Prosperity? Seeking the True Gospel
Prosperity? (2015) TGC publication – Mbugua, Maura, Mbewe, Grudem, Piper
Book review by Samuel Johns (Cross-Current IFES)
If even an angel preaches a gospel contrary to God’s word, he is under a curse. There is not a Christian in the world that does not need to seriously consider Paul’s words to the Galatians. The gospel is the church’s most precious gift to cherish, protect, and pass on. We must never stop checking what we believe and preach and then ask the question: Is this the gospel? Is this the gospel that God has revealed to us in the Bible?
There is a false gospel – the prosperity gospel – sweeping across continents. There are many churches preaching this false gospel. It is a dangerous lie wrapped in a covering of religion. Those affected by it are being led away from God’s good news to a man-centred deception. Paul took nothing more seriously than the danger of a different gospel and we feel the same way. Nothing is more serious; our souls depend on it.
This book has been written to counter the great damage that the so called “prosperity” or “health and wealth” gospel is doing in Africa and around the world. Some preachers are making promises of worldly prosperity to men and women and leading them far away from the LORD Jesus Christ and the genuine gospel that is found in the Bible. So widespread is this false teaching that many people may not even realise that they have been influenced by it.
What then is the prosperity gospel? It is a ‘gospel’ claiming freedom from sickness, poverty, and all suffering on the basis of Christ’s death on the cross.
Promising material, physical, and visible blessings for all who would embrace it, the prosperity gospel insists that God’s will is for all his children to prosper here and now. But this prosperity gospel contains four crucial distortions that are four differences from the biblical gospel.
Prosperity gospel proclaims a small God; it fails to identify man’s greatest need; it empties the gospel of its power; and it robs God of his glory.
- Distortion One: A Small God – preachers of the prosperity gospel call people to turn to Jesus, but the motivation they give people is health, wealth, husbands, wives, jobs, and promotions – not the true gospel of desiring, pursuing, and treasuring Jesus.
- Distortion Two: Our Greatest Need – the prosperity gospel points people to their physical, financial, and relational struggles as the main problem that requires fixing, not the great chasm of sin that separates us from God.
- Distortion Three: Emptying the Gospel of its Power – preachers of the prosperity gospel may preach the cross and even say that Christ died for our sins, but they will often say that the purpose of Christ’s death was our healing and prosperity, not our reconciliation to the Father through the atonement of Christ’s work on the Cross.
- Distortion Four: Robbing God of his Glory – preaching a false gospel of temporary and material blessings as the purpose of our salvation turns Christianity into idolatry and trades in the glory of God for a cheap substitute.
The most basic mistake every one of us has made is to think: I am the centre of the universe. When we read the Bible, we realise not only that God made everything, but also that the creation is about him. The Bible and the gospel itself relentless point us to God. We lose sight of God, of his glory, and of the ultimate meaning of the gospel, when we reduce this story to our need for satisfaction, or meaning, or material success, or visible blessing. We cannot understand either the seriousness of sin or the design and purpose of the gospel until we grasp the glory of God (p.9).
The prosperity gospel is a dangerous message because, while pretending to bring good news, it offers a false gospel that leads people away from God. It presents a small God who is valued as the means to material benefits. It misdiagnoses our greatest problem – sin and separation from God – and fails to identify and address our greatest need. This so-called gospel is powerless to save us as it diverts our attention from the glory of God to human inventions and temporary blessings. The prosperity gospel glorifies man and the things of this world instead of God. That makes it a false gospel (p.12).
Prosperity gospel preachers often use many different verses – pulled out of context – to support this agenda of financial, material, or visible blessing.
Here are some examples of misinterpretations and confusions which preachers use to proclaim the prosperity gospel:
- His Poverty and Our Riches (2 Corinthians 8.9) – the context of this verse is in sacrificial giving and extravagance for others’ needs, not for our own financial gain.
- Health and Healing (Isaiah 53.5) – see 1 Peter 2.24 to better understand this verse.
