By Robert Lowery
The cover story of the September 18, 2006, issue of Time magazine made me cringe: “Does God Want You to Be Rich?” It was an embarrassment. But more than that, it presented an image of the body of Christ with many members who are idolators and greedy.
Let me be clear at the outset: In my opinion, shaped by my study of Scripture, the teachings of the so-called health-wealth gospel are a perversion of the Bible. More explicitly: This gospel taught under a variety of names—Word of Faith, Prosperity Theology, Prosperity Lite, Health and Wealth, and Name It and Claim It—is ultimately bad news for the world for at least three reasons.
Any teaching that promises health and wealth in exchange for obeying God is a perversion of the gospel. The advocates quoted by Time are only the most famous and contemporary of those who have taught what I must conclude is untrue.
I may appear to be unkind. Yet I am reminded that Paul did not hesitate to confront the false teachers in his day (Hymenaeus and Philetus in 2 Timothy 2:17) for at least two reasons. First, Paul desired their repentance so they would stand within God’s will (2 Timothy 2:24-26). Second, he realized the dangerous power false teachers have in leading themselves and their followers to destruction.
The health and wealth gospel is a seductive teaching because it proclaims that not only does God want to bless you in the future (Revelation 21:1ff.), he wants to bless you right now with the best health and the best things money can buy. These perversions of the gospel are illustrated by such statements as, “If you are truly a disciple of Jesus, he will give you what you want. . . . If you are sick, it is because you are outside of God’s will.” The wealth gospel worships materialism, and the health gospel’s idol is the human body.
Reasons to Renounce
First, the false teaching is based upon incorrect interpretations of several Bible passages. Scripture’s truths are turned into lies as verses are taken out of context and words are redefined in ways unimaginable to the original authors and recipients. Consider these three examples.
• John 10:10—Jesus proclaims “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” Jesus is referring to the life of the age to come, not to what we receive in this life. The notion of material prosperity is neither implied by the word life nor full.
The meaning drawn out by the false teachers does not even fit the meaning of this context. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, wants us to have eternal life through himself, the Son of God, the gate leading to God, not the good life offered by the kingdoms of this world.
• Third John 2—“Dear friend, I pray that you may enjoy good health and that all may go well with you.” John is not writing about financial prosperity or saying you will have perfect health. Instead, it is like writing to a friend: “I pray that this letter finds you well.”
• Galatians 3:13, 14—This passage is often used to suggest that God promises physical healing. Paul teaches that Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law (in Deuteronomy 28:21, 22; disease is one of the curses of disobeying the law). But Paul is not referring to the curses of Deuteronomy 28 when he writes to the Galatians. Paul emphasizes redemption as a right standing with God through faith and not by works of the law (see v. 14).
Second, not only does this false gospel miss the point of individual passages, it conflicts with the overall context of Scripture. Take the matter of riches. What value are wealth and property for God’s people? Zero is the answer provided in such Scriptures as Matthew 6:32, 33 and Luke 12:15. Indeed, where there is wealth, there should be sharing (Acts 4:32-37, etc.).
In the Old Testament possessions are sometimes linked with a life of obedience, but such is never the case in the New Testament. Even the Old Testament warns about the danger of trusting in what one owns rather than in God (Psalm 49:16-20).
Or take the emphasis upon physical health. Those who preach that you will be well if you trust and obey God are denying the consequences of sin introduced by Adam and Eve. Suffering and sin are both a part of living in a fallen world. According to Romans 8:22, all creation groans, including our physical bodies, and the groaning will continue until we receive the redemption of our bodies (Romans 8:23; Philippians 3:20, 21).
Recall that not even Paul or his colleagues experienced perfect health (Philippians 2:26; 1 Timothy 5:23; 2 Timothy 4:20). No lack of faith on the part of Epaphroditus, Trophimus, or Timothy is hinted at in these passages. Nor is their recovery linked to great faith. Simply put, sometimes Christians did not get well.
