While evangelicals have traditionally decried the prosperity gospel in its “hard” form, there is a softer form of this teaching that is all too common among us. Often undetected by Bible-believing Christians, it assumes the gospel and leads its adherents to focus on things like financial planning, diet and exercise, and strategies for self-improvement. In contrast to the hard prosperity gospel, which offers miraculous and immediate health and wealth, this softer, subtler variety challenges believers to break through to the blessed life by means of the latest pastor-prescribed technique.
Of course, matters of personal stewardship such as money, health, and leadership skills should be woven into a whole-Bible theology of Christian discipleship. The trouble comes when Christians, and especially pastors, place greater emphasis on these secondary matters. What we choose to preach or listen to says much about what we value. And what I see among some evangelicals is a willingness to prioritize the lesser matters of the law over the weightier mercies of the gospel.
This is not a new concern. Others have described facets of this prosperity gospel under names like moralistic, therapeutic deism, Christless Christianity, and the commodification of Christianity. In truth, all three descriptors overlap to describe a prosperity gospel that is easily missed, because it is seems reasonable to Christians who love God and the American Dream.
A SOFTER, SUBTLER PROSPERITY GOSPEL
For those with eyes to see, signs of soft prosperity are everywhere in evangelicalism. Christian radio offers a “positive, encouraging” experience, with innumerable songs beckoning listeners to be overcomers. Christian publishers market books that help Christians look better, feel more confident, and reach their maximum potential. Likewise, Jeremiah 29:11 and Philippians 4:13 continue to be championed as mantras by Christians who want to make an impact on the world.
But of course, these examples are only symptoms, and the solution is not to demonize Christian retailers. Rather, we all must learn to think more deeply about the content of our faith and to refute the errant teachings of the soft prosperity gospel (Titus 1:9).
FIVE TRADEMARKS OF SOFT PROSPERITY
To aid in that discernment, let me outline five trademarks of soft prosperity, particularly as they show up in sermons and books.
1. Soft prosperity elevates “blessings” over the blessed God.
First, soft prosperity elevates “blessings” over the blessed God. When blessings are divorced from the triune God, compromise ensues. True blessedness resides in God alone, “the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords” (1 Tim. 6:15). By consequence, to seek God’s blessing requires seeking him (Isa. 55:6-7; Matt. 6:33). Christ is the true treasure (Matt. 13:44-46), and any pursuit of blessing that makes God a means to another end is erroneous and idolatrous.
2. Soft prosperity detaches verses from the redemptive framework of the Bible.
Second, soft prosperity detaches verses from the redemptive framework of the Bible. When preachers present isolated verses as time-honored principles for claiming God’s blessings, a counterfeit gospel results. Instead of relating all blessings to Christ, they directly apply individual verses to people today.
Such a promise motivates the strong and extinguishes the weak. Unless a passage is rightly related to redemptive framework of the Bible, verses like Psalm 1:3 become treadmills on which earnest Christians tire themselves out. Genuine Christ-centered expositional preaching prevents this sort of textual manipulation, and guards against the gospel of soft prosperity.
More specifically, soft prosperity delights in the tangible promises of the Old Testament. The error is often found in promising old covenant blessings to new covenant saints. Whenever we read the Old Testament, faithful interpreters must see how the promises first related to Israel in their historic and theocratic state; second, to Jesus who perfectly fulfilled the law (Matt. 5:17); and third, to us. Because we live under the new covenant, there will always be continuity and discontinuity between the Old Testament promise and its contemporary fulfillment. Preachers must learn how to interpret these ancient texts at the textual, epochal, and canonical levels. Likewise, healthy churches must learn to see how every blessing is found in relationship to Jesus Christ, the mediator of the new covenant.
3. Soft prosperity diminishes the curse that Christ bore and the blessing of the Holy Spirit.
Third, soft prosperity diminishes the curse that Christ bore and the blessing of the Holy Spirit. In the Bible, blessedness is not an amorphous idea. Deuteronomy 27-28 specifies the content of the Mosaic covenant’s blessings and curses. Quoting these verses, soft prosperity preachers advertise divine blessings through greater obedience, but they ignore the fine print. Only one man has so perfectly obeyed God’s so as to merit God’s blessing (Heb. 10:5-10). And for Jesus’ covenantal obedience, he was sentenced to death on a Roman cross, accursed for the sins of his people (Gal. 3:10-13).
Perhaps the greatest problem with the soft prosperity is the way it assumes the cross of Christ, instead of adoring the Blessed One who bore the wrath of God in our place (Gal. 3:13). Soft prosperity preachers speak often about what you can do to experience God’s favor, but they rush past the cross, missing the fact that every spiritual gift has been secured for the believer by Jesus, who gives us his Spirit as the preeminent blessing (Gal. 3:14; Eph. 1:3). Although they don’t deny the Romans Road, they are driving on another highway.
4. Soft prosperity relies on pastor-prescribed therapeutic techniques.
Fourth, soft prosperity relies on pastor-prescribed therapeutic techniques. By assuming the gospel, soft prosperity preachers fill the vacuum with a full plate of therapeutic techniques. With the language of Zion, they emphasize the good works of the believer. Although not explicitly denying salvation by grace through faith, pastors who repeatedly insist on life tips, techniques, and strategies for saintly success undermine the faith once for all delivered to the saints.
5. Soft prosperity largely addresses first-world, middle-class problems.
While the previous four trademarks could in many ways apply to hard or soft prosperity preaching, one striking difference remains. Whereas hard prosperity preaching invites followers to name it and claim it, soft prosperity preachers inspire the upwardly mobile to reach for their dreams. In the former good health and a strong portfolio prove God's tangible salvation; in the latter preachers proclaim a religion of therapeutic solutions. To quote only one of their teachers: "Do I believe in supernatural return on giving? Yes, sir! Do I believe God blesses tithes and offerings? Yes, I do. But why should we teach you to claim a car without teaching you about the car payment and interest rates on loans."
In a nutshell, T. D. Jakes' message promises the same gold, through a different line of credit—superabundant faith mixed with well-ordered works. In short, this softer prosperity preaching appeals to first world, middle class people who are too busy living to examine a message that reaffirms their natural aspirations for success. Tragically, "believers" who buy into this false gospel may remain ignorant of their greatest need—atonement for sin before a holy God—unless confronted with true gospel of Jesus Christ.
A BETTER THEOLOGY OF BLESSING
In the end, the tragedy of the soft prosperity gospel is the way it focuses so much on earthly improvements. By offering Christians their best life now, the eternal realities of heaven and hell are lost. This brings the very real possibility that many who hear the soft prosperity gospel are and will remain lost.
