In the past, nearly all Christians made heroes out of missionaries who gave up everything to serve God or out of martyrs who suffered because of their faith.
Today, however, its becoming a different story. Many Christians believe that to have a close relationship with God, a person should realize the importance of himself as God intended, pursue his dreams and aspirations, and become affluent and successful. Their heroes are those celebrities and self-made individuals who happen to be Christians.
Behind this new gospel stands a variety of distinguished teachers, preachers, and evangelists proclaiming a variety of ways to attain prosperity and success. But examining their theological models and points of emphasis reveals one common element – they are simply not biblical.
One theological model gives primary attention to a belief that God has set certain laws or principles in the universe, including laws on health and wealth. According to this view, all the child of God has to do is to learn the principles that apply in a given situation and then put them into operation by faith. God is obligated to provide.
One of the leaders of the positive confession movement writes: “This is not theory. It is fact. It is spiritual law. It works every time it is applied correctly … You set them [spiritual laws] in motion by the words of your mouth … everything you say will come to pass.” 1
It also seems that Jesus is obligated to teach this theology. Another leader in this movement writes: “Then He [Jesus] said, ‘If anybody anywhere will take these four steps or will put these four principles into operation, they will always receive whatever they want from Me or from God the Father.’ ” 2
As for how this theology works, the wife of a television preacher gives an example. Telling about a house she wanted to buy, she says, “I began to see that I already had authority over that house and authority over the money I needed to purchase it. I said, ‘In the Name of Jesus, I take authority over the money I need (I called out the specific amount). I command you to come to me … in Jesus’ Name. Ministering spirits, you go and cause it to come.” 3
This practice of claiming what we want by faith may be appealing, but its understanding of God is contrary to the Bible. When people are called on to place their faith not in God Himself, but in laws that force God to do their bidding, it strips God of His sovereignty and His omnipotence (God cannot do what He wants). It also eliminates His benevolence (people, not God, know what is best for them).
Another popular theology places its focus on the self, with considerable emphasis given to self-esteem. It presupposes that people are suffering because of their low opinion of themselves and that Jesus Christ has redeemed us from this.
All a person (including the child of God) has to do to get on the road to success is to raise his self-esteem and believe in himself. He is then free to pursue his grandest desires through possibility thinking (no negative thoughts allowed); he can be whatever he wants.
Robert Schuller, pastor of the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, Calif., is one of the leading proponents of self-esteem. His morning service, “Hour of Power,” has become the nation’s most widely watched televised church service. Schuller believes that “self-esteem … or ‘pride in being a human being,’ is the single greatest need facing the human race today.” 4
He also believes that God wants everyone to succeed in whatever they do. “God’s will for you is clear,” he writes. “God wants you to succeed. He has promised to ‘crown your efforts with success!’” 5
This emphasis on self-esteem and success can bring about changes in people’s lives and even make some successful. But it’s based on a theology that’s centered on man rather than God.
When self-esteem becomes the chief focus in people’s lives, almost everything, including the Bible and their Christian faith, begins to be understood in the light of self-esteem (or themselves). Biblical doctrines are reinterpreted, and biblical teachings become distorted.
We can see this in Self-Esteem: The New Reformation. Sin is defined as “any act or thought that robs myself or another human being of his or her self-esteem” 6 and the new birth as our being “changed from a negative to a positive self-image – from inferiority to self-esteem, from fear to love, from doubt to trust.” 7
Compare these definitions with the God-centered statements found in the Bible. In 1 John 3:4, John defined sin as the transgression of God’s law; in John 3:1-6, Jesus describes the new birth as a spiritual rebirth that comes from above by the Holy Spirit, based upon faith in Christ.
A third theological model has been created from Paul’s statement that “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law (Gal. 3:13). By interpreting curse as those mentioned in Deuteronomy 28:15-68 (which include sickness, poverty, and death), Robert Tilton, pastor of Word of Faith World Outreach Center near Dallas, claims that the redeemed child of God has inherited health and wealth along with eternal life. All he needs to do to have everything that is his in Christ is to realize it by faith. He should discover his dreams (which God has placed within him) and pursue them.
At first glance, this claim appears to have biblical support. But closer examination shows that the basis for this theology rests upon treating two unrelated texts as though they belonged together.
Paul’s concern in writing to the church in Galatia is with one question: How does one have a right standing with God? Is it by faith in Christ or by keeping the law? Paul stresses that none can be saved by keeping the law (Gal. 2:16) because no one can keep it. Because Christ’s death satisfied the law, faith in Jesus Christ is all that is necessary to be right with God.
The curse we are redeemed from is our inability to keep the law, not the curses in Deuteronomy 28, which were the consequences of Israel’s disobedience to God’s commandments. They are two entirely different contexts.
Word and Thought Actualization
The most awesome theological models are those that set forth a theology of the spoken word (rhematology) or of thought actualization. These systems stress the power inherent in words and thoughts.
They argue that just as God spoke (or conceived of the creation in His mind) and matter came into existence (Gen. 1; Psa. 33:6; Heb. 11:3; 2 Pet. 3:5), so the child of God can speak (or conceive of things in his mind) and actually bring them into existence by faith.
