We are living in a time when a confusing Christian doctrine is being popularized by some preachers, and many radio and TV ‘evangelists’. Some, claiming to teach the truth, mislead their followers into believing that if they fulfil certain conditions, they will receive great wealth. But their promises are false. While these so-called ‘prosperity preachers’ seem to be using the Bible to validate their claims, in reality they are taking verses out of context. In short, their prosperity doctrine will not hold up in the light of scripture.
The discerning believer must recognize these false teachers who say, among other things, that generous tithing will assure God’s giving back ‘over and above all that you can ask or think’. This is a misleading statement, and those who use it lead earnest givers to send their money to prosperity preachers who are, in reality, merely building a financial empire for themselves. This kind of religious deception is widespread, and what we hear being broadcast is just the ‘tip of the iceberg’ worldwide.
What they preach
The prosperity preachers tell us that God actually wills financial prosperity for His children. Their claim is based on the misapplication of some Old Testament passages, as well as the misuse of some New Testament verses. In Deuteronomy chapter 11 verses 13 to 28, God did promise the nation of Israel that if they obeyed His commandments, loved Him with all their hearts, and avoided idolatry they would be satisfied, blessed, and prosperous. But this promise of prosperity was made to the nation of Israel and not to believers in the church age. God also promised to Israel curses, droughts, and oppression if they did not keep their side of the bargain. Why do the prosperity preachers overlook those verses? We need to understand that many promises of God in the Old Testament are not directly applicable to the church today.
For instance, God promised Abraham that his descendants would become a great nation, inherit the land of Israel, and be a blessing to all people of the earth, Gen. 12. 2; 15. 18. These promises do not apply to anyone in the church today. They were meant specifically for Abraham and his descendents, and they particularly refer to earthly, not heavenly, blessings that are assured to believers in the church age, past and present. However, from these promises we need to learn to appreciate just how much God cares for those who love Him.
There are many promises regarding God’s care and provision in the New Testament which are there for every believer to claim. For example, we read in John chapter 15 verse 7, ‘Ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you’. When this verse is taken out of context, as it often is by prosperity preachers, it certainly appears to give licence to ask for anything that we want. However, in context, it teaches us the need to abide in the Lord Jesus so that we can bear fruit in our lives. Early verses in the chapter speak about our remaining in the Lord and His words remaining in us before we can ask. In other words, as we fellowship with the Lord Jesus and allow His word to direct us, our requests will be for fruit that glorifies God, rather than riches that take us away from the Lord!
What God says
The Lord Jesus actually stated that riches are a hindrance to salvation: ‘How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God’, Luke 18. 24. In fact, He often asked those who wished to be His disciples to give up their worldly wealth to follow Him! The disciples didn’t follow the Lord Jesus to gain wealth: ‘Then Peter answered and said to Him, “See, we have left all, and followed You. Therefore what shall we have?"’ Matt. 19. 27.
If the Lord did not esteem riches as important or even necessary, then His followers should not have a desire for wealth. This is not to say that wealth is a sin, nor should we be irresponsible in earning our wages to feed and clothe our families. In fact, the Bible teaches otherwise, 1 Tim. 5. 8. We should not allow materialism to dominate our lives. Preaching, therefore, that God actually wills financial prosperity for God’s children is contrary to scripture.
What then does the Bible teach about prosperity? The Lord told the story of the rich man who thought he would make bigger barns to store his growing wealth, and who thought of his future in terms of prosperity and ease. He depicted this man as a fool. ‘And He said to them, “Take heed and beware of covetousness: for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of the things which he possesses"’, Luke 12. 15. When prosperity preachers misuse the Bible to persuade listeners that God intends riches for them, they are appealing to their fleshly greed.
These men teach that if we give to them, we are giving to God, who is then obligated to give back more than what was given. They say our gift to them is a ‘heavenly investment’ which will pay rich dividends here on earth. God’s word never says He is required to return more than we give. His word does say, however, ‘Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God … And my God shall supply all your need according to His riches in glory by Christ Jesus’, Phil. 4. 6, 19.
By allowing God to use all that we have and are – including our material possessions – we lay up treasure in heaven, which cannot be taken away or destroyed. He does not want us to store up wealth here on earth, because that would take our eyes off Him: ‘Do not lay up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal: For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also’, Matt. 6. 19-21. Again, Paul states that, ‘Not that I speak in regard to need for I have learned, in whatever state I am, to be content. I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me’, Phil. 4. 11-13. Paul had spiritual prosperity which did not depend on material possessions. This is the emphasis we find throughout the New Testament. ‘Now godliness with contentment is great gain’, 1 Tim. 6. 6. This is God’s view of prosperity!
Those who desire riches show a lack of contentment with what God has given, and open themselves to the snare of the devil who wants to take their eyes off the Lord. ‘And having food and clothing, with these we shall be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and harmful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, for which some have strayed from the faith in their greediness, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows’, 1 Tim. 6. 8-10. This is a warning for us!
We should not be taken in by appealing messages. They may sound good, but they have no sound scriptural basis. Some say, ‘If we pray with faith, God has to answer’. While this thought seems to have some support in the Bible, error soon results from a wrong application of this line of thinking. In the first place, this premise turns the Creator of man into his servant who must do what we ask. Preachers of such a false gospel make themselves more important than God Himself. This blasphemy was precisely Satan’s downfall!
The prosperity gospel is akin to the so-called New Age Movement, which teaches that man himself is a god who can exert his mental power to control not only his own destiny, but God Himself. Ignored are the many verses which tell us that the person who loves the Lord will abide in Him, keep His commandments, and seek only God’s will for his life. This being the case, he would not be asking for material wealth, but would have Christ-centred rather than self-centred desires, see 1 John 5. 14; John 15. 7.
What we should do
When it comes to the prosperity gospel (or any other doctrine for that matter), we should study scripture with the view of getting from scripture what God has for us, Gk. exegesis, while making sure that we do not read our ideas into what is there (eisegesis). To get the true meaning out of the text, we should read the whole portion to see what God said to the people to whom it was written. This may also require some study of the background, customs, and culture of Bible times.
We should never read our own ideas into the text. Let scripture speak for itself: ‘knowing this first, that no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation, for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit’, 2 Pet. 1. 20-21. We should never take one verse out of the Bible and formulate a doctrine or teaching around it. We need to always diligently compare scripture with scripture allowing the Bible to interpret itself to us: ‘And these things we also speak, not in words which man’s wisdom teaches but which the Holy Spirit teaches, comparing spiritual things with spiritual. But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned’, 1 Cor. 2. 13-14. If we do this consistently, we will not be easily misled by false teachers who are simply after their own gain.