An Evaluation of the Prosperity Gospel

David Bovenmyer

Copyright 2000, 2007 Great Commission Churches, Used by Permission

What is the prosperity gospel?

Prosperity theology is not confined to a denomination or a tradition, but is a many-faceted movement that has infiltrated much of modern-day Christianity, influencing primarily the charismatic movement, but also non-charismatic churches as well. Preachers of the prosperity gospel include some of the most popular and successful Christian media personalities of the late 20th century — Kenneth Hagin, Kenneth Copeland, Benny Hinn, Robert Tilton, Marilyn Hickey.  Other advocates include Paul Yonggi Cho, pastor of the world’s largest church in Seoul, South Korea, and Paul and Jan Crouch, founders of Trinity Broadcasting Network.

Advocates of the prosperity gospel claim that God wants all believers to be materially prosperous and free from sickness.  Thus if a believer is poor or sick, he is outside the will of God for his life.  Through faith and obedience to God’s principles, the believer has the power to heal any sickness and gain amazing wealth.  If the promised blessing is not immediately received, patience and a refusal to doubt or to speak a “negative confession” will eventually bring about healing or prosperity.  Thus the prosperity movement is often called the “word-faith” movement.

What are the roots of the prosperity gospel?

The founding father of the Prosperity or Faith movement is commonly held to be Kenneth Erwin Hagin, the man termed by Charisma magazine as “the granddaddy of the Faith teachers,” and “the father of the Faith movement.”[1] Many prominent Faith teachers, including Kenneth Copeland, K. C. Price, Charles Capps, and many others acknowledge Hagin as their spiritual mentor or “father.”   However, according to D. R. McConnell in his book, A Different Gospel, the bulk of Hagin’s theology did not originate with himself or from his alleged visions, revelations and divine visitations.  Rather they came largely from the writings of Baptist preacher E. W. Kenyon.[2] And according to McConnell, Kenyon’s theology can be traced to his personal background in the metaphysical cults, specifically New Thought and Christian Science. In an effort to revitalize the church, Kenyon attempted to combine some of the teachings of New Thought metaphysics with orthodox evangelical Christianity.  This resulted in what is called “syncretism,” the combining of two or more different, even contradictory, religious beliefs in an attempt to form one system.

Indeed, most of the distinctive teachings of the faith movement are similar, if not identical, to teachings found in the metaphysical cults.  These cults, by and large, promote the notion that sickness and suffering ultimately have their origin in incorrect thinking and that man can create his own reality through the power of positive affirmation (confession).   Metaphysical practitioners teach their adherents to visualize health and wealth, and then to affirm or confess them with their mouths so that the intangible images may be transformed into tangible realities.[3]

What are the specific doctrinal claims of prosperity adherents?

There are three specific teachings of the prosperity movement that will be addressed in this paper.  Prosperity theology teaches that:

1) It is not God’s will for any Christian to be sick.  In defense of this position, it is alleged that physical healing is part of what was achieved in the death of Christ. Because healing is part of the atonement, it is as readily available to the believer as forgiveness.

2) It is not God’s will for any Christian to be poor.  On the contrary, any believer who exercises sufficient faith can be exceedingly wealthy.

3) Faith is considered a “force” that compels God to act according to His promises. And faith is indicated and controlled by the words we speak. Thus we must only speak “positive” words and avoid “negative” faith-defeating words.

Is healing found in the atonement?

Prosperity adherents claim that it is not in God’s will for anyone to be sick.  For example Kenneth Hagin teaches, “Don’t ever tell anyone sickness is the will of God for us.  It isn’t!  Healing and health are the will of God for mankind.  If sickness were the will of God, heaven would be filled with sickness and disease.”[4]

The primary support for this claim is the idea that power for healing is found in the atonement and therefore healing of all diseases is guaranteed in the Cross.  Let’s first look at Isaiah 53:4-5, the primary verse that is used to support this claim, and at Matthew 8:16, where Isaiah is quoted.

(Isaiah 53:4-5 NIV) Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.

(Matthew 8:16-17 NIV)  When evening came, many who were demon-possessed were brought to him, and he drove out the spirits with a word and healed all the sick. 17 This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah: “He took up our infirmities and carried our diseases.”

One question at issue in Isaiah 53:4-5 is whether Isaiah is referring to physical healing or to spiritual healing.  The Hebrew word translated “healed” in verse five has a broad meaning, similar to the English word “healed.” It is used in scripture to refer to physical healing from sickness, but it is also used to refer to the healing of nations from their troubles or the healing of personal hurts and distress.  Similarly, the word “infirmities” in verse four can refer to physical sickness or weakness, but also to grief (as it is translated in the NASB). The context of Isaiah 53:5 would seem to fit a figurative meaning for “healed” just as easily, and perhaps more easily, than a physical meaning.  The suffering servant was punished for our iniquities, bringing us “peace,” carrying our “sorrows,” and bringing us “healing.”  The meaning of the words “infirmities” and “healed” could definitely included healing from physical sickness, but would seem to include other figurative types of healing as well.

A fairly strong argument can be made from Matthew 8:17 that physical healing of sicknesses is indeed included in the concepts of healing mentioned in Isaiah 53:4-5, since Matthew points to Jesus’ healing ministry as a fulfillment of Isaiah 53:4. So, it seems that the “healing” and “infirmities” referred to by Isaiah must at least include physical healing, even if Isaiah’s intent was to be broader than only physical healing.

