blessings will come in the form of material wealth just from following Christ. Jeremiah 29:11 is used all too often to back up these claims. “For I know the plans that I have for you…plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” These teachers back up their claims saying that God is love. How could He want harm for His children? Benny Hinn describes his idea on the Benny Hinn Ministries’ website in “Your Supernatural Wealth Transfer is Coming”.
“Today, as you sow your seed into God’s kingdom, remember that He is watching your faithfulness. What you sow declares your faith. As you begin to sow your seed, God will place even more seed in your hand. He will multiply the seed you sow but not the seed you keep in your hand! When the seed meets the right soil, it will produce abundantly. Sow your seed this month. Prove your faithfulness to God, and watch what God will do with you today and tomorrow, especially on that glorious day and in that season when the great wealth transfer will begin upon the righteous!” (Hinn 15 November 2013)
However, the Bible shows that Hinn’s doctrine is simply not backed up by Scripture. In 1 Peter 4, Peter warns that the cost of following Christ will be great. Numerous Godly people have suffered much for their faith, such as Job in the Bible. Job was, for all practical purposes, a Godly man who obeyed his Lord in all things. But God allowed Satan to afflict Job. Even though Job was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil, God allowed enormous tragedy to befall him for seemingly no fault of his own. In Job 1:9-12, there is a discussion between Satan and God regarding Job.
“Then Satan answered the Lord and said, “Does Job fear God for no reason? Have you not put a hedge around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. But stretch out your hand and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.” And the Lord said to Satan, “Behold, all that he has is in your hand. Only against him do not stretch out your hand.” So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord.”
God is allowing Satan to destroy Job’s livelihood, family, and everything he has and knows. The word fear is actually referring to respect or honour in the original text and Satan seems to insinuate that Job only respected and honoured God because his life was easy. God had been good to Job in his health and wealth. But God knew the heart of Job. The story continued when Satan stripped Job of his family, servants, livestock, agriculture, and everything he had, but he never once, despite his persistently discouraging wife and disparaging friends, sinned or blamed God. Job had not subscribed to the prosperity gospel.
But what will occur when the declaration falls void and life takes a dive into the dumpster? What then? What happens to this pastor-defined loving god they have created? The factual error with this philosophy lies in history itself. Did not Christ love Paul? What about Stephen? Were not William Tyndale, John Huss, Hugh Latimer, and Jim Elliot spreading the Gospel and preaching Christ’s love as He commanded us? They were most certainly not blessed with riches and health. They were, in fact, all killed for their faith. In addition, Mark 13, verses 9 and 13 tells Christians, “But be on your guard. For they will deliver you over to councils, and you will be beaten in synagogues, and you will stand before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them…And you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.” That does not sound much like a supernatural wealth transfer! And this time of trial is when thousands of people every year decide their critics have been right all along. Numerous people with a history of a faith in God have reported that their belief completely changed or vaporised upon the realisation that God was not going to bless them with earthly bounty. God has no care for them after all. God is dead. Religion is old-fashioned. God failed them. They are done with Him. But who is this god? Pastor Osteen, along with numerous others, is preaching about a god they claim is the God of Christianity, but this god they speak of is not the true living God of the Bible. The prosperity gospel’s god is not the Christian God and kills the seeds planted by true Christian faith.
David Jones and Russell Woodbridge write in Health, Wealth, and Happiness: Has the Prosperity Gospel Overshadowed the Gospel of Christ, “According to this new gospel, if believers repeat positive confessions, focus their thoughts, and generate enough faith, God will release blessings upon their lives. This new gospel claims that God desires and even promises that believers will live a healthy and financially prosperous life.” (Jones 15) But, when people begin to realise that God is not their genie in a bottle, granting them their every wish, they become disillusioned, turning away from God in rejection and bitterness. They are dissatisfied with this conception of God that has failed them. This is the biggest tragedy of all: a religion that directs people away from the true Christ. In Luke 17:12, Jesus says that if anyone causes a believer to stumble in their walk to Christ, “it would be better for him if a millstone was hung around his neck and he was cast into the sea”. People become embittered against God. Their anger stems from a feeling of betrayal and disappointment with their false belief in a god who would grant them their heart’s desires if they just followed a few sets of rules and donated to the church’s weekly offering.