- Our Prayers and God’s Promises (John 15.7 and Romans 8.28) – both these verses have a
condition of abiding in God, or loving God in all things. He is the priority, not us.
- Sowing and Reaping (2 Corinthians 9.6 and Galatians 6.7) – the prosperity gospel version of what is to be reaped is far too small, in contrast with the eternal weight of glory that awaits for
all those who trust in Christ.
- Word of Faith Theology (Hebrews 11.1 and Matthew 18.6) – again the emphasis in Hebrews is
on letting go of earthly possessions and finding a treasure in heaven, not vice versa – hence the stark warning to teachers and preachers in Matthew 18.
Blessings of the True Gospel
The true gospel reminds us of the immense treasure and goodness that awaits each and every person who continues to trust in Jesus. As Paul writes in Romans 5.1-5 the “blessing” endowed on each and every Christian should never be far from our minds. This is a wonderful truth and something that should be treasured and savoured carefully.
- Blessing One: Peace with God – Romans 5.1 we have been justified by faith.
- Blessing Two: Access to God – Romans 5.2 we have access to the Father by faith.
- Blessing Three: Joy from the Hope of God’s Glory – Romans 5.2 leads us to rejoice.
- Blessing Four: Joy in Suffering – Romans 5.3 by grace we have endurance in suffering.
Even on the final blessing, the ability to rejoice in suffering, we are reminded that great biblical teaching often points to the value (not the hindrance) of suffering in the life of the saints. “New believers need to know why God ordains for them to suffer”, says John Piper (p.115). In particular, he reminds us that; suffering deepens our faith and holiness; suffering can make our cup increase; suffering is the price of making others bold; suffering fills up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions; suffering enforces the missionary command to go; and finally, the supremacy of Christ is manifest in suffering.
Twelve Appeals to Prosperity Preachers
To conclude this wonderful and short, concise book, John Piper appeals to prosperity preachers with twelve affirmations of the true gospel – centring our attention back on Christ.
- Don’t make heaven harder (Mark 10.23-27) – being rich doesn’t ease access to God
- Save people from suicide (1 Timothy 6.9-10) – the desire to be rich is a pitfall of danger
- Warn against weak investments (Matthew 6.19-20) – we are to lay up treasure in heaven
- Grow lavish givers (Ephesians 4.28) – we are to work hard, give generously, and live frugally
- Foster faith in God (Hebrews 13.5-6) – the LORD will never forsake us, we can be content
- Eliminate choking hazards (Luke 8.14) – financial prosperity can choke a believer to death
- Preserve the salt and light (Matthew 5.11-14) – the gospel is not bland, but rather tasty
- Don’t conceal the cost (Romans 8.16-18 & 1 Peter 4.12-14) – we are to expect hardship
- Uphold the value of suffering (Acts 14.22) – through many tribulations we must endure
- Teach them to go (Acts 17.30) – the NT gospel is a gospel of “go-tell” not “come-see”
- Separate from the peddlers (1 Corinthians 9.9-12 & 1 Thess. 2:5) – flattery is not needed
- Commend Christ as gain (Philippians 1.23 & Mark 8.34) – in joy we gain Christ
Piper concludes (p.122) by saying that: I do not want prosperity preachers to stop calling people to maximum joy. On the contrary, I appeal to them to stop encouraging people to seek their joy in material things.
The joy Christ offers is so great and so durable that it enables us to lose prosperity and still rejoice.
‘You joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one’ (Hebrews 10.34). The grace to be joyful in the loss of prosperity – that is the miracle the prosperity preachers should seek. That would be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. That would magnify Christ as supremely valuable.
Book review ratings and recommendations
Readability (5/5): accessible language and yet strong, clear arguments
Application (4/5): we all deal need to wrestle with the true gospel, and be aware of distortions
General Appeal (4/5): highly recommended as an introduction to the prosperity gospel
Commitment (2/5): Weekend read or major commitment? Short and easily readable
Challenge (3/5): a good and interesting read, easy to fit into a weekend or a few evenings
Recommendation (4/5): read it, ponder on it, talk to a friend about it, and pass it on!