In response, Christians must learn to recognize the error of soft prosperity. And we—especially pastors—must prayerfully work to liberate others from it. First we must confess the ways that desires for earthly success have latched on to our own hearts. Second, we must present the biblical gospel, which far exceeds the offer of saintly success. We must extol the riches of the true gospel and trust that when God’s sheep hear his call to repent of their sin and cling to Christ, they too will sell their soft prosperity and receive as a free gift the only treasure that counts—Jesus Christ, the only blessed king.
David Schrock is the senior pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Seymour, Indiana.
 On the difference between hard and soft prosperity gospels, see Kate Bowler’s revealing study, Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 78.
 In order, Christian Smith with Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006); Michael Horton, Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008), esp. 65-100; Stephen J. Nichols, Jesus Made in America: A Cultural History from the Puritans to The Passion of the Christ (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008), esp. 173-97.
 See a list of such verses in Michael Schäfer’s article, “The Prosperity Gospel and Biblical Theology.”
 For a helpful treatment of this approach, see Edmund Clowney, Preaching and Biblical Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R, 1979).
 Cited in Bowler, Blessed, 119.
I was in college. I was a young Christian. And I remember walking past my pastor’s luxury car into the church office one day, and was greeted by a sign on the door that read, “We are no longer accepting requests for benevolence due to budgetary constraints.”
It’s not necessarily wrong for a pastor to own a luxury car. It’s not necessarily right for a church to use all its discretionary money to care for the poor. But the juxtaposition of these two things in that moment caused me to start viewing the church through a different lens almost immediately, like when you buy a new car and then starting seeing that model everywhere.
Over the coming months I started noticing similar distortions throughout our church: in what it measured and evaluated (numerical growth, physical health, financial well-being); in what it celebrated (new cars for the pastor and his wife, new facilities); in what the church and its members did and did not spend our money on.
Here’s one way to summarize the larger pattern: Money and stuff and outward things generally were treated as an indication of God’s blessing. They weren’t treated as an instrument for blessing others and doing gospel work. So we spent it on ourselves. Cash came into our cul-de-sac and didn’t leave.
The church was its own little private kingdom. Ministers and up-and-comers were rewarded so long as they stayed “loyal” and supported the church. If someone tried to leave and start a new gospel work, the moral and financial support would stop. Missions and church planting and taking the gospel to the nations were seldom, if ever, mentioned.
If you haven’t picked up the clues, I was part of church influenced by the prosperity gospel.
To understand how churches and Christians should view money, we should start with a biblical view of blessing. Listen to what Psalm 32 says is true blessing: “Blessed is the one whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the one whose sin the Lord does not count against him and in whose spirit is no deceit.”
The forgiveness of sins, as it’s declared and discovered in the context of a church community, is the true indicator of God’s blessing.
In other words, don’t measure God’s love and favor toward you by the money you have or think you should have. There are lots of rich people who are going to hell. Remember what Jesus said about the camel going through the eye of the needle?
You know he loves you and favors you because he’s forgiven you! “But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).
Money and resources, then, are instruments for propagating this message. Churches and Christians shouldn’t be cul-de-sacs for cash. They should be thoroughfares for finance.
Don’t be like the fool who only knew how to build bigger barns and horde what God had given him, thinking that it was his security. Spend what you have for the kingdom. Pay pastors to preach the gospel. Support other individuals, missionaries, and churches when they go out to do gospel work. Then ask God to give more so that you can spend that on kingdom purposes, too.
So forget about identifying the most blatant “prosperity gospel” offenders. What about you? Do you lead your church to view wealth as an indicator of blessing or an instrument for it?
Here are a few more questions to ask yourself:
- How does the church that I lead view and manage resources?
- What are the things that our congregation celebrates? (Chances are they learned it from you.)
- How long have we been “meaning” to increase our mission’s budget? What things have we used our money for that have kept us from doing this?
- Why am I so concerned with how many people attend my church? Why is numerical growth so important, and why do I envy other pastors?
- Why do I hope that our budget increases this year? Why am I praying for God to provide more resources?
None of us are immune to faulty thinking on how to view the money that God gives us. Is money a blessing? In some ways, yes. But more than that, it’s an instrument for pointing people to the real blessing—a knowledge of him!
John Onwuchekwa is the teaching pastor of Blueprint Church in Atlanta, Georgia.
Are you a Christian? Have you ever asked yourself that question? Or did you ever think you needed to?
In his book Am I Really a Christian? Mike McKinley shows us the importance of applying 2 Corinthians 13:5 to “test” ourselves to be sure of our standing before God.
But how do you “test yourself”? Mike begins with five things all Christians have.
“I want to look at five things that the Bible says will always accompany true conversion. If you have these things, you have firm evidence of God’s regenerating work in your life. If these things are absent, you have reason to be concerned.
- Belief in true doctrine. You’re not a Christian just because you like Jesus.
- Hatred of sin in your life. You’re not a Christian if you enjoy sin.
- Perseverance over time. You’re not a Christian if you don't’ persist in the faith.
- Love for other people. You’re not a Christian if you don’t have care and concern for other people.
- Freedom from love of the world. You’re not a Christian if the things of the world are more valuable to you than God.
God has commanded us to examine ourselves to see whether we are in the faith. These five things make up some of the criteria by which we can judge ourselves. For the professing Christian, then, the all-important question is: Do I have the fruit of the new birth in my life?” (39)
Read more of Mike McKinley’s Am I Really a Christian? here.
“As a general rule, whoever describes the person best wins the person—and whoever wins the person—gets the opportunity to impact the person.” Ed Welch said that a few months ago on CCEF’s blog. It makes sense. It’s a compelling concept. But it’s also an alarming concept. What if someone with bad ideas is really good at describing people—their struggles, fears, and desires? Unfortunately, I’m afraid that’s the case with megachurch pastor T.D. Jakes in his book Let It Go.
Jakes’ book falls under the category of “Christian life,” and you would probably find it in the “Self-Help” section of your local bookstore, Christian or not. It’s a book of practical theology.
Jakes uncovers his wide-ranging purpose early on: “My hope is that this book will help you gain insight into what prevents you from being the husband you want to be, the wife you long to be, the mother or father you know is inside you, the creative person you were born to be—the most successful version of you possible!” (4). But tension in relationships hinders that success (5). As does the failure of people to truly understand one another (12). Thus, says Jakes, we need to embrace the big idea of forgiveness, of “letting go of the past and finding the grace to forgive” (18). Forgiveness is a “supernatural power that’s unleashed when we let it go” (34, emphasis his). Such power is foundational for Jakes’ entire outlook on life.
Click here to continue reading.
Editor’s Note: Grant Retief, who serves as rector of Christ Church Umhlanga just outside of Durban, South Africa, sat down with three young Christians in his church who recently came out of prosperity gospel preaching churches and asked them all the same questions: “Tell me what you noticed when you started coming to our church. What was different from your prior experience? What did you hear that was new? What were some of the struggles at first?” Retief asked these three to comment on the gospel, the Bible, corporate worship, and lifestyle.
