What does ‘the prosperity gospel’ mean? The prosperity gospel is sometimes referred to as the ‘prosperity theology’, ‘health and wealth gospel’ or ‘the gospel of success’. It teaches that it is the right of all Christians to be healthy and wealthy. This right is presented as based on a covenant relationship which God enters into with all believers at the point of salvation. God is considered bound by His covenant obligations to ensure the health and wealth of all His children. As such, God and the Holy Spirit are considered to be at the disposal of believers to bring about prosperity through positive confession and other ‘spiritual’ activities such as giving of tithes and offerings to churches and ministries.
There are Bible passages which the exponents of the prosperity gospel repeat: …the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, … that you through His poverty might become rich (2 Cor. 8:9). I pray that you may prosper in all things and be in health, just as your soul prospers (3 John 1:2). But He was wounded for our transgressions, … by His stripes we are healed (Isa. 53:5).
The prosperity gospel is not a recent phenomenon, although it has over time increased in the number of adherents. The message of prosperity preachers centres largely on the hearers contributing financially to their ministries or churches in order to unlock the door to unparalleled wealth and blessings. The yardstick for this is usually Malachi 3:10: “Bring all the tithes into the storehouse, … and try Me now in this,” says the LORD of hosts, “If I will not … pour out for you such blessing …” Many of the prominent prosperity preachers are stupendously rich due to the hundreds of thousands and sometimes millions of individuals donating to their churches and causes. They frequently present themselves as proof of the authenticity and efficacy of their message. However, what does the Bible actually teach?
The Bible teaching about wealth and health begins in the Old Testament. Adam and Eve enjoyed unequalled health and wealth prior to the entry of sin. The Lord gave Adam dominion over all living things and he was created to live forever (Gen. 1:28-30). However, with the entrance of sin the dynamics of creation changed: man would die, both physically and spiritually, and he was to labour before he would meet his basic needs (Gen. 3:17-19). There was now no automatic right to health and wealth.
In the Old Testament, the Lord reminded the Israelites not to forget that He gave them the power to get wealth (Deut. 8:18; Prov. 10:22; Ecc. 6:2). Although He gave specific instructions, compliance with which would usher in material and physical blessings for the individuals, yet there were still poor and unhealthy persons amongst the Israelites and continuing support for these was enjoined (Deut. 28:1-68; 15:7).
The Old Testament is replete with references to the all-sufficiency of the Almighty God and warnings on the danger of a life devoted to the pursuit of wealth (Ps. 24:1-2; 50:10-12; Prov. 28:22; 27:24). The wise man Solomon observed this. Does God promise wealth and health in the New Testament?
The New Testament gives clear guidance about health and wealth. The Lord declared: “In the world you will have tribulation” (John 16:33). Christians have no guarantee of material and physical ease (Mat. 8:20; 16:24). They are called to a life of self-denial, knowing that they are strangers and pilgrims in this world (1 Pet. 2:11; Heb. 13:16). Whilst some believers may be entrusted with material wealth, it is never for self-indulgence, but for the benefit of others who are less privileged (2 Cor. 9:8; 1 Tim. 6:17-19; Mark 14:7; Heb. 13:6). There are repeated injunctions to keep ourselves free from the love of money, to learn contentment and to pursue godliness.
The transience of our present troubles (whether physical or material) is contrasted with the eternal weight of glory being worked out for us (Heb. 13:5; 2 Cor. 4:17). The sovereignty of God God is sovereign, but the prosperity gospel advocates He cannot do as He pleases (Dan. 4:32; Isa. 45:11). He is depicted as a benevolent benefactor at the service of believers who can get Him to act by saying the right words in ‘faith’. This ‘gospel’ is a grave error as it enthrones ‘the deity of the believer’ who is conferred with similar authority as the Almighty.
In the early days of Christianity there appeared to have been elements of this error, as some deemed godliness a means to financial gain and others encouraged the pursuit of material prosperity to the detriment of their spiritual lives. It is to such that the injunction about the love of money being a root of all evil refers (1 Tim. 6:10; 2 Pet. 2:119). Dependence on God Scripture admonishes us to work with all our might and to put our trust in God who gives us all things richly to enjoy. We are exhorted to be content with food and clothing and, where blessed with wealth, to employ in it in the furtherance of God’s kingdom. We are to store up our treasures in heaven and to know we cannot serve both God and money. Importantly, the Lord Jesus instructs us to guard against every form of greed. Greed, is the cornerstone of the prosperity gospel (Luke 12:15; Mat. 6:19,24; Ecc. 9:10; Col. 3:23; 1 Tim. 6:8,17).