(19)The Bankruptcy of the Prosperity Theology
An Exercise in Biblical and Theological Ethics
By: David Jones M.Div.; Ph.D.
1.Just over one hundred years ago, the renowned pastor
and statesman Charles H. Spurgeon spoke these words to
the then-largest congregation in all Christendom:
[I believe that it is anti-Christian and unholy for any Christian
to live with the object of accumulating wealth. You will say,
[Are we not to strive all we can to get all the money we can?]
You may do so. I cannot doubt but what, in so doing, you may
do service to the cause of God. But what I said was that to
live with the object of accumulating wealth is anti-Christian].
2.Over the years, however, the message being preached in some
of the largest churches in the world has changed. Due, in part,
to the rise of several ungodly philosophies and movements,
a new gospel is being taught today. This gospel has been ascribed
many names, such as the [name it and claim it] gospel, the
[blab it and grab it] gospel, the [health and wealth] gospel,
the [word of faith] movement, the [gospel of success], the
[prosperity gospel],and [positive confession theology].
3.No matter what name is used, though, the teaching is
the same. Simply put, this egocentric gospel teaches that
God wants believers to be materially wealthy. Listen to the
words of Robert Tilton, one of the prosperity gospel’s most
well-known spokesmen: [I believe that it is the will of God
for all to prosper because I see it in the Word [of God], not
because it has worked mightily for someone else. I do not
put my eyes on men, but on God who gives me the power
to get wealth].
4.Teachers of the prosperity gospel encourage their followers
to pray, and even demand, of God [everything from modes
of transportation (cars, vans, trucks, even two-seat planes),
[to] homes, furniture, and large bank accounts.
5.By closely examining the faulty theology and errant biblical
interpretation of the teachers of this movement, this study
will prove that the prosperity gospel teachings regarding
the acquisition and accumulation of wealth are ethically
(B)The Theology of the Prosperity Gospel
1.[Theology is important],wrote scholar Millard J. Erickson,
[because correct doctrinal beliefs are essential to the
relationship between the believer and God].
2.A corollary to this statement is that an incorrect theology
will lead to incorrect beliefs about God, His Word, and His
dealings with men.
3.The thesis of this paper is that the prosperity gospel is
constructed upon a faulty theology. Consequently, many of
its doctrines, including the teachings concerning wealth, are
4.While it is beyond the scope of this study to examine in detail
all of the specific doctrines of prosperity theology, there are
four crucial areas of error relating to their teachings on wealth
that may be isolated and examined. These areas are the
Abrahamic covenant, the Atonement, giving, and faith.
(C)Prosperity Theology and the Abrahamic Covenant
1.The theological basis of the prosperity gospel is the
Abrahamic covenant. While this is good in that prosperity
theologians recognize that much of Scripture is the record
of the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant, it is bad in
that they do not maintain an orthodox view of this covenant.
2.Prosperity theologians hold an incorrect view of the inception
of the Abrahamic covenant; what is more germane to the present
study, however, they hold to an erroneous view concerning the
application of the covenant.
3.Researcher Edward Pousson best stated the prosperity view
on the application of the Abrahamic covenant when he wrote,
[Christians are Abraham’s spiritual children and heirs to the
blessings of faith…. This Abrahamic inheritance is unpacked
primarily in terms of material entitlements.
4.In other words, according to the prosperity gospel, the
primary purpose of the Abrahamic covenant was for God to
bless Abraham materially. Since believers are now [Abraham’s
spiritual children], they consequently have inherited these
financial blessings of the covenant.
5.Prosperity teacher Kenneth Copeland wrote, [Since God’s
Covenant has been established and prosperity is a provision
of this covenant, you need to realize that prosperity belongs
to you now!]. Referring to the prosperity theology of Kenneth
Hagin, author Harvey Cox wrote, [Through the crucifixion of
Christ, Christians have inherited all the promises made to
Abraham, and these include both spiritual and material
6.To support this claim, prosperity teachers such as Copeland
and Hagin appeal to Gal. 3:14 which says [that the blessings of
Abraham might come upon the Gentiles in Christ Jesus. .]
7.While it is not an understatement to say that the problems
with this argument are legion, two glaring problems need to
8.First, in their appeal to Gal.3:14, prosperity teachers ignore
the second half of the verse, which reads, [That we might
receive the promise of the Spirit through faith]. In this verse
Paul clearly was reminding the Galatians of the spiritual
blessing of salvation, not the material blessing of wealth.
9.Second, prosperity teachers claim that the conduit through
which believers receive Abraham’s blessings is faith. This
completely ignores the orthodox understanding that the
Abrahamic covenant was an unconditional covenant.
