John Piper and the Prosperity Gospel

John Piper is one of the more outspoken critics of the so-called prosperity gospel, which is a pejorative term for what I think is a biblical, yet often misconstrued doctrine. In his view, the prosperity gospel is a different gospel, echoing the apostle Paul’s anathemas pronounced upon legalizing heretics. Along with Piper, I agree that ministers of the gospel that are twisting the scriptures for their own profiteering are deserving of serious censure; one need only to turn on certain Christian television shows to see such ridiculous and abominable practices. These are blemishes on the body that discredit the gospel and diminish God’s love and glory. But one should not lump all Christian ministers who teach that God is interested in blessing us materially as heretics.

Prosperity is a theme woven throughout the bible, from the biblical narrative of creation to the coming of the New Jerusalem. The writer of Proverbs unashamedly says that the blessing of the Lord makes one rich and he adds no sorrow with it. (Proverbs 10:22) Moses tells us that God would give his people power to get wealth, but warned them not to forget him when they were experiencing days of heaven upon the earth. (Deut. 8:18-21) The apostle Paul said that he desired that the Corinthians be made rich in every way for all generosity. (2 Cor. 9:8-11) Paul also mentions giving as one of the varieties of gifts in the body of Christ, and clearly one cannot excel in giving if that person has little wealth. (Rom. 12:8) These verses affirm the goodness of God’s creation, which includes material wealth as part of his blessing.

Piper raises a few scriptural arguments as defeaters of the prosperity message, but clearly the Bible cannot denounce prosperity and affirm it at the same time and remain a reliable revelation. So somewhere Piper’s arguments must have gone astray.

He refers to the story of the rich young ruler and Jesus words about the difficulty of those with riches to enter into the kingdom of God. This may be true, but if one is already in the kingdom and gains wealth through exercising godly traits such as diligence, honesty, wisdom and generosity would have any difficulty maintaining their place in the kingdom if their nature and character has already been formed in Jesus. Moreover, what of other rich men in the Bible that God praises for their generosity, hospitality and faith — such as Abraham, David or Joseph of Arimathea? I would also add that I don’t see how given Piper’s Calvinism anything could hinder God from saving whoever he chose for salvation. On Piper’s view, God’s grace is irresistible, so whether one is rich or poor if they are part of the elect, they will be saved regardless. But leaving that aside, the problem was not so much the young man’s riches but his heart. In the young ruler’s case, riches was a hindrance because of the condition of his heart. He valued wealth more than following Jesus. But if one already values loving Christ more than above all else, then for that person riches would be a tool to bless, not an idol to distract.

Piper goes on to quote 1 Timothy 6:9 and says that those who want to be rich are on par with the person who is suicidal or self-abusive, for Paul says to Timothy that those who “will be rich pierce themselves with many sorrows”. But Paul tells Timothy very clearly that the love of money is the root of all evil. There is nothing inherently evil about money itself. Money is an instrument, as a weapon is. There is nothing wrong with guns, it is murderous people with guns that cause problems. Likewise, there is nothing evil about money, it is money in the hands of covetous people that is harmful.

Piper continues by implying that the so-called prosperity gospel will not work in the poorer parts of the earth. But given that financial prosperity is relative from nation to nation or even state to state in America, what is wealth in one place is poverty in other place. So a villager in a third world country who has enough water to share with his neighbors would be considered prosperous. But a person in America who has taken for granted the luxury of running water yet is unable to afford to pay their bills would not really be considered prosperous in the biblical sense of being “all sufficient in all things and able to give into every good work.”

I believe the heart of the issue is that Piper’s view of sovereignty is at odds with the prosperity message simply on the basis that if God wants someone to be rich, they’ll be rich. And if he wants them to be poor, they will be poor. Because on his view God’s will is never thwarted, God cannot possibly want every Christian to be rich, because there are many believers who God has chosen to be poor until the eschaton. But imagine a wealthy billionaire who had two sons. He provided for one son all that he needed, but for the other he refused help no matter how legitimate the other son’s needs were or how much he pleaded for help. And say that before either of the children were born this father purposed in his heart to care for one but withhold from the other. We would not call this father morally praiseworthy, we’d call him capricious and arbitrary at best.

1 Timothy 5:8 says that those who do not care for those in their own household are worse than an infidel. God’s good cannot be our evil; his commands are a reflection of his loving nature. He has revealed himself as our Father. That means he will not only train us and discipline us so that we may have good character but that he will also take care of us.

So I agree with Piper that those who are teaching prosperity in a deceptive and perverted manner are worthy of condemnation, I strongly disagree with him that wealth is evil or cannot be pursued by the godly believer. If such were the case, the person who aspires to be successful Christian entrepreneur like Samuel Truett Cathy (Chick Fil A), Mary Kay Ash (Mary Kay cosmetics) or David Green (Hobby Lobby) is in sin, which is absurd.

We do well to remember that God’s creation is good, it is only our rebellious wills that are evil that turn money into a false god. Poverty is a man’s destruction (Proverbs 10:15) and should be met with resistance, and not acquiesced in as part of God’s mysterious sovereign plan. While we should shun covetousness and the idea that wealth is a sign of godliness, we should not allow the traditions of men to stagnate any person’s God-given desire to prosper financially, assuming their motives are pure.

Senator Grassley and the Prosperity Gospel

U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-New Hartford

Image by IowaPolitics.com via Flickr

Here in the great state of Iowa, Senator Chuck Grassley is generally well-liked. The guy has been in the Senate for 30 years and counting, so he must be doing something right to continue to get re-elected. But I have to say, I think it was a major overstepping of his bounds when he launched an investigation into the financial affairs of 6 different ministries; all of which happened to be of the pentecostal/charismatic persuasion, I might add. The news today is that after starting his investigation in 2007,  his review of these 6 ministries has finally been released.

