Your Gospel Keeps People from God
Ten Appeals to Prosperity Preachers
In recent decades, scholars and missiologists have observed a massive ongoing shift in global Christianity. Lamin Sanneh, late professor of history and world Christianity at Yale University, used the word “breathtaking” to describe the new situation in his 2008 book, Disciples of All Nations.
Among the many breathtaking developments in the post–World War II and the subsequent colonial eras, few are more striking than the worldwide Christian resurgence. With unflagging momentum, Christianity has become, or is fast becoming, the principal religion of the peoples of the world. Primal societies that once stood well outside the main orbit of the faith have become major centers of Christian impact, while Europe and North America, once considered the religion’s heartland, are in noticeable recession. We seem to be in the middle of massive cultural shifts and realignments whose implications are only now beginning to become clear. (xix)
Europe and America are not the center of gravity in world Christianity any longer. The center is shifting south and east. The churches of Latin America, Africa, and Asia are experiencing phenomenal growth and are becoming the great sending churches.
Introducing the Global South
The new terminology that has been introduced into our vocabulary is the term Global South, a reference to the astonishing growth of the Christian church in Africa, Latin America, and Asia while the formerly dominant centers of Christian influence in Europe are weakening. For example:
- At the beginning of the twentieth century, Professor Dana Robert writes, Europeans dominated the world church, with approximately 70.6 percent of the world’s Christian population. By 1938, on the eve of World War II, the apparent European domination of Protestantism and Catholicism remained strong. Yet by the end of the twentieth century, the European percentage of world Christianity had shrunk to 28 percent of the total; Latin America and Africa combined provided 43 percent of the world’s Christians. (“Shifting Southward: Global Christianity Since 1945,” 50)
- Professor Philip Jenkins writes that, in 1900, Africa had 10 million Christians representing about 10 percent of the population; by 2000, this figure had grown to 360 million, representing about half the population. Quantitatively, this may well be the largest shift in religious affiliation that has ever occurred, anywhere. (“Believing in the Global South,” 13)
- By 2050, Christianity will be chiefly the religion of Africa and the African diaspora, Jenkins goes on to note. By then, there will be about three billion Christians in the world, and the population of those who will be white and non-Latino will be between one-fifth and one-sixth the total. (12)
In the words of historian Mark Noll (writing in 2013), “The Christian church has experienced a larger geographical redistribution in the last fifty years than in any comparable period in its history, with the exception of the very earliest years of church history” (The New Shape of World Christianity, 21).
Global South and Prosperity Gospel
As many have recognized, however, there is a major ambiguity in the present magnificent expansion of Christianity: not all the forms of this faith are based on what the apostle Paul calls “sound doctrine” (Titus 1:9; 2:1). Michael Horton makes this sobering observation:
Celebration of the much-advertised expansion of Christianity in the two-thirds world (most notably in recent years in Philip Jenkins’s The Next Christendom) should at least be tempered by the fact that the prosperity gospel is the most explosive version of this phenomenon. (Christless Christianity, 45)
The “prosperity gospel” is a teaching that emphasizes God’s aim to make believers healthy and wealthy in this life, while it overlooks or minimizes the dangers of wealth, the biblical call to a wartime mindset, and the necessity and purposes of suffering.
The prosperity gospel would be represented by one leading African prosperity preacher, quoted in an article by Isaac Phiri and Joe Maxwell, who says, “Many are ignorant of the fact that God has already made provision for his children to be wealthy here on earth. When I say wealthy, I mean very, very rich. . . . Break loose! It is not a sin to desire to be wealthy” (“Gospel Riches,” 23).
I am deeply concerned when a preacher encourages a crowd to give $200 to “open themselves to the blessing” in a culture where a schoolteacher earns $150 a month. Yet more than 300 people come forward to receive the speaker’s oil and “within minutes, the church nets tax-free $60,000” (23).
The extent of the teaching in Africa is remarkable. In a 2006 survey, Pew asked participants if God would “grant material prosperity to all believers who have enough faith.” About 85 percent of Kenyan Pentecostals, 90 percent of South African Pentecostals, and 95 percent of Nigerian Pentecostals said yes (24).