Paul Yong-gi Cho, pastor of a Korean congregation that is the largest church in the world, seems to teach this. He writes that God, through the power of “imagination,” created the world. Because man is a “fourth-dimension” spirit being like God, he too can use the power of imagination to create his own world. “We taught our people to visualize success. …Through visualizing and dreaming, you can incubate your future and hatch the results.” 8
This idea that Christians (who are God-like creatures) can create and bring things into existence misunderstands the nature of God and of man. Man is a creature and not the Creator. Therefore, man does not have power to create as God does. Furthermore, it can be dangerous and spiritually unhealthy to try to do what God does because it can lead one into the development of occult (demonic) powers while thinking they are of God.
Along with distortions in theology, this hybrid gospel embodies a reversal of biblical values. Consider the attitude of those believers who expect to be successful and prosperous. They believe that they should be driving the most luxurious cars, wearing the finest clothes, eating the best food, and owning several homes – simply because they are Christians.
But they fail to understand that the measure of their success does not lie in how much they possess. Jesus warned: Beware, and be on your guard against every form of greed; for not even when one has an abundance does his life consist of his possessions” (Lk. 12:15). And Hebrews 11 calls attention to saints who “went about in sheepskins, in goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated” (Heb. 11:37) and commends their faith.
To substantiate their teachings, proponents of the prosperity gospel distort the meaning of certain Bible passages. One that is frequently quoted is 3 John 2. Beginning his epistle with a friendly greeting, John expresses his desire that Gaius “may prosper and be in good health, just as your soul prospers.”
Explaining this verse, one television preacher writes: “You must realize that it is God’s will for you to prosper. …This is available to you, and, frankly, it would be stupid of you not to partake of it.” 9
This verse, however, is nothing more than John’s personal wish for Gaius. We should not take it as a universal promise or guarantee of health and wealth.
Another passage often cited is John 10:10. The Lord, speaking to a delegation of Jews, said: “I came that they might have life, and might have it abundantly.”
Some interpret Jesus’ reference to abundant life to mean prosperity. But prior use of the word life in this Gospel, as well as the context, shows that Jesus is referring to spiritual or eternal life from God (see Jn. 5:40), not material affluence.
A third passage is John 14:13. Jesus said to Philip, “And whatever you ask in My name, that will I do.”
Though some take this to be a blank check for whatever they want from God, the phrase in My name indicates some qualification. At that time, in My name was tantamount to saying “by my permission or authority.” Jesus in effect is saying, “If what you ask is what I will, I will do it.” John, who heard Jesus speak these words, probably had this understanding in mind when he wrote in his first epistle, “If we ask anything according to His will, He hears us” (1 Jn. 5:14).
If prayer is not offered to God “according to His will,” it becomes presumption, not faith. The result is that we dictate to God rather than petition him.
Though passages like these may appear to substantiate the gospel of prosperity and success, when tested by biblical data, they simply do not support it.
A distorted theology can distort people’s lives. About a year ago I met a young father who was contemplating suicide. He and his wife and two small children were ardent followers of possibility thinking and had charted their course to success. At times they were able to move ahead three giant steps, only to have unexpected things occur and fall back four.
Becoming frustrated, the father began to ponder Schuller’s statement, “If you fail, you do so because you choose to fail.” 10 He pondered this time and again and tried even harder. But instead of becoming successful, he merely continued to make some progress and then regress.
He kept blaming himself because “if you fail, you do so because you choose to fail.” Anguish, guilt, and despair set in, bringing him to contemplate suicide.
This father is not the only one I have met who has been devastated trying to gain what this theology falsely promises.
Missing the Gospel
A distorted theology can also warp people’s understanding of the true gospel. I have met several Jewish people who have told me how good they feel about themselves after listening to the “Hour of Power.” But not one had the slightest understanding of the gospel.
I have also met a few Christian Scientists who regularly watch the “Hour of Power” and have told me that Schuller believes and preaches what they believe. They never realized their condition before God as lost sinners and their need to receive Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
In the early days of Christianity, Paul wrote to the Christians at Galatia to warn them about those who “want to distort the gospel of Christ” (Gal. 1:7). At that time, the distortion was requiring Christians to keep the requirements of the law.
Today, people are proclaiming a gospel that promises wealth and success to every Christian. While this gospel is exciting and appealing to our desires, it’s no less a distortion of the true gospel when tested by God’s Word.
- Charles Capps, The Tongue – A Creative Force, pp. 23, 131, 132.
- Kenneth E. Hagin, Bible Study Faith Course, p. 104.
- Gloria Copeland, God’s Will Is Prosperity, pp. 48, 49.
- Self-Esteem: The New Reformation, p. 19.
- Daily Power Thoughts, May 29, 1986.
- Self-Esteem: The New Reformation, p. 14.
- Ibid, p. 68.
- The Fourth Dimension, pp. 39-44.
- Kenneth Copeland, The Laws of Prosperity, p. 51.
- It’s Possible, p. 29.
James Byornstad, Moody Monthly