The Pernicious Evil of the Prosperity Gospel and the Theology of the Cross

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Several years ago now I was travelling down a road in Nigeria on which, at almost every corner, there stood a church with a name that promised their members, and all who would join them, success, victory, wealth and happiness. One that has stuck in my mind was ‘The Winners’ Church’. It seemed as if I was in the very home of the prosperity gospel! Yet so many in the surrounding streets, and those going in and coming out from these churches, seemed anything but prosperous, successful or even happy. I asked my guide, ‘What do they do when reality hits and they are not healed, or do not become wealthy, or are struck by tragedy or the ordinary disappointments of life? How do they cope with suffering and even persecution?’ ‘They go to the next church’, she said. ‘The Spirit may be at work in the next one.’

Of course the prosperity gospel is not just a feature of aspirational Christianity in the majority world. It is alive and well and destroying lives in Western countries too. In fact there are very large churches which, in one way or another, are making similar promises right here in Australia. They attract the crowds and even Christians from other backgrounds want to be associated with them, or so it seems. It may well be they welcome such association because they desperately want to present themselves as mainstream and respectable. ‘We are evangelical, just like you.’

Though it is always more comfortable and more popular—and sounds at first hearing more Christian—to advocate cooperation and mutual recognition, perhaps there are still reasons why we should  resist that siren call and make the case, as graciously but as firmly as we can, against this false teaching. Graciousness is vital because I am not infallible, nor am I without sin. There is no pristine position of theological or ecclesiastical purity which I can claim as my own. Certainly the Scriptures are without error and wholesome and life-giving, authoritative, clear and sufficient. Yet I do not always listen as I should and my own self interest too easily gets in the way of serving my brothers and sisters through teaching the truth. Yet firmness is vital too because false teaching is dangerous, in fact one of the most dangerous things there is. Consider the impact of the very first piece of false teaching: ‘You shall not die’ (Gen 3.4). What is more, those charged with the pastoral care of God’s people are to ‘drive out false teaching’ for the sake of the flock.

It would be easy at this point to explore the biblical texts that speak about the reality of suffering in the Christian life, to point to the experience of first Jesus then his apostles during their earthly ministries, and to remind ourselves that the Bible makes no promises of an easy or comfortable life, let alone one in which success, victory, wealth and happiness are assured. When these come they are extraordinary and entirely unmerited blessings of God but they are not promised and they certainly are not earned by religious activity, whether it be giving to the church budget or spiritual achievements of one kind or another. Paul did, after all, speak of ‘suffering with him [Christ] in order that we may also be glorified with him’ (Rom 8.17). Jesus did tell his disciples and those who would follow them, ‘In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world’ (Jn 16.33). Some are raised to great power, influence, and, yes, even wealth. Others are called upon to share the fate of the martyrs who are safe under the altar of God (Rev 6.9–11). There is no promise that a particular individual or group of individuals will prosper in this life, notwithstanding advice about the way ‘life under the sun’ works (Proverbs, Ecclesiastes). Wealth and success are no reliable measure of faithfulness or blessing. Remember the case of Job: a righteous man who suffered greatly in his life (Christopher Ash’s excellent commentary shows how the Book of Job critiques the ‘system’ which suggests the godly prosper and only the wicked suffer).

In this light, the prosperity gospel is both false and dangerous. It does not take seriously these and other texts which speak of suffering and opposition facing those who follow the crucified Messiah and it takes those texts which speak of abundance, blessing and the end of grief, sickness, suffering and death out of their biblical theological context. It  does not keep Christ, his cross and resurrection and his gospel of salvation from sin (with its summons to faith and repentance) front and centre. That’s why it’s false. There is a reason why Paul spoke of preaching Christ crucified. Yet it is also dangerous because people trust those who teach these things and bankroll them and are devastated when the promises are not realised. This is a well-travelled route away from faith in Christ and that is both tragic and damnable.

There are some very good and detailed critiques of the prosperity gospel that are available on the web, for instance here and here.

However, in this quincentenary of the Reformation, I would like to take a slightly different tack and remind myself and others of the theology of the cross, that exposition of the impact of the gospel on the way we view life (including what we expect of it) which came from Luther’s pen in the Heidelberg Disputation of 1518. The key theses, (19–23, in Luther’s Works, 31:52–54) are well known:

19. That person does not deserve to be called a theologian who looks upon the invisible things of God as though they were clearly perceptible in those things which have actually happened.

