“Give me one-thousand dollars, and God will send you a Cadillac!” I’ve actually heard that stated from the stage of a church in Atlanta. I wasn’t in attendance, but I saw it on television. It’s hard to believe, but it happened…and that mentality is growing in our modern culture of greedy, self-serving religion.
What I’m referring to is the continuing emergence of the “prosperity gospel” in our nation and throughout the world. As ridiculous as it is damaging, the prosperity gospel offers nothing to its followers except the false hope of tremendous wealth as the “blessing” that God desires to bestow upon those who would dare to believe…and, many believe. Vast amounts of “Christians” flock to prosperity gospel preachers, sending them money and buying “miracle spring water,” prayer cloths, and other trinkets that come with the promise of some life-transforming miracle. It’s done in the name of God; it’s blasphemous; and it’s dangerous.
There’s a distinctive warning in God’s Word regarding the mindset by which we hear and respond to the Gospel message. That warning, among others, is found in the Gospel of Luke…
“…The seed is the word of God. The ones along the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved. And the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy. But these have no root; they believe for a while, and in time of testing fall away. And as for what fell among the thorns, they are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature. As for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience.– Luke 8:11-15 (ESV)
Let’s pretend, for a moment, that the seed of God’s Word always fell on good soil…wouldn’t that be wonderful? Men and women would hear the truth, and they would come to a point of spiritual awakening, realizing the life-transforming authority that only God possesses. It would be a different world. But let’s make an even greater leap of imagination…let’s pretend that all “preachers” in modern-day Christianity taught the true Gospel of Christ. Let’s pretend that there were no hungry wolves roaming among the lethargic sheep. Again, it would make for a much different world, a safer world, and a world without predatory religious leaders choking and devouring the lives of those truly searching for something real.
Unfortunately, today, we find ourselves in a culture of greed and staunch individualism. Our society is in a race to better their socioeconomic standing, increase their luxuries, and proudly live out lives that conform only to the agenda of their own will, comfort, and preferences. So many of us are looking for “our best life now,” and, oddly enough, some have seen it financially beneficial to drag God into the mix. Enter the prosperity gospel and its false promises of wealth and luxury being inclusive in God’s will for every man. Welcome to a world choking to death on flawed, self-serving religion. It’s here, and it’s popular.
Let’s look at one particular verse from the Scripture referenced above…verse 14.
“And as for what fell among the thorns, they are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature.”
– Luke 8:14 (ESV)
“…choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature.” Those are daunting words. If we’re not careful, we will elevate a great number of things to places of priority in our life, places of priority that supersede God’s will and authority. Financial gain is at the very top of this list. At our core, most of us feel that more money will ease any pain, but the reality is much different. However, the prosperity gospel doesn’t agree.
With its foundational origins dating back to the late 1900s, the prosperity gospel movement is rooted in three basic belief systems:
Just like the authentic Gospel, the prosperity gospel appeals to those who are struggling and in great need; however, the prosperity gospel misappropriates the need and redefines the solution.
The authentic Gospel message clearly identifies that the greatest need of mankind is a Savior who can deliver them out of an eternity of separation from God. It also clearly identifies the solution to this need is Jesus…and only Jesus.
In the prosperity gospel, eternal separation from God and salvation from a life of sin is often just an afterthought. The real need is focused on financial security and salvation from individual economic hardships. This is often followed up by the promise that God’s will for the individual life is one of financial security, and often, that is defined as the promise of great wealth.
One verse in particular is often cited as proof of God’s desire to prosper His children financially. Because of the wording used in some translations, Jeremiah 29:11 is frequently twisted to fit the message of the prosperity gospel. Some versions translate it this way…
“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.”
In context, this verse was directed specifically to the Israelite exiles in Babylon. The original Hebrew word translated as "prosper" can mean peace, completeness, safety, health, satisfaction, or blessings. It does not, in any way, imply financial prosperity.
The ESV and NLT offer a much more accurate translation...
For I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord. “They are plans for good and not for disaster (welfare and not for evil – ESV), to give you a future and a hope.”
– Jeremiah 29:11 NLT/ESV
Nowhere in the Bible does God promise great monetary wealth to those who follow and serve Him; moreover, He warns of the dangers associated with wealth and the pursuit of wealth.
“And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” And they were exceedingly astonished, and said to him, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.”– Mark 10:23-27 (ESV)
“No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.”
– Luke 16:13 (ESV)
Matthew 6:19-21 also warns us to not lay up treasures on earth because the location of our treasure is a reflection of the real location of our heart.
The prosperity gospel redirects the focus of our need to something solely financial, and it redefines the solution as the accumulation of monetary wealth to meet that need. It credits God as the provider of that wealth, but the prosperity gospel maligns the will of God by touting a promise that God desires for all who would ask to be monetarily wealthy…a message that flies in the face of the authentic Gospel.
This “prosperity philosophy” of ministry is dangerous to everyone. To the follower of Christ who is suffering through financial difficulties, it may not be very hard to make a transition from praying for God’s provision to claiming bold financial promises that sound good but are not found in God’s Word. To those who are lost, money is probably their idea of salvation anyway. If they are presented with the notion that God wants them to be wealthy…well, that’s not a hard sell.