That is, the blessings of the Abrahamic covenant were not
contingent upon one man’s obedience. Therefore, even if
the Abrahamic covenant did apply to Christians,
all believers would already be experiencing the material
blessings regardless of prosperity theology.
(D)Prosperity Theology and the Atonement
1.A second cracked pillar upon which prosperity theology
stands is that of a faulty view of the Atonement. Theologian
Ken Sarles wrote that [the prosperity gospel claims that
both physical healing and financial prosperity have been
provided for in the Atonement].
2.This seems to be an accurate observation in light of
teacher Kenneth Copeland’s comment that [the basic
principle of the Christian life is to know that God put our
sin, sickness, disease, sorrow, grief, and poverty on Jesus
3.This misunderstanding of the Atonement stems from
two errors that proponents of the prosperity gospel make.
First, many who hold to prosperity theology have a
fundamental misconception of the life of Christ.
For example, teacher John Avanzini proclaimed
that [Jesus had a nice house, a big house]. Jesus was
handling big money,and He even [wore designer clothes].
4.It is easy to see how such a warped view of the life of Christ
could lead to an equally warped misconception of the
death of Christ.
5.A second error of prosperity theology, which also leads
to a faulty view of the Atonement, is the misinterpretation of
2 Cor. 8:9 Without exception, this is the verse to which
prosperity teachers appeal in order to support their view
of the Atonement. The verse reads, [For you know the
grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich,
yet for your sakes He became poor, that you through
His poverty might become rich.
6.This problem with this interpretation is, of course,
that in this verse Paul was in no way teaching that
Christ died on the cross for the purpose of increasing
anyone’s net worth materially. In fact, Paul was actually
teaching the exact opposite principle.
7.Contextually, it is clear that Paul was teaching the
Corinthians that since Christ accomplished so much for
them through the Atonement, then how much more ought
they empty themselves of their riches in service of the
Savior. This is why just five short verses later Paul would
urge the Corinthians to give their wealth away to their
needy brothers, writing [that now at this time your
abundance may supply their lack].
8.Commentator Philip E. Hughes wrote of 2 Cor.8:9 [The logic
implicit in the statement of this great truth is too obvious
for anyone to miss it].Apparently, however, the champions
of the prosperity gospel have indeed missed it.
(E)Prosperity Theology and Giving
1.One of the most striking characteristics of the prosperity
theologians is their seeming fixation with the act of giving.
Students of the prosperity gospel are urged to give generously
and are confronted with such pious statements as,
[True prosperity is the ability to use God’s power to meet the
needs of mankind in any realm of life], and, [We have been
called to finance the gospel to the world].
2.While at face value these statements do indeed appear
to be praiseworthy, a closer examination of the theology
behind them reveals that the prosperity gospel’s emphasis
on giving is built on anything but philanthropic motives.
3.The driving force behind this emphasis on giving is what
teacher Robert Tilton referred to as the [Law of Compensation].
According to this law, which is supposedly based on Mark 10:30.
Christians need to give generously to others because when they
do, God gives back more in return. This, in turn, leads to a cycle
of ever-increasing prosperity.
4.As Gloria Copeland put it, “Give $10 and receive $1,000;
give $1,000 and receive $100,000;… in short, Mark 10:30 is a
very good deal. It is evident, then, that the prosperity gospel’s
doctrine of giving is built upon faulty motives. Whereas Jesus
taught His disciples to [give, hoping for nothing in return],
prosperity theologians teach their disciples to give because
they will get a great return. One cannot help but agree
with author Edward Pousson’s observation that the
stewardship of [the prosperity message is in captivity
to the American dream].
(F)Prosperity Theology and Faith
1.A final area of prosperity theology that merits investigation
is that of the doctrine of faith. Whereas orthodox Christianity
understands faith to be [trust in the person of Jesus Christ,
the truth of His teaching, and the redemptive work He
accomplished at Calvary], prosperity teachers espouse
quite a different doctrine.
2.In his book, The Laws of Prosperity, Kenneth Copeland
wrote that [faith is a spiritual force, a spiritual energy,
a spiritual power. It is this force of faith which makes
the laws of the spirit world function. . . . There are certain
laws governing prosperity revealed in God’s Word. Faith
causes them to function.This is obviously a faulty, if not
heretical, understanding of faith.
3.Later in the same book Copeland wrote that [if you make up
your mind . . . that you are willing to live in divine prosperity
and abundance, . . . divine prosperity will come to pass in
your life. You have exercised your faith.
