November 2, 2020

A Gospel of Wealth?

The prosperity gospel is grounded in spiritual poverty.

Daniel Bediako

We all want to prosper—materially, socially, physiologically. Indeed, God is interested in the well-being and prosperity of humanity, even after our first human parents sinned in Eden and lost the paradise of prosperity (Gen. 2; 3). But what is now the biblical perspective on prosperity? Does Scripture support the contemporary prosperity gospel? I will briefly look at the origin and impact of this teaching, highlight some of its pitfalls, and review the biblical concept of prosperity.

Origin and Impact

The prosperity gospel is the teaching that “believers have a right to the blessings of health and wealth and that they can obtain these blessings through positive confessions of faith and the ‘sowing of seeds’ through the faithful payments of tithes and offerings.”1 This teaching is espoused by Christians who call themselves the prosperity movement or the faith movement. The movement began during the decade following World War II in North America when some Pentecostal preachers revived Essek William Kenyon’s (1867-1948) theology of “dominating faith,” which he borrowed from the metaphysical movement.2 These preachers presented faith as a force, which, when expressed in the form of positive confessions, actualizes health, wealth, and success in a believer’s life.

Key among the revivalists was Oral Roberts (1918-2009), who influenced such others as A. Allen (1911-1970), Kenneth Hagin (1917-2003), Kenneth Copeland (1936-), and Fredrick Price (1932-).3 In 1956 Roberts published God’s Formula for Success and Prosperity, which offered a systematic way to claim divine blessings; and in 1970 he introduced a formula for wealth in his Miracle of Seed-Faith.4 By the late 1970s the faith movement had become prominent in North America. Its theology attracted many preachers from major denominations, with significant numbers of followers not only among White Americans, but also Black and Latino populations. A proliferation of associations of prosperity churches appeared, pushing prosperity theology beyond North America.

When the prosperity gospel crossed continental lines it received a warm embrace in developing countries.5 The teaching is attractive, and has permeated the Christian world with (1) its hermeneutics and theology that almost deifies the believer (see below); (2) music that sings away poverty and claims material success; (3) miracle-driven homiletics promoting seed-sowing and positive confessions of faith; and (4) the flamboyant lifestyle it promotes as a measure of faith and blessings.

The gospel of Christ directs the focus of believers to eternal life.

The influence of the movement is seen not only in the number of its adherents but also in the adaptations to the prosperity teaching that are evident among other Christian denominations. There are indications of this influence among some Seventh-day Adventists in Africa.6 For example, some members, including pastors, are adopting the theology and practice of prosperity preachers in anointing, music, and prayer and deliverance. Some members also visit prosperity preachers for prayer and deliverance.

Pitfalls of the Prosperity Gospel

Scripturally, the prosperity teaching displays a deficiency in a number of critical areas, resulting in the obscuring of the biblical understanding of prosperity. Here are three of these pitfalls:

The prosperity gospel lacks sound hermeneutics. While prosperity preachers cite passages from Scripture to support some of their claims, Scripture is not the primary source of their theology. Instead, they claim to have direct access to the divine mind and personally receive revelation knowledge—knowledge that comes directly from God to the believer in the spirit realm. Philosophical idealism and mysticism underpin the concept of revelation knowledge as taught by these preachers. Since the content of revelation knowledge often contradicts and supersedes Scripture, traditional hermeneutics, including the historical-grammatical method, have no place in prosperity theology. As a Bible-believing community, Seventh-day Adventist acceptance of the Bible as our “only creed” is diametrically opposed to the concept of revelation knowledge in prosperity theology (2 Tim. 3:14-17).

The prosperity gospel lacks sound biblical theology. This gospel essentially teaches that Christ’s death on the cross reclaimed the rights of believers to health and wealth, success and progress, which humanity lost at the Fall (Gen. 3). Following Christ’s death, the “faith of God,” a faith force with causal power, is reproduced in born-again believers by which they can actualize their rights. This theology ultimately divinizes believers, making them “little gods” who can exercise their faith force through formulaic expressions in the spirit realm to effect material realities. In effect, believers can “name and claim” their desires either independently or by manipulating God. Since the hermeneutics of the movement is not controlled by Scripture, the resulting theology equally disregards Scripture.

The prosperity gospel disregards key biblical concepts. First, by teaching that material wealth must accompany the life of believers, the prosperity gospel disregards the biblical concept of prosperity (described below). Second, equally unbiblical is the concept of “faith force.” Scripture teaches that believers must exercise faith in God (Hab. 2:4; John 14:1). They surmount difficulties in life by trust in God (Ps. 24; Isa. 40:31), while living in the hope of Christ’s soon return (John 3:16; Rev. 22:20).