As with with the farce that was the investigation into major league baseball regarding steroids, the government once again involved themselves in another silly sort of McCarthyism. Whether you think it is right or wrong, if people want to pour their hard-earned money towards their pastor’s private jet or pay the cost of admission to see gargantuan-sized sluggers, that is their own darn business.

But my purpose for this post isn’t so much to scold the senator for investigating these churches, but to give a modest defense of the so-called prosperity gospel, with caveats, of course. Flamed as heresy by most of the church at large, I think the God’s people have been too quick to throw the baby out with the bath water.

Obviously, there is no denying that there has been excesses taught by some wild-eyed televangelists. Just turn on certain christian TV networks, and you can still see these ministers using silly gimmicks and emotional appeal. The gullibility that keeps these people on the air is breathtaking as well as disheartening. But I believe in trying to distance ourselves from some of these so-called ministers, the church has forgotten that the same Jesus who taught “blessed are the poor” is also the same Jesus who told Peter to “let down your nets for a catch”.

James K.A. Smith, a philosopher and professor at Calvin College, points out that one of the core (and often neglected) elements of a pentecostal worldview is a non-dualistic affirmation of embodiment and materiality. In non-philosopher speak, the full gospel affirms the value of the whole person. This platonic or gnostic idea of materiality is evil runs counter to the story presented in the creation account. When God created the world, he called it “good”.  Too often Christians have fallen into these faulty, dualistic ideas about soul and materiality, spiritualizing biblical texts that tell us Jesus came to preach the gospel to the poor (Luke 4:18-19) and that Christ became poor so that through his poverty we might be made rich (2 Corinthians 8:9).

Believers who dismiss the prosperity gospel as un-biblical really need to re-examine their beliefs. There is a thread of wealth throughout the entire Bible. For example:

  • God told Adam to have dominion over all he created. He even told him where to find the gold and called the gold good. (See Genesis 2:10)
  • Job was “the greatest of all the people of the east” and while he experienced tremendous trials of poverty and disease for a time, God restored him fully, giving him even twice as much as before. (Job 1:2-5, 42:10-12)
  • Abraham and Lot were so rich, they had to part company because their possessions were so great (see Genesis 13.)
  • The children of Israel left the land of Egypt with silver and gold (Psalm 105:37).
  • The blessings in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28 all included wealth on the condition of obedience to the law.
  • The estimated cost of Solomon’s temple was about $140 billion in today’s money, according to the measure of talents recorded in the New International Version. That does not include the stone, wood, animals used for the sanctuary services, precious stones, and labor. God told Solomon His name would be there, so he was obviously not offended by such extravagance. In contrast, he honored them with His Shekinah glory. Solomon and his father David were also both extremely wealthy.
  • The Magi gave the young Jesus gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
  • Jesus worked several “provisional miracles”, including the feeding of the 5,000.
  • Paul taught the Corinthians that because of their generosity, “God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.” (2 Corinthians 9:8)
  • Revelation 21 speaks of the nations of the earth bringing their wealth to the New Jerusalem.

Smith suggests that perhaps where the “prosperity gospel” is out of balance in that it is a form of realized eschatology. In other words, the total fulfillment of these promises is not for now. And really, how could they be in the light of the new heavens and new earth? According to the christian worldview, we live in a fallen world of injustice and depravity, and there is opposition against the people of God from getting wealth that the ungodly rich squander. Jesus said that until he comes, the poor “will always be among us”, but on the other hand, God also speaks of “days of heaven upon the earth”. (Deuteronomy 8:21). For those of us who will be diligent and persevere in faith, I believe we can have a glorious foretaste of our future wealthy place in God in the life that now is, and that in an ever-increasing measure.

Oral Roberts, one of the famed pioneers of the wealth message (and perhaps a polarizing figure in his own right) provides a good definition for the type of reconstructed prosperity gospel with a “love thy neighbor ethic”:

Prosperity is the possession of everything you need for yourself and loved ones with enough surplus to give to those who need help. If you have only the bare necessities, you are not prosperous. And if you have all the sufficiencies of life but no more, that is not prosperity. But, if you have everything you need with something left over for the poor, that is prosperity. If, after you have paid the tithe, you have enough for offerings to spread the gospel and help the needy, that is prosperity.

This is the type of balance the church should be embracing. But even beyond that, I also do not believe that God is against extravagance being poured out on the lives of his servants, either. Consider Christ’s anointing by Mary Magdalene at Bethany, as recorded in the 14th chapter of Mark. According the scripture, the oil and the jar containing it cost 200 denarii. That would be something like $45,000 today! The disciples murmured, saying “Why this waste? …this should have been given to the poor!”. But Jesus wasn’t impressed with their pious indignation, saying “Leave her alone” and “wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.” That’s a lot of props coming from the King, I’d say. In light of this story , Christians need to look at their motives before judging others. Rather than ask “why this waste?” we should focus inward and ask “what percentage of my income am I giving to help others?”

I’m not a big fan of the band Everclear, but I think they strike a nerve in their song, “I Will Buy You a New Life:”

I hate those people who love to tell you,

“Money is the root of all that kills.”

They have never been poor,

They have never had the joy of a welfare Christmas.

It’s the love of money that is the root of all evil. (1 Timothy 6:10) Covetousness kills. The essence in the “wealth” gospel, when not distorted, is that there is a recurring theme in the bible that God cares deeply about the material conditions of the poor.  God’s economy does not just include some “bare necessities”, but abundance. The church would do well to realize this and embrace balance. We should avoid this gnostic view that substance and material is bad and understand that God wants to bless us financially, while simultaneously holding to an ethic that values the sharing of wealth above the mass accumulation of possessions to satisfy individual lust. Tall order, I know.