How do I identify prosperity gospel, and what does it mean? This episode breaks down the true gospel v. the one presented by the “word of faith” movement, discussing how this theology misinterprets key passages of Scripture and how we can discern through it.
If you are new to Christianity, or even if you’ve been around Christianity for a while, you may be familiar with this phrase but not know exactly what is, what it means or how to identify it. Now, there are a lot of great speakers and writers who have addressed this topic at length. They have covered it in depth. I’m thinking of Allie Stuckey, Costi Hinn, have both spent a good deal of time on their podcasts and in their works discussing the prosperity gospel. But I have not had a resource on my podcast, so we’re going to dive into it today as well. So, before we can address what prosperity gospel is, why it matters, how it impacts you, first we have to talk about what the gospel is. You won’t know the false version, the fake, unless you know the true version. We’re going to first look at what the gospel is and what gospel means.
So, very simply, the Greek word for gospel means good news. In Mark 1:15, Jesus says, “The time has come, the kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news.” His use of the phrase good news here is taken from Isaiah 52:7-10, which says, “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of Him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, your God reigns the voice of your watchmen, they lift up their voice, together they sing for joy, for eye to eye, they see the return of the Lord to Zion. Break forth together into singing, you waste places of Jerusalem. For the Lord has comforted His people, He has redeemed Jerusalem, the Lord has bared His holy arm before the eyes of all the nations, and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.” That’s Isaiah 52:7-10.
So, this phrase is what Jesus is referring to when He says, “Repent and believe the good news.” And what is the good news? The good news is Jesus’ perfect life, sacrificial death and victorious resurrection. He is both God and man, a perfect man, so He can substitute for mankind, perfect God because He has power over death. So, the gospel deals with our spiritual need, our separation from God. Jesus came as the promised Messiah to make a way for us to be reconciled with God, for us to be in relationship with Him, to no longer be in opposition to Him. He fulfilled the sacrificial system as the perfect Passover lamb, who laid down His life willingly to make a way for us to be united with God. This is the gospel, and this gospel saves us spiritually, but it does also bless us and impact us materially and physically. All through the Bible it states that those who walk in righteousness will be blessed. Deuteronomy especially discusses this, talks about the way of life and the way of death, and that those who align themselves with God and at His time, the Old Covenant system in Israel, they would experience the blessing of walking in the light. If they walked away from God and followed the patterns of the world, they would inherit the things of the world, death and destruction, and darkness. God has always been offering the blessing of the way of righteousness.
In the Old Covenant, it was faith in God in the coming Messiah. That is what they were looking forward to and now under the New Covenant, we’re looking back to the Messiah, we’re putting faith in the Messiah who came. So, the Old Covenant people were putting faith in God, they’re saved by faith. Just like under the New Covenant, we also are saved by faith. The point that we’re looking at in both cases is Jesus Christ, the Messiah. They didn’t know who He was yet. We now know, we have seen fully, it’s been revealed to us. Now, some may be wondering, well, where does the Bible say that those who walk in righteousness will be blessed? I want to address this now, because we’re going to look at the perversions of this idea in a second. But the Bible does say, “That those who walk with the Lord, who walk in faith, who walk in step with God, will be blessed.” Luke 11:28, “Blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it. Verse 1 Peter 1:14, “As obedient children, obedience is a part of walking with God.” Do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance. He goes on to say that you need to be conformed to God and to His life. And if we do that, we experience His peace, we experience His joy, we experience the righteousness given to us by Christ. 2 John 1:6, “And this is love, that we walk according to his commandments, this is the commandment, just as you’ve heard from the beginning, so that you should walk in it.” He talks about how we experience the depth of love in Christ as we walk in His commandments, as we walk in His righteousness. Luke 14:27, “Whoever does not bear His own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.” This is Jesus talking. This verse is talking about the cost of discipleship as Dietrich Bonhoeffer described it.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a pastor and a martyr who back during World War II wrote extensively about cheap grace, which is when we diminish the grace of God and we make it seem as if there is no cost, no price to following Him. And there is, there is a cost, but there’s also a blessing to that obedience, to that sacrifice. But what happens when you take the concept of blessing that we do see especially in Deuteronomy and in Leviticus and then even the blessings talked about in the gospels and in the Epistles. When we take those blessings that are described and we say that the whole point of the gospel is for us to experience those blessings. Well, that’s the prosperity gospel. Prosperity gospel uses the actual gospel as a means to personal gain. It’s also known as “name it and claim it” or the Word of Faith movement. And it teaches that if you obey God correctly, you will receive health, wealth and/or abundance. Sometimes the prosperity gospel is overt. Sometimes they will actually promise this. They will say, “If you sow a seed of faith, you give us some money. You’re tithing to God and He will bless what you have tithed to us and you will receive it back tenfold.” Taking passages out of the Old Testament, typically twisting them a little and applying them to modern day and saying, “If you will just plant this dollar, this $10, this $100, God is going to bless you and give it back a 100-fold.”
