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The following is an excerpt from Dollars and Doctrine. This excerpt and the one next week will deal with what the author calls the two extremes of how Christians view money. He starts off the comparison with this: "When approaching prosperity as a whole, many Christians take one of two extremes: Either prosperity is evidence of Godliness, or it is evidence of worldliness, selfishness, and sin. Neither view is Biblical, and both contain colossal errors when standing next to the truths of scripture. For most, these philosophies are not quite so blatant, but their subtle undertones shape many Christians’ thoughts and actions towards money."
The Prosperity Gospel
The beliefs that are typically referred to as the “prosperity gospel” or “health and wealth gospel” more or less sound something like this: true obedience to the Lord is rewarded by material prosperity, Godliness can be seen in the size of one’s portfolio, righteousness equals riches, or it is God’s will to give money, cars, big houses, and success to those who give or obey. This viewpoint crumbles when approached by an honest look at God’s word. Simple reasoning negates a prosperity gospel on several fronts. The following section is designed to show, from the scripture, the flaws of such doctrines.
First, there are many places in the Bible that describe wicked men who have prospered.
“For the wicked boasts of his heart's desire, and the greedy man curses and spurns the LORD…his ways prosper at all times; Your judgments are on high, out of his sight; as for all his adversaries, he snorts at them…Arise, O LORD; O God, lift up Your hand.” (Ps. 10:3,5,12)
“Rest in the LORD and wait patiently for Him; do not fret because of him who prospers in his way, because of the man who carries out wicked schemes.” (Ps. 37:7)
“Behold, these are the wicked; and always at ease, they have increased in wealth.”(Ps.73:12)
“Why do the wicked still live, continue on, also become very powerful...they spend their days in prosperity, and suddenly they go down to Sheol.” (Job 21:7,13)
“Though he [the wicked man] piles up silver like dust and prepares garments as plentiful as the clay, he may prepare it, but the just will wear it and the innocent will divide the silver. He lies down rich, but never again; he opens his eyes, and it is no longer.” (Job 27:16-17,19)
“Why has the way of the wicked prospered? Why are all those who deal in treachery at ease?” (Jer. 12:1)
“The wicked earns deceptive wages.” (Prov. 11:18)
The scripture clearly relates that the wicked can in fact prosper. This is an inconsistency with God’s apparent desire to give material abundance as a reward to those who obey His commands. A person who equates material wealth with spiritual growth can make no logical sense of these passages and contemporary examples of the same truth.
Continuing along this same line of thinking, one would naturally wonder whether or not the Bible ever condemns someone who is rich. If so, we cannot assume that luxury or wealth are to be automatically equated with righteousness. Several passages demonstrate this principle:
“Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries which are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments have become moth-eaten. Your gold and your silver have rusted; and their rust will be a witness against you and will consume your flesh like fire. It is in the last days that you have stored up your treasure...You have lived luxuriously on the earth and led a life of wanton pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter.” (James 5:1-3,5)
“Because you say, ‘I am rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing,’ and you do not know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked, I advise you to buy from Me gold refined by fire so that you may become rich…therefore be zealous and repent.” (Rev. 3:17-19)
“Now the Pharisees, who were lovers of money, were listening to all these things and were scoffing at Him.” (Luke 16:14)
“And turning His gaze toward His disciples, He began to say, ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you shall be satisfied…But woe to you who are rich, for you are receiving your comfort in full. Woe to you who are well-fed now, for you shall be hungry.” (Luke 6:20-21, 24-25)
“And Jesus said to His disciple, ‘Truly I say to you, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” (Matt. 19:23-24)
The scriptures are filled with condemnation for those who say, “I am rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing.” Those who trust in riches rather than Christ are “wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked.” In light of these passages, one can clearly see that the Christian message speaks to something far deeper than your physical surroundings. One cannot connect physical comfort and luxury with piety.
Further still, if prosperity is the mark of Godliness, then it would mean that all the Godly men of the Bible would have been wealthy. This is simply not the case. In fact, the apostles themselves were anything but possessors of great material wealth and status.