“The New Testament aims at the glory of Christ, not the glory of his gifts.”
“The worst brand of African prosperity teaching is, perhaps unsurprisingly, an American export,” write Phiri and Maxwell (24). Television has become a religious classroom for many in Africa. “People turn it on and assume that TBN is American Christianity, and Americans know everything, so why not listen to it?” (25). And of course, prosperity teaching is not unique to America and Africa. It has its Latino and Asian forms and can be found throughout the Global South from Seoul to São Paulo.
Ten Appeals to Prosperity Preachers
What shall we say about the prosperity gospel? The first thing we should say about the prosperity gospel is that wealthy Westerners are probably as guilty of its excesses as are the poor in the Global South. The difference is that the poor don’t have wealth and want it, while the rich have it, expect to keep it, and get angry if God takes it. Both have their hearts set on prosperity. It’s just more subtle in the West because we can take prosperity for granted. This is why, when I was a pastor, I spent more time calling our church to live differently than I did calling the Global South to think differently. I am more responsible for the sins at home.
But what we think about money and possessions is profoundly important in the way we do missions and the way we disciple converts. So I would like to provide a biblical response to the prosperity gospel. As I point out some of its weaknesses, I aim to keep in mind my own sins, and I hope to remember that it is not a monolithic movement and that prosperity is a relative term.
Prosperity in one part of the world would mean a roof over your head, nourishing food on the table a couple times a day, and clean drinking water. “Currently, about 315 million sub-Saharan Africans live on less than a dollar a day” (“Gospel Riches,” 27). And what we would call a modest lifestyle in America (with a home, a car, electricity, refrigeration, indoor plumbing, clean drinking water, central heating, a computer, a phone, several changes of clothes, and unheard of choices in groceries) would be wildly opulent in most of the world. This is one reason why criticisms of the prosperity preachers must be nuanced and cautious.
Another caution for critics is that there are different ways to think about how Christianity brings prosperity. Few would disagree that a gospel-driven movement of honesty, hard work, patience, generosity, perseverance, and love for excellence would, over time, lift a culture from the dysfunction of corruption and bring more stable and prosperous times. If that is what the prosperity preachers were saying, there would be little controversy.
But given the lavish way that prosperity preachers often live, even by Western standards — flying in personal jets, living in palatial homes with eight bathrooms, and staying overnight in $5,000 suites — and given the way they clothe the eternal gospel of Christ in the garments of worldliness, it seems wise to provide a measured, biblical response. I will put this response in the form of ten appeals. I am not eager to vilify but to redeem and transform.
1. Don’t preach a gospel that puts unnecessary obstacles in the way of people getting into heaven.
Jesus said, “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” His disciples were astonished, as many in the prosperity movement should be. So Jesus went on to raise their astonishment even higher by saying, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” They responded in disbelief: “Then who can be saved?” Jesus said, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God” (Mark 10:23–27).
Jesus’s response shows that the disciples’ astonishment was warranted. A camel can’t go through the eye of a needle. This is not a metaphor for something requiring great effort or humble sacrifice. It can’t be done. We know this because Jesus said, Impossible! That was his word, not ours. “With man it is impossible.” The point is that the heart change required is something man can’t do for himself. God must do it.
We can’t make ourselves stop treasuring money above Christ. But God can. That is good news. And that should be part of the message that prosperity preachers herald before they entice people to become more camel-like. Why would a preacher want to preach a gospel that encourages the desire to be rich and thus confirms people in their natural unfitness for the kingdom of God?
2. Don’t preach a gospel that kindles suicidal desires in people.
The apostle Paul warned against the desire to be rich. And by implication, he warned against preachers who stir up the desire to be rich instead of helping people get rid of it. He warned,
Those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs. (1 Timothy 6:9–10)
These are very serious words, but they don’t seem to find an echo in the preaching of the prosperity gospel. It is not wrong for the poor to want measures of prosperity so that they have what they need and can be generous and can devote time and energy to Christ-exalting tasks other than scraping to get by. It is not wrong to seek Christ for help in this quest. He cares about our needs (Matthew 6:33).
