Evangelizing Prosperity Gospel Disciples

Article
02.06.2024

A few years ago, I met a missionary to Africa who boasted of winning “thousands of new Christians” and planting “hundreds of churches.” Intrigued, I asked: “What is the gospel you preach?” His answer was deeply disheartening. 

He shared about Jesus’s desire to bless and heal people. He minimized sin and elevated success. He had an obvious fascination with big numbers. He was, quite obviously, a prosperity gospel preacher. 

Like every other false gospel, the prosperity gospel replaces God’s gracious work with our work. The specific work it promotes is more faith and more giving. God subsequently rewards such works with more health and more wealth. 

This false gospel cherry-picks Scripture, which teaches its adherents to read their Bibles poorly. It then uses its bankrupt exegesis to diminish the greatness of God and elevate man. It creates a shrunken God whom people can manipulate. 

This teaching isn’t just an annoying alternative or unfortunate compromise. It’s a damning false gospel. Paul’s stark words to the Galatians apply here. The prosperity gospel “distorts” the true gospel, rendering its preachers and disciples “accursed” (Gal. 1:6–9). 

It may be easy to balk at all this. Surely no one in my church believes this! But there are softer versions of the prosperity gospel that plague our churches. Sometimes Christians are tempted to believe that our suffering might be an indicator of God’s displeasure, or that God owes us something because we have given him so much, or that a bigger church with more money is a clear measure of blessing. These are all variations of prosperity gospel thinking that poison the church. 

How then can we wisely evangelize prosperity gospel disciples? 

First, Recognize That at the Root of Prosperity Gospel Thinking Is the Same Misplaced Affection Found in Every Other Sin 

The essence of sin is giving our affection and allegiance to the wrong things. How many of our sins come from wanting heaven on earth now, more peace or money or status now? 

We’re all familiar with this. So prosperity gospel adherents aren’t committing a special sin. They’re just like us. They need new affections and new loyalties, which means they need the new birth (John 3:5). These truths should inspire us as evangelists to be humble in our posture and bold in our prayer. 

Second, Ask Provocative Questions That Bring Doctrinal Clarity 

Don’t be afraid to be lovingly intrusive. Here are three clarifying questions you might ask a prosperity gospel disciple. 

What Does the Gospel Save Us From? 

We’re not saved from the physical effects of the Fall, such as sickness and poverty. Rather, because of Jesus’s substitutionary atonement, we’re saved from the curse of God’s broken law (Gal. 3:13), which means we’re saved from God’s just wrath (Rom. 3:21–25) and the grip of sin (Rom. 6:1–14). 

So point out to your friend that the gospel is fundamentally about God’s work on behalf of sinners, not our work to secure more from God. What God presently promises in Christ is “every spiritual blessing” (Eph. 1:3–14), not every physical blessing. We are superabundantly rich in Christ. In Christ, God doesn’t hold back; he is lavish. 

Does the Bible Promise Physical Blessings Now or Later? 

Chronology is important. The Christian hope does, indeed, include material and physical blessings on the new earth (Phil. 3:20–21; Rev. 21). But it doesn’t promise them now. 

In reality, the prosperity gospel doesn’t promise too much too fast. It promises too little too soon. Its error is not only what it promises, but when it promises blessings. 

So remind your friend that the Christian’s longings will be realized on the new earth, not this earth. And even there, God himself will be our greatest prize, not our absence of suffering or our possession of blessing (Ps. 27:4, 73:25). 

Is There a Cost Associated with Following Jesus? 

Following three predictions of his death and resurrection in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus offers three lessons on discipleship (Mark 8:31–10:52). The main thrust of his teaching is that, like him, disciples will walk a cross-shaped life. The road to the crown comes through a cross (Mark 8:34–38). Disciples of the true gospel are called to suffering now and glory later. 

Suffering isn’t an aberration in the Christian life. It’s the norm. Self-denial isn’t a rare blip. It’s our everyday call. We don’t trust God to avoid suffering and sacrifice; we trust God through suffering and sacrifice. 

If health and wealth are biblical aims, then why would the New Testament speak so often about “outwardly wasting away” (2 Cor. 4:16–18) and facing “trials of various kinds” (James 1:2–4)? The Christian life isn’t doing more for Jesus to get more from Jesus. The Christian life is forsaking more for Jesus to gain more of Jesus. 

Finally, Make Sure Your Life Commends and Doesn’t Confuse the Gospel You Preach 

It may feel like a big downer to call others to a cross-shaped life. But the Christian life is no dour existence, as if Christians are only called to hold on for dear life until death brings them home. Rather, we have every reason to rejoice in the Lord now (Phil. 4:4). We have every reason to joyfully embrace the cruciform life because it is sweet to fellowship in the sufferings of Christ (Phil. 3:10). 

How do you respond to painful trials, long-term difficulties, and other harsh realities of this fallen world? Your prosperity gospel friends are watching. Can they see your present joy and future hope, even amid tears? Or do they see pettiness and fussing? Can they sense that Jesus is sweeter and lovelier to you than all else? Or do they sense that you long more for the things of this world? Your life will either commend or confuse the gospel. 

Jamie, a dear sister and member of our church, commended the gospel even as she battled a rare blood cancer for five years. Her fight included countless chemotherapy and radiation treatments, and eventually an invasive bone-marrow transplant. We fervently prayed for healing. Though there were seasons of remission, the Lord eventually took her home. 

What so encouraged our church family was Jamie’s increasing faith amidst her suffering. I can still picture her on a Sunday morning, just days after receiving the original diagnosis, arm-in-arm with her husband Scott, confidently singing, “In Christ alone, my hope is found.” I remember lunches with Scott and Jamie, where I would leave having received more encouragement than I gave. 

On another Sunday morning shortly before her passing, several members were moved by the sermon text’s call to the cruciform life (Mark 8:34–38). During the sermon, our eyes fell upon Jamie in her wheelchair, eagerly nodding away. With tears in our eyes, we closed the service by singing these words from Henry Lyte: 

Jesus, I my cross have taken,
All to leave and follow Thee.
Destitute, despised, forsaken,
Thou from hence my all shall be.
Perish every fond ambition,
All I’ve sought or hoped or known.
Yet how rich is my condition,
God and heaven are still my own. 

Jamie’s example of joyful, faith-filled perseverance is a direct assault on the prosperity gospel. God would greatly commend in Jamie what the prosperity gospel would condemn. She clung to her spiritual riches in Christ while her body slowly faded away. She embraced her crosses and losses with an ever-increasing faith. And today, in the presence of Jesus, she is just beginning to enjoy her crown. 

In your effort to effectively evangelize your prosperity gospel friends, offer doctrinal clarity and call them to a cross-shaped life. But don’t forget to joyfully live one yourself, like my friend, Jamie. 

By:
Godwin Sathianathan

Godwin Sathianathan is the Lead Pastor of Faith Evangelical Free Church in Milford, Ohio.

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