Jesus pointed to tribulations that will arise from being a follower of Him. Why all the pain? The hurt and suffering is most certainly not caused because Jesus has no love for His elect. The grief is simply because the fallen world has rejected Christ, so they will, undoubtedly, reject His followers and make life excessively difficult for them. Jesus said that the world will hate His followers for their faith in Him. Matthew writes, “For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” This does not sound much like prosperity on this earth. It does not sound like, after invoking God’s blessings, He will inexplicably roll a Ferrari filled with cash into His closest follower’s driveway. In fact, it sounds like the opposite. David Jones in his book, Health, Wealth, and Happiness: Has the Prosperity Gospel Overshadowed the Gospel of Christ?, says, “The prosperity gospel contains a grain of biblical truth, albeit a grain of truth that has been greatly distorted. Proponents of the prosperity gospel teach that God is love, that He has the power to bless, and that He is exceedingly gracious toward His creation.” (Jones 18) Creflo Dollar says on the Creflo Dollar Ministries website’s “Blessed Not Cursed”, “If you have accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour, you are blessed!” (Dollar 15 November 2013) Creflo’s definition of this blessing, again, is a material wealth that the prosperity gospel seemingly gleans from Scripture.
In his sermon on Grace to You, “Religion and It’s Victims”, Bible teacher John MacArthur warns, “Beware of the false shepherds, the false teachers who take the last coins out of the widows’ purse to fill their coffers on the pretence that that kind of giving is the path to blessing. That is the prosperity gospel.” (MacArthur 11 October 2013) This false gospel teaches salvation not by faith, but by works. It evokes a sense of self-accomplishment after salvation. Pastor Osteen even says that it is up to the sinner to make Jesus the Lord of their life. Sometimes success distracts one from God and gives the subscriber to this gospel an affirmation that following Christ brings worldly bounties. Both of these scenarios can give the sinner a sense of pride and pointing to himself rather than God. In The Heart of the Prosperity Gospel, Dan Lioy claims, “When people insist they are complete within themselves, it leads to a rejection of virtually every truth-claim about God and His existence. A Christ-centred ethical norm is jettisoned for a man-centred, materialistic one.” (49) But the Bible clearly teaches in numerous places that it is by grace that salvation occurs, through faith, not of anyone’s merit, rather it is a gift from God that even enables people to be saved by Him. Salvation does not occur by an emotional feeling with tears and fear from a current bind. Salvation occurs when Jesus Christ initiates a process within the predestined individual which creates a desire to follow Christ. People that are wholly bought into the lies of the prosperity gospel are being distracted from the True Gospel which proclaims time and again that Jesus Christ is all that the Christian needs. The True Gospel teaches that His grace is sufficient. This life is not about His follower’s pleasure or worldly joy. Rather, the Christian Gospel teaches that life is all about serving God and glorifying Him.
In 1095 A.D., the Catholic Church instated the selling of what they called indulgences. These indulgences, which were sometimes kept track of by tokens, issued full or partial diminution of the penalty for sins after the offender admitted and received pardon. In Catholic doctrine, all sins must be cleansed on earth or after death in purgatory. The Catholic Church began selling these absolutions and reaped great profits. Sinners worldwide would pay the Catholic Church in the hopes that their anguish would be minimised in exchange for this lucre. Much like then, the modern church, particularly ones that teach and exercise the prosperity gospel, strongly encourages the repetitive giving of money to church government, functions, maintenance, groups, organisations, and outreaches. They obligate the subscriber to give in order to get. The church government functions much like a corporate business with junior pastors, music pastors, and extra teachers in the place of vice presidents and middle management. The elders and deacons are working in the place that supervisors and regional managers operate and finally the congregation in general are the lowly workers who end up working the hardest for this salvation by works. This ends up just like a classic pyramid scheme simply because the pastor keeps preaching and pressuring everyone to give more to the church with the promise that God will shower them with healing, relationships, and every gift imaginable. They claim that God wants to bless His children so much, but their unwillingness to give what they have is holding Him back. Manipulated by this lie, people give more and more to those above them, and those above them keep giving more, and so on. The pastors and leaders at the very top end up receiving enormous amounts of money, and what results is a pyramid scheme.