Below you'll find their answers. These are firsthand accounts of the themes that come up in Retief's accompanying article, “The Rise of a Parallel, Post-Biblical Christianity.” Rochelle and Chantal participated in a prosperity church in Durban for 15 years; Nicola spent 11 years in a prosperity-tinged seeker-sensitive church.
The first thing I noticed was that sin was spoken about a lot. In my previous church, sin was never talked about. For the first time I was told that I was a sinner.
While I was still straddling both churches, I was once rebuked by my previous pastor when I began talking about sin and judgment with people in our church. I was told to stop it, because it was too negative.
I grew up thinking that I gained salvation by my works. At our new church I heard for the first time that Christ had fulfilled all the law.
At first I was offended that my works counted for nothing and I couldn’t contribute to my salvation. The fact that I couldn’t contribute to my salvation was offensive. But after some time, it became liberating.
One of the leaders at the new church kept running after me, and I kept coming back. I realised that up to that point my whole Christian life had assumed the gospel. The cross was only ever preached at Easter. The gospel was seen as old news, and it was assumed that everyone knew it, understood it and believed it. The old church was only interested in a new word from God.
I felt so deceived. I used to cry. I felt betrayed. I realized they knew no better themselves.
My experience of the Bible was that it was often added to with “prophecies.” The norm was to read the Bible without context and with immediate application. I’ve come to realise that the Bible is first about Jesus.
Corporate worship was all about the experience and feeling one had during the singing. It was a time of inviting the Holy Spirit to come into us. It was always very emotional.
Looking back I realise that there was a deficiency of godliness in the lives of the leaders of the church. This was seen particularly in the way the finances were handled. There was corruption, and money received was sometimes hidden from the congregation. If you did not tithe, you were approached by the leadership.
There was also sexual sin. The youth leader was dating a Christian girl, and sleeping with his other, non-Christian, girlfriend. This was reported to the head pastor, but nothing was done about. Three years later, he is still youth pastor.
Coming to this church was the first time I heard about the seriousness of sin. When I first came I was offended. Later, I’d go home liberated and grieved at the same time. Grace was completely new to me, and such a comfort. I realized it was most important to understand the gospel of grace. For the first time, justification and sanctification were explained to me.
At first I wondered why each and every sermon went back to Jesus. I now realize that it takes me back to my need for a saviour all the time, and that is what I need in order to change.
When I spoke to my previous pastor about some of the things taught at my new church, he said that the gospel was good for that context but not for his context. He felt his people already knew the gospel and didn’t need to hear it all the time. He felt there were other things that God was saying and doing in the world.
Looking at the leaders of my previous church, you’d think they were living godly lives because of their works-based religion. Externally it looked impressive. Yet sexual sin was common amongst the youth, and never disciplined. One young adult sinned sexually, followed by a long fast. He was working for his forgiveness.
The idea of praise and worship was the biggest thing in my previous church: music and the ecstatic gifts, tongues and prophecy. Services were sometimes four hours long, with two hours of singing. The songs always seemed to point to the individual, with a lot of “I” and almost no “Jesus” in the songs.
There was no systematic Bible teaching. The norm was quoting scriptures completely out of context. I don’t know why I took my Bible. The Bible was seldom opened. It was just misquoted.
In my previous church, lip-service was given to the importance of the Bible, but seldom was it preached or read systematically.
There was a strong emphasis on “what God is saying now” in visions and prophetic words that often undermined the context and application of Scripture.
There was an emphasis on training leaders with people skills rather than Bible teaching
Preaching was most often topical and called for behaviour modification. Since coming here, I have realised how little good Bible teaching I had received.
Leaders are cool, trendy, usually younger, very seeker-sensitive in their language. Often services had special lighting, highly polished worship bands, and words apparently from God were brought before and after the sermon. This diminished the emphasis on the sermon by adding to it.
There was a focus on the quality and quantity of worship to the extent that sometimes there was no sermon. Demonstrative worship was always encouraged and even instructed, with frequent altar calls and responses after the preaching.
In my previous church, people became leaders very quickly. And the leaders were elevated and are popular due to their personalities. They encouraged people to make decisions according to what God is saying in your heart rather than according to his Word.
Note: For more on the prosperity gospel in South Africa, see the article "The Rise of a Parallel, Post-Biblical Christianity."
Grant Retief is the rector of Christ Church Umhlanga just outside of Durban, South Africa. He and his wife have three children.
“Being poor is a sin” (Robert Tilton).
“If we please God we will be rich” (Jerry Savelle).
“God wants his children to wear the best clothes…drive the best cars and have the best of everything; just ask for what we need” (Kenneth Hagin, Sr.).
These are some bewildering but common statements from “prosperity gospel” preachers. Their god is a sort of cosmic entrepreneur who can be used, by tithing and offering, to attain what really matters: a prosperous life in merely earthly terms.
“FROM SUCH PEOPLE TURN AWAY”
Paul compels us to stay away from “men of corrupt minds and destitute of the truth, who suppose that godliness is a means of gain” (1 Tim. 6:5). And in his second letter to Timothy he warns his son in the faith “that in the last days perilous times will come: For men will be lovers of themselves, boasters, proud... lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having a form of godliness but denying its power. And from such people turn away!” (2 Tim. 3:1-5).
Peter also advises us that, just as there were false prophets among the people of God in the old covenant, “there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies…And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed. And in their greed they will exploit you with false words” (2 Pet. 2:1-3; cf. Jude 11-16).
Sadly, in spite of the Scriptures’ clear warnings, the prosperity gospel has a large and growing group of followers. This isn’t hard to understand, since the message appeals so directly to our native greed. Yet it is sad and bewildering that many people remain in the movement for a long time, even their whole life, since its preachers cannot fulfill their promises.
THE PSYCHOLOGY OF THE PROSPERITY GOSPEL
Why is the prosperity gospel so attractive? How does it gain and retain followers? I recently spoke with a brother who was involved in the movement for 10 years, who shed some light on the psychology of the prosperity gospel.
1. An Easily Manipulated God
The prosperity gospel is attractive because it offers us an easily manipulated god. Despite the militant atheist attacks in recent decades, man cannot eliminate from his heart the idea of God, because God has left evidences of his presence in all of creation and has given man the capacity to understand the evidence (Rom. 1:18-21). What makes the prosperity gospel attractive for fallen man is that it seems to place God on his side, while eliminating the hindrance of his sanctity and sovereignty.
The god of these evangelists is not the one reveled in the Scriptures, whom we must approach on his terms. Instead, their god is a combination of Aladdin’s lamp genie and Psychiatrist Almighty, who can be easily manipulated through offerings and “words of faith.”