Sometimes it will be about health. If you only had enough faith, if you named it and claimed it, you would receive absolute healing or abundance, success in business, certain house that you want, a car that you want. Usually, these material things are framed as items that are necessary to advance God’s kingdom. So, we know that if you were to simply say God told me I deserve a Lexus, most people would give you the side eye. Well, what do you mean? Why do you need a Lexus? Well, it works, if you believe that God needs that Lexus to do His kingdom work. If you can say that God needs that Lexus to accomplish His kingdom work, you can make a pretty persuasive case. For why someone should give you money to get that Lexus because then you can do more work for the kingdom. In specific cases like Kenneth Copeland and his private jet, he has said this publicly. He has said, “All I needed was this jet. I got a good price on it. The Lord provided so that I could do the kingdom work.” In other words, God needed that private jet in order to reach the people that he wanted to reach. And that ultimately is one of the biggest problems with the prosperity gospel. It diminishes the role of God and it elevates the needs of man because God is actually limited in the prosperity gospel to the material things that a person wants. We’ll get more into that when we talk about theology of the movement.
Where does prosperity gospel manifest? Well, the most visible forms of this teaching are found in the sermons of people like Benny Hinn, Kenneth Copeland, and Kenneth Hagin, who was the founder of the Word of Faith Movement. Usually, centers on health, wealth and abundance in home, business and world for that purpose of advancing God’s supposed kingdom. Notice that His kingdom, though, is often a material one. It’s said to have a spiritual impact, but the focus is material at least for the person who’s at the top and doing most of the “ministry.” So, what is theology of this movement? Where is this coming from? Because when you look at it on paper or listen to a podcast about it, it can be really hard to understand how somebody can buy into this. You know we all have that perhaps meme in our heads of the little old lady sitting at home watching the televangelists on the TV and just believing everything that they say and being manipulated by them. But it happens and it doesn’t just happen with the sweet 85-year-old lady watching on our TV. It now happens via social media, it happens via books, it happens via whole churches.
We saw a form of this in the fall of Hillsong, where the person at the top is receiving the most abundance, who is receiving the most accolades, the most attention, the most benefits. And the people who are funding them, the people who supposedly should being served by this ministry are instead often the ones who are the most manipulated. So how does this happen? How can you build a case from scripture for something like this? Here’s how they do it. It usually begins in the Old Testament, at least in my experience, in studying and dealing with pastors and those who believe this type of doctrine, usually begins in the Old Testament. If we’re to back it up even further, it begins with either a mistaken or intentional eisegesis of a passage. What is eisegesis? Eisegesis is when you take a Bible study passage, you have a passage of scripture and instead of letting it speak for itself, drawing out the intended meaning. If you’ve listened to any of my Bible study episodes, you know that I’ve talked about how to draw out that meaning, how to honor the original intent of the author and the culture in which it was written. When someone doesn’t do this, they come to the text and they arrive at their own conclusion, or they read the conclusion they want into the text, and then they can manipulate it to say something that it doesn’t actually say.
