Over the past 40 years I have encountered and debated the merits or deficiencies of a theology that I did not know had a name. Its supporters call it the “Word of Faith” teaching; it’s detractors call it the “Prosperity Gospel.” Its most popular adherents are famous televangelists, authors, and public speakers such as Joel Osteen, Kenneth Copeland, and T.D. Jakes.
Much of its theology is traceable to the late Kenneth Hagin, and many of his ideas stem from E.W. Kenyon in the early 20th century.
Although I have numerous issues with this popular version of Christianity, here are just four points of contention I have with the “Prosperity Gospel”:
1. The “Positive Confession”
The “positive confession” theory diminishes the God of the Bible and exalts man. Many of the Word of Faith teachers believe that Christians actually have the power to alter their circumstances — the words we speak or “declare” can solve the problems we face.
The theory goes like this: Since God spoke the world into existence, and if we are filled with the Holy Spirit, we too can speak things into existence. A popular notion is that you can have whatever you say! So, if you are living in poverty or suffering from illness, you can change the situation by declaring something positive and claiming a promise from the Bible (never mind the context or the intended audience for the promise).
Charles Capps, in his book The Tongue, A Creative Force, (1976) said, “You can actually alter the spiritual and physical world by the words you speak. You see there is more to it than just saying it. The words must originate from the inner man when spiritual power is released through words … spirit words can control both the spirit world and the physical world. Because the words themselves have power, they will work for either God or man in the same manner” (pp 117-118).
As I have read through Joel Osteen’s book The Power of I Am: Two Words That Will Change Your Life Today, he says much the same thing, basing his theory on Proverbs 18:21: “Death and life are in the power of the tongue, And those who love it will eat its fruit.”
But Osteen is clearly misinterpreting this verse. The Proverbs are short, pithy sayings of practical truth for daily living. This proverb is saying what we all know: we can kill relationships with the words we use or we can encourage people and make relationships better.
Being optimistic is one thing, but from this passage we are to extrapolate a whole theology that we can alter our universe because we strongly say certain words? Seems like quite a stretch to me.
On page 35 of Osteen’s book he writes, “We declared it, and God did it.” Can I actually make God do stuff because I say the right words? It almost sounds like if I repeat the right incantation and believe it hard enough, God is obligated to hop to it. That is certainly not the picture of God I see in the Bible. He takes orders from no one. I am not his commanding officer.
On page 156 Osteen says, “We’re supposed to live an abundant life — it’s because we are children of the King. It was put there by the Creator. But here’s the key. You have to give God permission to prosper you.” Then he quotes from a paraphrase (The Message) of Deuteronomy 28:1-13 and applies it to Christians today. I have to give God permission? What is He, some kid? Osteen and the Prosperity Gospel ministers diminish God by reducing His Sovereign control and saying that by our words, commands, or claims we manipulate God to do what we want. Well, that certainly is not the God of the Bible. He’s in charge, not us. (Thank God!)
Hebrews 11:36-40 tells us that many of the Old Testament saints were horribly persecuted and even killed for their faith. Did they “declare” that their sufferings were over and then escape their pain and live happily ever after? No. They did not see the Good World in this world. That is reserved for after they die.
Look at the apostles. Did they declare that Paul would get a fair trial and be released? (I don’t see that in Acts 20 when the Ephesian elders said goodbye to Paul. I guess they just didn’t have much faith, right?) Did they claim a promise that they would not be shipwrecked or beaten or that false teachers would go away? No. They did not.
And the martyrs down through the ages, from Stephen to Thomas Cranmer to Jim Elliot, did not claim some kind of power to alter their circumstances. If we had known about this kind of power in our words earlier, then Corrie ten Boom would have been able to rescue her family, and we could have “declared” the Nazis wiped out in 1941 and saved ourselves a lot of trouble later on.
And it would be great if we could clean up the corruption in Washington, D.C., by just declaring things. I mean, why stop with just our own poverty? Let’s end the national debt by positive confession! Problems solved, right?
Next Page: The Prosperity Gospel is man-centered.
2. Man-Centered, Not God-Centered
The Prosperity Gospel is man-centered and not God-centered. All of the teaching I have read and heard is about satisfying man’s low self esteem, or filling my wallet, or healing me of my affliction. But it rarely, if ever, talks about all of life — including suffering — being for the glory of God.
When people in the Bible catch a vision of God, they are almost paralyzed with fear and awe. God is never used as a tool to get what we want. In His holiness He confronts man and tells us what to do. Moses trembles before the Judge of all the earth in Exodus 3. Isaiah in Isaiah 6:1-7 is overwhelmed with the majesty and righteousness of the holy God, and he is convulsed with grief over his own sin. John is constantly overwhelmed by the glorious appearance of Christ throughout Revelation.
These concepts of God’s absolute holiness, His sovereign majesty, coupled with our sin (yes, SIN!) are conspicuously absent in the self-esteem manuals and pep talks of the Prosperity Gospel.
Also missing in action is Jesus! I cannot find a reference to the Lord Jesus in Osteen’s book The Power of I Am until page 73, and there he briefly mentions salvation in Christ. On page 135 he writes, “I am forgiven, I am redeemed.” That’s wonderful! But how? Is there any treatment of the great themes of the necessity of the Incarnation, the suffering and vicarious death of Christ and His physical resurrection in order to reconcile sinful man to a holy God?
Osteen keeps telling his readers “you are loved, you are accepted, you are blessed, you are victorious, you are secure” and so on … without even telling them that this comes only through salvation in Christ! We come to God in repentance (another concept absent from much of Osteen’s works) and faith in the sacrifice of the resurrected God-man Jesus Christ.