2. Guilt and Greed
Second, the prosperity gospel draws people in because it creates a cycle of guilt and greed. When the offers of riches or health take long to materialize, people blame themselves for their lack of faith, or for not being generous enough. This guilt, combined with the greed in their hearts, keeps them clinging to these evangelists’ false promises, just like the gambler goes back to the casino again and again hoping that one day he will get lucky.
3. Religious Fear
These “evangelists” tend to instill religious fear in their followers so they don’t dare to question the “Lord’s anointed one.” This hinders their listeners’ capacity to objectively analyze the content of their message and the evident dichotomy between their lifestyle and what the Scriptures say about how a gospel minister should live (1 Cor. 4:9-13; 2 Cor. 4:7-11, 11:23-28).
4. Stewardship Brings Prosperity
Another factor that supports the spread of this false gospel is that some do experience a degree of financial prosperity, as a consequence of putting into practice general principles of good administration that they learn in these churches. This seems to confirm the truthfulness of the message which, in turn, increases the greed of their hearts because “He who loves money will not be satisfied with money” (Eccl. 5:10).
How can we immunize our listeners against this threat? I’ve got seven suggestions.
1. Teach them to read the Bible in its context. Prosperity preachers cite the Scriptures, especially the Old Testament, but overlook the general and immediate contexts of the texts they cite.
2. Clearly present the demands of the gospel (Mk. 1:14-15; Acts 2:38, 3:19, 26) and of true discipleship (Mk. 8:34-37; Lk. 14:25-33; Phil. 1:29).
3. Instill in them the spirit of the Bereans (Acts 17.11). It is one thing to respect pastoral authority (Heb. 13:17), but a very different thing to blindly follow a leader even when he walks away from the clear teachings of the Scriptures (Rom. 16:17-18; Phil. 3:17-19).
4. Preach the Bible’s warnings against greed (Pr. 23:4-5; Lk. 12:15; 1Tim. 6:6-10, 17-19; Acts 13:5-6).
5. Teach them that God is good, wise, and sovereign in the dispensation of his gifts. Not all his children will be prosperous and healthy on this side of eternity, but all will experience the same paternal love and care, manifested in diverse ways for his glory and the good of our souls (Jn. 11:3; Phil. 2:25-30; 1 Tim. 5:23).
6. Teach them how to handle the tension of being a child of God living in a fallen world (Jn. 15:18-21; 17:14-16; Acts 11:13).
7. Above all, present Christ as the pearl of great price, who infinitely surpasses in value anything that this fleeting world may offer (Mt. 13:44-46; Phil. 3:7-8).
Sugel Michelén has been an elder and regular preacher at Iglesia Bíblica del Señor Jesucristo in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, for more than 30 years.
Stop sending prosperity-preaching missionaries to the jungles of Peru. They’re killing the villages here. Your missionaries are spending tens of thousands of dollars, traveling across land and sea, invading and settling into new cultures, and it’s all for nothing. They’re doing more harm than good.
Your short-term and long-term missionaries are bringing death to Peru in the form of the prosperity gospel and word of faith teachings. Men and women are coming down here and telling these people that they’re poor because of sin and doubt. They’re telling the people to speak positive and claim success and health. These missionaries are telling people that they can be rich and live like the patriarchs of the Bible, blessed by the hand of God because of their faith and unshakable holiness.
Do you know how these people are living? They’re drinking river water that is forty percent mud and one hundred percent laden with parasites. They’re living on bananas and roots. It’s a two-day boat ride to the nearest doctor, and the great majority of these people can’t afford boat tickets. Nor can they afford the doctor visit if they could manage to get there. These people have Bibles that they don’t understand because many of them can’t read, and they are isolated from anything that even remotely resembles theological training.
And here you are, Deacon of Missions, and you’ve just agreed to sponsor missionary “X.” Have you talked with him about where he stands doctrinally? Does he believe the prosperity gospel? Is he sympathetic to it? Is he able to rightly divide the word of truth? Is he one approved by a local church that really believes in 2 Timothy 2:15? This person is about to travel the world to make a disciple. Do you know if that’s going to be a good thing, or something to be mourned (Matt 23:15)?
This guy has a great slideshow presentation, a firm handshake, and he can hold the room like a professional. You decide to help him get to the jungles of Peru. As soon as his boots hit the ground he’s doing a whole bunch of stuff that will look great in his newsletters. Toys for the kids. A new short-term missions team is coming down every month. Buildings are being built, Bibles are being given away, and the slide show reel is growing every day.
Oh, by the way, he’s preaching a false gospel. He’s hurting people eternally. He’s doing all kinds of cool, fun, and really Christian stuff for the few hundred people living in this village. But he’s hurting them. In eternal perspective, he is guiding them along the path to nothing but pain and sadness. And he’s able to do it because you send him a big fat check every month. You’re responsible.
Of course, it’s not all your fault, but you are responsible for what you do with your money. Stewardship is the word typically used here. You are accountable for the way you spend that money. You pool those resources, and you are using it to send a false prophet to the jungles of Peru. Or to the caves of Pakistan. Or to the deserts of western Africa.
America is exporting a false gospel that is putting people on the A Train to an eternity of suffering, and you are part of the problem. Stop it. Stop sending wolves in sheep’s clothing. Stop supporting them. Exercise discernment. You’ve supported over two hundred missionaries in the last fourteen years? Great! But what if fifty of them have been ravaging the people you sent them to?
Of course, many churches are careful and discerning about which missionaries they support. I’m grateful for them and I pray God would raise up many more. If that’s your church, pray that God would keep you vigilant. And pray that your sister churches would have the courage and conviction to send prosperity-preaching missionaries to the bench instead of the field.
This isn’t hypothetical. I’ve seen it. In my short time here in the jungles of Peru, I have seen case after case of “Who told this guy he could be a missionary?” I’ve seen the people hurt. I’ve seen the churches hurt. I’ve seen the smiles turn to frowns and the tears of joy turn into tears of pain. I’ve had to rebuke and fight to crowd out the false gospel with the true and beautiful one. I never imagined that our team’s greatest struggle would be fighting to undo all the damage done by other missionaries.
To be honest, “Jesus never promised to make us rich, he promised us he would save us from our sin, and that’s enough!” doesn’t really have the same ring to it. It’s hard to get people to rally around that after they’ve been sold a stadium worth of fool’s gold.
Maybe you’re sitting there with your arms crossed, feeling assured that I’m not talking to you. Your church is reformed. It’s gotta be “those guys” who are responsible for this, right?
Wrong. It’s not just mainline or Pentecostal or word-of-faith or evangellyfish churches that are responsible for this. It’s reformed churches, too. To borrow something from one of my teammates: “That church is reformed, but many of their members feel just as comfortable listening to Joel Osteen as to John MacArthur.” It’s not just “them.” Reformed churches are allowing these teachings to exist within their own four walls, and they are also supporting missionaries who believe and teach such things.