Oftentimes, this happens with the Old Testament in charismatic movements, they tend to focus on big sweeping stories and taking a principle out of the story that may or may not be there and then applying it to a completely different situation. So, instead of staying true to perhaps the intent of the passage, they might take something like David and Goliath and say, “Goliath is whatever the thing is that you’re facing, and you are David, you are the hero of the story.” But that’s not the point of the story of David and Goliath, is it? The point is that it’s a War of Gods. It’s a war of the living God against Goliath’s demonic God and our God, the living God wins. It’s not about David. David was just the vessel of God, showing His glory and His power over the enemy, which at that moment was Goliath because He was partnering with the spiritual enemy of Satan. It’s all about God. And yet so often with this unhealthy charismatic Word of Faith form of interpretation, you go to an Old Testament passage and you read into it a theme or idea of destiny or being the hero of the story about a principle of a specific prophetic word, something exciting that feels bigger than the boring old Bible and how hard it can sometimes be to interpret. You take that principle out and you apply it in this really big way that isn’t true to what the passage actually said or intended at all.
Sometimes this happens on accident and sometimes it happens intentionally. So, David and Goliath, is one example. How do you end up with this idea that following Christ should result in perfect health or wealth or abundance? Here’s how, Isaiah 53:5. We just read Isaiah 52 about the gospel, so let’s just go over a page and look at Isaiah 53:5. Here is a messianic prophecy pointing to what happened to Jesus at the cross and I’m reading this on Good Friday, so it’s very appropriate. I’ll start in verse 4, “Surely, He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God and afflicted. But He was pierced for our transgressions; crushed for our iniquities; upon Him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with His wounds we are healed.” This is a favorite verse of prosperity gospel preachers. To say that, “By Jesus wounds on the cross we are healed physically and all we have to do is believe enough and it will happen.” All we have to do is pray enough and it will happen because Christ has already bought us physical healing. This is a tough topic to address because there are people in Christianity who do not pray boldly for healing, who never even ask God for it, who don’t pursue the Lord. Like the woman who had the issue of blood for twelve years, who crawled on her knees and grasped onto the tassel of His robe, knowing He could heal her. That is perseverance. There are some Christians who simply don’t persevere and it really is a problem.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have this. This universal application of what is technically here a spiritual prophecy. I had an autoimmune disease for five years. My skin broke out in a massive rash, started with my first pregnancy with Adeline, hives, blisters all over my body. Didn’t know what it was. It lasted for eleven weeks with her, and then it went away but it would come back every month. And that went on for five years on my face, my neck, my arms. I couldn’t wear makeup. People would make comments about my face in public because I had a massive blistering, cracking, weeping rash all around my mouth and down my neck. It was humiliating. It was so painful and devastating because we could not find a solution. I tried everything and, in many ways, I felt like the woman with the issue of blood because it was connected to my hormones and to my monthly cycle. I was getting two cycles a month. So, I would have two cycles a month and every cycle I would have an outbreak of my autoimmune condition. I was desperate to do something. So, I very much resonated with the woman with the issue of blood and coming to Christ and saying, “Please heal me. Why won’t you heal me? I don’t understand.”
For someone who is suffering from a chronic illness, it is devastating to hear this kind of message from a prosperity gospel preacher that if I only had enough faith, if I only prayed hard enough, if I only prayed more, if I prayed right, if I used God’s name the correct way, if I said the right password in Jesus’ name, maybe then I would be healed. That’s not what this passage is saying. Because when we look in context of the gospels and all of the stories of healing that we see, we know that while Jesus healed many and even raised people from the dead, He did not heal all. Not everyone who was in Jerusalem was healed by Christ, and there were many who needed it. We know that He didn’t do a mass universal healing just over everybody at once that’s recorded on the gospels. It follows for us to understand that there were people who followed Christ and weren’t healed. We can even look at the Apostle Paul who talks about having the thorn in His flesh and how the thorn in His flesh was not taken. He kept asking God, three times he asked God, and God finally said to him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
The prosperity gospel preachers have no room for that because their theology of healing has made God smaller than man. They take specific passages like ‘By His Stripes We Are Healed.’ Or in the gospels where Jesus says, “You will do greater things than these, greater healings than these.” And they use that to say that God always wills absolute healing on this earth, despite the fact that when you cross reference it with other scriptures, the narrative doesn’t match up. Despite the fact that many people don’t experience full healing, many people do die from cancer who are faithful believers, who are Walking with God and who are praying for healing. So, how do we reconcile what scripture says with this idea that God ultimately wants to heal every person? Well, we reconcile it by saying that, “God sometimes heals people eternally in the next life, the perfect life, the life with God where there is no sorrow or tears or pain.” Prosperity gospel is a very earthly gospel. This kingdom, the one here on this earth is the only one that really matters because there is no respect for a healing that can happen eternally. So, that’s regarding their theology of healing.
