I may not be American, but I’m well aware that the United States Declaration of Independence states, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Aah, the American Dream…if you believe in yourself, you can be all that you want to be…healthy, wealthy and wise. After all, didn’t Jesus say, “God helps those who help themselves?” (Umm… correction, that’s actually a paraphrase of Benjamin Franklin.)
Unfortunately, people are deceived everyday into believing that these political ideals are based upon the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and also upon the notion that Jesus came to bring you an enjoyable, trial-free, prosperous existence. The prosperity gospel grows at astonishing rates, as it prey’s upon societies most vulnerable, the poorest and most disadvantaged. And while you might be tempted to believe it exists only on the fringes, beware…it’s in your living rooms.
Reality TV has hit upon a sad reality.
Now you may be saying to yourself: “Come on, nobody gives those guys any credit, they aren’t the norm.” I hate to break it to you, but their message is more prevelant than you may realize, and the poison of their teaching is widespread. In his book, Your Best Life Now (which, by the way, still remains on the NY Times bestseller list), Joel Osteen writes, “God wants to give you your own house. God has a big dream for your life.” But I’ve searched the Scriptures, and I can’t find that anywhere (and boy, do I wish I could find it). The truth is, prosperity gospel theology is not found in God’s Word, and it continues to grow at a rate equivalent to the bank accounts of those who teach this heresy.
Perhaps the saddest reality is that the victims of prosperity preaching are often the poor and disadvantaged of society. They’re given the promise of attaining that which they do not possess, and the preacher feeds upon their desire to fulfill wanton needs. The poor then flock to such teachings, grasping at anything to find hope in this world. They give the miserable scraps of that which they have, to those who already live in excess. Praying, desperately hoping to find a blessing, but receiving little to nothing in return.
The Bible is clear on the judgment of these teachers. “Beware of the scribes who like to walk around in long robes, and like respectful greeting in the market places, and chief seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets, who devour widows’ houses, and for appearance’s sake offer long prayers; these will receive greater condemnation” (Mark 12:38-40).
History of Prosperity Theology
If it can’t be found in Scripture, where does the Prosperity Gospel come from? The problem is not new. Its history dates back centuries and in some subtle forms. One such period was when:
Back in 1517, a huge contingent of the church had fallen to the ruse of a carnal monk name Johann Tetzel. He conned the believers of his day into purchasing indulgences to guarantee escape from purgatory. An outraged Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses of dispute on the Wittenberg door, challenging the brokerage of salvation through the exploitation of people’s spiritual insecurities and illiteracy. (Hank Hanegraaff, Counterfeit Revival [Dallas: Word, 1997], xviii)
Tetzel was simply promoting the idea, that by giving financially to God’s work, God will in turn bless you. “As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs,” was the mantra of his teaching.
Fast forward to the 19th century, when the New Thought Movement was spawned to promote that “God” or an “Infinite Intelligence” dwelt within each person, and that “our mental states are carried forward into manifestation and become our experience in daily living” (Declaration of Principles, International New Thought Alliance). Stir together this New Thought movement with Tetzel’s teaching and you come up with a dangerous recipe. And while prosperity theology did not begin under the banner of these movements, it certainly builds upon their teachings.
E.W. Kenyon, a student of this New Thought teaching, was connected to well-known Pentecostal leaders and his teaching gained great influence upon them after the First World War. In 1947, Oral Roberts began teaching that God would return seven-fold any donations made in faith. This was a “blessing pact” between the giver and God and “Seed Faith” donations were requested to build ministries.
In 1955, faith healer A.A. Allen began selling merchandise, such as prayer cloths anointed with “miracle oil”. More and more he focused on these products ability to increase prosperity and financial freedom, as well as the power to speak something into being. This “word of faith” could supernaturally change one-dollar bills into twenty-dollar bills.
