I recall a class discussion in seminary about the prosperity gospel and its popularity in North American churches today. The conversation jumped from Benny Hinn to TBN to Joyce Meyer in just a couple of minutes. The class consensus was that hardcore prosperity teachings were so “out there” that they would easily be dismissed by the church members we would be serving. Our professor pushed back: “You’d be surprised at how much prosperity-tainted teaching is in conservative churches.” He was right.
EQUIPPING PASTORS TO RESPOND TO THE PROSPERITY GOSPEL
David Jones and Russell Woodbridge teach at Southeastern Seminary and are the authors of Health, Wealth & Happiness: Has the Prosperity Gospel Overshadowed the Gospel of Christ? They admit their surprise at the pervasiveness of prosperity theology, even among conservative Southern Baptists. They write in the preface, “The prosperity gospel has tremendous appeal, and it is growing both in the United States and internationally. Millions of people follow famous prosperity teachers, and their souls are at stake” (10).
It would be easy for young, theologically minded pastors to think of prosperity teaching as so obviously misguided that we don’t consider it worthy of attention. This would be a terrible mistake. As pastors and church leaders, we have an obligation to preach the biblical gospel in a way that takes into consideration our current context, a setting that unfortunately is heavily influenced by the idea that God’s blessing is financial and deserved.
Prosperity teaching is the antithesis of grace. Preachers and teachers of the gospel should be able and willing to point out the flaws in the prosperity gospel and equip others to do the same. Health, Wealth & Happiness is designed to aid pastors in that pursuit. “We want to inform you about the prosperity gospel movement and equip you to help those who have let the prosperity gospel replace the gospel of Christ” (20).
A SURVEY, CRITIQUE, AND RESPONSE TO THE PROSPERITY GOSPEL
The book begins with a survey of the historical foundations and growth of the movement. Following this, the authors point out the doctrinal errors of prosperity teaching. And the final third of the book lays out a biblical theology of some of the key themes that are denied or neglected in prosperity teaching.
Along the way, the authors take care to show how prosperity teaching is essentially gospel-less. They write: “This new gospel is perplexing—it omits Jesus and neglects the cross. Instead of promising Christ…this new gospel claims that God desires and even promises that believers will live a healthy and financially prosperous life” (14-15). Then, after laying out the biblical gospel, they show how woefully deficient is the preaching that takes place in prosperity churches:
Advocates of the prosperity gospel marginalize key components of the biblical gospel, such as Jesus, the cross, God’s judgment, and the sinful estate of humanity. If Jesus is left out of the gospel, then there is no gospel. If the cross is left out of the gospel, then there is no gospel. If God’s judgment against sin is left out of the gospel, then there is no gospel. If humanity’s sin is left out of the gospel, then there is no gospel. (86)
TWO ESPECIALLY BENEFICIAL SECTIONS
Two sections of this book are especially beneficial for pastors.
The first is the historical survey that traces the roots of prosperity teaching back to “New Thought philosophy” and its advocates Emanuel Swedenborg, Phineas Quimby, and Ralph Waldo Trine. Though the authors are unable to establish a firm line of descent from “New Thought” to the origins of prosperity teaching in the mid-20th century, they show striking similarities between these two movements.
Biblical Theology of Suffering, Possessions, and Giving
The second particularly helpful section is the constructive turn the book takes in the final chapters. Instead of merely exposing and condemning prosperity teaching, the authors offer a robust biblical theology of suffering, possessions, and giving, three themes that are especially mangled by prosperity teaching.
A SUCCESSFUL CRITIQUE OF AND COUNTER TO PROSPERITY TEACHING
Overall, pastors will find Health, Wealth & Happiness to be a worthy addition to their library. It succeeds at exposing the foundational errors of prosperity teaching as well as offering insight into how prosperity teaching can be countered by having a firm grasp on the only gospel that saves. Pastors will want to have not merely one copy on their bookshelf, but multiple copies to hand out to church members.
– This review was first published as part of the 9Marks eJournal, Jan-Feb 2012