Third, prosperity theology promotes an obsession with material wealth that focuses on the here and now, with little or no concern for the hereafter. The obsession with material wealth—also true of the concept of “faith force”—is detrimental to the relationship between God and the believer (John 15:5). The relationship with God is more important than material possessions, for “life does not consist in an abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15). Finally, the prosperity gospel has diverted focus from the message of the kingdom of God to the material prosperity of the believer. Believers are not called to material wealth (Matt. 10:9, 10). Rather, they are called to be witnesses to the salvation that is in Christ (Matt. 28:19, 20; Rom. 1:16). The gospel of Christ directs the focus of believers to eternal life (Matt. 10:22, 41, 42; Luke 10:20; Rev. 22:1-5).

Biblical Concept of Prosperity

The biblical texts suggest that “prosperity” refers not only to material wealth but also to peace and God’s presence in one’s life (Ps. 1:1, 2; 128; 3 John 2). God is the source of all blessings, including material prosperity (Gen. 1:28, 29; 1 Chron. 29:11-16; Ps. 24:1, 2). Since He gives life and blesses with wealth, He requires that people worship Him not only with their hearts but also with their possessions (Deut. 12:5, 6; Mal. 3:8-12).

God promised material blessings to ancient Israel as a nation (Deut. 28:1-14), but this did not mean that every Israelite would become wealthy. On the contrary, there would always be the poor and needy among God’s people (Deut. 15:11; Matt. 26:11). Consequently, faithfulness to God is not to be measured by material possessions. The righteous may be blessed (Prov. 10:6, 7; 28:20), but they may also suffer and lack materially (Job 1; 2; Acts 11:27-30). The wicked may prosper (Ps. 73:3-12; Jer. 12:1; Mal. 3:15), though not necessarily as the result of God’s special blessings (Prov. 20:21; 28:20). What God has promised is that He will provide the necessities of life—food, drink, clothing (Matt. 6:25-34).

Genuine prosperity is a gift of God. But as stewards, believers need to work conscientiously and invest in order to maximize their gifts (Deut. 8:17, 18; Prov. 10:4, 5; E
ccl. 11:1-6; 2 Thess. 3:6-12). Not everyone may achieve material wealth, but believers are to be content with whatever they possess (1 Tim. 6:6-10). Since the rich and the poor will coexist among His people, God places responsibility on the faith community, especially those who prosper materially, to share their blessings with those who are poor and needy (Lev. 25:6-55; Deut. 15:7-11; Isa. 58:6-8; Rom. 12:13; 1 Tim. 6:17-19). Indeed, true worship includes generosity toward those who are less privileged (Matt. 25:34-40; Acts 2:44, 45; 4:32-37; 2 Cor. 9:6-12; 1 John 3:17, 18).

Jesus instructed His followers not to focus on possessions (Matt. 6:19-21; Luke 12:15; Rev. 3:17, 18). Since “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (1 Tim. 6:10), Paul advises believers to flee from the desire for riches that leads to temptation and destruction (verses 9, 10; see also Prov. 30:8, 9) and rather “fight the good fight” of “faith” and “righteousness” that leads to “eternal life” (1 Tim. 6:11, 12).

Whether rich or poor, believers are to live in view of the “blessed hope” and glorious “appearing” of Christ (Titus 2:12). This is when the righteous will receive the eternal inheritance, a reward more valuable than any earthly wealth (Dan. 12:13). This is our hope.

The gospel of God’s kingdom is not a gospel of material wealth. It is the good news of salvation in Christ. The prosperity gospel is not a biblical gospel. It is inconsistent with the biblical concept of prosperity and distorts biblical faith, lifestyle, and mission. Seventh-day Adventists cannot subscribe to the prosperity teaching, either as a whole or in part, as this would mean moving away from Scripture and the Spirit of Prophecy, and, therefore, losing their identity and mission.7

  1. Lausanne Movement (Africa Chapter), “Lausanne Theology Working Group Statement on the Prosperity Gospel,” Evangelical Review of Theology 34, no. 2 (2010), p. 99.
  2. Kate Bowler, Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), p. 59.
  3. Ken Silva, “True Origins of the Prosperity Gospel aka Word Faith Theology,” true-origins-of-the-prosperity-gospel-aka-word-faith-theology/, accessed September 4, 2020.
  4. Roberts was also influenced by Napoleon Hill (1883-1970), a famous writer of the New Thought Movement, especially his Think and Grow Rich (Meriden, Conn.: Ralston Society, 1937).
  5. Bowler, pp. 4-8, 86-89; Paul Gifford,“The Prosperity Gospel in Africa: Expecting Miracles,” Christian Century 124 (2007), pp. 20-24.
  6. See, for example, Bukola Ajide, The Unknown Secrets of Prosperity (Lagos, Nigeria: Victory Sanctuary, 2007).
  7. For a comprehensive review, see Daniel Bediako, ed., Prosperity Gospel: A Biblical-Theological Evaluation (Accra, Ghana: Advent Press, 2020).

Daniel Bediako, Ph.D., serves as president/vice chancellor of Valley View University, Ghana.