The dawn of televangelism began in the 1960s, led by Oral Roberts and Reverend Ike. Quickly, the public’s attention was captivated by Jim & Tammy Faye Bakker and the Trinity Broadcasting Network emerged, bringing prosperity evangelists Robert Tilton and Benny Hinn into prominence.
Word of Faith Movement
This age of the televangelist opened up the masses to the “Word of Faith” Movement, which teaches that Christians can access the power of faith or fear through their speech. This theology is based upon a warped and ultimately heretical understanding of Mark 11:22-24. Under the Word of Faith movement, Jesus’ words become some sort of Divine vending machine. Insert words here…get your faith promise here.
Positive confession began to be championed from men such as Kenneth Hagin and Charles Capps, who believe that God has given men power to speak into existence. Faith is likened to a force. Hagin’s disciple, Kenneth Copeland encourages believers to
Speak God's words over your circumstances today. Speak His words in faith and watch Him move! – Kenneth
— Kenneth Copeland (@CopelandNetwork) July 10, 2012
Yet these teachers fail to recognize the meaning of these verses. The MacArthur Study Bible comments regarding Mark 11:22-24,
Man’s faith and prayer are not inconsistent with God’s sovereignty. And it is not the believer’s responsibility to figure out how that can be true, but simply to be faithful and obedient to the clear teaching on prayer, as Jesus gives it in this passage. God’s will is being unfolded through all of redemptive history, by means of the prayers of his people–as his saving purpose is coming to pass through the faith of those who hear the gospel and repent. Cf. James 5:16.
Modern Teachers – Wolves among us!
Today there are a number of preachers gaining popularity in evangelical circles who promote a health and wealth gospel, although it’s incredibly subtle. Best selling author Bruce Wilkenson’s The Prayer of Jabez, encourages people to pray a mantra-like prayer, in order to break through to the blessed life. Men like Joel Osteen continue to grow in popularity by teaching that God wants to give you Your Best Life Now, as you Make Everyday a Friday…which of course involves the good life (and perfect teeth).
However, among mainline evangelicalism there is a younger wave of these teachers quietly sliding into place. Jentezen Franklin, Joyce Meyer, Craig Groeschell and Perry Noble have all shared platforms with evangelical headliners such as Rick Warren, Bill Hybels and John Ortberg, thus exposing them to the undiscerning masses. While few of these would actually claim to preach a Prosperity Gospel, their message is often littered with subtle teachings of Word of Faith and prosperity. Take for example Steven Furtick, pastor of Elevation Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, who encourages his followers to engage in confessional rituals that “activate your audacious faith.” To promote his book Sun Stand Still, Furtick famously stares into his bathroom mirror in order to declare positive affirmations and faith confessions over his life, and encourages others to do the same.
If you notice, Furtick say’s you need to preach God’s word to yourself, but never actually uses God’s Word in his faith confessions. In turn, Furtick teaches that this will bring blessing upon your life, as long as you act in audacious faith. Anybody else reminded of this guy?
Furtick, of course, believes that audacious faith is best demonstrated by sending money to support his ministry and buying his books. However, recently a local news affiliate took notice of discrepancies in Furtick’s financial endeavors and called Furtick and Elevation Church to be above reproach.
What Does God Want From You?
If health and wealth, power and prestige is what God desires for His people, than the early church failed miserably; often suffering persecution and poverty. When Jesus explained the cost of true discipleship He said, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it” (Matt 16:24).
So what does Jesus want to give you? He wants to give you a new heart. One of flesh, and not of stone (Ezekiel 36:26). Christ calls us to humble obedience and daily denial of self. If man wants to live his best life now, it is apparently clear that his desire is not for the future glories of heaven. Jesus warns in Matthew 7:15 “Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” The church is subtly being infiltrated by such wolves, and it is vital that Christians teach and study the whole counsel of God’s Word; seeking to be humble and obedient to its teaching. May we be diligent to faithfully examine the Scriptures like the noble Bereans in Acts 17:11, and may we find our hope in Christ alone.