Pastor John, you are an outspoken opponent of the prosperity gospel, and you have been for many years. Episode 231 of this podcast series is aptly titled: “Why I Abominate the Prosperity Gospel.” That sums up your position pretty well, and your words there are very strong. Podcast listener Derek recently wrote in to ask a follow-up: “Pastor John, how do you recognize prosperity theology when it’s not blatantly obvious? What are some key indicators to discern a ‘soft’ prosperity theology?”
I really appreciate this question. I am eager to give some things to look for, and I don’t think it is all that difficult. Anybody could probably sit down and come up with these. So I thought of at least six that I jotted down — six things to look for. And if you see them, the likelihood is that you may be dealing with incipient prosperity theology or soft or beginning prosperity theology.
1. No Robust Doctrine of Suffering
Look out for the absence of a serious doctrine of the biblical necessity and normalcy of suffering — the absence of a doctrine of suffering. As Paul went through the churches, he said that basic discipleship was to teach that you must enter the kingdom through many tribulations (Acts 14:21). Is this basic doctrinal teaching in the church? Tribulations are necessary, and there are many, and you must walk through them.
“Normal progress in the Christian life comes by saying ‘No!’ to lesser values and ‘Yes!’ to Christ.”
Is Romans 8:23 essential in dealing with sickness and calamity? We who have the Holy Spirit groan, waiting for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. Is there a strong note that Christians full of the Holy Spirit get cancer and groan under the calamities and the miseries of the fall?
Jesus says in John 15:20, “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you.” Is there a strong note that a faithful Christian will be persecuted? We see in Hebrews 12 and 2 Corinthians 1 that God is sovereign over all of our pain and ordains it for our holiness. So that is the first one: Is there a serious doctrine of the necessity and normalcy of suffering?
2. No Clear Call to Deny Yourself
Watch out for the absence of a clear and prominent doctrine of self-denial — a tip-off that something is amiss. Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). Paul said, “If you live according to the flesh, you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Romans 8:13). “I count everything as loss, because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philippians 3:8).
In other words, normal progress in the Christian life comes by saying “No!” to lesser values and “Yes!” to Christ. Many of those lesser values are the kinds of pleasures that prosperity preachers don’t like to say no to. So is there a good doctrine of self-denial?
3. No Serious Exposition
Look out for the absence of serious exposition of Scripture. Does the preaching take the Bible seriously by explaining what is really there in texts? Does it work through passages of Scripture, explaining the flow of the thought? Or does it feel like the pastor has his favorite topics — he circles around to them over and over, making a few texts serve his purpose? So watch for careful and continuous handling of the Scriptures in an expository way. And, be suspicious if all you ever get is topical preaching with a few of the pastor’s favorite topics that lean toward prosperity.
4. No Wrestling with Tensions
Watch out for the absence of dealing with tensions in Scripture. That is, does the preacher bring up passages that seem like problems with the ones he is dealing with and then give careful explanations to show how they really fit together? Or is he content just to say what seems to be in one text and never even raise the question? There may be ten other texts that seem to say something else. I think that is a bad sign if week after week you get the impression: Doesn’t he realize that what he just said from this text is contradicted in a few other places in the Bible? And he doesn’t seem to know that or care about that. That is a serious problem.
5. Exorbitant Lifestyles
Do the church leaders have exorbitant lifestyles? Do they drive cars, live in houses, wear clothes, and travel to places to which only the very wealthy can go or that only the very wealthy can possess? Is the pastor living above the average person in his parish? Now why might that be? And I know that there might be cultural and traditional reasons for it, but are there biblical reasons for it? Try to sniff that out.
“Is the preacher in love with the glory of God in the gospel?”
What makes this pastor tick? Why is he so concerned with the clothes he wears and the car he drives and the neighborhood he lives in and the way he travels and the accommodations he gets in his traveling? This doesn’t smell like the Jesus who had no place to lay his head (Matthew 8:20).
6. Too Much Self
Is there a prominence of self and a marginalization of the greatness of God? Does the preacher seem to parade himself? Does he figure into the talk too much? Is the greatness and majesty and glory of God the centerpiece of all he says and does? Is the preacher in love with the glory of God in the gospel? Is he brokenhearted for his sin? Is he contrite and humble? Is he publicly self-effacing? Does he repent of his sins and model how to appropriate daily the sweetness of what Jesus did for us on the cross? Or is the majesty of grace marginalized while he exalts himself?
So those would be some of the things I would watch out for in trying to discern where a church may be going off in relationship to the prosperity gospel.