As I begin to write this post, I’m on board a plane, jetting off to an exotic destination, on a trip (partially) funded by the church I serve at. This statement could easily have been made by a Prosperity Gospel preacher (Google ‘Creflo Dollar plane’), but I assure you that, although the statement is true of me, I’m not a Prosperity Gospel preacher (I’m on a budget airline, away for the weekend, and it’s paid for out of my own wages as a church organist—which isn’t much, I assure you). But in all seriousness, what is the difference between the Gospel I believe as revealed in Scripture and affirmed by historic Christian creeds and confessions (and also the CEF Statement of Belief) and the ‘Gospel’ promoted by Prosperity teachers?
I’m writing two days before Reformation Day. So I’d like to compare the Prosperity Gospel to the true, beautiful and glorious Gospel of Jesus Christ under the five solae of the Reformation.
1. Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone)
Like so much of the Prosperity Gospel, it’s not that Scripture is explicitly denied, but rather, it’s a deficient view of Scripture. It’s like wearing glasses: wear the wrong pair and the world looks all wrong. Likewise with the Bible. Reading it with your Prosperity Gospel, “it’s all about me and what God can do for me” glasses on is just a distortion of the real picture. Take Jeremiah 29:11 as an example (and I know this will be too close to comfort for many). “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.'” How many of us read this verse and automatically assume this means God is going to make us prosperous (whether financially or with exams or job or whatever)? But in its context, this verse is about God’s promise of redemption to save His people from exile and bring them back into the Promised Land. And ultimately, with a whole Bible perspective, to bring salvation in Jesus Christ. Don’t read verses like this with your “the Bible is all about me” glasses on. Read this with your “the Bible is all about Jesus and his wonderful work of redemption” glasses on.
2. Sola Fide (faith alone)
The Prosperity Gospel knows a lot about faith. In fact, it’s sometimes called the “word of faith” movement: declare something by faith and God will give it to you. Again, this could easily masquerade as true Biblical Christianity, don’t we all know “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened”? But herein lies the difference: “[True and Biblical] faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). The rest of Hebrews 11 doesn’t tell us that the “things hoped for” were material goods. In fact, it explicitly rules material possessions out, pointing us to something much better, a heavenly country, a city built by God himself: ultimately, the inheritance of the saints is everlasting communion with Christ. Who needs a shiny car, even if it is a Mustang V8 (the dream car for church organists), which will only rust and fade anyway, when fellowship with Jesus for all eternity is promised?
3. Sola Gratia (grace alone)
We imagine the prosperity gospel to be the exclusive domain of Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer, Creflo Dollar (yes, that is his name), but it can be a lot more subtle than that. Something surely many of us have asked, is why do bad things happen to good people? Is there not some drug dealer or rapist or murderer that God could have made this happen to? Why me? This is the prosperity gospel. The notion that somehow we deserve God’s favour by what we do or that we’re somehow better than others. The true gospel, the only gospel, the Good News of Jesus, is that helpless we come, empty handed, with nothing to offer and in exchange for our filth, God gives us the greatest gift, the most precious treasure—he gives us himself. And what do we do to earn this gift? Nothing. It’s grace. The saving blood of Jesus, knowing him, having abundant life in him, and looking to that great future hope of eternal life with him—this is worth more than any counterfeit packaged up as ‘the gospel’. Jesus himself is enough, and so much more.
4. Solus Christus (Christ alone)
The true Gospel of Jesus means that “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Having a correct understanding of the power of God’s grace applied to our messed up and sin ridden lives, means we can say, with Paul, that “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10). The way of weakness is the way of Christ. The way of power is the way of the world. The Prosperity Gospel confuses these two. Will you choose the way of weakness?
5. Soli Deo Gloria (to the glory of God alone)
I know it’s a cliche (and I hate cliches), but the Prosperity Gospel has a certain smack of acknowledging Jesus as Saviour (albeit a diminished, anthropocentric salvation) but not Lord. In the Prosperity Gospel, man is on the throne with God acting as a ‘genie in a bottle’ servant, granting us our wishes. The true and glorious Gospel proclaims that Jesus is Lord, that he is on the throne, not us, and that we are his servants (joyfully and wilfully, it must be said). How do you glorify God alone? Is it through acquiring material or emotional success, whether or not we explicitly affirm the Prosperity Gospel? No. “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others … so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:4, 10-11).