Don't Oversimplify the (Prosperity) Gospel
I believe the prosperity gospel is of the devil. So, we shouldn't be surprised if it weaves error with truth; this has been our enemy's tactic from the beginning. But if the cancer of prosperity theology is entangled with the vital organs of the Christian gospel, a heavy dose of chemotherapy may not be the best treatment. Overcorrecting can cause unnecessary and harmful side effects.
Well-meaning Christians often make this mistake by providing simplistic answers to the complex questions raised by prosperity teaching. They reduce the Bible's message for the sake of clarity. But such an approach neither honors the full witness of Scripture nor the ability of others to understand it. When we interact with those who adhere to prosperity theology, instead of overstating our case, we should rightly interpret and teach the whole counsel of God.
Don't Reduce the Gospel to Personal Justification
As Christians who wish to guard the gospel, we rightly emphasize our salvation from sin. On the cross, Christ bore God's wrath on our behalf, conquered Satan, and delivered us from the power of death. Justification and forgiveness now come to us freely through faith in Jesus.
However, we would never want to forget that our personal rescue is only part of God's cosmic plan to reconcile all things to himself through Christ (Colossians 1:20). Until the day he returns, the whole earth groans to be "liberated from its bondage to decay" (Romans 8:20). This current state of creation can be a helpful argument against those expecting health and wealth to be the norm in our day. Yet its future liberation also demonstrates that God's salvation plan is comprehensive, bringing blessing "far as the curse is found."
This means we must take care not to over-spiritualize our hope or limit the goodness of the gospel to individual salvation. All the promises of God find their "Yes" and "Amen" in Jesus, including promises of peace and rest for those who inherit the earth; promises of a kingdom where we are reconciled to one another and justice prevails, where the humiliated and weak are restored to honor; promises of pain, sorrow, and tears exchanged for health, wholeness, and abundant joy in a renewed and plentiful Edenic land; promises of God's glory covering the earth as his glorified children reign upon it.
The prosperity gospel, while grossly misapplying Scripture, taps into our creaturely desires for collective wholeness and glory restored in a land of physical blessing. We should appeal to this point of connection as we correct what is wrong in prosperity teaching.
“The prosperity gospel, while grossly misapplying Scripture, taps into our creaturely desires for collective wholeness and glory restored in a land of physical blessing.”
Don't Diminish Faith by Appealing to Sovereignty
It's easy to attack the healing ministries of prosperity preachers. A common argument is that healers who truly had God's power would stop holding crusades and go to the hospitals and emergency rooms. They wouldn't use techniques that guarantee success or avoid hard cases like heart disease or debilitating paralysis. Their healing power would extend beyond the walls of a sanctuary.
Reasoning in this way, some turn to John 5 as a proof text. The paralyzed man whom Jesus healed didn't have faith to be made whole—he didn't even know Jesus—yet Jesus had power to heal him. So the genuine power of God can clearly override any circumstance and heal any disease.
However, this example overlooks the normal way God works. Jesus usually healed in response to others' faith. In fact, he was unable to do mighty works in Nazareth because of the unbelief there (Mark 6:5). Later, his disciples were also unable to drive out a demon because of their limited faith and failure to pray (Matthew 17:19–20). Therefore, we should not separate God's authority to heal from the need for us to believe. God's power is not ultimately contingent on us; but he does typically work in conjunction with human faith.
Sadly, we could list many examples where prosperity preachers diminish God's sovereignty by elevating human agency. Such teaching burdens the sick and poor with guilt, making them think their physical lack is always owing to a lack of faith. But, in response, we must be careful not to overstate our case and misrepresent the way God typically works. While it's true that nothing is impossible with God, there is a danger of relying on God's sovereignty in a way that minimizes human responsibility and the efficacious role of prayer.
Don't Minimize the Gospel's Present Benefits
One of the most egregious faults of prosperity teaching is that it claims for today what God has promised for the future. Theologians sometimes refer to this as an over-realized eschatology. Luther called it a theology of glory instead of a theology of the cross: expecting eternal benefits without enduring the suffering of our Savior. The true gospel invites us to follow Jesus and bear his cross. It's not merely a ticket to heaven, and certainly not a guarantee of "your best life now."
Now, few of us would suggest that there are no present blessings that come to those who embrace Christ. We know that new believers tend to drop bad habits, become better employees, and serve as better spouses. However, while defending against prosperity preaching, we might assert that the reward of the gospel is only for the future. Suffering is the norm now. Those who consider following Christ should count the cost.
But Jesus promised that those who suffer loss to follow him, who forsake family and home in doing so, will gain much more in return. They will find in the church a new family: mothers, brothers, houses, and lands. These resources and relational blessings of the gospel are real, and Jesus says they're for today! In fact, he clearly intended his promise of these physical benefits to be a tangible incentive to those who realized what it would cost to follow him (Mark 10:28–30). Therefore, those who count the cost—including the persecution Jesus promised—should also count the blessings, even ones they can expect in this life.
“These resources and relational blessings of the gospel are real, and Jesus says they're for today!”
In the early church, we glimpse this promise of Jesus fulfilled. Believers came together and had all things common. The poor had their needs met through the generosity of their wealthy brothers and sisters. Widows could expect to be cared for in a daily distribution. While we might point to the many ways the gospel led to suffering and material loss for early Christians, embracing Christ also brought immediate social and economic benefits for those who believed. Therefore, we should be careful about relegating all the physical promises of the gospel to a purely futuristic realm. Christ's offer includes more.
Defend the Bible by Handling It Rightly
We miss an opportunity to influence those within prosperity churches if we ignore these realities as we present or defend the truth. The prosperity gospel is more than a simplistic teaching that promises health and wealth to those with faith; a faithful response will not be simplistic either. Prosperity teaching is complicated, intertwining gross errors with gospel themes and biblical doctrine. Because of this, those who seek to address prosperity theology must do so precisely, with a scalpel and not a sword.
Proof texting does not cure proof texting. The remedy to an unhealthy hermeneutic is not more of the same. It's not enough to be right, or even to have good intentions and zeal. We must also pay attention to the way we defend the faith. Most importantly, we'll want to do so modeling what it is to rightly handle the Scriptures.