But we all — poor and rich — are constantly in danger of setting our affections (1 John 2:15–16) and our hope (1 Timothy 6:17) on riches rather than Christ. This desire to be rich is so strong and so suicidal that Paul uses the strongest language to warn us. My appeal is that prosperity preachers would do the same.
3. Don’t preach a gospel that encourages vulnerability to moth and rust.
Jesus warns against the effort to lay up treasures on earth; that is, he tells us to be givers, not keepers. “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on 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” (Matthew 6:19–20).
Yes, we all keep something. Jesus assumes that. He does not expect, except in extreme cases, that our giving will mean we will no longer be able to give. There may be a time when we will give our life for someone and thus no longer be able to give any more. But ordinarily Jesus expects us to live in a way that there is an ongoing pattern of work and earning and simple living and continual giving.
But given the built-in tendency toward greed in all of us, Jesus feels the need to warn against laying up treasures on earth. It looks like gain, but it leads only to loss (“moth and rust destroy and thieves break in and steal”). My appeal is that Jesus’s warning find a strong echo in the mouths of prosperity preachers.
4. Don’t preach a gospel that makes good work a means of getting rich.
Getting rich is not what work is for. In Ephesians, Paul says we should not steal, but rather work hard with our own hands. But the main purpose is not merely to hoard or even to have. The purpose is to have in order to give.
“To attract people with promises of prosperity is simply natural. It is not the message of Jesus.”
“Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need” (Ephesians 4:28). This is not a justification for being rich in order to give more. It is a call to make more and keep less so you can give more. There is no reason why a person who prospers more and more in his business should increase the lavishness of his lifestyle indefinitely. Paul would say, “Cap your expenditures, and give the rest away.”
I can’t determine your cap. But in all the texts we are looking at in this article, there is an impulse toward simplicity and lavish generosity, not toward lavish possessions. Why would preachers want to encourage people to think that they should possess wealth in order to be a lavish giver? Why not encourage them to keep their lives simpler and be an even more lavish giver? Would that not add to their generosity a strong testimony that Christ, and not possessions, is their treasure?
5. Don’t preach a gospel that contributes to people being choked to death.
Jesus warns that the word of God, the gospel, which is meant to give us life, can be choked to death by riches. He says it is like a seed that grows up among thorns: “They are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature” (Luke 8:14).
Prosperity preachers should warn their hearers that there is a kind of financial prosperity that can choke them to death. Why would we want to encourage people to pursue the very thing that Jesus warns can make them fruitless?
6. Don’t preach a gospel that takes the seasoning out of the salt and puts the light under a basket.
What is it about Christians that makes them the salt of the earth and the light of the world? It is not wealth. The desire for wealth and the pursuit of wealth tastes and looks just like the world. Desiring to be rich makes us like the world, not different. At the very point where we should taste different, we have the same bland covetousness that the world has. In that case, we don’t offer the world anything different from what it already believes in.
“When we commend Christ as the one who makes us rich, we glorify riches, and Christ becomes a means to that end.”
The great tragedy of prosperity preaching is that a person does not have to be spiritually awakened in order to embrace it; one needs only to be greedy. Getting rich in the name of Jesus is not the salt of the earth or the light of the world. In this, the world simply sees a reflection of itself. And if they are “converted” to this, they have not been truly converted but only put a new name on an old life.
The context of Jesus’s saying shows us what the salt and light are. They are the joyful willingness to suffer for Christ. Here is what Jesus said:
Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. You are the salt of the earth. . . . You are the light of the world. (Matthew 5:11–14)
What will make the world taste the salt and see the light of Christ in us is not that we love wealth the same way they do. Rather, it will be the willingness and the ability of Christians to love others through suffering, all the while rejoicing because their reward is in heaven with Jesus. “Rejoice and be glad [in hardship]. . . . You are the salt of the earth.” The saltiness is the taste of joy in hardship.
Such life is inexplicable on human terms. It is supernatural. But to attract people with promises of prosperity is simply natural. It is not the message of Jesus. It is not what he died to achieve.
7. Don’t preach a gospel that conceals the necessity of suffering in the Christian life.
Missing from most prosperity preaching is the fact that the New Testament emphasizes the necessity of suffering far more than it does the notion of material prosperity.
Jesus said, “Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours” (John 15:20). Or again he said, “If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household” (Matthew 10:25).
