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.