But note that the passage does not teach that Christ’s death immediately took away all sickness.  It does imply that He took away all our iniquity—”the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (NIV).  Other passages teach even more clearly that He died for all our sins (for example Colossians 2:14 and Hebrews 10:12, 17).  Yet the fact that He bore all our sins does not necessarily mean that He has immediately taken away all the consequences of sin.  For example, Isaiah says that He “carried our sorrows,” yet Christians are still sorrowful at times.  His punishment brought us “peace,” yet Christians still have trials and relational conflicts.  In this age, His death has brought us increased peace and has diminished our sorrows, but it has not brought total peace or totally eradicated our sorrows.  There is an issue of timing involved.  Not all of the consequences of sin were immediately taken away at the death of Christ.  An obvious example is physical death.  Death is a consequence of sin, yet 1 Corinthians 15:50-55 tells us that death will not be destroyed until the second coming of Christ.  Many other consequences of sin will also be with us until the return of Christ, such as mourning, crying, and pain, (Revelation 21:4) as well as the curse (Revelation 22:3).

Some preachers have stressed the tense of Isaiah 53:5, “by his wounds we are healed.”  It doesn’t say that we “will be healed,” but that we “are” healed—right now!  Yet, we must not forget that Isaiah 53:5 is a prophesy, written 700 years before Christ.  Yet he speaks of Christ’s death in the past tense.  Should we conclude from this that Christ died before Isaiah wrote these words?  No!  Rather, Isaiah, caught up in the Spirit of God, prophesied from the reference of a different time frame than his own experience.  In light of this prophetic literary device, we should be careful not to make too much of the tense employed.

In conclusion, there is nothing in Isaiah 53 that demands or even clearly implies that Christ died to bring us immediate physical healing from all sickness.  Although the verse shows that His death was for all our sins, it does not state that His death immediately took away all the consequences of sin.

Does the Bible teach that believers are still subject to sickness and bodily injury?

Many verses teach that, in this age, a believer’s physical body is still subject to weakness, corruption, and even illness.

Romans 8:18-24 talks about the “sufferings of this present time” and how they are not worthy to be compared to the glories to be revealed to us.  Creation itself “groans as in the pains of childbirth,” longing to be liberated from its “bondage to decay.” Believers also “groan inwardly” and await eagerly the redemption of their bodies.  This passage makes it clear that, in this age, our bodies are still subject to suffering and to the bondage to decay that all creation continues to experience.

In 2 Corinthians 4:16, Paul speaks of how his “outer man” was “decaying,” yet his “inner man” was being renewed day by day.  The outer man is certainly referring to his physical body, which was decaying.

In Philippians 3:21, Paul longs for the day when Christ will “transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.”

In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul speaks of our bodies as “perishable” and “mortal.”

In 2 Corinthians 4:7 Paul talks of how we have the treasure of the knowledge of God housed in “earthen vessels,” in order that the all-surpassing power might come from God and not from ourselves.  Paul goes on to describe how he was “persecuted,” “struck down,” “always carrying around in our body the death of Jesus.”

In 2 Corinthians 12:7 Paul tells of how he was given a “thorn in the flesh” to keep him from exalting himself because of the tremendously great revelations he was receiving.  The term “flesh” here, is clearly referring to his physical body.  Whatever this bodily affliction was, it must have been severe, since Paul says that it was given to “buffet” (NAS) or “torment” (NIV) him.  Paul learned to actually “delight” in this bodily affliction, since the Lord revealed to him that God’s power was revealed and perfected in our weaknesses.  Far from being due to a lack of faith or of spirituality, Paul’s bodily affliction was specifically allowed by God because of his spirituality and the greatness of the revelations he was receiving.

In Galatians 4:12-16, Paul reminds the Galatians that it was because of an “illness” that he preached the gospel to them.  Evidently this illness must have involved his eyes, since the Galatians were so grateful to him that they would have “torn out their eyes” and given them to Paul, if they could have done so.  Perhaps this is the same illness that Paul refers to as a “thorn in the flesh” in 2 Corinthians.

In 2 Tim 4:20, Paul writes that he left his fellow-worker Trophimus sick at Miletus.  Trophimus was one of Paul’s traveling companions and a representative of the churches in Asia Minor when they sent their gift to Jerusalem.  So, he was not an insignificant Christian who might tend to be weak in faith, but was a well-known Christian leader from a large church (Ephesus).  Evidently Trophimus had a significant illness, since it prevented him from continuing on his journey with Paul.

A particularly instructive passage is Philippians 2:25-30 concerning Epaphroditus’ illness.

25 But I think it is necessary to send back to you Epaphroditus, my brother, fellow worker and fellow soldier, who is also your messenger, whom you sent to take care of my needs. 26 For he longs for all of you and is distressed because you heard he was ill. 27 Indeed he was ill, and almost died. But God had mercy on him, and not on him only but also on me, to spare me sorrow upon sorrow. 28 Therefore I am all the more eager to send him, so that when you see him again you may be glad and I may have less anxiety. 29 Welcome him in the Lord with great joy, and honor men like him, 30 because he almost died for the work of Christ, risking his life to make up for the help you could not give me.

