Why the prosperity gospel is a false gospel
The prosperity gospel presents a small and false god
What do you long for the most? The answer to this question will help you identify your god. Preachers of the prosperity gospel call people to turn to Jesus. But the motivation they give people is health, wealth, husbands, wives, jobs, promotions etc. In this version of the gospel, Jesus is not what is truly desired, pursued, and treasured. Jesus is the means to the things that the individual truly wants, he is merely the way to receive the material things that our worldly hearts hunger for. And what your heart wants more than God has become your god.
Scripture is clear that the goal of our salvation is God. Knowing him, being united to him and being reconciled with him are the purposes to which scripture points us. “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (1 Pet. 3:18). Take note of the word that in this verse; it helps us understand why Christ suffered and died. He suffered and died in order that he might bring us to God.
Jesus Christ himself perfectly summed up the heart and purpose of our salvation in his prayer to the Father: “this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3). When Paul taught the Colossians about the glory of God’s work in us, he centred on our union with Christ. “To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col. 1:27).
The gospel is about an infinitely great God who offers us the best gift imaginable: himself. That is the incredible beauty of the gospel – sinners can know God and enjoy him forever. The people of God through the ages have understood that there is nothing better, they have confessed with Paul in Phil 3:7 that indeed all things are dung compared to the knowledge of Christ. But the prosperity gospel reduces God to a sugar daddy by treating material benefits as the purpose of the gospel. Fleeting benefits are not what Jesus died to win for us.
Jesus died in order to bring us back to God. The heart of the salvation he bought for us is that we are enabled to know God in a deep and personal way. Can you see why a message that exchanges God in these statements with wealth, health and prosperity is offering us a little God who is no God at all? These things are not the glory of the gospel, they are not the purpose for which Christ died and they are inferior gifts compared to fellowship with Almighty God. These are the very things the world pursues; they are false gods. To preach that temporary and material blessings are the purpose of our salvation turns Christianity into idolatry and trades in the glory of God for a cheap substitute.
The prosperity gospel fails to identify our greatest need
When you visit a hospital because of illness, the doctor’s most important task is to diagnose the cause of your symptoms. If he gets the source of your problem wrong, then his solution he offers will also be wrong and not just wrong but it could lead to even greater suffering. In order to correctly help people, we need to correctly diagnose their greatest need.
What is their greatest need? What problem in us did God address when he sent his only son to die? The prosperity preacher points people to their physical, financial and relational struggles as the main problem that requires fixing. The Christ being preached is only a means for solving those problems. But the Bible is clear about man’s greatest problem and it is far worse than being broke. However, this misdiagnosis is not a new problem.
One of the most famous miracles recorded in the Bible for us happened when Jesus fed five thousand people with five loaves and two fish. But many people do not know what happened next - after the crowd had been fed. Amazed by what they saw, the crowd decided that they needed to lead a coup and make Jesus their king (John 6:15). Did they have the right idea of the gospel? Not according to Jesus. The crowd zealously sought for Jesus to the point of jumping into boats to follow him across the lake (John 6:22-24). But, when at last they found Him, he did not commend them. He saw their motives and strongly rebuked them:
Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal. (John 6:26-27)
They were following Jesus for material advantage. Jesus performed signs and wonders in order that people would believe in him and receive eternal life (John 20:30-31). But these people were more interested in a free lunch. They thought the Messiah would give them all they wanted in this life but were missing the incomparably better thing that he offered. In the texts that follow we see Jesus pointing to Himself as the Bread of life who could satisfy more than any earthly “bread”, the people however had their hearts set on their physical needs and unlike the Samaritan woman in John 4, these could not appreciate Christ’s offer of Himself to satisfy their true need. If you are following Jesus for material benefits, you have failed to identify your greatest need.
Jesus is clear: health and wealth are not our greatest needs. But what is? In order to understand this, we have to go back to basics: who is God and who are we? In Romans 1, we are reminded that God is righteous and we are sinful. And because of God’s righteousness and our wickedness, his just judgment stands against us. If I understand that the almighty and holy God is angry with me, then my financial struggles, relationship stresses and career ambitions can no longer be my first priority. My sin problem must be the priority now.