Missions exists because we want to see people eternally happy in the presence of God forever. Let that be your guiding light. Are the people you support working for that? Are they going to help people be eternally happy in Christ? If not, let me encourage you to gently and humbly refuse to support them. Remember, your faithfulness to the Great Commission will not be measured by dollars spent, Bibles given, or hands raised at an altar call. The measure of faithfulness will be an eternal one.
The gospel is beautiful, brothers. It’s the only hope any of us have. Please treat it that way. Love it, protect it, and guard it. And for the love of all things good and holy, please stop sending missionaries to my backyard if they don’t.
Sean DeMars is currently serving the peoples of Peru by preaching, teaching, and living God’s Word. He is a husband, an artist, and quite possibly the worst missionary ever. He and his wife were sent out by Decatur Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Decatur, Alabama.
How do you assess a prosperity gospel church?
The first nine years of my walk with Christ were spent in such an environment, followed by two years in theological rehab, which prepared me for the next six years of pastoring in the urban context. What’s become clear to me is that the nine marks of a healthy church provide a useful grid for assessing any church, including those that teach the prosperity gospel.
And what we find is that a prosperity gospel church is a purely anti-nine marks church.
Some of the examples in what follows are specific and may not identify with you the reader. Many however are universal and are propagated by preachers on the internet, radio, and television. Since the prosperity gospel movement is inter-denominational, the teachings expressed in this article are not to be associated with any one denomination within evangelical Christianity.
1. EXPOSITIONAL PREACHING
Preaching in prosperity gospel churches is far from expositional. Instead, the purpose of preaching is to motivate hearers to give financially, and you give to get. Preachers exploit the passages that deal with the sacrificial giving of tithes and offerings week in and week out. They instruct hearers to activate their faith by sowing a “faith seed,” thereby taping into God’s law of reciprocity and leading to their own financial breakthrough.
Isolated Old Testament passages are often used as examples of God's abundant reward for faith giving. One passage often used to manipulate hearers into giving more is Malachi 3:10. Prosperity preachers highlight two points from this passage. First, they tell hearers they are robbing God by not tithing. Second, they assure hearers that God wants them to test him by giving more, so that he can give them more.
But consider Malachi 3:10 in its proper context. The Israelites were robbing God by not giving enough food to the national storehouse that was used to feed the priests of Israel. So the priests were having to leave their priestly duties and take up farming to survive (see Neh. 13:10-13). God therefore exhorts Israel to test him by giving obediently. If they did, he would reward them as he did in the past (2 Chr. 31:7-10). The point of this entire passage concerns a historically specific episode in the life of Israel. Preaching it as a Christian sermon, however, requires more than transferring its commands and promises to Christians on a one-to-one basis. Yes, there are larger applications for the Christian concerning giving, but first one needs to account for the differences between old covenant and new, especially the nature of God’s promises to Israel and the manner in which they are fulfilled for the Christian in Christ.
A healthy church uses preaching to communicate God’s words to his people. It confronts the hearer with God’s truth and leads to conviction, encouragement, clarity, and a call to action. It also centers every text around the gospel in order to show the hearer how central and necessary Jesus Christ is to the believer living in obedience to God's word. A healthy church will inform believers that the results of holy living will not necessarily be financial gain but rather godliness that honors our Lord.
2. BIBLICAL THEOLOGY
Prosperity gospel theology rests upon the foundational error that man shares a form of deity with God, such that our words carry the same creative power as God’s words. Psalm 82:6, Proverbs 18:20-21, and Romans 4:17 are popular proof texts used to support this falsehood. It is often said that man is a “lower-case god” and possesses the power to demonstrate deity by speaking things into existence, creating and controlling our destiny with words, and even mandating a frustrated and limited God to act on our behalf for our benefit.
But none of these proof texts support these prosperity teachings. In Psalm 82:6, the Psalmist is crying out to God regarding the immoral judges who were governing the nation of Israel. God speaks directly to the erring judges by addressing them as “gods” to highlight the fact they were judging the nation in his place. They were to use his word as their standard of judgment. In the very next verse God reminds them they are not eternal beings. Instead they are mere men who have failed to live and judge righteously. This passage is not elevating man to a demigod status. Neither is it providing man with the ability to act with sovereign authority. Instead, the only true and living God is judging the immoral actions of these judges.
Proverbs 18:20-21 is a principle, not a promise, and it outlines two truths. The first is that our words do not dictate our destiny; rather, they display the conditions of our heart. Secondly, there are times when our words will cause us to endure consequences. This passage does not promise us the power to declare the length of our life. Neither does it pronounce God powerlessness to save us if we curse ourselves to death, as some prosperity teachers have taught.
In Romans 4:17 Paul teaches that God justified Abraham and declared him the father of nations while Abraham was still childless. This passage has nothing to do with saints speaking into existence more money, job promotions, or even the salvation of lost loved ones. This passage is in fact championing the truth that God is the only one who can call things into existence.
A healthy church teaches its members sound doctrine that is rooted in Scriptures that are kept in context. Sound doctrine is healthy teaching that provides the hearer with the biblical nutrients needed to grow to maturity in Christ (2 Tim. 3:16-17). In order for a church to be healthy, they must teach the whole Bible, in the context of the whole Bible, and root all of their doctrinal convictions in the whole Bible, instead of pulling passages out of context (1 Tim. 1:5; Titus 2:1-10; 2 John 1-6).
3. THE GOSPEL
In many prosperity gospel churches the message of the gospel is identified with the material blessings of the Abrahamic covenant. Although Christ’s perfect life, death, burial, and resurrection are proclaimed, and salvation through Christ alone is championed, many prosperity gospel preachers say the evidence of a person’s belief in the gospel is whether they receive the blessings promised to Abraham by God (Gen. 12-15).
I’ve found this teaching leading people to one of two conclusions. If someone has prosperity and health, they conclude that they are saved because they’re enjoying the promises of Abraham. But if these blessings are not seen in the life of the believer, they don’t have enough faith. They’re in sin. They need to give more tithes. Or perhaps they have not fully trusted in Jesus Christ and need to become born again in order to receive the blessings of Abraham.
In contrast, healthy churches unashamedly proclaim the whole counsel of the biblical gospel. This includes the truth that we were created in God's image (Gen. 1:26-27), we once had open fellowship with God (Gen. 2:7-25), and yet because our first father Adam sinned all of humanity was separated both physically (Gen. 3:1-19) and spiritually (Rom. 5:12) from the holy and righteous God who created us. Since humanity has been separated from God because of sin, the penalty to atone for sin is the shedding of blood and death (Lev. 1:3-17). The beauty of the gospel is fact that Jesus Christ, who has eternally existed as God (John 1:1), became a man (John 1:14), lived a perfect life according to God’s law (Heb. 7:26), and shed his blood while dying in the place of sinners (Mark 10:45 and 2 Peter 2:24). Jesus was buried in a tomb for three days (Matt. 27:57-66) and on the third day rose from the grave (Matt. 28:1-8). Now he calls all people to repent of their sins and trust in him in order to be reconciled to God and receive eternal life (Jn. 3:16).