Luther explained that ‘the invisible things of God are virtue, goodness, wisdom, justice, goodness, and so forth’.

20. He deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.

Luther’s explanation continued ‘It is not sufficient for anyone, and it does him no good, to recognise God in his glory and majesty, unless he recognises him in the humility and shame of the cross’.

21. A theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theologian of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.

Luther wrote, ‘He who does not know Christ does not know God hidden in suffering. Therefore he prefers works to suffering, glory to the cross, strength to weakness, wisdom to folly, and, in general, good to evil’.

22. That wisdom which sees the invisible things of God in works as perceived by man is completely puffed up, blinded and hardened.

Luther went on, ‘Because men do not know the cross and hate it, they necessarily love the opposite, namely, wisdom, glory, power, and so on. Therefore they become increasingly blinded and hardened by such love, for desire cannot be satisfied by the acquisition of those things which it desires … The remedy for curing desire does not lie in satisfying it, but in extinguishing it’.

Now what does all this mean and how does it relate to the prosperity gospel taught in Sydney and elsewhere? The theology of the cross turns our natural way of viewing things on its head. The things so treasured by our world—prestige, success, influence, power, respect, wealth, intelligence, and all the rest—are in fact distractions which keep us from seeing where God is really at work: in suffering, and humility and weakness. Pilate in his consular robes and Herod in his palace had all the trappings of power and empire in the Gospel accounts. Yet it was the bleeding, broken and dying man on the cross who trusted in his heavenly Father and extended forgiveness to a penitent thief as well as to his executioners, who had the reality. That is where God was really at work, even though it did not look like it that day. Like the penniless widow in contrast to the wealthy people (Mark 12.41–44), or the distraught tax collector in contrast to the proud Pharisee (Lk 18), God was deeply at work in the humiliated Son of man, struggling for breath, though you might not have recognised it at first.

But that is not all. The cross, if it is to shape our view of the world and of what matters most in life, draws our attention to sin, salvation, forgiveness and hope. The gospel is first and fundamentally about dealing with sin. The most serious danger facing human beings is not poverty, or failure, or illness, or even death. It is our own sin, evident even when we are ‘at our best’. The profound impact of sin on every part of us and the reality of God’s judgment mean that what we need most is salvation. We need to be forgiven. Jesus’ blood was shed ‘for the forgiveness of sins’ (Matt 26.28). His mission, from beginning to end, was about saving his people from their sins (Matt 1.21). That forgiveness turns our eyes forward in hope to the restoration of all things, the new heavens and the new earth where righteousness dwells (2 Pet 3.13). In so doing it creates a certain restlessness with this world as we look forward to the Lord’s return. The cross, by virtue of the seriousness of what was happening there and why, gives us a very different set of priorities to those of the world around us. Wealth or poverty, success or failure, health or sickness, victory or defeat—real and impactful as each of these  undoubtedly is—cannot be the focus of our message. What is of first importance is that ‘Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures’ (1 Cor 15.3).

The prosperity gospel sees God’s glory and God’s blessing in all the wrong places and in so doing it draws attention away from what matters most and the reason why Jesus came, and lived and taught, and died and rose again, and is ruling now. When words like wrath, judgment, sin, forgiveness, and repentance have slipped out of our vocabulary, though they are so prominent in the New Testament, and when the concepts conveyed by those words are pushed into the background while the priorities of those around us are simply affirmed and superficially ‘baptised’, it is difficult not to conclude that we are faced with a different gospel. It is difficult not to conclude we have become a ‘theologian of glory’, to use Luther’s expression.

This is why we cannot make common cause with those churches who teach this pernicious doctrine: lives are shipwrecked now (and we must not close our eyes to the evidence of this, not just in Africa and Asia and Latin America, but here in Australia and the rest of the West as well) and what matters most is ultimately devalued. But just as importantly, we must be prepared to ask ourselves where we have been blind or distracted and where we have surrendered to the interests, priorities and values of the world rather than proclaiming Christ crucified and the forgiveness of sins and calling on all men and women to repent (Luke 24.46–47; Acts 17.30–31). In the end the bigger problem at the moment might just be our desire to be approved of (or respected — justified as a prelude to being heard) by those who teach or believe this false gospel.