What exactly is this sin problem? Again Romans 1 is helpful. It explains that although we know God, in our corrupt hearts we do not glorify him as we should. Instead of giving proper glory to the Creator we give glory and worship to what he has created (Rom. 1:22-23). Sin is idolatry. Sin drags us away from God to pursue the things of this world. Our greatest problem is our gravitation to worship possessions, careers, relationships, health or wealth in the place of the one true God. For some the problem of idolatry is so twisted that they see no problem in going to God to ask him to provide them with these idols so that they can fulfill the desires of their idolatrous hearts! This is what these men in John 6 were doing, this is what churches that preach the health and wealth gospel do.
When we grasp that all the pains of life are symptoms of our real problem, our God-ignoring sin, we will realize that we need a gospel that addresses not just the symptoms but the root cause. We need God to forgive our sins, take his wrath away from us and make us right in his sight. This is what we need now and for eternity. When the preacher, as a spiritual doctor, misdiagnoses the problem, then he is treating his patients with a false gospel that, like fake medicine, will just make us worse.
The prosperity gospel empties the true gospel of it's power
When Paul wrote to the church in Galatia and later to the church in Corinth, he was correcting problems that we see all around us today. The Corinthians had received the pure gospel from the lips of the Apostle Paul (1 Cor. 15:1-4), but over time preachers had changed the message in order to suit their audience. When Paul wrote to the church in Corinth he says this in 1:17 “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, not with words of eloquent wisdom lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power”. Later in 2:1-5 he would say, “I sought to know nothing among you but Christ and Him crucified…and my message to you was not in plausible words of wisdom but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.” In Corinth, the centrality of the cross in the preaching of the gospel had ceased being popular, there were new teachers, with more appealing doctrines. Paul’s goal in this letter was to remind them that the power of the gospel is tied to the message of the cross. The gospel is about Christ’s vicarious death on the cross. The cross emphasizes man’s sin, God’s wrath, Christ’s love, and justification for the sake of reconciliation to a holy and righteous God. The cross does not scream, new job, or new car! It screams, God’s wrath has been appeased by the perfect sacrifice of His Son, all glory to God! To take away the cross from the centre of the gospel message is to take away the power of the gospel that announces the blood bought grace of reconciliation through faith. By moving away from an emphasis on the cross they moved away from the power of the cross.
Churches that preach the prosperity gospel make a similar mistake. Their preachers might mention the cross in their preaching and even say that Christ died for our sins. But they say that Christ’s purpose in dying was for our healing and prosperity. Of course, this is a relevant issue to their congregation. Many people are suffering and struggling with financial or health issues. And all of them (as all people do) have material desires. It is an appealing message: come to Jesus and have your best life now. But it is an inferior message because it lacks the power that the real gospel has to save men and women from their sins (Matt. 1:21).
People do not like to be told they are wretched sinners destined for hell, however that is the kind of preaching that shows people the need for a cross. The masses would prefer to know how they can get promoted at work, get ahead in the world and get a quick fix for their earthly troubles. A gospel that does not emphasize these earthly things does not make any sense to many people (1 Cor. 1:18). And that is because naturally, in our sin, we are spiritually blind and have no sense of the eternal beauty of God. But instead of preaching the truth that God uses to waken sinful people to the glory, beauty and salvation of God, prosperity preachers abandon it and seek only to satisfy godless desires. That message does not save because it is not focused on showing people the necessity, provision, blessings of the cross. Prosperity preaching swaps the power of the gospel for a powerless message.
If you believe that Christ saves you in order to give you prosperity in this life, then you have put your hope in a powerless message. Unlike God’s good news revealed to us in the Bible, the prosperity gospel does not have power to save your soul (Rom. 1:16), give you life (2 Tim. 1:9-10), grant you peace with God (Rom. 5:1), reconcile you to Him (2 Cor. 5:18-20), bring you into God’s family (John 1:12-13), give you hope for eternity (Col. 1:21-23) and secure your resurrection to life (John 11:25-27). There is nothing that God cannot do for you on earth. But the power of the gospel is that he can save you forever by changing your status from a hell-bound subject of wrath to an eternally justified child of God. That is power. If you have turned away from preaching the cross to singing the popular tune, you have turned away from the only message that has the power to save from sin. Christ had to die because it was the only way to pay the price for our sin. Did your acquisition of that new house, car or job require the death of the Son of God? The prosperity gospel might seem relevant and it certainly is popular, but by focusing on material blessings it misses the point of the gospel and robs the gospel message of its essential purpose and power.