The biblical gospel does not promise that Christians will be wealthy and prosperous in this life in fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham. Instead, Christians are “blessed” in Abraham in that we receive the Spirit (Gal. 3:14), and we will receive not just land, but the entire new creation, in the age to come (Rom. 4:13, Rev. 21-22).
Conversion in a prosperity gospel church involves an uneasy mix of opposites: easy-believism and salvation by works. Prosperity preachers are known to teach a sinner is “saved” when they finish reciting the “sinners prayer.” After this simple salvation takes place, the new believer is to submit him or herself to the leadership and teachings of the church, tithe regularly, give offerings often, and strive to serve on a continual basis in ministry at the church. As long as a person does these things, he or she maintains salvation. But if one stops them for an elongated period of time, one can lose it. In order to advance this teaching, pastors have been known to use psychological and scriptural manipulation to get the members of the church to do various acts of service in the name of ministry to the Lord. Their service, he promises, will prevent them from “falling from grace” and losing their salvation.
Some prosperity gospel adherents burn out and become angry with their leaders. They begin to question the ministry’s methods and refuse to comply with its demands. I’ve watched pastors who sensed they were losing control of this type of person respond by claiming that the member is in rebellion, causing division, and on a trajectory to lose their salvation unless they repent and begin serving again. In these cases 1 Samuel 15:23 was used as the proof text to point out the consequences of the person’s actions and to dissuade others from following. But this verse speaks of King Saul’s direct disobedience to a command of God, not a genuine believer who questions unbiblical teaching or church practices.
A healthy church lovingly teaches the biblical view of conversion. In the Bible we read that conversion takes place when the biblical gospel is preached (Rom. 1:16-17, 10:9-17) and the sinner repents of their sins and puts their trust in Jesus Christ (Acts 3:19; Rom. 3:21-26). Conversion happens when God the Holy Spirit causes the sinner who is dead in sin to become alive in Christ (John 3:3-8; Eph. 2:1-10). Biblical conversion puts the focus on repentance and belief in the work of Christ, not simply saying a prayer and serving to the point of exhaustion for fear of losing one’s salvation.
Prosperity gospel churches often teach evangelism must be coupled with a demonstration of signs and wonders. When these two elements are combined it is said that sinners will repent and believe in Jesus. I’ve heard people say in pre-evangelistic times of prayer that sinners will not repent unless they see physical evidence of the supernatural work of God the Holy Spirit as listed in Mark 16:15-16.
Since the inclusion of this passage in the original and oldest most trusted manuscripts is disputed, it is unwise to build one’s doctrinal stance on this passage alone. Further, mandating that people demonstrate the signs in this passage in order to be effective in evangelism is dangerous and manipulative.
Biblical evangelism is proclaiming the gospel and calling sinners to repentance. The gospel needs no upgrades, bells, or whistles in order to be effective (1 Cor. 15:1-4). The Bible is clear that the preached gospel is powerful to save sinners (Rom. 1:16, 10:17).
6. CHURCH MEMBERSHIP
Prosperity gospel churches often equate church membership with regular attendance, tithing, and service—with or without a formal commitment. People are often “grandfathered” into church membership if they do these things long enough. In one case I recall a person who attended the church for over two decades, received the benefits of membership, yet never formally joined the church. They felt no need to since they gave financially and served weekly. I’ve watched people in such circumstances live in open sin and avoid church discipline.
A healthy church presents church membership as a blessing and mandate for the believer. The blessing is that the church affirms the believer’s faith and builds the believer up in love (Eph. 4:11-16). The mandate is that Jesus requires Christians to submit to his authority by submitting to the church’s authority. You’re not truly a member of the body if you can simply detach at will.
7. CHURCH DISCIPLINE
I’ve witnessed church discipline in prosperity gospel churches land on one of two extremes. The first was an informal excommunication where the biblical protocol for church discipline was not followed (i.e., Matt. 18:15-17; 1 Cor. 5:1-13; 2 Cor. 2:6; 2 Thess. 3:6-15). The individuals said to be living in sin were “disfellowshipped” from the church in private only to be spoken of in public as those we were not have contact with because of their rebellion.
The second extreme was for leadership to completely ignore the sin of either another leader, popular member, or both. When this approach was used, the leaders who knew the person’s unrepentant habitual sin willfully refused to acknowledge and deal with it. Sadly, I witnessed leaders members who brought up the sin of other members with statements like, “God forgives and his love covers the multitudes of your sins,” and “only God can judge them.” In the case of sinning leaders remaining in ministry, it was said “the gifts of God come without repentance” a distortion of Romans 11:29. Prosperity preachers often use 1 Chronicles 16:22 (“Touch not my anointed ones, do my prophets no harm!”) as a repellant for questions from members of their congregation. Sometimes prosperity gospel churches have been known to cover the sin of a leader by sending them on a sabbatical in place of practicing 1 Timothy 5:17-20.
Healthy churches embrace God’s desire for a pure, holy church. As they help their people grow in Christlikeness, they will shine like stars in the world (Eph. 4:11-32; Phil. 2:1-18). Healthy churches understand that leaders are not exempt from temptation, lapses of judgment, and sin. Healthy churches then teach and follow the biblical prescription for church discipline, including discipline of leaders (1 Tim. 5:17-20).
Discipleship in prosperity gospel churches often tends toward co-dependency with the pastor or another prominent church leader. The entry level of discipleship is known as the “armor-bearer” stage. An armor-bearer in Scripture was a person who carried the weapons of their leader and protected them (1 Sam. 14:6-7 and 2 Sam. 18:15). But in prosperity gospel churches, armor-bearer has become an unofficial office. New converts who want to grow in their walk with God are placed in a cohort. This cohort is trained to serve the emotional, physical, and spiritual needs of the pastor or church leader. The pastor will often commission armor-bearers to engage in activities ranging from carrying his Bible to paying his bills, all in the name of “ministry.” In some extreme cases I’ve counseled ex-armor-bearers who were instructed to give the pastor massages after he preached, and even sexual favors.
If an armor-bearer sticks around long enough, they can earn a promotion that comes with a title, licensure to preach, and even ordination. Most often, the pastor does this to pad the stats of his ministry as many of these ordained men (and sometimes women) sit on the sidelines cheering the pastor on while he preaches. I’ve known some pastors to boast in having dozens of ordained men sit under them for decades. Rarely are these ordained ministers sent out to plant churches, revitalize dying churches, or engage in vocational ministry overseas. Sadly, in one instance I counseled someone who sat under a pastor for over fifteen years as an ordained minister and was never once instructed about the biblical qualifications of an elder.