Here is a man, Epaphroditus, evidently a leader in the church at Philippi, who was sent to bring a gift to Paul in his imprisonment in Rome.  Again we see that even Christian leaders in the Bible became ill, and in this case so seriously ill that he almost died.  But notice Paul’s reaction to his illness.  Had Paul believed the prosperity theology, he might have written, “Pray that God would increase our brother’s faith, so that he has faith enough not to become ill like that again.”  But Paul says nothing about a lack of faith.  On the contrary, He highly commends Epaphroditus and views his service that led to his sickness as “risking his life” for the work of Christ.  So, rather than cast doubt upon Epaphroditus’ faith, Paul commends it.

In 1 Tim 5:23 Paul writes to Timothy, “ Stop drinking only water, and use a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illnesses.”  Here again, we see Timothy, a prominent Christian leader and an apostle (1 Thessalonians 1:1 & 2:6), battling with frequent illnesses.  Again, Paul gives Timothy no exhortations to believe or to confess positive words.  Neither does he point him to promises that God will heal all illnesses.  Nor does he speak of healing as an entitlement we can claim as a result of the death of Christ. Rather he points to a practical medicinal approach—drink a little wine.

Clearly, these verses give abundant testimony that faithful and faith-filled believers in the New Testament, from Epaphroditus to Timothy to Paul himself suffered from bodily afflictions and illness.

McConnell summarizes the error of the prosperity teaching like this:

“Contrary to the Faith anthropology, the believers body is not made impervious to disease through faith, the new birth, positive confession, or anything else.  I remains a “perishable” body of “weakness” and “dishonor.”  But at the return of Christ, the believer’s decaying and mortal body will undergo an incredible change (1 Cor. 15:51-55). Disease will only be defeated when death is finally defeated: at the return of Christ and the general resurrection.  The error of the Faith theology is that it ascribes a power to faith healing that will only be manifest at the end of the age.”[5]

What do the prosperity teachers teach about material prosperity?

Prosperity preachers teach that material prosperity is available to all believers, not simply to meet our needs, but to bring us wealth.  Consider the following statements:

“He wants His children to eat the best, He wants them to wear the best clothing, He wants them to drive the best cars, and He wants them to have the best of everything.”[6] — Kenneth Hagin.

“Did God put…silver, and gold here on earth for the devil and his bunch? …No! He put these things here for His people to enjoy.  He wants us to have the best!”[7] —Kenneth Hagin.

You can have what you say! In fact, what you are saying is exactly what you are getting now.  If you are living in poverty and lack and want, change what you are saying.  It will change what you have. …Discipline your vocabulary. Discipline everything you do, everything you say, and everything you think to agree with what God does, what God says, and what God thinks.  God will be obligated to meet your needs because of His Word. …If you stand firmly on this, your needs will be met.[8] —Kenneth Copland

Prosperity preachers advance numerous verses and arguments in support of their contention that God desires wealth for all His children.

In Joshua 1:8, God gave a promise to Joshua that if He obeyed God, he would be prosperous and successful.

In 2 Chronicles 20:20, King Jehoshaphat spoke to Judah, “Have faith in the LORD your God and you will be upheld; have faith in his prophets and you will be successful” (NIV).

In Nehemiah 2:20, Nehemiah replies to his enemies, “The God of heaven will give us success.”

Psalm 1:3 states that the righteous man will prosper in whatever he does.

Psalm 35:27 indicates that God takes pleasure in the prosperity of His servant.

In 3 John 2 the apostle John writes to Gaius, “Beloved, I pray that in all respects you may prosper and be in good health, just as your soul prospers (NASV).

An appeal is also made to the Abrahamic covenant, of which believers have become partakers through Christ.  The personal blessings God bestowed on Abraham are extrapolated as benefits for believers today.  According to Hagin, Abraham’s blessings were threefold: spiritual, physical, and also financial.[9] Justification for applying Abraham’s prosperity to Christians today is sought in Galatians 3:14 “In order that in Christ Jesus, the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles.”

Achieving prosperity, according to prosperity preachers involves three things, knowing, obeying, and believing.  First the believer must know and be convinced that it is God’s will for him to prosper.  Secondly, obeying the laws of God are necessary for prosperity: “If he doesn’t obey the laws of God that produce prosperity, he will not be able to appropriate them.…Obedience is the key to prosperity!”[10] And finally, faith must be exercised. Faith amounts to claiming authority over the financial resources already guaranteed by God: “If you make up your mind…that you are willing to live in divine prosperity and abundance, Satan cannot stop the flow of God’s financial blessings. …You have exercised your faith in the covenant that you have with God.”[11]

The prospects of wealth can be astounding.  Mark 10:30 is claimed as the basis of God’s financial blessings.  “You give $1 for the gospel’s sake and $100 belongs to you, give $10 and receive $1,000; give $1,000 and receive $100,000. 1)…Give one house and receive one hundred houses or one house worth one hundred times as much.  Give one airplane and receive one hundred times the value of the airplane.  Give one car and the return would furnish you a lifetime of cars.  In short, Mark 10:30 is a very good deal.” [12]

Of, course, the hundred fold return is not automatic.  You must “believe it in.”  The “force of faith” must be continually exerted, and if the pressure of faith relaxes, the return will stop flowing in.  Faith is the means of collecting the amount owed from the hundred fold return.  According to Kenneth Copeland, “When a man makes deposits with God, he has a right to call upon these deposits and make withdrawals.”[13]

How should we evaluate these verses and arguments?

