How Biblical Theology Dismantles the Prosperity Gospel
Psalm 23 is the most loved passage in the Bible and therefore perhaps the most cherished piece of writing of all time. Its promises and encouragements are so clear that it hardly needs interpretation. At most, Bible teachers have had to remind believers that the shepherd Lord spoken of by the psalm is the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus laid down his life for his sheep and makes it possible for the psalm’s promises to be fulfilled.
However, in the hands of those who teach the Bible for selfish gain, the opening verse promises that no believer should ever want for anything at all: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.”
On their interpretation, believers have access to the treasures of God, freeing them to have whatever they want. So name it and claim it!
TO GET, GIVE…ESPECIALLY TO THE TEACHER
But these teachers go further. Again misinterpreting Scripture, they explain that this promised abundance requires certain conditions to be realized. God’s abundant sharing is based on the person’s own generous giving, usually to the teacher! And here Scripture after Scripture is used:
Give generously to him [the poor in the land] and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to. (Deut. 15:10)
Honor the Lord with your wealth, with the firstfruits of all your crops; then your barns will be filled to overflowing, and your vats will brim over with new wine. (Prov. 3:9-10)
One person gives freely, yet gains even more; another withholds unduly, but comes to poverty. A generous person will prosper; whoever refreshes others will be refreshed. (Prov. 11:24-25)
The generous will themselves be blessed, for they share their food with the poor. (Prov. 22:9)
“Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the Lord Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it.” (Mal. 3:10)
Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work. As it is written: “They have freely scattered their gifts to the poor; their righteousness endures forever.” Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness. (2 Cor. 9:6-10)
It is clear why the prosperity gospel has taken such a foothold in the church. Not only is it fueled by the sinful greed of both teachers and hearers, it seems to be the clear teaching of God that giving results in receiving.
So how do we set about to combat this false teaching that is ravaging the church?
WICKED UNBELIEVER OR UNINFORMED BELIEVER?
In my own South African context, as no doubt elsewhere too, one must first consider whether the false teacher is teaching this way as a wicked unbeliever or as an uninformed believer.
Many prosperity teachers preach this way as the enemies of God. They do not have orthodox views of the Godhead, or teach that the way of salvation is through Christ alone. Those who fall into this category require our prayers and evangelistic witness. They are leading themselves and their followers to hell as they preach that which is no gospel at all.
But there is another very common group (in South Africa, at least): uninformed believers.
These uninformed preachers believe and teach the prosperity gospel more out of ignorance than wickedness. Their earnest desire is to uphold the Word of God, but their strict wooden reading of the Scriptures, uninformed by the rules of genre or a text’s place in the larger biblical storyline, results in them drifting from the truth.
WHAT’S NEEDED: BIBLICAL THEOLOGY
What is it that this second group needs? They need to be taught biblical theology.
The phrase “biblical theology” can simply refer to theology that’s biblical. But I am using it here in a more technical sense to refer to a way of reading the Bible as one story, by one author, about one Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Biblical theology teaches us to read every passage of Scripture in light of the person and work of Christ (see, for example, Luke 24:27, 44-47; John 5:39).
The seemingly literal way of reading any given Scripture such as “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want” is seen by many to be the mark of true discipleship. But if such readings do not respect the rules of genre or place those texts within the larger biblical storyline, they will distort God’s Word. Such readings need to be lovingly exposed as an inadequate way to interpret the message the Bible.
A BIBLICAL THEOLOGY OF WEALTH AND PROSPERITY
For instance, what does the Bible teach about wealth and prosperity?
The opening chapters of the Bible clearly teach that, as Creator, God is the owner of all things (Ps. 89:11). All wealth therefore belongs to him (Ps. 50:10) and is to be used to rule the earth and bring glory to him through the worship of his Son and service to his people.
As the owner of all, God desires that we, his creatures and rulers on earth, desire relationship with him, rather than fixating on the things he created to serve us (Matt. 6:31-33). However, mankind has consistently worshipped created things rather than the Creator, and used material things for selfish purposes.