Paul reminded the new believers on his missionary journeys, “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). And he told the believers in Rome that their sufferings were a necessary part of the path to eternal inheritance.
The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs — heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. (Romans 8:16–18)
Prosperity preachers should include in their messages significant teaching about what Jesus and the apostles said about the necessity of suffering. It must come, Paul said (Acts 14:22), and we do young disciples a disservice not to tell them that early. Jesus even said it before conversion so that prospective believers would count the cost: “So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:33).
8. Don’t preach a gospel that ignores the shift from a come-see religion in the Old Testament to a go-tell religion in the New Testament.
A fundamental change happened with the coming of Christ into the world. Until that time, God had focused his redemptive work on Israel with occasional works among the nations. Paul said, “In past generations [God] allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways” (Acts 14:16; see also Acts 17:30). Now the focus has shifted from Israel to the nations. Jesus said, “The kingdom of God will be taken away from you [Israel] and given to a people producing its fruits [followers of the Messiah]” (Matthew 21:43). A hardening has come upon Israel, until the full number of the nations comes in (Romans 11:25).
One of the main differences between these two eras is that, in the Old Testament, God glorified himself largely by blessing Israel so that the nations could see and know that the Lord is God. “May [the Lord] maintain the cause of . . . his people Israel, as each day requires, that all the peoples of the earth may know that the Lord is God; there is no other” (1 Kings 8:59–60). Israel was not yet sent on a Great Commission to gather the nations; rather, she was glorified so that the nations would see her greatness and come to her.
So when Solomon built the temple of the Lord, it was spectacularly lavish with overlaid gold, and when he furnished it, the gold was again just as abundant (1 Kings 6:20–22; 7:48–50). It took Solomon seven years to build the house of the Lord. Then he took thirteen years to build his own house (1 Kings 6:38–7:1). It too was lavish with gold and costly stones.
Then, when all was built, the point of this opulence is seen in 1 Kings 10, as the queen of Sheba, representing the Gentile nations, comes to see the glory of the house of God and of Solomon. When she saw it, “there was no more breath in her” (1 Kings 10:5). She said, “Blessed be the Lord your God, who has delighted in you and set you on the throne of Israel! Because the Lord loved Israel forever, he has made you king” (1 Kings 10:9).
In other words, the pattern in the Old Testament is a come-see religion. There is a geographic center of the people of God. There is a physical temple, an earthly king, a political regime, an ethnic identity, an army to fight God’s earthly battles, and a band of priests to make animal sacrifices for sins.
With the coming of Christ, all of this changed. There is no geographic center for Christianity (John 4:20–24); Jesus has replaced the temple, the priests, and the sacrifices (John 2:19; Hebrews 9:25–26); there is no Christian political regime because Christ’s kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36); and we do not fight earthly battles with chariots and horses or bombs and bullets, but spiritual ones with the word and the Spirit (Ephesians 6:12–18; 2 Corinthians 10:3–5).
All of this supports the great change in mission. The New Testament does not present a come-see religion, but a go-tell religion. “And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age’” (Matthew 28:18–20).
The implications of this are huge for the way we live and the way we think about money and lifestyle. One of the main implications is that we are “sojourners and exiles” (1 Peter 2:11) on the earth. We do not use this world as though it were our primary home. “Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Philippians 3:20).
This leads to a wartime lifestyle. That means we don’t amass wealth to show the world how rich our God can make us. We work hard and seek a wartime austerity for the cause of spreading the gospel to the ends of the earth. We maximize giving to the war effort, not adding to the comforts at home. We raise our children with a view to helping them embrace the suffering that it will cost to finish the mission.
So if a prosperity preacher asks me about all the promises of wealth for faithful people in the Old Testament, I would say, “Read your New Testament carefully and see if you see the same emphasis.” You won’t find it. And the reason is that things have dramatically changed.
“We brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content” (1 Timothy 6:7–8). Why? Because the call to Christ is a call to “share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 2:3). The emphasis of the New Testament is not riches to lure us in to sin, but sacrifice to carry us out.