One of the primary rules of interpretation is to interpret a verse in its context.  If we look at the context of Joshua 1:8, we see that God is promising Joshua prosperity and success in military victory, not financial success.  It specifically relates to the conquest of the Promised Land by Israel as the outworking of the land promises given in God’s covenant to Abraham.

The same is true in 2 Chronicles 20:20.  Jehoshaphat’s exhortation to have faith in God’s prophets and be successful relate to military victory, not financial prosperity.

Nehemiah’s response to his enemies, that the God of heaven would give them success was referring to success in rebuilding Jerusalem’s wall, not financial success.  In fact, the wall was rebuilt in the midst of a famine (Nehemiah 5:3).

The promise of prospering in Psalm 1 uses the same word used in Joshua 1:8.  The word does not necessarily carry the connotation of financial prosperity.  It is most often used in a more general way to refer to success in whatever endeavor is undertaken.  Two points must be noted about Psalm 1.  First, that even a righteous man bears fruit “in season.”  Continuous success is not promised.  Secondly, the promise envisions that the prospering man is following the will of God, which he ascertains and responds to as a result of meditating on God’s word.  The Psalm does not promise success in whatever endeavor a man may undertake, whether or not the undertaking is in the will of God.  Rather the Psalm promises success to those who meditate on God’s word, follow His leading, and undertake endeavors that are His will.  Nothing in the Psalm indicates that it is God’s will for every righteous person to be continually financially prosperous.

Psalm 35:27 uses a different Hebrew word for “prosperity,” the word “shalom.” The word brings the idea of completeness, and is most often translated “peace.” Here it means “welfare” (RSV), or well-being (NIV) and is not specifically referring to financial prosperity.  God delights in our well-being, yet there may be times when our well-being may actually be furthered more by financial want than by abundance.  Sometimes God is more concerned with developing our character than granting our comfort.

John’s prayer in 2 John 2 that Gaius might “prosper” in all respects was simply a prayer for health and safety.  There is no promise or indication of God’s will in the verse.  The Greek word literally means “good journey” and does not necessarily carry the idea of financial prosperity but rather has the idea that things would go well.  Actually, the prayer seems to assume that Gaius was prospering spiritually and needed special prayer for his health.  John was not as confident in Gaius’ good health physically as he was in his good health spiritually.

Concerning the argument that the Abrahamic covenant promises us wealth, God’s promise to Abraham did involve a promise to his descendants of land and blessing.  The promise also speaks about a blessing that would extend to the whole world through Abraham.  Over 400 years later, the Law of Moses, given to the nation of Israel, set forth blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience.  These blessings certainly included material blessings.  However, these promises and warnings were given in a specific time to a specific nation and do not necessarily apply to the church in this age.  Galatians 3:14 states that the blessing of Abraham has come to the Gentiles, yet goes on to state that it came “so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith” (NASV).  We receive a blessing of infinitely greater value than material blessing.  We receive the Spirit of God.  Nothing in this verse teaches that any material blessings promised to Abraham and the people of Israel have transferred to the church.

And, finally, concerning Mark 10:29-31, again we must take into account the context of the verse.

“I tell you the truth,’ Jesus replied, ‘no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age (homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—and with them, persecutions) and in the age to come, eternal life.  But many who are first will be last, and the last first.’”

This verse does promise a hundred-fold return for things sacrificed for Jesus and the gospel, and the promise is to be realized in “this present age.”  However, it is a violation of the sense of the verse and its context to say that God will give back a hundred fold for every gift given for the gospel.  First of all, the passage would seem to apply primarily, if not exclusively, to those who have left their careers and embraced a life of privation in preaching the gospel full time, as the apostles had done.  Secondly, the passage indicates that the hundred fold return may not be in the same form as what was given up.  Neither is it clear that the apostles would actually possess these hundred fold returns.  For example, no man can have a hundred literal mothers or brothers or sisters.  Clearly, Jesus is talking about relationships with other disciples in the kingdom who become like mothers or brothers or sisters.  Similarly, the “homes” need not mean that they would possess 100 homes for every one they gave up.  Most likely the idea is that there will be hundreds of people who will share their home with you, or the produce of their field with you were you to need them to.  Jesus was assuring the apostles that their sacrifices for Him and for the gospel would not go unrewarded and assuring them that their future was secure, even in this life.  Yet the fulfillment of the promise seems to envision the care and generosity of other disciples in the kingdom of God, rather than the acquisition of great personal wealth.

We should ask ourselves, “How were these verses fulfilled in the lives of the apostles?”  From what we know of their lives, none of them ever actually possessed a hundred homes or fields.  Yet they did have hundreds of people who sold property and laid the proceeds at their feet.  But they did not keep the money.  Instead, they distributed it to any who had need.  And they certainly had hundreds and thousands of people who would have let them use, or even given them homes or fields if they had need of them.  Yet there is no indication than any of the apostles ever pursued or achieved great personal wealth.  The testimony of the Bible and of early church history would indicate just the opposite.