The prosperity gospel robs God of his glory
At its core, the gospel has everything to do with God’s glory. Indeed, we don’t fully understand the sinfulness of sin until we grasp the “who gets the glory” issue. We don’t understand the design of the gospel until we grasp the “who gets the glory” issue. We don’t understand the end goal of the gospel until we grasp the “who gets the glory” issue, and the prosperity gospel misses it on all fronts!
When Paul was expounding the precious truths of the gospel in his letter to the church in Rome, he began by explaining to them the underlying problem that creates the need for the gospel. We looked at this as we defined man’s greatest problem: it has to do with sin. Paul defines the sin problem using the word “glory”:
“…because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened” (Romans 1:21).
The problem that the gospel seeks to correct is man’s sinful misappropriation of God’ glory. The prosperity gospel misses this understanding of sin. By preaching that man’s great problem is merely physical need, it minimizes God’s worthiness of all glory in heaven and on earth. It leaves the listener focused on the created, not the Creator. God never gets the glory from biblical repentance. Those hearts are never in awe of how glorious God is and never see that the only right response to His glory is worship. They remain in awe of how nice it would be to get more stuff and when they sing about how God can give them that stuff they call it worship. Thus, a wrong definition of man’s greatest problem robs God of His glory.
They rob God of His glory by failing to understand the design of the gospel. Ephesians 1:3-14 lays out the purpose of God’s design of the gospel. First Paul lists out the blessings we have in Christ: chosen by God before the foundation of the world (v4), predestined for adoption as sons (v5), accepted in the Beloved (v6), redeemed through His blood (v7a), forgiven of our trespasses (v7b); the mystery of His will has been revealed to us (v9), we have obtained an inheritance (v11), and we are sealed with the Holy Spirit (v13). Please note that God designed it such that we only get these blessings in Christ. The phrase “in Christ” or its equivalent appears in this section 10 times! Now we come to the reason the gospel is designed in such a way that the blessings of it are freely enjoyed in Christ. Three times in these few verses we are told the reason, verses 5b-6a, 12b and 14b, it is “to the praise of His glory”. He gets the glory by how the blessings are accessed: only in and through him. Our standing before God is secure because we do not enjoy these blessings on the basis of our performance but on the basis of Christ’s performance on the cross. The gospel first teaches man that he is a sinner with nothing to offer God for His blessings, however all who are “in Christ” are blessed with every spiritual blessing in the heavens (Ephesians 1:3), and this equation is designed to result to the praise of His glorious grace.
The prosperity gospel robs God of the glory by changing the equation. It proclaims that God will bless you if you plant a financial seed or that God will bless you if you apply certain anointing oil that is available for sale by a famous pastor. It is not uncommon in our city (Nairobi) to hear of services where people are divided up into groups based on the size of “seed” one planted before prayers are offered up to God. With that design God does not get the glory, the man with his financial seed gets the glory, the man of God who offered up the “powerful prayers” gets the glory. As stated above, the blessings of God are available to all who come to Him through Christ. To suggest there is a different criteria is to diminish the glory of Christ as displayed in the gospel.
The prosperity gospel robs God of His glory by redefining the blessings received in Christ (Colossians 1:27). The glory of the gospel is Christ, not cars. Because of the blessings listed in Ephesians, we mere mortals come into unbreakable union with Christ, in whom all the fullness of the Godhead dwells bodily (Colossians 1:19). To distort the content of the gospel is to rob God of His glory. Those who hear the prosperity gospel message go home desiring earthly treasures instead of desiring a deeper knowledge of God (Ephesians 3:14-19). In the prosperity gospel, God is a means to an end, He is not the end, God is only good for what He can give not for who He is. In this equation earthly treasure is more glorious than God because it is the desired blessing instead of God. By redefining the blessings of the gospel God is robbed of His glory.
Ken Mbugua is senior pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church, Nairobi, Kenya. He is married to Arlette and they have a little girl. He was trained in Zambia, has done short term mission in South Sudan and undertook an internship at Capitol Hill Baptist Church, Washington DC, USA. Ken is passionate about the true biblical gospel and the growth of healthy reformed churches of different traditions which guard this precious gospel.
This article was originally published in 'Conversation Magazine', a publication of iServe Africa on sale in major outlets across Kenya and Uganda, and is an excerpt of a book by Michael Otieno Maura, Ken Mbugua, Conrad Mbewe, Wayne Grudem and John Piper - 'Prosperity? Seeking the True Gospel'