Religion of Wednesday, 16 July 2014
Source: Robert G. Coleman
About two and a half decades ago, the popular Christian message that one often heard in Ghana was about salvation, and this was traditionally presented as relating to sin, righteousness and eternal life. The call then was “Repent and accept Jesus and you will be saved.” Today, in many places, salvation is presented as an experience with Jesus Christ that will give us the tools and power to be successful in life, enable us rub shoulders with rich non-Christians and make us happy. In addition, the understanding of the word “faith” has also been changed. Faith used to be seen as a living trust in God so even when things did not go well, we still trusted in the Lord. Today, faith is understood in many quarters as a power or force that is used to get anything we want. This modern interpretation of the gospel is what theologians call the Prosperity Gospel.
This gospel may be presented in different forms and even with different words, depending on who is preaching it, but the core of the message is that Jesus died so that the one who believes in him will become materially or financially wealthy and will never fall sick. Some of this gospel’s oft-used vocabularies include “sow a seed,” “abundance,” “breakthrough,” “anointing for success,” “inheritance,” “prophesy into your life,” “you are destined for greatness,” “claim it by faith,” “positive confession,” etc. Another unique thing about this gospel is that it thrives on changing or playing with the meaning of particular words. The meanings of scriptural verses are often twisted in order to present a semblance of biblical grounding for the prosperity gospel’s non-biblical message.
He Became Poor So That You Might Be Rich
Prosperity preachers usually tell their hearers that God wants them to be rich or to have material abundance. It is not uncommon to hear them use a verse like 2 Corinthians 8:9 which teaches that Jesus became poor so that those who believe in him might be rich. But did the author, Apostle Paul, actually mean that Jesus’ agenda for his followers was to make them rich materially or financially? Ironically, the reason why Paul even brought up this issue was because he was seeking for donations to help the believers in Judea, who were in need. Now think about it, if believers in Christ are automatically to be materially rich just because Jesus “became poor,” as it were, then why were the believers in Judea so in need that Paul had to get the assistance of the churches in Macedonia and Corinth (2 Cor. 8:1-4, 8-15). If it was case that the believers in Judea had failed to “claim their inheritance or birthright,” as the prosperity gospel language goes, all Paul needed to do was to tell them to either “claim it by faith” or “prophesy it into their lives,” but he did not do this because this was not the kind of Christianity he was preaching. It is also worth noting that the apostle made particular mention of the fact that the churches in Macedonia gave generously “even though they are very poor” (vs. 2 GNB) and he meant this in terms of material wealth (vs. 3).
In verse 9 however, when he uses the word “rich” he does not imply financial or material wealth. The context bears witness. He clearly states what he means by “rich” in verse 7 of the same passage: “You are so rich in all you have: in faith, speech, and knowledge, in your eagerness to help and in your love for us.” GNB. There is no mention, literal or implied, of material riches here. Indeed if by “rich” Paul had meant material or financial riches then his actions would be either a joke or an insult to the Judea believers, on whose behalf he was asking for donations, because they would already be materially rich by virtue of Christ having “become poor.” But the prosperity preachers have a different agenda: they want the believer in Christ to see riches as a birthright, something to be grasped, something the Christian is entitled to. But this only leads many believers to disillusionment, because when God has not promised something and you force yourself to believe that he has, disappointment is inevitable in the long run.
The Blessing Of Abraham
It is also common to hear prosperity preachers make reference to the blessing of Abraham in the book of Genesis, in the Old Testament. At the same time these preachers are inclined to use Galatians 3:29, in the New Testament, which says that “If you belong to Christ then you are the descendants of Abraham and will receive what God has promised” (GNB) to explain why they believe a Christian ought to be materially rich and fulfilled as Abraham was. A successful linking of this passage in Galatians to the Genesis narrative about Abraham’s blessings seems to provide a solid foundation for preaching material prosperity in the Church today. But there are some important things to note here.
