A Brief Critique of the Prosperity Message

by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson

If my interpretation of the promises to givers in 2 Corinthians 9:6-11 sounds something like the prosperity message common in our time, it is because prosperity teaching isn’t wholly false. It has helped many people understand God’s desire to bless his people and to prosper his people financially – and that’s a good thing.

However, prosperity doctrine often includes distortions that tend to get people out of balance in their faith. This is not the place to do a thorough critique of the prosperity message. But there are three underlying problems that I’d like to comment on:

  1. The assertion that poverty is the curse Christ frees us from.
  2. The danger of greed being a primary motivation for giving.
  3. The related danger of pride when one flaunts one’s wealth.

I’ll be concise, though there is much to be said on these subjects.

1. Poverty

First, proponents of the prosperity message claim that poverty is a curse. This arises from the statement in Malachi that we discussed in connection with 2 Corinthians 9:6.

“You are under a curse – the whole nation of you – because you are robbing me.” (Malachi 3:9)

Cursed are those who fail to obey the law (Deuteronomy 27:26). The curses or penalties for disobedience (such as not tithing) include poverty, famine, war, and natural disaster (Deuteronomy 28:15-68). Since Jesus has redeemed us from the curse of the law (Galatians 3:13-14), goes the argument, therefore, we don’t need to be poor or suffer financial setbacks – or be sick, for that matter. These, they say, are “the curse” that Christ has freed us from.

Being rich, say prosperity teachers, is evidence of God’s blessing; being poor is evidence of a lack of faith, of not entering into all that God has for you. It is God’s will for his people to be financially wealthy so they can bless others. Jesus became a wealthy man, they claim, from the gifts of the Magi, rich enough to have an accountant, Judas.

Frankly, this view is entirely too simplistic and relies upon falsehoods. As mentioned in my exposition of 2 Corinthians 8:9, any careful reading of the Gospels reveals that Jesus was not wealthy, but a working carpenter prior to his three-year ministry, during which he was supported by friends (Luke 8:1-3). Judas managed the money given to support Jesus and the Twelve in their mission (John 12:6; 13:29). Jesus’ gospel was not centered on prosperity or financial gain. He warned against it. Rather, his focus was on the poor who were receptive to his message. You don’t get prosperity doctrine out of Jesus’ teaching without serious twisting of the facts and of his words.

Jim Bakker, a prominent televangelist who preached the prosperity doctrine, was sent to prison for accounting fraud in 1989. Later, he wrote in his autobiography how God began to change his mind in prison.

“The more I studied the Bible ... I had to admit that the prosperity message did not line up with the tenor of Scripture.  My heart was crushed to think that I led so many people astray.  I was appalled that I could have been so wrong, and I was deeply grateful that God had not struck me dead as a false prophet.”[496]

In the passage about Jesus freeing us from the curse of the Law (Galatians 3:13-14), nowhere in the context does it remotely suggest that material wealth and prosperity are the result of Jesus’ death on the cross. Rather, we are freed from sin, since Christ fulfilled the penalty of the law for our sins.

Is poverty a curse? Yes, in a sense. It is the result of a condition we experience in this world since God cursed the earth following Adam and Eve sinning.

“Cursed is the ground because of you;
through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life.
It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
and you will eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food
until you return to the ground....” (Genesis 3:17b-19a)

Because of your sin, the Garden of Eden that you enjoyed is closed to you. Life will be hard from now on.

Though Christ died for your sins, the poverty and the struggle of life will not be fully conquered until Christ’s coming brings about the new heavens and the new earth in his Kingdom.

Until then, poverty on this earth will continue to result from a variety of causes, including natural disasters, famines, drought, lack of jobs, economic depressions, exploitation by others, imperialism, war, ignorance, lack of a good education, laziness, illness, divorce, death of a spouse or parent, and a host of social problems. It’s a long list.

Having said that, I sincerely believe that being a Christian brings with it financial blessings. When you stop wasting money on drinking, drugs, gambling, and racking up credit card debt by purchasing more than you can afford, and begin to take seriously your role of caring for your family to the best of your ability, your economic picture can’t help but improve significantly. The Book of Proverbs has much to say about how common sense living helps you prosper. Will every Christian get rich? No. But most will be able to improve their financial situation to some degree. Moreover, there are clear financial promises attached to giving that I discussed in my exposition of 2 Corinthians 9:6-11.

Yes, God will prosper some Christians so they become wealthy. Praise God for that. Wealth is nothing to be ashamed of, but is a responsibility to be used under God.

The promises of scripture are not given to make us fabulously wealthy ourselves, but to enable us to have enough so we can give further to bless others (2 Corinthians 9:11). When we twist the promises to make poverty a sign of lack of faith and riches a sign of God’s blessing, however, we seriously misunderstand the intent of God’s Word.

2. Greed

The second problem I see in the prosperity message is the danger of giving in order to get more. If giving to God will result in greater blessing to me (as I believe it does), then I’m tempted to give more in order to increase that blessing. It’s subtle, but greed can begin to replace godly motivations for giving: love for God, obedience, compassion for the poor, etc.

When I hear some televangelists raise money, they promise that those who give will receive even more in return. Financial gain is used as a primary motivation in their appeal. Even though there may be some truth to their assertions, this appeal to greed corrupts the giving so that what should have been worship is now about us rather than about God.

The New Testament is clear about the dangers of desiring wealth. Here are just three passages that warn us. There are many others.

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth ... but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven....  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.... No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.” (Matthew 6:19-21, 24)

“But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.” (1 Timothy 6:6-10)

Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For everything in the world – the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does – comes not from the Father but from the world.” (1 John 2:15-16)

3. Pride

A third danger I see in the prosperity message is the temptation to flaunt one’s wealth, an expression of pride. If wealth is a sign of God’s blessing, then wearing gold chains and expensive clothes, and driving luxury cars is a way of acknowledging that blessing – or so we tell ourselves.

You shouldn’t be ashamed of God’s blessing, prosperity teachers say, but should glorify God in it. True, but our corrupt hearts begin to exalt us in others’ eyes by our conspicuous spending and high lifestyle.

Dear friends, we can fool ourselves and perhaps some others, but pride is an ugly thing that God detests. Humility is our only defense against pride. If God sees fit to bless you with wealth, praise God, but be sure to live before God and man in humility. Otherwise, you sin by your pride and are party to enflaming greed in others.

2 Corinthians: Discipleship Lessons, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Also available in e-book and paperback

In summary, the prosperity message contains truths about faith and God’s help in financial areas. It rightly points to God’s promises concerning blessings for those who give generously. But it has led to a serious distortion of God’s Word by some. We want the blessings, but need to avoid the pitfalls of:

  1. A perversion of poverty,
  2. A gravitation towards greed, and
  3. A penchant for pride.

End Note

[496] Jim Bakker, I Was Wrong. Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson, 1996), p. 535.

Copyright © 2024, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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