I understand that there are plenty of beaten down people out there who need lifting up, but the lifting up comes through a right relationship with God only through Christ! At least on page 271, at the very end of the book, Osteen says that if you’d like Jesus to save you, pray this, “Lord Jesus, I repent of my sins, I ask you to come into my heart, I make you my Lord and Savior.” Good.
But what are my sins? Negative thoughts? I’m glad he wrote this, but I wish he would have elaborated more on what sin is, what repentance is, and what real faith in Jesus is saving me from.
Next Page: Is physical healing always the will of God?
3. Denying God’s Will in Suffering, Sickness, and Death
The Prosperity Gospel asserts that physical healing is always the will of God. Having stood by many dying cancer patients, I have a really tough time with this. It is never God’s will for Christians to have physical infirmities, some people have told me. Really? In Exodus 4:11, God tells Moses, “Who made man’s mouth? Or who makes the mute, the deaf, the seeing, or the blind? Is it not I, the LORD?”
God makes some people blind, as He declares in John 9:1-3. There Jesus sees the man born blind. Jesus frankly tells his disciples that neither this man sinned nor his parents sinned to bring on this affliction. But he was blind, “that the works of God should be revealed in him.” He was blind so that he could later glorify God.
Some people are healed by God. I believe that. God heals today. I believe that too. But is God obligated to heal ALL believers ALL the time in response to some “positive confession” or claiming of a promise?
Well, let’s look at some of the promises people claim. How about Deuteronomy 28:1-13 or Deuteronomy 7:12-26? Yes, God promises healing to those who obey Him in those passages. Notice those passages are specifically part of the Law of Moses, the Old Covenant, to Israel. The Church of today is not Israel and God has not promised this to us today. We are not under the Law of Moses; we are not under the Old Covenant. (Same would go for passages like Psalm 103:3 or even Jesus’ commission in Matthew 10:5-8. Those were instructions/promises specifically to Israel before the Cross, before the New Covenant.)
When we get into the epistles, we find people suffering and not getting well — even after they pray! Paul in 1 Timothy 5:23 does not claim a healing over Timothy but rather prescribes wine as a treatment “for your frequent infirmities.” In 2 Timothy Paul is in prison, cold (he asks for a cloak in 4:13) and admits in 4:20 that he left Trophimus sick in Miletus. Why didn’t he just heal him if he had so much faith? But he left him sick, didn’t he?
And in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10, Paul tells us how God allowed Satan to buffet him with a “thorn in the flesh.” His flesh. A physical ailment. And he begged God for relief. God did not heal him, but rather told him that His grace is sufficient. And in verse 10 Paul says he thanks God for his infirmities and distresses. For in his weakness (not his healing or his prosperity) Paul is strong.
Some people claim that people today are not healed because they don’t have enough faith. Really? Does it take more faith to be healed than it does to be saved? And when I look at Acts 3:1-8 I see a lame man who had NO faith at all. He was looking at Peter and John for money, not healing. God heals when He wants to, and it is not always according to our ultimatums or time tables.
For those who want to preach this Prosperity Gospel message of healing, please go to the burn unit at the Akron Children’s Hospital or St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital. Go and heal all those children. Or go to Walter Reed National Medical Center and heal all those vets who are amputees or horribly burned or traumatized. You won’t need your stages and lights and cameras. I’m sure you will find plenty of faith there.
Next Page: Does God really want you to be prosperous in worldly terms?
4. God Wants You to Be Rich!
The Prosperity Gospel teaches that God wants you prosperous—usually seen as being monetarily wealthy. Declare your wealth! Declare you need a Cadillac or a fancy jet (as Creflo Dollar says he needs). Yes, Jesus died so I would be sure to have a mansion in this world and a million dollar jet to get me there, right?
Does God want us all wealthy? Well, in one sense, everyone reading this is wealthy by most standards in this world. You have a computer, and probably a roof over your head and running water. But is it God’s will that you always be financially prosperous?
In 3 John 2 the Apostle writes that he prays that the recipient of the letter may “prosper in all things and be in health, just as your soul prospers.” This was a typical greeting in the first century. All he was saying was that he was hoping the letter finds his friend doing well and everybody’s happy. It was just like our greetings today: “Hey, I hope you’re doing well!” Nothing more than that.
Was Jesus wealthy? The apostles? When Jesus died they gambled over the only thing he owned, his clothes. He said in Luke 9:58 that he had no home. Paul was in chains when he wrote Colossians 4:18 and he died a martyr’s death in the Mamertine dungeon in Rome. When Peter spoke to the lame man in Acts 3:6 he said, “Silver and gold I do NOT have …” Interesting, huh?
The apostles were not riding around in golden chariots. The only mansions they had were waiting for them in heaven. The author of Hebrews 11 holds up the saints of old as heroes, people who “wandered about in sheepskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented …” (Maybe they just didn’t have enough faith?)
Paul tells us there is a promise that will happen to Christians if they are faithful: “Yes, and all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution” (2 Timothy 3:12). The Bible tells us not to love money, not to put our trust in uncertain riches (1 Timothy 6:6-10), not to love the world nor the things in the world (1 John 2:15), and to expect suffering as God’s tool to purify and strengthen us (Romans 5:3-5).
John Piper, in this short video explains very well, from his godly insights, what he thinks about this “other” Gospel:
All our tears will be wiped away. All our scars will be healed. But not all of them, not today, not in this life. That is for the life to come, because of the crucified, resurrected God-man, Jesus.