Let’s talk about their theology of human beings and their identity. The Word of Faith movement is known for popularizing the idea that humans are, “little gods.” Where this comes from is Genesis 1:27-28, “Let us make man in our image and a confusion of being made in the image of God with being made in the same nature as God.” There’s a difference between those two things. God made man in His image, in His likeness. He’s similar. The word there is the same word used for Adam and Seth later on, that Seth is in the image of Adam. He’s not Adam, he’s Seth, but he’s similar to him, similar to God, but not the same. And that is one of the problems, the underlying core problems with prosperity gospel, especially, the Word of Faith movement, is the idea that Jesus and this is taken from Philippians 2:7, where it talks about Christ emptying Himself. Jesus emptied Himself fully of His divine nature and was a human empowered by the Spirit of God. Which means in prosperity gospel theology that any human being can operate at the level of Jesus because we have the same nature. We are little God. We are average humans empowered by the Holy Spirit, just like Jesus was, which means that we can do anything Jesus did, including command and authority, whatever we want for the advancement, “Of god’s kingdom.”
Do you see how dangerous this theology is? This theology departs from orthodoxy on so many levels, and when it’s in its most raw, honest form from the mouths of people like Kenneth Hagin and Kenneth Copeland, it can be called Heresy. Because what it teaches is that Jesus actually lost His divine nature, that He actually gave it up and didn’t have it anymore. And that is not what has ever been held by the orthodox church all throughout the ages of church history. If you look at the creeds, what had to be affirmed over and over again, Jesus was fully God and fully man and He never gave up either nature. Fully God and fully man. To go back to what we said about the gospel. Why does that matter so much? Because if He’s not fully human, He can’t be a true substitute for us. If He’s not material, He can’t be a true substitute for us. This was hammered out in the first 300 years of the church because there were people saying, “Oh, no, Jesus wasn’t actually human. He was just kind of a phantom, ghosty kind of human.” It was just an apparition. And the early church said, “No, He had to be truly human.” Then, of course, there were others who said, “He wasn’t actually holy God, He was not fully divine.
And so, in this case, what we’re seeing is the idea that He was fully human, but He gave up His divinity. So, in essence, He wasn’t fully divine by choice. They would say, “Well, He’s still authoritative because He decided to give up His divinity.” But if He gave up His divinity or set it aside, what happens is He actually doesn’t have power over death. He puts it on and He takes it off. It’s a very, very inconsistent way of looking at Christ’s nature. It doesn’t align with scripture and it does not align with the intent of Philippians 2:7. When it talks about Christ emptying Himself, wasn’t emptying Himself of His nature. He emptied Himself of the rights that He had as king, as God. He humbled Himself, He says, “In Philippians, to the form of a servant.” So, we’re not talking about Christ giving up His power, but humbling Himself to the form of a servant and choosing not to use all of that power, still having all of it, choosing not to free Himself from the cross, but to go to the cross, choosing to allow Himself to be killed.
This is very important because if someone believes that Jesus was just a human operating with the same indwelling spirit in the same way that we do. So, same Holy Spirit, absolutely, but not in the same way. We are not the same as Christ. We are different from Christ. If you believe that you are a little Christ, then you believe that you can command whatever you want and that God will give you whatever you wish. And again, this is going back to Jesus’ words, where He says, “Ask whatever you wish and it will be given to you.” So, when we look at this passage in John 15:7, Jesus is saying, “If anyone does not remain in me, he’s like a branch that is thrown away in withers, such branches are gathered up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in Me and My words remain in you, ask whatever you wish and it will be done for you.” Verse 8, “This is to My Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, proving yourselves to be My disciples.” It’s really nice and easy to take out this little verse right here on its own. Ask whatever you wish and it will be done for you. But what’s the context? The context is glorifying the Father and bearing much fruit. Well, what kind of fruit is God looking to see borne? We cross reference this with Galatians 5:6, we know that it’s love, patience, kindness, goodness, truthfulness, faithfulness, self-control.