In Luke 21, the story of the widow who threw her last coins into the Pharisee’s coffers is told. Most Christians today assume this is powerful proof to tithe and give most, if not all of your money to church causes. They say that Christians are to mimic that great example of giving everything they have and having faith that God will give them, in return, bounty many times more than what they gave. They state that the parable of the poor woman who gave away her last coin to the Pharisees is a wonderful example of how someone gave all she had to God and His work. However, their very premise is flawed and out of original context. Jesus was not commending the widow’s actions. He was telling his disciples how the widow was so bought into the system that the Jewish culture had formed, that she was pressured into giving her very livelihood into the scheme. This is very clear in the Greek, but the translation has left it a bit ambiguous. The ancient Jewish culture was the perfect pyramid scheme and the widow was at the very bottom. She would now starve and the high ranking religious leaders would have a few more coins in their purses. It is shameful to take advantage of the poor just as much as it is shameful to take advantage of those who are weaker in their faith and might easily buy into these lies of the prosperity gospel.
Capitalism as a whole has been a source of encouragement for this gospel of prosperity because as a nation, the United States, and other first world nations where it flourishes, has learned to live with much. People are encouraged and demanded by cultural norms to succeed at all costs and to make more than enough money to rest on a financial cushion and be accepted by higher spheres of social life. But are Christians supposed to make a certain income? Are they required to be at a certain social standing? John MacArthur writes in Whose Money Is It Anyway, that everyone has a different place in society.
“The Lord in His providence has made each human being unique, with differing abilities to earn money. As a result, people have written great books and composed outstanding pieces of music, painted memorable pictures, and produced stage and film masterpieces, designed engineering marvels, developed new businesses, and discovered indispensable technical advances, all of which have generated personal income and benefited the world’s social and economic structures. Such efforts are all within the framework of God’s creative purpose and sovereign plan for mankind’s use of the earth’s great wealth.” (6)
Christians’ best lives are not now on earth, followers of Christ are not to expect material blessings for following Him, and contextually speaking, Biblical blessings are not the wealth and health that the prosperity gospel advocates claim they are. Their teaching does not come from the inspired Word of God, the Bible. Prosperity gospel speakers use Scripture in their sermons, but have taken it out of context and change the meaning to fit what they are comfortable with, rather than what Scripture teaches, therefore making their claims void and contrary to the true Gospel. The Gospel of Jesus Christ teaches Christians that their identity is not in social standing or health and wealth. Rather, a Christian’s identity is in Christ. In fact, the word bondservant in the New Testament is literally translated as slave. Christians are slaves of Jesus Christ but since He is the perfect Master and they are joyful slaves to His will, this does not have an unfavourable connotation. In fact, it is the best place to be since without Him, humans would be wallowing in their own wills and attempts at a works based salvation or earthly success. Humans are either slaves of sin or slaves of Christ. With Christ as Lord, His children are protected, eternally provided for, and are fellow heirs of the Kingdom of God. The prosperity gospel is not the true Gospel! In John 16:33, John writes the words of Christ, “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” Jesus Christ’s followers may not be prosperous in this life, but the next life is where the true everlasting prosperity awaits.
Bogan, Jesse. Forbes. Web. “America’s Biggest Megachurches.” Forbes Magazine. (14 Oct.
Dollar, Creflo. Web. “Blessed Not Cursed.” Creflo Dollar Ministries. (15
Hinn, Benny. Web. “Your Supernatural Wealth Transfer Is Coming.” Benny Hinn Ministries.
Jones, David. Health, Wealth, and Happiness: Has the Prosperity Gospel Overshadowed the
Gospel of Christ?. Kregel Publications, 2010. 15, 18. Print.
Bible.org. Web. “The Bankruptcy of the Prosperity Gospel: An Exercise in Biblical and Theological Ethics.” (08 Oct. 2013). < http://bible.org/article/bankruptcy-prosperity-gospel-exercise-biblical-and-theological-ethics>.
Lioy, Dan. “The Heart of the Prosperity Gospel: Self or the Savior?.” Conspectus 4.1 (2007).
MacArthur, John. Grace To You. Web. “Religion and It’s Victims” (11 Oct. 2013).
Whose Money Is It Anyway? Nashville, TN: Word Pub., 2000. 6. Print.
Osteen, Joel. “Your Best Life Now, 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential.” New York, NY:
FaithWords, 2004. 132. Print.
Tilton, Robert; Parker Tim. BibleDollar.com. Web. “Is It God’s Will For You To Be
Rich?” (15 Oct. 2013). <http://bibledollar.com/is-it-gods-will-for-you-to-be-rich/>.