A healthy church disciples its people to depend more on Jesus, not a pastor or church leader. Believers grow by deepening their knowledge of Jesus (2 Pet. 3:18), and, by the power of the Spirit, imitating Jesus (1 Cor. 4:16, 11:1; Eph. 5:1). Biblical disciples produce more biblical disciples, not dependents (2 Tim. 2:2; Titus 2:1-8).
9. CHURCH LEADERSHIP
Prosperity gospel preachers often receive undying support from their members because the people live vicariously through their pastor. If the pastor’s platform and bank account grow, the members of the flock celebrate as if the prosperity were their own. Some congregations want their pastor to have the newest top-of-the-line car, wear expensive name-brand clothing, and live in a large home in order that God’s blessings would trickle down to them. I was once told, “If my pastor is living large, he's paving the way for me and my family to live large.”
In many cases, the pastor is said to be God's voice to the congregation, and therefore has unquestioned authority. The leadership structure varies between a C.E.O. model and a monarchy. I’ve often seen others appointed as pastors or elders not based on biblical qualifications but because of their occupation and closeness to the pastor.
A healthy churches champions biblically qualified leaders. 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9 are passages that clearly lay out qualifications for the men who would lead God’s church. The qualifications emphasize the man’s character, not his occupation or friendship with the pastor. Elders are to shepherd the flock, feed them with healthy doctrine, lead in humility, and defend them from false teachers.
SHEEP WITHOUT A SHEPHERD
There is unceasing grief in my heart for people who are under all or some of the teachings highlighted here. They are like the weary, scattered sheep without a shepherd on whom Jesus had compassion (Matt. 9:36). These precious souls of Jesus’ day were being abused, distressed, and harassed by their leaders. They knew no other way of life since it was their own religious leaders who treated them this way. Jesus responded by telling his disciples to pray for the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.
The grief I share for the weary and scattered sheep of today drives me to do two things: pray for the Lord to send out laborers who will seek and serve these scattered sheep, and labor to lead a healthy church in order to reach the sheep in my city. I pray this article has helped kindle a fire in your heart for seeing healthy churches serving cities across the globe.
D.A. Horton is executive director of ReachLife Ministries, the non-profit ministry of Reach Records. Prior to serving at ReachLife, D.A. was an urban church planter in Kansas City, Missouri.
I’m in a bathtub. I can’t get up. I feel like I’m about to die. Mercury poisoning.
The water in the tub has grown cold. Maybe that’s why I feel so cold. I’ve been marinating in my own soup stock for the past two hours. I’m floating in and out of consciousness. Whenever I can concentrate I begin to pray.
“Jesus, please, save me. Please, heal me. I repent, I put my whole heart into prayer right now, and I cast out any doubt or fear. I know you can heal me. Please heal me!”
My mom’s keys are rattling in the doorknob now, and I hear the door thud shut in the distance. I hear her purse sliding across the counter and her keys landing next to it. I barely recognize her figure as she tries with all of her wiry might to pull me out of the tub. I spend the next two days in the hospital. My mom wants to know why I didn’t let her know, why I didn’t want to go to the hospital, why I didn’t do something.
“Mom, Jesus is my doctor. I’m blessed, and I know that he would have healed me.” This is me trying to live out what I think is true Christianity.
I had just gotten saved two months prior. I’m fresh out of jail and I’m walking around the projects where I used to stomp like a tiny teenage giant. I’ve got a bare back, a few tattoos, and a Bible in my hand. I’m just praying for the opportunity to share the Christ with someone.
I meet a man named Roger who invites me into his home. He buys me lunch and we spend all day talking about the Bible. This guy knows way more than me. I’ve never heard anyone spout off so many Scriptures in such rapid-fire succession. “This guy is legit...” I say under my breath.
Over the course of the next six months, this man indoctrinates me with the prosperity gospel. Just a few months earlier, I’d never even opened a Bible. I have no idea that I’m being given arsenic in my kool aid. I take it all. I believe it all. I know it’s true. It has to be. It’s all right here in Scripture. Look, she touched the hem of his garment and was healed. Look, Jesus couldn’t heal them because they didn’t have enough faith. Look, all throughout the Old Testament you see curses for sins, and blessings for righteousness. Prosperity for the good, pain for the bad. It’s so plain. So obvious.
But stuff isn’t making sense. I’m still without a job. I can’t pay my rent. My mom isn’t getting saved, and I keep getting cold sores. None of these things should be happening. There must be sin hidden somewhere in my heart.
Now I have the flu, and I don’t have any money to buy groceries. I just need to claim it. I just need to rebuke Satan and his lies, and believe that what I have proclaimed in the name of Jesus will surely come to pass. Maybe I’m not tithing enough. Time to double up. I’ll get it back one hundred-fold. Maybe more. I just need to sow in faith.
But it’s still not happening. “Roger, hey man, I don’t understand. It seems like this stuff isn’t working. What am I doing wrong?”
“Dude, I don’t know exactly what it is, but I know the problem ain’t with God or his Word. It’s got to be something in your heart, or in your life. Let’s pray about it.”
Fast forward a year. I’m nineteen and married now. We’re struggling hard. I can’t pay the rent or the electricity bill, and I just lost another job. My wife wasn’t saved when we met. She gets saved during the course of our friendship, and somewhere in there, she starts listening to me and taking in all of the “truth” I’m giving her. She does wonder, though, where the disconnect is. When the ATM receipt says we’re negative forty dollars, I rebuke myself, the ATM, and the receipt. I claim my blessing even in the face of this lie from Satan. I know that Jesus is looking down on me, proud of my strength in the midst of such persecution and adversity. “In the name of Jesus!”—I keep claiming what he’s promised me.
The prosperity gospel and word of faith movement are basically the same thing, but I’ve never heard anything about any of those things before. All of the good Bible-loving Baptists around me are afraid of me because I probably robbed their sons, stole their cars, or vandalized their church. Yet because of my powerful testimony, scores of churches invite me to come and share. I preach a false gospel every time I go. Not once does anyone ever sit me down and talk with me about the danger that my soul is in. Not a word. Not a peep. Not to my face, anyway. I now know that they waited respectfully until I left, and then talked amongst themselves about how sad it is to see such passion so misdirected.
All I know, the only thing I know, is that I love Jesus. He saved me. I was destroying myself and anyone who was unfortunate enough to be caught up in my gravitational pull. I was dying, and I was going to die twice. One night, on an empty road in the middle of nowhere, in a scene so strange it has to be true, Jesus saved me. He saved me from sin, and death, and hell. I want to spend the rest of my life serving Jesus with all of me. I think that this refuse called “gospel,” this message of prosperity and proclamation, is what I must do. So I obey. In my mind, this is what it means to be a Christian. This is all I’ve known. I think this is what God wants of me. So I continue in white-knuckled obedience. I keep pressing, keep pushing. And one random day I join Myspace.