How does manipulating people to give you money for the advancement of God’s very earthly kingdom operate in self-control? How does it operate in patience? And how is it kind? It’s not. It does not bear the fruit of the Spirit. It only blesses the person at the top and it leads people into a kind of theology that minimizes God’s nature and elevates man’s to where man is the one in control. Because you get to command God and tell Him where to point His blessing and how it needs to be used. But when you bring this to one of these prosperity teachers or someone who’s believing it. It is very, very difficult to get through to them. And here’s why? Because these teachers believe that they’ve received this interpretation of these passages from God Himself. They have elevated their own authority above the authority of scripture. And when someone is no longer held accountable to the truths of scripture properly interpreted, which is why we need to look at church history and look at what is the general consensus across church history as to the interpretation of these passages. When we look at history and we look at scripture and something doesn’t align and someone says, “That doesn’t matter because I heard from God.” Now we are in the most dangerous of territory.
Now we are getting close to the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit. Because in scripture we have the bar, we have the standard, we have the canon. If you’ve read Every Woman A Theologian, I have a whole chapter on what canon means and why we need it and where it came from. I did a whole series on the history of the scriptural canon on the podcast. If someone refuses to be held accountable to scripture itself, they are in the most dangerous of places and that’s what has happened with these prosperity teachers. Because when you say, but that’s not what this verse means, they’ll say, “Well, God revealed it to me.” That that’s what it means. And if you won’t believe it, then you can take it up with God. You’re in rebellion against God. I wanted to read to you a transcript of Kenneth Copeland talking about this idea of God, Jesus being a reborn man. This is taken from His sermon, What Happened from the cross to the throne. Kenneth Copeland says, “The whole New Testament calls Him, “Jesus the firstborn.” The word born began to ring in my spirit. It just began to roll around. Born, born, I never had let him go through that in my own thinking and while I was laying there thinking about these things. The Spirit of God spoke to me and He said, “Son, realize this, follow me in this. Don’t let your tradition trip you up.” He said think this way, “A twice born man whipped Satan in His own domain.” I threw my Bible down. I said what? He said, “A born again man defeated Satan.” The first born of many brethren defeated him. He said, “You are the very image and the very copy of that one.” I said, “Goodness gracious, sakes alive.” I began to see that what had gone on in there. I said, “You don’t mean, you couldn’t dare mean that I could have done the same thing.” God said, “Oh, yeah, if you’d had the knowledge of the Word of God that He did, you could have done the same thing because you’re a reborn man too.” The author who transcribed this points out that no mention is made of the sinlessness of Christ or the virgin birth of Christ, the fact that He had no sinful nature like we do. There’s no contextual balance to this interpretation and as you may note, God is the one giving this revelation, this new interpretation. And so, who can argue with God if you say, “Hey, Kenneth Copeland, I don’t agree with this.” This isn’t what those passages mean. He’ll say, “Don’t let your tradition trip you up.” This is the greatest weakness of the charismatic movement. It’s that they believe that tradition and church history and the Word of God is putting God in the box when God Himself made the box.
I’m a continuationist which means I believe the spiritual gifts are for today. I would consider myself charismatic in the sense that I am Wesleyan, and so I have a high reverence, and appreciation for the Spirit of God. It is because of a high reverence for the Spirit of God that I will never stand witness to this kind of abuse of scripture and the kind of abuse of scripture that happens in church traditions that believe that the Bible limits God. God wrote the Bible. If God wrote the Bible then that means that He can’t be limited by His own word. God will do things that we see are amazing and supernatural just like we see in the Bible. Certainly, there are people who have missed the power of the Holy Spirit because they only live by the letter of the law. But the answer is not to run to another extreme where you abandon the letter of the law for the sake of your own confused and undiscerning mind. Pride is at the root of prosperity gospel.
