By Dr. Andrew Spencer Original Post on Institute for Faith, Work and Economics
Is the prosperity gospel biblical? Last week, I introduced the “prosperity gospel”—what it is and why it’s harmful. Today, I’d like to address a biblical response to this teaching.
In their book, When Helping Hurts, Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert write,
At its core, the health-and-wealth gospel teaches that God rewards increasing levels of faith with greater amounts of wealth. When stated this way, the health-and-wealth gospel is easy to reject on a host of biblical grounds.
Here are three counterexamples to the idea that greater faith results in greater wealth. Though a much more in-depth rebuttal is possible, these three examples from scripture provide sufficient grounds to reject the prosperity gospel.
1. The Rich Young Ruler
In Mark 10:17-31, a passage that has become fuel for the error of Christian asceticism, a young man actually comes to Jesus to ask him how to be saved. The man claims to have fulfilled all of the commandments, which he may have done according to the legalistic definitions of the day.
In response, Jesus tells the man,
You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor; and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me (Mark 10:21).
This causes the man to leave in disappointment. When asked for an explanation for this exchange, Jesus tells his disciples:
It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God (Mark 10:25).
John Calvin notes that Jesus’ explanation shows us that his point was not to denigrate wealth, but to show the young inquirer that grace was necessary for salvation and that he couldn’t earn heaven through his works.
The story is also a demonstration of Christ undermining the first-century prosperity gospel that understood financial prosperity as a sign of spiritual blessings. According to Ezra Gould, this is made clear by the disciples’ response to Jesus’ words. “Then who can be saved?” they ask (Mark 10:26). Jesus is telling the audience that wealth and holiness are not directly related.
The Apostle Paul is another key individual that did not find financial prosperity or wealth as a direct result of his faithfulness to God. Indeed, there are few individuals who can be said to have been more faithful to God’s call than Paul, and yet Paul was not a wealthy man. He suffered a great deal despite being blessed by God in many ways.
In Colossians 1:24, Paul mentions that he is suffering for the sake of the Colossian Christians. He reveals in Colossians 4:18 that a part of his suffering is due to being in chains. Chains have not been generally considered a sign of wealth and abundant temporal blessing.
In 1 Timothy, Paul instructs his young friend to be content and not to desire wealth (1 Tim. 6:6–8). He continues,
But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs (1 Tim. 6:9–10).
These do not sound like the teachings of one who is encouraging people to get rich to show how much God has blessed them.
On the other hand, Paul does not condemn riches. In the same chapter in 1 Timothy he writes,
As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life (1 Tim. 6:17–19).
Much like Jesus’ teaching to the disciples, Paul is showing that financial prosperity and spiritual blessing are not intrinsically connected.
A third example of wealth and spiritual blessing not being directly connected is the life of Jesus. Since Jesus is God incarnate, under the prosperity gospel it would stand to reason that he would be the wealthiest of all that have ever lived since no one could be more holy and have more faith than Christ. The reverse is true.
Jesus was homeless. To one person that asked to follow him, Jesus said,
Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head (Luke 9:58).
Throughout his earthly ministry, Jesus was supported financially by a group of believing women (Luke 8:1-3). Clearly, if wealth and faith were directly connected, then Jesus would have lived more ostentatiously than he did.
Paul summarizes Christ’s humble estate while living on earth,
…though he was in the form of God, [Jesus] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (Phil. 2:6–8).
This is an example of humility and poverty, not of abundant wealth. The connection between wealth and faithfulness cannot be direct and linear.
This is by no means a complete picture of what scripture says about prosperity, suffering, and spiritual blessing, but these three examples provide a convincing counterpoint to the claims of the prosperity gospel that greater faith necessarily results in greater prosperity.