What really is the blessing of Abraham? Abraham is called blessed in Galatians not because he received prosperity or material wealth or good health. Instead he is called blessed because he believed God and God accepted him, on the basis of his faith, as righteous (Gal. 3:6). It is this “righteous” status that the apostle Paul has in mind when he says that all who believe are blessed as Abraham was (Gal 3:9). Any person who believes in Jesus today is blessed because the righteousness of Christ is imputed to him. Galatians 3:13&14 explains: “But by becoming a curse for us Christ has redeemed us from the curse that the Law brings; for the scripture says, 'Anyone who is hanged on a tree is under God's curse. Christ did this in order that the blessing which God promised Abraham might be given to the Gentiles by means of Christ Jesus, so that through faith we might receive the Spirit promised by God.” GNB [Emphasis mine]
Paul’s meaning of “God’s promise to Abraham" is very clear. He does not have in his mind any idea about Abraham’s material blessing nor does he allow room for extending the meaning of this phrase beyond Abraham’s spiritual blessing of righteousness to include “everything” (Gen. 24:1) else in Abraham’s life, like the prosperity preachers like to do. The promise of blessing for the whole human race through Abraham, according to the Spirit-filled Apostle Paul is spiritual not worldly – it is the receipt of the Spirit promised by God. Interestingly, the author of Galatians, Apostle Paul, whose words prosperity preachers like to use to justify their material wealth preaching, actually wrote disapprovingly about people who try to interpret the Christian faith materialistically in 1 Timothy 6:5-12 saying:
"...They think that religion is a way to become rich. Well, religion does make us very rich, if we are satisfied with what we have. What did we bring into the world? Nothing! What can we take out of the world? Nothing! So then, if we have food and clothes that should be enough for us. But those who want to get rich fall into temptation and are caught in the trap of many foolish and harmful desires, which pull them down to ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a source of all kinds of evil. Some have been so eager to have it that they have wandered away from the faith and have broken their hearts with many sorrows. But you, man of God, avoid all these things. Strive for righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, and gentleness. Run your best in the race of faith, and win eternal life for yourself; for it was to this life that God called you when you firmly professed your faith before many witnesses."(GNB) [Emphasis mine].
Paul lifts the attention of his readers from the material to what really matters - the fruits of the Holy Spirit: righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, and gentleness.
Typical prosperity gospel does not allow room for a believer to get sick. It claims that a Christian, full of faith, full of the Holy Spirit and who has favour from the Lord simply cannot get sick; Jesus has redeemed the believer from every disease. Thus if you get sick it must be because of your sin or unfaithfulness. But as if to refute the prosperity gospel on this particular point, the Bible contains a record of several godly men (both those who can be described as physical seeds of Abraham and those who are spiritual seeds of Abraham) who suffered sickness yet the Scriptures put no blame on them: Elisha, a man with the “double portion anointing” died of a fatal disease (2 Kings 13:14); King Hezekiah, a man described as one who did what was pleasing to the Lord (2 Kings 18:3), actually got sick and almost died (2 Kings 20:1); Timothy, Apostle Paul’s son in the faith, had frequent stomach problems (1 Tim 5:23); Trophimus, one of the early Christians, was left in Miletus by Paul because he was ill (2 Tim 4:20); Epaphroditus, Paul’s fellow worker in the faith, fell ill and almost died (Philippians 2:25-30); the great Apostle Paul himself got ill physically (Gal 4:13). If the Prosperity preachers’ teaching is true then we must question whether the apostle Paul (whose letters we consider as part of Scripture) and his colleagues in the early church, who got sick, were truly the seeds of Abraham or even Christians at all.
In a developing country like Ghana, where many people struggle financially and with health issues, and where a lot of young people are upwardly mobile, the Prosperity Gospel sounds appealing and inspiring. But it would be in our interest to heed the warnings of Scripture and also the warning of Jim Bakker, the former American prosperity preacher, whose ministry was hit by financial scandals in the 1980s and was subsequently imprisoned. From prison, he repentantly wrote in a letter saying: “It’s time the call from the pulpit be changed from ‘Who wants a life of pleasure and good things, new homes, cars, material possessions etc?’ to ‘Who will come forward to accept Jesus Christ and the fellowship of his suffering?’ … I believe the heart of God is grieved when we cannot delay self-gratification for earthly things in exchange for life in eternity with Him.” Having deceived masses of people, Jim Bakker finally saw the light. I hope the prosperity preachers of our day and their sympathizers will also come to the same realization before it is too late. C. H. Spurgeon once insightfully noted that, “The old covenant was a covenant of prosperity. The new covenant is a covenant of adversity whereby we are being weaned from this present world and made meet for the world to come.”
While Biblical Christianity does not teach believers to actively seek poverty or sickness, it does warn against seeking worldly riches (2 Tim. 6:9&10) and worldly fulfilment (Matt. 16:26) and also entreats Christians to pray for the sick and care for the poor, both within the Church and outside of it. In the Christian life, whatever the believer does, he is to work at it with all his heart as though he were working for God and not for human beings (Col. 3:23). Hard work is encouraged. In the end, however, whether a believer becomes rich or poor or in-between, sick or healthy, the important thing is to have a living trust in Jesus. Faith, in Christian sense, is a confidence in Jesus Christ and in his power so that even when his power does not take away the unpleasantness you face in this world, your confidence in him remains because of who Jesus is. He is a loving God who can be trusted to always do what is good for those who belong to him.
Robert G. Coleman is the President of SimplyChrist Ministries (SCM), a Christian Apologetics ministry based in Accra, Ghana. Author’s Blog: www.rgcoleman.wordpress.com
Robert G. Coleman
Author of Why Don't I Feel My Faith, a penetrating
exposition on what it means to have faith in Christ.