Consider Paul’s ailments and sufferings (2 Corinthians 4:11, 16; Galatians 4:12-15). Did Paul lack faith? Preposterous! He longed for the time to replace this earthly tent with the heavenly dwelling (2 Corinthians 5:1, 2).
God does not promise to heal every illness, even for those who have faith. Finally, what does this say about the abusive burden this view puts on those who are already dealing with sickness and now have to deal with an implied lack of faith?
Third, this gospel is false because Jesus did not model such an interpretation, nor did Paul or any of the other first-century disciples of Jesus. Jesus’ life and death is made a mockery. What do these false preachers do with Paul’s desire: “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death” (Philippians 3:10)?
One final observation: The people who teach the health and wealth gospel do not have a healthy view of the future. They apply a theology of future glory to the here and now.
Our Best Life
Our best life is not going to take place in this life! In this present day we should expect suffering, sickness, and even lack of what we may need. We await the day when we will have perfect health. We anticipate the world where all needs are met. That day will not come in this life, but in the age to come. We cannot demand all of the future in the present.
Should we expect anything more than the first disciples? Should we not instead model a divine contentment (Philippians 4:10ff.) in the Lord who will transform our lowly bodies to be like his (Philippians 3:20, 21; 1 Corinthians 15:1ff.)? Should we not harbor a divine confidence in a God who will dwell with us where there will be no pain or sickness (Revelation 21:1ff.)? We must not claim now what God in his grace has promised only for the future (2 Corinthians 8:9).
Reasons for the Appeal of the False Teaching
The teaching sounds biblical, but it is not. Some of the most unbiblical and antibiblical sermons I have heard and books I have read quote the Bible extensively. Such twisting of the gospel would have appealed to Christians who dwelled in Sardis (Revelation 3:1ff.) and Laodicea (Revelation 3:14ff.), but would have been viewed as strange by those who were faithful in Smyrna (Revelation 2:8ff.) and Philadelphia (Revelation 3:7ff.).
Furthermore, the doctrine appeals to what we want to hear. The teachings focus on us and not on God. The smiling proclaimers ultimately ridicule Jesus’ entire life, and their preaching flies in the face of the earliest disciples and countless disciples through the ages. Salvation is never defined as getting all that you can now and having perfect health now.
People are taught to give in order to get. And yet God does not promise us whatever we ask. He is not some heavenly bellhop who will satisfy our wandering desires. Our God is not a “slot-machine” God—pull the lever, pray the prayer, and you’re a winner every time!
Some Final Thoughts
If we are to focus on healthy bodies and riches, let the church commit to holding on to healthy doctrine so the body of Christ will be healthy and able to proclaim and live out the riches found in the life Jesus brought and is bringing.
Gospel witness demands that we clearly reject the false teaching. Any gospel that will not preach in Eastern Europe or in the slums of Calcutta, India, is not the gospel of Jesus Christ. The health and wealth gospel is fashioned in the image of the values of our world and arises out of the human spirit and not the Holy Spirit.
This distorted gospel is westernized and would not speak to most of the third world countries where Christ must be preached. Nothing less than the salvation of people depends upon proclaiming the true riches and healing God offers.
Some will say I have been too harsh. After all, isn’t Christ being preached? Bob, shouldn’t you quote Philippians 1:15ff. when Paul says that despite wrong motives, at least the gospel is being preached. Of course not! The Christ of the gospels is not being proclaimed, rather he is being refashioned in the image of American culture. Christ is not a silly incarnation of capitalism. Nor should the church be its ambassador. The health and wealth gospel is really no gospel at all.
This is perhaps the most scathing article I have ever written, but I offer no apologies. God deliver us from false teachers who bring dishonor to the God of glory and the Christ of the cross and the empty tomb and who mock the pilgrimage of countless disciples of Jesus who knew the cost of discipleship.
Robert Lowery is professor of New Testament and dean of Lincoln (Illinois) Christian Seminary. He frequently posts his thoughts and reflections on his blog at www.rlowery.com.