This has the been the norm throughout history, so it came as a huge surprise when God acted graciously towards Abram, promising him and the generations that followed a magnificent kingdom which he would bless materially, so that they could do what God intended for Adam: to rule over creation for the purpose of worshipping God and serving others, as well as being a light to the nations (Gen. 12:1-3, 15:1-18). The nations were meant to look at Israel and see them as a wise and blessed people, and then turn to their God for inclusion amongst his people (Deut. 4:1-8).
To prepare them to be this light, and to prepare them for life in the Promised Land, God gave his people the Law (Ex. 19-20), after which he promised that those who submitted to his rule would receive material blessing, while those who rejected his rule would face his curse, often described in terms of material poverty (Deut. 28:1-68).
However, despite that warning, the prophets were still required to preach words of warning to those who chose to pursue their own wealth rather than being rich towards God (e.g., Isa. 5:8-10). Even after they suffered the punishment of exile for refusing complete allegiance to God, the people of God continued to choose their own comfort and pleasure over the glory of God (Hag. 1:4).
Throughout the Old Testament period the wisdom writers taught God’s people that there was no wisdom in choosing anything over the Creator. Wisdom, based on the character of God, dictated that generosity would have positive outcomes in the giver’s life, while self-centeredness would result in futility.
Only one man heeded the warning and had the wisdom to obey God’s call to obedient submission. Jesus, despite Satan’s temptations, lived in perfect obedience to the law of God (Matt. 4:1-11). As a result, he exercised perfect dominion over all creation as seen in his calming of storms (Matt. 8:23-27), healing of the sick (Matt. 8:14-17) and even by having dominion over death (Matt. 28:1-20).
Jesus’ call to people was, and is, that we act wisely and obediently and submit to God’s plan for our lives: repenting of sin and exercising faith in Jesus, God’s revealed King. His death on the cross offers the forgiveness that self-centered humanity so desperately needs and his resurrection assures eternal life with him.
The New Testament writers echoed Jesus’ teaching, who, by his perfect obedience had become Israel’s wise man and prophet. They warned of the love of money and urged God’s people to pursue contentment and generosity for the sake of the growth of God’s kingdom (1 Tim. 6:6-10, 17-19). Through their teaching, we know that those who gather around Jesus (the church) are promised God’s daily care and provision (Phil. 4:19). But this promise of material provision and even blessing is not assured in the same way as it was with Israel, who revealed that material possessions were not an indication of their faithfulness or obedience. In fact, Jesus taught that he may lovingly call the church to suffer for his glory as a witness to a self-obsessed world, by displaying its desire to treasure him above all else (Matt. 5:3-12). For any believer, this suffering will be a joy, for he knows that Christ is his treasure, and that nothing can ever separate him from Christ (Rom. 8:35-39).
For the believer, eternity is the enjoyment of Christ his treasure, which even surpasses God’s promise of great abundance and blessing being poured out on his people forever.
Any teaching that goes beyond this simple Bible overview, promising more prosperity than the Scriptures, needs to be corrected. Christ alone is our treasure. He is our blessing! Those who teach and those who listen must understand that no part of Scripture can be taken as contradictory to this overall message of the Scriptures, or offer a blessing other than Christ, or from a source other than Christ.
As a discipline, biblical theology forces one to ask questions of the text that are critical for every believer to come to terms with. “For whom was this text written? When was it written? Why was it written?” Only once those questions are answered should the teacher move from “them, there, then” to “us, here, now.”
BIBLICAL THEOLOGY THE GREATEST CORRECTIVE
The study of biblical theology—or simply: reading every text of the Bible in its context—is the greatest corrective to uninformed prosperity teaching.
It demands that we do not read the Bible selectively.
It demands that we submit every thought or idea we may have to the Word of God.
It demands that we recognize that the focal point of the Bible is Jesus’ rule and glory, rather than our own comfort and prosperity.
It demands that we consider who the intended, original audience was and what situation they found themselves in, before we move too quickly to ourselves in the twenty-first century.
And it demands that we consider the present in the promised light of eternity, not allowing our present light and momentary troubles to cloud the eternal weight of glory.