Ultimately, I believe that today’s deconstruction, unhealthy deconstruction, not healthy questioning leading to a foundation of faith. Unhealthy deconstruction is largely the product of prosperity gospel in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. But in the 80s and 90s prosperity gospel in the form of purity culture, because the enemy is so smart and he’s not going to pitch you something that you don’t want. If you crave perfect health, he’ll try to manipulate you with that. If you crave wealth and abundance and business success, he’ll try to manipulate you with that. If you crave a relationship, if you crave sex, he’ll try to manipulate you with that. And this is what happened. I believe this is my theory totally anecdotal. I believe that purity culture was prosperity gospel for millennials. Purity culture was prosperity gospel for millennials and here’s why? We were promised if you obey God. If you obey God when it comes to sex, if you save sex for marriage, if you only do courtship and not dating, then you will receive a healthy relationship. You will receive a great marriage. You will have great sex in marriage.
We were promised something. If went through certain steps, if we did the right things, we would get what we wanted. But how many of us wanted a great relationship? How many of us wanted a great marriage? We wanted something beautiful and good, something that actually God says is beautiful and good. Just like He says, “That using your wealth for good is a good thing.” Just like He says, “That being healthy is a blessing.” All of those things are blessings and good things. But we also live in a fallen world and there is resistance here, which means that things like sex and marriage are affected by the fall. They’re affected by sin. They take communication, they take understanding and education in order to experience the fullness of what God has offered us in a still sinful world, married to a sinful person. And yet, purity culture promised something. It said, “If you do these things, you will get what you want.” And the wedding day was the finish line and if we got married, then we would have what we wanted. I think we’ve all know people who came out of that culture who either left the faith or left their marriage or both. I think oftentimes we overlook where prosperity gospel is sneaking in. Because it’s one thing to be as blatant as Kenneth Copeland. It’s another to recognize the prosperity gospel that we are believing in our own lives.
Where do you believe that God is only good for what He provides? If God isn’t performing to your expectations, you believe that he’s not worth following anymore? Where have we misunderstood the cost of discipleship? Have we lost sight of the fact that Jesus said, “If you want to follow me, you must pick up your cross and go to the hill and die?” Now, this doesn’t mean you’re dying to every hobby and personality trait, and thing you like. He’s not referring to a complete death of your entire self. He’s not saying you’re not allowed to enjoy life anymore. No, I was talking about this just the other day on Instagram that it is not more holy to be less happy. God delights in us and He delights when we’re happy. He even delights when you enjoy good food and when you get a raise at your job, when you get engaged, when your content as a single and you’re traveling the world, He delights with you in those things. At the same time, if you are only following God to get those things, when He doesn’t give them to you, you will blame Him for it, even though He never promised that following Christ would give you all the material things you want. That is what prosperity gospel teaches. It is not what the actual gospel teaches. If you believe it, you will never understand the cost of discipleship.
How do you think Christians in Iran and China and other persecuted places in the world are able to keep following Christ when they lose everything. Because they went into it knowing the cost. If you don’t recognize the cost at the beginning, you will only stay for what you were sold on. And that’s why I think that so many believers in the purity culture movement are walking away now, because the thing they were sold on was, if you do this, you will get this. Maybe it wasn’t health and wealth. Maybe it was a relationship or a great marriage or great sex, and none of that happened. And so, now the whole thing is unraveling because God didn’t perform. So, let’s make sure that the things we’re holding God to are the things God actually promised. Not man’s words, not man’s misinterpretations. Prosperity gospel will sneak in anywhere it can because it’s a twisted gospel and it is not complete. But the true gospel, the one that begins and ends with the perfect God man who God so loved us that His way of loving us was to send His Son. And that gospel is the one that saves. That gospel is the one that transforms and that gospel is the one that leads to a life that can withstand suffering. Because we know that in our suffering, we are partnering with the God who suffered for us.