9. Don’t preach a gospel that minimizes the sin of making godliness a means of gain.
The apostle Paul set us an example by how vigilant he was not to give the impression that he was in the ministry for money. He said that ministers of the world have a right to make a living from the ministry (1 Corinthians 9:9–10). But then, to show us the danger in that, he refuses to fully use that right.
If we have sown spiritual things among you, is it too much if we reap material things from you? If others share this rightful claim on you, do not we even more? Nevertheless, we have not made use of this right, but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ. (1 Corinthians 9:11–12)
In other words, he renounced a legitimate right in order not to give anyone the impression that money was the motivation of his ministry. He did not want the money of his converts: “We never came with words of flattery, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed — God is witness” (1 Thessalonians 2:5).
He preferred to work with his hands rather than give the impression that he was peddling the gospel: “I coveted no one’s silver or gold or apparel. You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my necessities and to those who were with me. In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive’” (Acts 20:33–35).
“When we commend Christ as the one who makes us rich, we glorify riches, and Christ becomes a means to that end.”
He knew that there were peddlers of God’s word who thought “godliness is a means of gain” (1 Timothy 6:5–6). But he refused to do anything that would put him in that category: “We are not, like so many, peddlers of God’s word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ” (2 Corinthians 2:17).
Too many prosperity preachers not only give the impression that they peddle God’s word and make godliness a means of gain, but actually develop a bogus theology to justify their extravagant displays of wealth. Paul did just the opposite.
10. Don’t preach a gospel that obscures the biblical truth that God himself is the greatest treasure.
My biggest concern about the prosperity movement is that it diminishes Christ by making him less central and less satisfying than his gifts. Christ is not magnified most by being the giver of wealth. He is magnified most by satisfying the souls of those who sacrifice to love others in the ministry of the gospel.
When we commend Christ as the one who makes us rich, we glorify riches, and Christ becomes a means to the end of what we really want — namely, health, wealth, and prosperity. But when we commend Christ as the one who satisfies our soul forever — even when there is no health, wealth, and prosperity — then Christ is magnified as more precious than all those gifts.
We see this in Philippians 1:20–21. Paul says, “It is my eager expectation and hope that . . . Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” Honoring Christ happens when we treasure him so much that dying is gain. Because dying means “to depart and be with Christ” (Philippians 1:23).
This is the missing note in prosperity preaching. The New Testament aims at the glory of Christ, not the glory of his gifts. To make that clear, it puts the entire Christian life under the banner of joyful self-denial. “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). “I have been crucified with Christ” (Galatians 2:20).
But even though self-denial is the hard road that leads to life (Matthew 7:14), it is the most joyful of all roads. “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (Matthew 13:44). Jesus says that finding Christ as our treasure makes all other possessions joyfully dispensable. “In his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.”
“Not all the forms of faith in the Global South are based on what the apostle Paul calls ‘sound doctrine.’”
I do not want prosperity preachers to stop calling people to maximum joy. On the contrary, I appeal to them to stop encouraging people to seek their joy in material things. The joy Christ offers is so great and so durable that it enables us to lose prosperity and still rejoice. “You joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one” (Hebrews 10:34). The grace to be joyful in the loss of prosperity — that is the miracle prosperity preachers should seek. That would be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. That would magnify Christ as supremely valuable.
Jesus Will Build His Church
God is sovereign over the world and over the mission of his church. All authority belongs to him in heaven and on earth (Matthew 28:18). The new configuration of world Christianity is his doing. He is building his church (Matthew 16:18). Both its blessings and its blemishes are under his sovereign sway. The gospel of the kingdom will be preached as a testimony to all the unreached peoples of the world (Matthew 24:14). The Lord of the harvest will see to it that the workers are sent and that the harvest is gathered in (Matthew 9:38). The good shepherd has other sheep outside the fold, and he must bring them also. They will listen to his voice, and there will be one flock and one shepherd (John 10:16).
The price of finishing this mission will be much sacrifice and many lives (Colossians 1:24; Revelation 6:11). The fuel of that sacrifice will not be the love of money or a passion for prosperity; it will be a love for Christ and a passion for his glory. May the Lord purify his church. May he refine like gold the growing faith of the Global South. And may he remember mercy and grant Europe and America a great awakening for the glory of his name and the gladness of the nations.