Are there examples of faithful and faith-filled believers who lived in poverty in the Bible?

Numerous verses refute the prosperity teaching that financial prosperity will be obtained by every faith-filled believer.  One of the most devastating is in Hebrews 11.

(Hebrews 11:36-40 NIV) Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated—the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.

Here are some men and women of God who were “destitute,” going around in “sheepskins and goatskins,” and living in “caves and holes in the ground.” Obviously they experienced great financial need and privation.  Was it because they did not know about God’s promise of prosperity, or did not have the faith to claim it?  No!  They were commended for their faith.  So much so that they even made it into the Bible’s hall of faith in Hebrews 11.

Another powerful refutation of the material aspect of the prosperity theology is to look at the life of the apostle Paul.  In Philippians 4: 11‑13 Paul writes that he knew what it was like to be in need and what it was like to live in plenty.  He learned that he could do everything through Christ, Who gave him strength. Paul’s secret for getting along in “need” was not through exercising a “faith” that changed his circumstances, but through learning to be “content.”  He knew that God would supply his bare necessities, yet he also had to learn to be content in privation and need.   His contentment in need directly flies in the face of the “name it, claim it” prosperity philosophy.  Paul Himself was poor.  More than that, he boasted in being poor.  In his defense of his apostleship in 2 Corinthians 6:3-10, Paul gives a list of sacrifices he had made and difficulties he had endured.  He gives the list to “commend” himself and his companions as “servants of God.”  Paul’s list includes “poor, yet making many rich,” and “having nothing, yet possessing everything.”  Clearly in this passage, Paul boasted in his poverty and saw it as establishing his credibility as a servant of God.

In 2 Corinthians 12:27, Paul resorts to “boasting” in his effort to regain the Corinthians’ respect and to undermine the false apostles who they were tempted to follow.  Then he gives a list detailing the incredible sacrifices he had made to bring the gospel to others.  Included in that list is the statement, “I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.”  Again we see that Paul was not only poor at times, but he boasted in his poverty.  If Paul had believed or taught the “prosperity gospel,” he would have never boasted in his poverty, since the prosperity teaching says that poverty is a result of a lack of knowledge, obedience, or faith.  The prosperity teaching says that wealth is an indication of spirituality, yet Paul appeals to just the opposite.  To him, poverty (at least poverty endured because of a choice to love others and preach the gospel to them) was an indication of spirituality and gave him tremendous bragging rights over the false apostles who were trying to steal the Corinthians’ affections (as well as their money).

A final example from Paul’s life is found in 1 Corinthians 4: 8-16:

Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! You have become kings—and that without us! How I wish that you really had become kings so that we might be kings with you! 9 For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like men condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to men. 10 We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are honored, we are dishonored! 11 To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. 12 We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; 13 when we are slandered, we answer kindly. Up to this moment we have become the scum of the earth, the refuse of the world. 14 I am not writing this to shame you, but to warn you, as my dear children. 15 Even though you have ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. 16 Therefore I urge you to imitate me.

The Corinthians had become “rich” and “full” and “kings.”  These  three blessings that will characterize the future messianic kingdom, were “already” being claimed by the Corinthians now.  Paul admonishes them that the time for fullness, richness, and reigning had not yet arrived.  Then he points to his own life and states that to the very hour of his writing, he and his companions were hungry and thirsty and homeless.  They were the ‘scum of the earth, the refuse of the world.”  Then, at the end of the passage, he admonishes them to “imitate me.”  He did not want to “shame” them, but to “warn” them that they were not living rightly in this present age.

Apparently, the Corinthians believers had come to believe a teaching similar to the prosperity gospel.  Perhaps they were embarrassed by Paul’s sacrificial life and sufferings.  Evidently, like many modern Christians, they were impressed by supposed “apostles” who had the three P’s—power, prestige and prosperity.  Paul’s stinging rebuke, as he compared their lives with his, is a clear indication of what he (and of course God) thought of their “prosperity” theology.

Jesus Himself is the final, but most significant, example of a man of God who lived in poverty.  Our Lord left the riches of heaven, became a man, and embraced a life of deprivation and hardship.  He was born into and grew up in a poor family[14].  During His ministry, He told His disciples that He had nowhere to lay His head (Matthew 8:20).  He had to perform a miracle in order to pay the two-drachma temple tax (Matt. 17:24-27).  At His death, the Roman soldiers cast lots for His clothing, His only earthly possessions (Luke 23:34).  He left behind no estate, having asked John the disciple to care for his mother (John 19:26-27). No one would dare to suggest that God the Son was out of harmony with the will of God the Father or that He had lacked the faith to obtain wealth.

Can we claim financial prosperity as a result of Christ’s death on our behalf?

Similar to their teaching concerning healing, prosperity teachers teach that prosperity is part of the atonement.  The chief verse used to defend this idea is 2 Corinthians 8:9, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich.”  But a look at the context of the verse shows that Paul is not telling the Corinthians that they can anticipate great wealth because of the work of Christ.  Rather, Paul is exhorting them to follow the example of Christ and give of what they have to meet the needs of others.

