Last Sunday during Pastor Josiah’s sermon, he mentioned rather emphatically that the prosperity gospel isn’t biblical. He didn’t elaborate on it since it wasn’t a main point in the text. It did however get me thinking about an ongoing class discussion we were having about this time last year.
In my Preaching I class, the problem we were working through is that at first glance, the Proverbs, and indeed much of the wisdom literature seems to teach a kind of “prosperity gospel.” Further still, the promises made to Abraham in the Abrahamic covenant are very prosperity oriented. So, you’ve got a situation were God explicitly promised material blessings, and then later literature supporting the idea that if you live a wise life, God will reward you materially.
It would seem then that the prosperity gospel is not without biblical support, and not in a contrived, proof-texting sort of way.
So what’s the real problem?
I think it’s two-fold.
First, the New Testament, and the coming of the kingdom of God reshapes how we understand the material promises made to Abraham. Christ was in fact the seed who received the promises and those united to him by faith can partake in those blessings. But, and here’s the catch, because we live in an already/not-yet state of being, cashing in on those promises may come in the next life rather than in this one.
In this way, we are promised prosperity (in both a spiritual and material sense) but we are not guaranteed to experience it in this life. There is no necessary correlation between godly living and material prosperity in this present state. Certainly the life of any given apostle validates that, as does that life of pretty much every major church leader/theologian in the last 2000 years. Not only that, the fact that many, many wicked people appear to be materially blessed points to the fact that there is no necessary correlation between godly living and material wealth/blessing.
Second, the Proverbs and other wisdom literature do not give us iron-clad unqualified promises. When Jesus promises his disciples before ascending to heaven that he will be with them always, even to the end of the earth, that is an unqualified promise. The Proverbs on the other hand and general truths that in most if not all cases should be tempered with “For the most part, if you do A, you will get reward B,” or “In general this has proven to be true.”
The writers of the wisdom literature are basically saying, “if you live a wise life, many times reward will follow.” The coming of Christ in the NT does not erase the conditionality of the promises in the wisdom literature, but gives us certainty that we will see rewards in the new heavens and the new earth. What we do not know is how those rewards might differ from our expectations. I mean after all, we get unimpeded fellowship with Jesus in the next life, at that point who cares about material rewards?
All this to say, the problem with the prosperity gospel isn’t that it isn’t biblical, it’s that it’s insufficiently biblical and only focuses on selective passages to support its points. Worse still, it reorients the Christian life away from the Giver and focuses more exclusively on the gifts.