4.According to prosperity theology, faith is not a theocentric
act of the will, or simply trust in God; rather it is an
anthropocentric spiritual force, directed at God. Indeed,
any theology that views faith solely as a means to material
gain rather than the acceptance of heavenly justification
must be judged as faulty and inadequate.
(G)The Biblical Interpretation of the Prosperity Gospel
1.As has already been demonstrated in this paper, the
hermeneutics of the prosperity movement leaves much
to be desired. Author Ken Sarles wrote of the prosperity
teachers that their [method of interpreting the biblical text
is highly subjective and arbitrary. Bible verses are quoted
in abundance without attention to grammatical indicators,
semantic nuances, or literary and historical context.
The result is a set of ideas and principles based on distortion
of textual meaning]. Indeed, a survey of the volumes of
literature produced by the prosperity teachers yields
numerous examples of such misinterpretations. As was
the case in the theological study of this movement, an analysis
of all such examples of misinterpreted texts would fall beyond
the scope of this study. However, it is possible to choose one
verse as an example and to examine both the prosperity
gospel and orthodox interpretations of the text.
2.A suitable verse for this study is 3 John 2.In this verse,
the Apostle John wrote, [Beloved, I pray that you may
prosper in all things and be in health, just as your soul
prospers]. This verse is interpreted by prosperity teachers
to mean that God wants all believers to [prosper in all things].
3.Furthermore, their interpretation of this verse makes clear
their claim that material prosperity is inseparably linked to
spiritual growth. Oral Roberts, regarded by many to be the
father of the prosperity gospel movement, claimed at the
beginning of his ministry, during a time of search for
direction, that God miraculously led him to 3 John 2,
which he understood as a revelation of the prosperity gospel.
4.Another faith teacher who has built his ministry around this
faulty interpretation of 3 John 2 is Kenneth Copeland. Author
Kenneth Kantzer noted that [Copeland misinterprets this [verse]
as a universal promise,and writer Bruce Barron remarked that
[the Copelands use these words so often that they appear to
be the key verse of their ministry.
5.A careful study of 3 John 2, however, reveals that this verse
is not a carte blanche approval of prosperity gospel teachings.
Those who use 3 John 2 to support the prosperity gospel are
committing two crucial errors, the first contextual and the
6.First, con-textually, one is wise to note that John’s purpose
in writing 3 John 2 was not to teach doctrine; it was simply to
open his letter with a greeting. This is not to say that doctrine
cannot be derived from a nondoctrinal passage, for all
Scripture is profitable for doctrine, but it is to say that one
must be sensitive to the original author’s intent. Therefore,
the claim that 3 John 2 teaches the doctrine of prosperity
ought to be regarded as suspect at best.
7.Second, one is wise to note the meaning of the word
[prosperity] as it occurs in this verse. The term translated
[prosperity] is a form of the Greek word eujodovw. This word,
which is used only four times in Scripture, does not mean
to prosper in the sense of [gaining material possessions],
but rather means [to grant a prosperous expedition and
expeditious journey] or [to lead by a direct and easy way].
8.The wording of modern translations such as the New
International Version even reflect this nuance of the word.
Therefore it is evident that teachers who understand
3 John 2 to teach prosperity theology are misinterpreting
(1)Through this study of the theology and the biblical
interpretation of the prosperity gospel, one may discern
five clear reasons why this movement’s teachings concerning
wealth are incorrect:
1. The prosperity gospel is built upon a faulty understanding
of the Abrahamic covenant.
2. The prosperity gospel is built upon a faulty understanding
of the Atonement.
3. The prosperity gospel is based upon a faulty understanding
of the biblical tachings on giving.
4. The prosperity gospel is based upon a faulty understanding
of the biblical teachings on faith.
5. The prosperity gospel, in general, has been constructed
upon faulty biblical interpretation.
(2)Aside from these five specific theological and biblical arguments
against the prosperity gospel, and without even considering
the practical implications of this movement, there is perhaps one
general, summary reason why the prosperity gospel is a wayward
gospel: its faulty view of the relationship between God and man.
1.Simply put, if the prosperity gospel is correct, grace becomes
obsolete, God becomes irrelevant, and man is the measure
of all things.
2.Whether it is the Abrahamic covenant, the Atonement, giving,
faith, or the biblical interpretation of any given verse,
the prosperity teacher seeks to turn the relationship between
God and man into a financial quid pro quo transaction.
3.As scholar James R. Goff noted, God is [reduced to a kind of
cosmic bellhop attending to the needs and desires of his
4.This is a wholly inadequate and unbiblical view of the
relationship between God and man and the stewardship of wealth.
(Note: This article was originally published in Faith and Mission
Vol 16, p. 79ff. Published with permission).