As the verse says, Christ did come to make us rich.  Yet the issue is when—now in this age or when Christ comes in his kingdom?  Unquestionably, we have already received abundant spiritual wealth in this age.  Romans 8, Ephesians 1 and other passages list the blessings—forgiveness, reconciliation, justification, sanctification.  Ephesians 1:3 states the we have received “every spiritual blessing in Christ.”  We have also received the gift of the Holy Spirit, who is a down-payment “guaranteeing our inheritance.”  The death of Christ does make us rich, yet we have not yet received the majority of our inheritance.  What we have so far is only the down payment.  And what we have received now is primarily spiritual blessings.

The underlying assumption of the prosperity gospel is that Christ went to the cross so that we won’t have to.  He took not only our sins, but our sickness and poverty.  Yet the teaching of the New Testament is radically contrary to that.  The message that the New Testament constantly emphasizes is that we also must take up a cross.  As the Father sent Jesus, so Jesus has sent us (John 20:21).  Rather than leading us to believe that all our difficulties have been taken away, the cross should inspire us to follow in Jesus’ footsteps and voluntarily accept difficulties in our mission to reach out to and save others.

Jesus did not endure the cross so that His followers could indulge in the lusts of the world.  Quite the contrary, only those who make Jesus’ cross their cross can even claim to be His followers.  In Mark 8:34, He says, “Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me (NIV).  Jesus’ point is that those who want to follow Him must expect and prepare themselves to make the same sort of sacrifices that He did, even losing their lives as He did.

In Matthew 10:24, Jesus says, ” “A student is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master.” Should we really expect to have more or live a more comfortable life than our Master did?  In God’s plan, some believers may do so, but this verse teaches that no believer has a right to expect or demand a better life than our Master.  Rather, we should expect to be treated like He was and face trials similar to His.

Acts 14:21 is a fascinating verse.  Paul and Barnabas returned to the cities where they had preached, “strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith. ‘We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God,’ they said.”  Isn’t this an odd way to strengthen and encourage people—“You’re going to have a lot of problems”?  Why was this message encouraging?  Because these believers were going through immense difficulties.  Paul and Barnabas were telling them: “It’s OK.  This is normal.  Troubles like this are part of the plan of God. Yet understand that after the troubles are over, we will enter paradise in the kingdom of God.”   Such a message builds faith that God is in control, even in the tribulation.  It is all part of His plan.  In this regard, the prosperity gospel, rather than building people’s faith has often discouraged it.  When believers encounter “many hardships” such as sickness, poverty, or persecution, the prosperity gospel forces them to conclude that either they are extremely weak in faith, or that God is not faithful.

What does the scripture teach about wealth?

The prosperity gospel also ignores or minimizes the many scriptural warnings and admonitions concerning wealth.  Consider the following verses:

(Hebrews 13:5 NIV) “Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.”

The author’s point is that since we have God, we should be content with Him and not be in love with material wealth.

(Luke 6:20-21 NIV) Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied.

(Luke 6:24-25 NIV) But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort. Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry.

(Matthew 19:23-24 NIV) Then Jesus said to his disciples, I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.  Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.

(Matthew 6:19-21 NIV) Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.  But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

(Matthew 6:24 NIV) No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.”

(Mark 4:18-19 NIV) Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word;  but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful.

(James 2:5 NIV) Listen, my dear brothers: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?

(James 5:1 NIV) Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you.

(Luke 16:14-15 NIV) The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus.  He said to them, “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of men, but God knows your hearts. What is highly valued among men is detestable in God’s sight.”

(James 4:4 NIV) You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God

What has God promised in regard to money?

God has promised that if we seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, He will meet our needs.  In Matthew 6: 33, Jesus says, “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”  What are “these things” that Jesus talks about?  They are the concerns expressed in the questions: “What shall we eat?” or “what shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” (Matthew 6:31).  These are the basic needs of survival.  God promises to meet our basic needs.  We have no promise that we will become wealthy in this life.

Paul sets forth the same standard for contentment in 1 Timothy 6:6‑8: “But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that.”

God may bless us at times so that we have plenty, as He did Paul (Philippians 4:12).  But the New Testament standard seems to be that we should be content as long as we have food and covering.  We should not reject prosperity that God may bring in the belief that money or possessions are inherently evil, for God “richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment (1 Timothy 6:17).  On the other hand, we must not accept the world’s view of money.  And when we have abundance, we should heed God’s warnings about the seductive nature of wealth and prosperity.  One way to do this is to do what Paul commands for those who are rich: “…to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life (1 Timothy 6:18-19 NIV).

What is wrong with the prosperity theology’s concept of faith?

Prosperity teachers tend to view faith as a formula.  Words such as “formula,” “law,” “steps,” and “principles” appear quite often in Faith literature.  For example, Kenneth Hagin claimed that Jesus appeared to him in a vision and said, “If anybody, anywhere will take these four steps or put these four principles into operation, he will always receive whatever he wants from Me or God the Father.”  With these “steps,” Jesus said to Hagin, “You can write your own ticket with God.”  The four steps that Jesus gave Hagin were: 1) Say it, 2) Do it, 3) Receive it, and 4) Tell it.[15]

Thus faith becomes a force.  As Kenneth Copeland says, “Faith is a power force.  It is a conductive force.  It will move things.  Faith will change things.  Faith will change the human body.  It will change the human heart.  Faith will change circumstances. …The force of faith is released by words.  Faith-filled words put the law of the Spirit of life into operation.[16]

Note that the words we speak “release” the force of faith.  Words, whether spoken or said in the mind, have a powerful effect on faith and thus have the power to affect reality, to “change things.” Thoughts of doubt are anathema to the person seeking prosperity because it produces “the power of negative thinking.”  In the words of Tilton, “ ‘I feel sick. I look sick.  I must be sick.’  When you agreed with those thoughts which are contrary to the Word of God, it (sickness) entered in.”[17] In other words, just as positive thinking (“faith”) creates positive reality, negative thinking (“doubt”) creates negative reality.