Here are some dangers of the prosperity gospel message…
1. It Chokes the World Around Us to a Definitive Spiritual Death
Again, reference Luke 8:14 above. The pursuit of wealth and financial gain is contrary to the message of the authentic Gospel. This road chokes out the things of God, things like spiritual maturity, personal evangelism, service to others, sacrifice, compassion, and even love…diminishing their worth and replacing them with new values like selfishness, greed, and envy. The focus in the prosperity gospel revolves around servicing ourselves, based off of our own perception of need. Our desires supersede God’s will. We are only concerned with what we believe will bring us happiness, and oddly, in the prosperity gospel, God caters to that desire. In this mindset, God is efficiently and effectively choked from our life.
2. Our Purpose as Salt and Light is Rendered Ineffective
Reference Matthew 5:13-16. Here, we are called to be salt and light to the world around us. We’re called to flavor a world of sin with the message, love, and compassion of Almighty God. But what makes us this salt and light to our world? I assure you that it is not the size of our bank account. Great wealth would probably only inhibit our efforts to be Jesus to the world.
Moreover, think about the pursuit of wealth. Isn’t the world already preoccupied pursuing just that? The desire and pursuit of great wealth already look just like the world. It doesn’t offer them any greater hope than what they already believe in. There’s nothing new there.
The great tragedy of the prosperity gospel is that a person need not be spiritually awakened to embrace it; one needs only to be greedy to find great worth in the message. Getting rich in the name of Jesus does not define being the salt of the earth. In this, the world only sees a direct reflection of itself, watering down the message of the authentic Gospel.
3. Our Rewards, and Their Location, Are Redefined
Matthew 5:12 says, “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in Heaven.”
Matthew 6:19-21 tells us to “not lay up treasures on earth, but to lay up treasures in Heaven.”
1 Peter 1:4 talks of an inheritance that is “imperishable, undefiled, unfading, and kept for us in Heaven.”
And, there are more verses than those above, but it is clear that our great reward is in the prepared place of God’s Heaven…not here on earth.
In the prosperity gospel, people are encouraged to pray for and pursue great wealth and luxury in this world. They are not just encouraged to pursue it but also to pray for it. Instead of being mission-minded disciples of Christ seeking out the lost, the followers of the prosperity gospel are simply taught to be selfish. They are encouraged to seek out rewards here on earth. Strangely, I find no mention of rewards in Heaven from the prosperity gospel…only God’s will for us all to be financially blessed, fat, and happy here on earth.
4. It Promotes Less Faith in the Real Promises of Almighty God
Hebrews 13:5-6 says, “Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for He has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” So we can confidently say, “The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?””
Again, God never promises great wealth. He does, however, promise many things that money cannot buy. The writer of Hebrews is crystal clear…be content with what you have. In a world of internet shopping and credit cards, that’s a little hard to swallow, isn’t it? To the follower of the prosperity gospel, it’s a little hard to swallow as well…especially when they are taught that it’s God’s will for them to have more. Again, this is contrary to the authentic message of the Gospel. Teaching people to desire more implicitly teaches us to have less faith in the real promises of God…promises that are of far greater worth than money can buy. If the Bible tells us that being content with what we have honors God, then what spiritual worth can be found in teaching people to seek riches?
5. It Teaches of Wealth as the Goal Instead of Wealth as a Tool
Ephesians 4:28 says, “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.”
Here, Paul is certainly encouraging us to not steal, but the latter portion of the this verse is a little hard to swallow for a generation of profound individualism and unapologetic greed. Here we are encouraged to give away portions of our wealth to those in need. Ouch.
In the prosperity gospel, wealth is sought after as the goal. In this anti-Gospel, people fail to seek God and instead claim the wealth that He desires we all have. They do so to ease their own financial burdens and increase their luxuries. In the authentic Gospel, the message is much different. God teaches us that our financial assets, whether great or small, are only a tool to be used in the service of others who are in need. We are certainly responsible for caring for our families and ourselves, but the true Gospel compels us to also care for others with the resources that God has blessed us with. Luke 12:48 says, “Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required…”
6. It Promotes a Foundation Based on Things the Bible Warns Cause Harm
1 Timothy 6:6-10 say, “But Godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.”
The prosperity gospel flagrantly describes wealth as the “blessings of solution” for our problems here on earth. The authentic Gospel message basically teaches us to be content with nothing. The prosperity gospel teaches that the pursuit of wealth is both Godly and healthy. The authentic gospel teaches the exact opposite. In fact, it teaches us that the pursuit of wealth will place us on a perilous course that will distance us from God, lead us into “senseless and harmful desires,” and “plunge us into ruin and destruction.”
The very thing that is foundational in the prosperity gospel is identified as harmful in God’s Word. Again, it’s the anti-Gospel.
7. It Teaches a Doctrine That Makes It Much Harder to Enter Heaven
Mark 10:23-27 says, “And Jesus looked around and said to His disciples, “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God?” And the disciples were amazed at His words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how difficult is it to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” And they were exceedingly astonished, and said to Him, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.””
By Christ’s own definition, wealth only makes it harder for someone to find true salvation. Oddly, the prosperity gospel makes wealth the great goal of our life on earth.
Sadly, television programming is full of preachers who twist the authentic Gospel and teach this flawed and dangerous message. It would seem that they have no fear of God, and they probably don’t. One day, however, fear will come as they stand before Christ and give an account of their words and actions. Let Jesus sort through that in due time, but, today, be sure that you know the true message of the Gospel. God has not allowed His Word to survive the ages because the message is irrelevant. Instead, He has delivered it through divine inspiration and great cost, directly to your hand, because it contains a message that is holy, alive, and powerful to your existence as His child. God loves you! Today, I dare you to read about it in His Word!
Keith Beatty is a Worship, Missions and Media Pastor living in North Alabama. He's excited and very humbled to be a follower of Jesus Christ!