I like to argue on Myspace. I’m nineteen and I have a big mouth. The internet offers me a perfect avenue to express myself and condemn those who can’t see the truth that I see, obey the law as well as I do, and lack the faith I radiate like a fiery sun. I’m perusing this wasteland one evening in Seattle, and an old man pops up on my QuickTime video player. He’s really bringing the thunder. He’s preaching on holiness like no one I’ve ever heard. I’m hooked. I go to the next video.
Amazing. I’ve never heard anyone preach like this. I go to the next one. It’s says “John Piper: Prosperity Gospel Sermon Jam.” I’m excited. He’s going to really give the jolt I need to keep going.
But after the clip I’m furious. I close my computer. Another wolf. Another preacher who just has it so wrong. The video was the worst attack on my faith that I’ve ever seen or heard. I stop watching right after he says “this crap called gospel!” Unbelievable.
I carry on with my life, but I just can’t help it. I keep going back to YouTube, and eventually I go to this website that has all of his teachings. I tell myself that I’m just going to read or listen to or watch his other stuff. I’ll avoid the stuff I don’t like; the stuff that’s wrong. The other stuff is just too good, though. It’s breathing life into my soul.
I don’t remember much about the night the truth took over. Most of the really painful events that we experience are deadened in our memories, right? Our brains are protecting us from the trauma of having to relive the pain over and over again. But this night, I’m crying. I’m devastated. I’ve been considering the possibility for months now, and it finally clicked about five minutes ago. Almost everything that I think I know about God, the Bible, the cross, and the gospel of Jesus Christ is wrong. Dead wrong. I feel it now, down in my bones, and it burns with the pain that only God can give.
Repentance begins. “Amber, baby, we need to talk. Everything I’ve ever taught you about Christ is wrong. Can you ever trust me again? Can we start over? Will you give me another chance?”
I feel like an adulterer. I begin undoing everything that needs to be undone. I failed as a husband, and by the grace of God I’m trying to fix it. I have no one and nothing. I don’t have any non-prosperity gospel friends, because I ditched them if they couldn’t get with the program. They were only holding me back and hurting my faith. That’s what I told myself. Now I’m alone. I do have the internet, though…
So I’m watching Paul Washer videos and spending hours on DesiringGod.org. I’ve never even heard the word “reformed,” and I can’t find one single book about the prosperity gospel. Not one that’s attacking it, anyway. That’s what I really want.
I’m hurt—badly. I don’t trust anyone, and I’m angry at everyone—at Christians, anyway. Why didn’t anyone tell me? How could I have been so blind? I’m angry at myself. I’m broken, but the Spirit is carrying me.
God did heal my mercury poisoning, but it wasn’t because of my power to proclaim that healing into existence. And he accomplished a far greater rescue when he delivered me from the prosperity gospel. It’s been nearly six years since the Lord saved me from myself and the damnable heresy that had ensnared me.
I’m writing this from Peru where my family and I are trying to reach a people group who do not have the gospel. I’m still picking up the pieces. I still have a hard time praying for healing, or prosperity and blessing, both of which are thoroughly biblical. I still feel my diaphragm twitch whenever someone says “In the name of Jesus.” I know the truth now, and I try to walk in line with it every day. The white-knuckled discipline that I once devoted to the prosperity gospel, I now devote to trusting fully in the finished work of Christ and the grace that I breathe in to survive.
Here’s the bottom line: I was a heretic. But Christ had saved me from my sin, and he saved me from my heresy too. When it comes to embracing the prosperity gospel, I doubt that you would have found anyone more dedicated or ruthless than me. I was the chosen one. But I was ensnared in a false gospel. And so is everyone else who is trusting in this “crap called gospel,” to borrow a phrase from that old man’s video.
Brothers, call it what it is. Pastors, call it what it is. Don’t let even a hint of this junk live in your church. Preach against it, and preach a gospel that shines so bright and burns so hot that any other gospel that tries to approach it burns up upon entry. Don’t treat this like an asymptomatic sniffle in an otherwise healthy body; treat it like the cancer that it is. Preach, teach, counsel, shepherd, and pray a clear and true gospel, and leave no room for anything less glorious or true.
If you meet someone who is lost in this false gospel, please, please, please love them and tell them the truth. Sit them down, buy them lunch, and open up your Bibles. Speak life. Be brave. Odds are, no one has ever loved them enough to tell them the truth about themselves. The truth is that they cannot be saved by a false gospel, and the prosperity gospel is certainly that.
Jesus saved me from the prosperity gospel, and he can save more. He will save more. How could he not?
Sean DeMars is currently serving the peoples of Peru by preaching, teaching, and living God’s Word. He is a husband, an artist, and quite possibly the worst missionary ever. He and his wife were sent out by Decatur Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Decatur, Alabama.
Detroit’s freeways are framed by dozens of billboards featuring happy, young, successful people enjoying a night of games and entertainment at one of the city’s casinos. The sleek, enticing images preach an alluring message: “Greatness awaits you in the casinos.” “You were born to be lucky.” On and on it goes. A closer look reveals the 1-800 number for Gambler’s Anonymous. And if you ever went to a casino, you would find that the reality does not quite match the billboard.
For years, potential casino operators attempted to get gambling legalized in Detroit. On three different occasions, they got an initiative on the ballot, but there was one pastor in the city who stood in their way. He knew what gambling would do to this city. He organized and educated, and each time the initiative was defeated. Then this pastor had a serious heart attack, and the initiative for casinos in Detroit was back in play. This time, the organizers did not have the pesky pastor to contend with. But they did something else. On this fourth attempt, the organizers gathered a number of pastors from Detroit together and offered them stock in the casinos in exchange for their support from the pulpits. They were told to sell this idea to the people as something that will be good for the economy and will save our city. The pastors did, and on the fourth try, the initiative passed.
Today you can visit the casinos. Go to the slot machines and watch the glazed-over faces of old people whose reverse mortgages freed up some money so they could buy tokens for the slot machines. Hour after hour, they pull the one-armed bandit, awaiting the glory the billboards promise. Fear sets in. They think, “If I get up from the machine, the next person will come and win.” So they sit, hour after hour, until their clothes are soiled and their tokens are gone. Next month, after the social security check arrives, some of them will be on the first bus back to try again.
And in case you haven’t heard, Detroit is bankrupt.
The promises of the prosperity gospel are like the billboards of Detroit’s casinos. It looks so good. It seems so appealing. One of its most influential voices is Joel Osteen, the pastor of Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas who recently released a new book called Break Out! If Disneyworld was a church, Joel Osteen would be the pastor. Break Out! is basically a combination of “When You Wish upon a Star” and “A Whole New World.”
The problem is, Joel is a pastor, and his sermons and books are presented as truth, not fairy tales, and thousands of people really believe what he says. Some may be in our churches.
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