Having grown up in Reformed and Presbyterian churches, I was protected from the toxic influences of such things as the “word of faith” movement and other forms of “health-wealth-prosperity” false gospels. While I have not written much on this subject, I have formed quite a number of significant friendships over the years with individuals who were subject to this sort of false teaching, and share in the vehemence with which they combat such pernicious twisting of Scripture. John Piper has been among those who have been most outspoken on this subject. You get a succinct example of his passion for the truth of Scripture over against the false claims of prosperity Gospels in the video below:
In wholehearted agreement with Piper et al, I want to briefly consider the theological error of the prosperity gospel, and then raise one warning about an opposite error of overreaction into which we may inadvertently fall.
The error of the “word of faith” movement and prosperity gospel is bolstered by a misunderstanding of such passages as Isaiah 53:4 and its use in Matthew 8:17. In the prophecy of the suffering Servant, Isaiah tells us, “Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.” Employing the LXX translation, Matthew sees this, in part, fulfilled in Matthew 8 where Jesus cleanses a leper, heals the Centurion’s servant, heals Peter’s mother-in-law and casts out demons from many with a single word. Matthew sums up the significance of these healings when he appeals to Isaiah 53:4: “He Himself took our infirmities and bore our sicknesses” (Matt. 8:17). There is no argument that theses examples of healings and miraculous workings applied to Jesus and his Messianic ministry. But how are we to understand them in light of the rest of the teaching of Scripture.
Biblical and Theological Reaction to Prosperity Gospel(s)
One can see how easily this could be construed into a prosperity gospel. The idea is this, “If you have faith in Jesus you will experience supernatural healing and perform supernatural healing. If you, or those you care about, aren’t healed then you must not have enough faith. The prophecy of Christ in Isaiah 53:4 was one in which healing was promised for those who believe in Him, therefore, you must not really have faith (or, enough faith) in Christ.” There can be no arguing with the fact that Jesus healed many in the days of His flesh. The casting out demons, performed miracles of healing and raised the dead played an integral role in his Messianic ministry. Matthew explicitly proves that from his appeal to the Isaiah 53 passage. But there can also be no arguing with the fact that Jesus did not heal everyone. Additionally, the Apostle Paul was said to have “a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to buffet him,” the removal of which he prayed for three times and was told by Christ, “My grace is sufficient for you; My strength is made perfect in weakness.” And Paul told Timothy to “take a little wine for your infirmity.” So how are we to understand the nature of those deeds of healing in light of the rest of the biblical data in which healing is not inextricably linked to faith?
Herman Ridderbos, in his profoundly important book The Coming of the Kingdom, best explained the nature of the selective and diverse miracles of Jesus in the following way:
Jesus’ miracles have an eschatological character as messianic deeds of salvation. This follows from the connection that the gospel points out between the activity of the devil and the diseases, maladies, and disasters that threaten man. It also appears from the fact that the cure of diseased persons, the raising of the dead, etc., are to be considered as the renewal and the re-creation of all things, manifesting the coming of the kingdom of heaven. These miracles, however, are only incidental and are therefore not to be looked upon as a beginning from which the whole will gradually develop, but as signs of the coming kingdom of God.1
Ridderbos then went on to explain how temporary and subservient the miracles of Jesus and the Apostles were (i.e. those who carried on the Messianic ministry in redemptive history) when he said:
The cures and the raisings of the dead done by Jesus only have a temporary significance. Those cured or revived might again fall ill and would eventually die. In connection with this, Jesus’ miracles nowhere serve as a purpose but always as a means in his activities, and always remain subservient to the preaching of the gospel.” The fact that the cures were temporary show us that they point beyond themselves to the spiritual healing of our souls. Though one day every sorrow and sickness and misery will be permanently healed, this will only be so for those who have had the souls healed through the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit…A miracle in itself is no safeguard against the last judgment; nor does it necessarily give a share in the kingdom of heaven to those to whom it happens (Cf. Luke 17:17-19: the nine lepers who did not give honor of God); nor to those by whom it is wrought (cf. Matt. 7:22: “Have we not cast out devils in thy name, and in thy name done many wonderful works?”). Therefore Jesus answers those who have returned to him from their missionary journey and reported on their miraculous works in his name: “Notwithstanding in this rejoice not that the spirits are subject unto you; but rather rejoice because your name is written in heaven” (Luke 10:20 ).2
Though they entered into time and space, in the “already” of eschatology, they were never meant to be the end of the Messianic ministry or comprehensive of the place healing will hold in the “not-yet” of eschatology. The heavenly prospect of full restoration of body and soul are prefigured in them and are meant to point beyond themselves to the One will ultimately heal the bodies of all His people in the day of resurrection and consummation. For a fuller explanation of this fact, see this post.
Imbalanced Theological Overreaction to Prosperity Gospel
In Philippians 4:12, The Apostle Paul summed up an extremely important principle when he said: “I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need.” While suffering is set forth everywhere as the inevitable prerequisite to glory (or, as Sinclair Ferguson has put it, “Suffering is the raw material out of which God brings about joy and His glory in the believer’s life”) nevertheless, it is not the totality of the believer’s experience in this life. The Psalmist put it so well when he said, “He has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor punished us according to our iniquities” (Psalm 103:10) and “Blessed be the Lord, Who daily loads us with benefits, the God of our salvation!” While the just recompense of our sin is eternal punishment, we conclude that we then deserve every misery of this life–less than death and hell–to the full. Yet, God does not give us what we deserve. He gave Christ what we deserve when He hung on the cross. The Apostle John also gives us an incredibly important balance to our understanding of this when he wrote: “Beloved, I pray that you may prosper in all things and be in health, just as your soul prospers” (3 John 2).