“For, I think, God has exhibited us apostles last of all, as men condemned to death; because we have become a spectacle to the world, both to angels and to men. We are fools for Christ's sake, but you are prudent in Christ; we are weak, but you are strong; you are distinguished, but we are without honor. To this present hour we are both hungry and thirsty, and are poorly clothed, and are roughly treated, and are homeless…we have become as the scum of the world, the dregs of all things.” (1 Cor. 4:9-11,13)
“I [Paul] have been in labor and hardship, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure.” (2 Cor. 11:27)
“For am I now seeking the favor of men, or of God? Or am I striving to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a bond-servant of Christ.” (Gal 1:10)
Paul explains that his and the apostles’ lives were far from lavish, opulent, and prestigious. Quite the opposite in fact: They are described as weak, without honor, hungry, thirsty, poorly clothed, homeless, the scum of the world, the dregs of all things, often without food, and in cold and exposure. These passages make it very hard to believe that the apostles lived the life of extravagance and status promised by so many health and wealth “preachers.”
I hope you see the prosperity gospel crumbling against the truth of God’s word. The final nail in the coffin is found in the life of our Savior Himself. Christ, our example in perfect sanctification, was not marked by material wealth either: “And Jesus said to him, ‘The foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.” (Luke 9:58) Jesus Christ did not live a life of material wealth. How does the prosperity gospel respond to this? God rewards obedience with luxury, yet Christ was “homeless”? It doesn’t make sense. If we believe affluence, success, prestige, and comfort is God’s will for our life, we forget where the will of the Father led Christ. It led Him to the cross.
The fact that our Savior was not wealthy does not condemn prosperity as sin, but it does close the door on any notion of Godliness necessitating prosperity and vice versa. From His humble birth in a barn to His modest trade as a carpenter, God’s own Son was not rich. This should mean a lot to us. I believe Christ lived a meager physical existence in order to prevent any confusion in our minds as to what actually defines true riches. This belief comes from the fact that Jesus is described as “rich” in scripture, but His wealth was of a different kind.
“Behold, My servant will prosper, He will be high and lifted up and greatly exalted…He has no stately form or majesty that we should look upon Him, nor appearance that we should be attracted to Him. He was despised and forsaken of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and like one from whom men hide their face. He was despised, and we did not esteem Him…His grave was assigned with wicked men, yet He was with a rich man in His death, because He had done no violence, nor was there any deceit in His mouth. But the LORD was pleased to crush Him, putting Him to grief; if He would render Himself as a guilt offering, He will see His offspring, He will prolong His days, and the good pleasure of the LORD will prosper in His hand. As a result of the anguish of His soul, He will see it and be satisfied; by His knowledge the Righteous One, My Servant, will justify the many, as He will bear their iniquities. Therefore, I will allot Him a portion with the great, and He will divide the booty with the strong; because He poured out Himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet He Himself bore the sin of many, and interceded for the transgressors.” (Is. 52:13, 53:2-3,9-12)
Christ “will prosper…and the good pleasure of the Lord will prosper in His hand,” but the prosperity of our Savior was “a result of the anguish of His soul…because He poured out Himself to death…He Himself bore the sin of many.” Christ’s treasure is the glory of the Father and the completion of His will accomplished on the cross--salvation to sinful man. This, my fellow believers, is wealth indeed.
Our precious Savior came to earth with “no stately form or majesty that we should look upon Him, nor appearance that we should be attracted to Him. He was despised and forsaken of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and like one from whom men hide their face. He was despised, and we did not esteem Him.” This is a far cry from the life of ease, luxury, happiness, and success promised by those who twist the Gospel to serve themselves. If the will of the Father was “pleased to crush Him,” why would we assume His will for us is a big house on the nice end of town, a new car, a respectable high income job, yearly vacations to the tropics, and prestige in the community and workplace? Christianity is about the cross not the country club.
“Therefore, since Christ has suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same purpose.” (1 Pet. 4:1) Think about these ideas for a few moments. Take the time to reflect over your expectations of God’s will worked out in your life. Does it more closely resemble Peter and the apostles who were “rejoicing that they had been considered worthy to suffer shame for His name,” (Acts 5:41) or a subtle expectation that if you try your best to be good God will give you what you want? Some Christian’s perception of God sounds more like Santa Claus than Jesus Christ.
This entire section can be wrapped up with one simple premise: Christ was not rich in material wealth; therefore, it is impossible to assume that material riches necessarily reflect or reward Godliness. Let us close the book on the prosperity gospel. When approached with such notions, we must answer as the apostle Paul:
“If anyone advocates a different doctrine and does not agree with sound words, those of our Lord Jesus Christ, and with the doctrine conforming to godliness...men of depraved mind and deprived of the truth, who suppose that godliness is a means of gain. But godliness actually is a means of great gain when accompanied by contentment. For we have brought nothing into the world, so we cannot take anything out of it either.” (1 Tim. 6:3,5-7)
Update: Here's the post on The Poverty Gospel.