It is hard to differentiate between this prosperity concept of faith and the teachings of New Thought metaphysics.  Metaphysical practitioners have long taught adherents to visualize health and wealth, and then to affirm or confess them with their mouths so that the intangible images may be transformed into tangible realities.  Indeed, Hagin seems to acknowledge this similarity when he states that this “force of faith” or “law of faith” can work equally for Christian and non-Christian alike: “It used to bother me,” explains Hagin, “when I’d see unsaved people getting ‘results.’  Then it dawned on me what the sinners were doing: they were cooperating with the law of God—the law of faith.”[18]

This concept of faith as a force that works for anyone is totally unbiblical.  True Biblical faith is trusting God to do His will, not the will of man.  Biblical faith is not confidence in the force of faith or the power of words, but confident reliance and trust in another, in God.  Instead of being something that is exerted to move God into action, faith is a resting and relaxing in trust in Him.  The value of faith is not found in the faith itself, but in the worthiness of the object or person that is being trusted.  Biblical faith understands that God cannot be manipulated by our thoughts and words.  He can and does say “No” to our prayers.  Or He can answer them in a timing or a way very much different from our expectations and prayers.  In short, Biblical faith trusts in God to do His will, not our own will.

The stories of the men and women listed in God’s hall of faith in Hebrews 11 show that none of these people viewed faith as a force to get what they wanted.  Usually, their faith was in response to an initiative from God.  Abraham was called, Noah and Moses were commanded—most of the great people of faith were called or commanded by God and their faith was in response to His initiative.  A few on the list, like Rahab and David, took initiative in faith.  But their initiative was always for the glory of God and in keeping with His promises and desires. Nowhere in the scripture do we see the concept of faith as a force that always produces results and forces God into action.

One passage that is often used to justify the concept of faith as a force is Mark 11:22-24:

“Have faith in God,” Jesus answered.  “I tell you the truth, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart but believes that what he says will happen, it will be done for him.  Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.

This passage and the parallel passage in Matt 21:21-22 seem to give us a blank check with God.  Jesus’ words, were in response to the disciples amazement that a fig tree which Jesus had cursed had immediately withered.  Casting a mountain into the sea would seem to be about the most difficult miracle imaginable, implying that we can receive anything we ask for and believe.  Also, neither casting a mountain into the sea, nor causing a fig tree to wither, are manifestly evident as being the will of God.  The passage could seem to indicate that God will respond to our initiative, even when there is not a clear indication or specific promise that what we pray or believe is God’s will.

Unquestionably, Jesus’ words were spoken to challenge and inspire the disciples to greater faith and to cause them to realize that God will respond in powerful ways to their faith and prayers.  Yet, this passage, and others like it, must be interpreted in light of the whole teaching of scripture.  Other verses talk about prayers being answered only when they are in accord with God’s will (1 John 5:14-15) and are asked with pure motives (James 4:3) or other qualifications.  Certainly God, who delights in the well being of His servants, will not give us answers to our prayers if He knows that what we ask for would be bad for us. Mark 11:22 must be understood in the broader context of the Bible’s teaching on prayer and on the nature and character of God.

In our discussion of faith, it is important to note that the problem with the “faith” of the prosperity teachers is not in the intensity of their faith or their willingness to believe that God will do impossible things. Abraham is commended for believing “against all hope” (Romans 4:18).  All of Hebrews 11’s heroes of faith believed in things that were humanly impossible and seemed ridiculous and even irresponsible to those without faith.  The prosperity teacher’s problem is not with the intensity of their faith, but with their false presumptions concerning the will of God.  God has not promised total healing or material prosperity in this age.  God has not given us a blank check to receive absolutely anything we believe in strongly enough.  What we pray for or trust God for must be the will of God and based upon the true promise of God.

In summary, the “faith” of the prosperity teachers is a false concept of faith that, if embraced, leads to the acceptance of other theological errors.   For example, it tends to reduce the sovereignty of God.  God becomes a being that can be manipulated to give us anything we want if we can exercise the force of faith long enough and hard enough.  Faith “forces” God to work.  God becomes man’s servant, waiting to do his bidding—if he has enough faith.