At New Covenant, we sometimes use Malachi 3:8-10 in our order of service to encourage giving in the congregation:
“Will a man rob God?
Yet you have robbed Me!
But you say,
‘In what way have we robbed You?’
In tithes and offerings.
You are cursed with a curse,
For you have robbed Me,
Even this whole nation.
Bring all the tithes into the storehouse,
That there may be food in My house,
And try Me now in this,”
Says the Lord of hosts,
“If I will not open for you the windows of heaven
And pour out for you such blessing
That there will not be room enough to receive it.
I have, on numerous occasions, had our inclusion of this passage challenged on the basis that it was just for Old Covenant Israel, or because it has been used by prosperity gospel false teachers. The problem with this sentiment is that the apostle Paul tells us that “all Scripture is God-breathed and profitable for teaching, reproof, correction and instruction in righteousness… ” (2 Tim. 3:16), and that, “whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Romans 15:4). This means that Malachi 3:8-10 applies to us today. While we would certainly point out that there was a special application to Israel in the Old Covenant–as a theocratic church-state–it is nevertheless applicable for us today as well. In 2 Corinthians 9:6-12, the apostle Paul unpacks the principles of Malachi 3:8-10:
But this I say: He who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. So let each one give as he purposes in his heart, not grudgingly or of necessity; for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound toward you, that you, always having all sufficiency in all things, may have an abundance for every good work. As it is written: “He has dispersed abroad, He has given to the poor; His righteousness endures forever.” Now may He who supplies seed to the sower, and bread for food, supply and multiply the seed you have sown and increase the fruits of your righteousness, while you are enriched in everything for all liberality, which causes thanksgiving through us to God. For the administration of this service not only supplies the needs of the saints, but also is abounding through many thanksgivings to God…
Here we see that God gives to those who give so that they may have more to give so that thanksgiving abounds to God. This is a far cry from what health-wealth-prosperity teachers suggest about giving and blessing. In fact, while the Scriptures are clear that God does indeed load His people with provisions to equip them for good works, there are regulators built into the Scripture for those to whom God may give more than to others. Paul, in 2 Timothy 6:17, charged Timothy to “Command those who are rich in this present age not to be haughty, nor to trust in uncertain riches but in the living God, who gives us richly all things to enjoy.” He doesn’t tell Timothy to tell those who are rich to give away everything. He doesn’t tell them to feel guilty about being rich. He tells them not to trust in uncertain riches, but in the living God, who gives us richly all things to enjoy. Certainly some of the saints in the first Century had homes large enough to house the church in their day. This is no insignificant point.
Additionally, God often blesses obedience in His people with suffering. He did this with the Apostle Paul. Who was more obedient than Paul? Who more fully obeyed God’s call to sacrifice for the Kingdom of God than was true of the Apostle Paul? And, who suffered more than Paul? Paul was beaten, stoned, shipwrecked, stricken with a thorn in the flesh and lynched by mobs. The same apostle spoke of suffering with Christ and being glorified with Him. We cannot make a one for one, based on someone’s circumstances, as to whether they have been faithful enough or whether they have enough faith. Suffering is the norm in the Christian life.
We need to recognize that the Christian’s life is one of a mixture of prosperity and suffering. This is nowhere seen more clearly than it is with regard to Job. Job is the example (besides the example of our Lord Jesus) of a righteous sufferer. His accusers intimated that Job suffered because of wrong-doing. God rebuked Job’s friends for their sinful accusations. Job suffered under the trial-sending hand of God so that God would be vindicated in His righteousness and Job shown to be sincere. However, it does us well to remember the words of James, “Indeed we count them blessed who endure. You have heard of the perseverance of Job and seen the end intended by the Lord—that the Lord is very compassionate and merciful” (James 5:11). Though Job suffered severely for a period of time, it was a period in his life. The Lord sent down times of plenty on Job–both prior to and immediately after the period of extreme suffering. This does not mean that that is a format by which God deals with all His saints. But, it is is true that often the suffering we endure pails in comparison with the benefits God sends upon us.
Finally, we must realize that–as was true of so many of the Old Testament saints and of the Lord Jesus Himself–glory follows suffering. In the New Heavens and the New Earth, every sorrow will disappear. Every hardship will cease. Every sickness will vanish away. There will be nothing but life and health and tangible blessing for all eternity. This is what the Lord Jesus has purchased for us by His sufferings and the glories that followed. There will always be a cross for the people of God, but a crown will always await us in union with Christ. This means that we can face the suffering of the already and hope in the restoration and glory of the not-yet. The more we embrace the biblical teaching on this, the more we will be ready to press through the trials with eager expectation of the reward. As we look to the cross of our Lord Jesus–and realize all that He has purchased for us in the consummation, we will be able to say, in this life, what Habakkuk said at the end of his prophecy:
Though the fig tree may not blossom,
Nor fruit be on the vines;
Though the labor of the olive may fail,
And the fields yield no food;
Though the flock may be cut off from the fold,
And there be no herd in the stalls—
Yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
I will joy in the God of my salvation (Hab. 3:17-18).
1. 1.Herman Ridderbos The Coming of the Kingdom (Ontario: Paidei Press, 1978) p. 115
2. The Coming of the Kingdom (Ontario: Paidei Press, 1978) p. 115