Such “faith” also exalts man by giving him creative powers through the force of his faith and positive confession. As one former faith adherent states, “Not realizing it at the time, I was subtly buying into the idea that I had the ability to alter reality or even create it, all by using the power of faith.”[19]

This concept of faith also tends to diminish our understanding of the person-hood of God and causes us to view Him as an impersonal force.  He becomes almost incapable of making independent decisions apart from the power of faith working upon Him.  Another former faith adherent says, “I no longer came to God to fellowship with Him and to know what was His word for my life.  He was squeezed out, and replaced by faith-words and demands that He live up to His scriptural promises. …Prayer had become a mantra, almost! …Now I have rediscovered the loving, gentle Father I had always known, and I felt ashamed for leaving Him behind.”[20]

Lastly, this concept of faith puts a tremendous burden upon the believer, to only think and speak “positive” thoughts and words and to never think or say anything “negative,” since our thoughts and words determine what will happen in our lives.  This concept of faith becomes almost magical and even superstitious, with our words becoming the incantation that supposedly controls reality.

How would you summarize the problems with the prosperity movement?

Ephesians 4:14-15 admonishes us to be solidly grounded in the truth and to be careful not to be blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming.  In accordance with the weaknesses of the church at the time, different winds of false teaching tend to blow more strongly and be accepted more easily than others.  Right now, this prosperity teaching seems to be a particularly deceptive and attractive message for Christians in suburban America.

Hank Hanegraaff, president of the Christian Research Institute warns of the subtle deception of the word-faith movement:  “Much has been written over the past few years about the New Age movement and the threat it poses to historic Christianity.  As real as this threat is, I have become equally concerned about the ominous threat that the word-faith movement poses to the body of Christ.  If the New Age movement is the greatest threat to evangelical Christianity from without, I believe the word-faith or “positive confession” movement may well be considered its greatest threat from within,”[21]

The prosperity movement threatens historic Christianity and the faith of the body of Christ in numerous ways, some of which are:

  • It falsely promises healing and prosperity to all, leading to disappointment, self-doubt and doubt toward God.
  • It places an incredible burden upon the sick or people with financial problems.  If a person is sick or poor, he has only himself to blame.
  • It causes healthy and wealthy believers to look down upon those who are ill or poor as out of the will of God or lacking in faith.
  • It promises blessings now, that God has reserved for the next age.
  • It subverts the demands of the cross for self-denial.
  • It sets worldly success up as the standard of spirituality and of God’s blessing.
  • It tends to reduce God to a means to an end, causing us to view Him as a force rather than a person.
  • By redefining faith as a “force” or “power” it tends to reduce the sovereignty of God and exalts the abilities of man.
  • It falsely attributes power to words that we speak, giving them creative, even magical power.

In 2 Timothy 4:3 Paul warned Timothy that the time would come when men would not put up with sound doctrine, but would “gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear”—the promise of worldly gain.  We must faithfully preach the true message of the cross—a message of self-denial and sacrifice for the sake of others and for the glory of God.  Jesus said, “In this world you will have trouble.  But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33 NIV).


NOTES:

[1] Sherry Andrews, “Kenneth Hagin: Keeping the Faith,” Charisma (October, 1981), p. 24

[2] McConnell, D. R., A Different Gospel, A Historical and Biblical Analysis of the Modern Faith Movement, Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, Massachusetts.  On page 7, McConnell states, “Actually, it would not be overstated to say that the very doctrines that have made Kenneth Hagin and the Faith movement such a distinctive and powerful force within the independent charismatic movement are all plagiarized from E. W. Kenyon.

[3] Hanegraaf, Hendrick H., “What’s Wrong with the Faith Movement — Part One: E. W. Kenyon and the Twelve Apostles of Another Gospel,” Christian Resourch Journal, Winter 1993, p. 16.

[4] Kenneth E. Hagin, Redeemed from Poverty, Sickness, and Death, Faith Library Publications, 1983,  p. 16

[5] McConnell, p. 160

[6] Kenneth Hagen, Authority of the Believer, Faith Library, 1967, p. 22

[7] Kenneth Hagen, How to Turn Your Faith Loose, Faith Library Publications, 1983, p. 15.

[8] Kenneth Copland, The Laws of Prosperity, Kenneth Copeland Publications, 1974, pp. 98, 101.

[9] Hagin, How to Turn Your Faith Loose, p.14.

[10] Savelle, Jerry, “True Prosperity — What is it?” Christian Life, July 1983, p. 47-48.

[11] Gloria Copeland, God’s Will Is Prosperity, KC Publications, 1978, pp. 37-38.

[12] Ibid., p. 48.

[13] Kenneth Copeland, The Laws of Prosperity, p. 92.

[14] According to Luke 2:22-24 and Leviticus 12:8, the sacrifice Mary and Joseph offered when they presented the infant Jesus to the Lord was prescribed in Mosaic Law for the poor of the land.

[15] Hagin, How to Write Your Own Ticket with God, Faith Library, 1979, pp. 5, 20, 21, 32.

[16] Copeland, The Force of Faith, Kenneth Copeland Publications, 1983, p. 10, 16

[17] Robert Tilton, God’s Laws of Success, Word of Faith Publications, p. 200.

[18] Kenneth Hagin, Having Faith in Your Faith, Faith Library, 1980, pp. 3-4.

[19] Beard, Jeff, Christian Research Newsletter, Volume 3: Number 4, 1990.

[20] Tillin, Tricia, “My Word of Faith Testimony,” http://www.banner.org.uk/articles/Tillin testimony of following Copeland.htm

[21] Hanegraaff, Hendrick H., “Faith in Faith or Faith in God,” Christian Research Journal, Winter/Spring 1990, p. 31.

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