Understanding Divine Blessing: Does the Prosperity Gospel Get It Right? (w/ Book Review)

The biblical concept of “blessing”—as in being blessed and blessing others—is not a topic any church I’ve attended focused on, so when I had the opportunity to read and review Divine Blessing and the Fullness of Life in the Presence of God by William R. Osborne, I took it. This is the second book I’ve read from Crossway’s Short Studies in Biblical Theology series, where in relatively short, readable books a certain theme is explored throughout the Bible. As a former high school English teacher, I have a bit of a thing for themes, and I found both books helpful, accessible introductions to important subjects of biblical theology. Biblical theology is the practice of tracing a particular theme or idea throughout the entire biblical story and connecting the dots.

Divine blessing isn’t a topic I’ve explored before, but being familiar with the Bible I knew “blessing” is a word that comes up quite a bit. As both an apologist and pastor, this was a topic I needed to grasp because of the prevalence of the “prosperity gospel” and “health and wealth gospel.” Even if a Christian doesn’t subscribe to the false prosperity gospel, understanding biblical blessings is essential to addressing a sort of prosperity gospel thinking that intersects with the problem of evil and suffering. This is the thinking that expects God to always intervene in times of trouble. This is the person who asks when they hit a rough patch in life, “Why is God allowing this to happen to me?” with the underlying idea that God should never let anything bad happen to his people.

Let’s be honest, a lot of evidence exists both in and out of the Bible that doesn’t support the idea that if you’re a “good” Christian you get blessings and if you’re “bad” you’re cursed. If the apostle Paul can ask God three times to remove the “thorn” in his flesh and God refuses (2 Cor. 12:1–10), then that destroys the whole health and wealth gospel thesis right there. So, as Osborne asks, “What about when God’s covenant people live faithfully, trusting in his word, and still experience tragedy and sorrow?” Further, there appears to be “a theological rift” between the Old and New Testaments’ portrayals of divine blessing. The Old “seems focused on the material wealth, health, and success of the faithful,” while the New “portrays the most faithful as martyred and imprisoned.” 

In addressing all of these issues, Divine Blessing and the Fullness of Life in the Presence of God is a welcomed (and much-needed) help.

THE BASICS OF BIBLICAL BLESSING

In the rest of this blog, let me give you some insights into what the Bible says about divine blessing. To start, here are some basics:

  • “God’s blessings for his people are relational, spiritual, material, present, and eschatological [future].”
  • Like when exploring any biblical concept, we need to differentiate between the Old Covenant (exclusive to ancient Israel) and the New Covenant (for Christ’s people) when talking about divine blessings.
  • Where blessings under the Old Covenant is exclusive to ancient Israel, not Christians, and “the material wealth, health, and success of the faithful” appears to be part of that covenant, the Bible also often portrays these blessings as stumbling blocks. 
  • Both the Old and New Covenants have a spiritual and physical aspect of blessing. “[D]ivine blessing was always intended to be material, spiritual, [but also] relational.” That it, based on a relationship with God, which is the ultimate blessing within itself.
  • All biblical blessing is “fixed upon the reality of the fullness of life in the presence of God,” which includes being in a right relationship with God and God dwelling with his people. “True blessing, no matter the form, always leads us near to God.” “Unlike what is commonly heard in prosperity [gospel] circles, you don’t go through God to get his blessings. Conversely, we might say you go through his blessings to get to God! God is the end to be pursued because his blessing is experienced only by living in his presence.” 
  • Divine blessing coincides with obedience to God’s will, which include his divine directives and commands. Living according to God’s wisdom brings consequential blessings, which is rooted also in a proper fear or respect of the Lord (Prov. 1:7). 
  • God always intended to bless his people and for his people to be a blessing to others.
  • God is under no obligation to bless or guarantee a certain fullness of life. We have privileges as Christians as God’s children, but these aren’t rights. As I like to say, we can’t sum up God’s ways in a mathematical formula. In other words, we can’t put God in a box.
  • In one sense, the delay of God’s wrath is a blessing!

BLESSING IN THE BIBLICAL STORY

God created to bless. We see three blessings found in the creation narrative. Before the fall, humankind was to “experience the fullness of life in God’s presence in the garden.” Humankind was to walk in the presence of God (quite literally before the fall). Humankind was also to be a blessing to creation by fulfilling God’s “creation/cultural mandate” to be fruitful and fill the earth and be stewards of creation. But the first man and woman screwed this all up. In the post-fall world, God put another plan into effect to bless the world:

Now the Lord said to Abram [Abraham], “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2 And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen. 12:1–3)

So, God chooses a person to bless, and through that person he will bless the whole world. Through Abraham, God will build a people—Israel—to be a blessing to the world. Of course, the biblical story shows the Messiah—Jesus of Nazareth—is a descendant of Abraham. The “promise land” God will give Abraham’s people will serve as a light—a blessing—foreshadowing the new creation (“the new heaven and new earth”) ushered in by Jesus Christ.

In the Old Testament, under the Old Covenant, which is specific to Israel, God makes a covenant of blessing and cursing. Material blessing is part of this, including health and fertility/procreation. Under the Old Covenant this is conditional, based on Israel’s upholding their side of the covenant; they must obey and be loyal to their God. But at the same time, God has made an unconditional commitment to bless his people regardless. In the fallen world, whether under the Old Covenant or New Covenant, this will only ever see partial fulfillment. Those bemoaning a lack of blessings are too shortsighted and need to keep focused on the future new creation where God’s people will live with him.

Further, “in a fallen world, the way to divine blessing always involves suffering.” See Luke 9:23–26 and Romans 8:17, but this is seen in the Old Testament as well. For instance, “Jacob’s life challenges our simplistic categories of ‘do good things and be blessed’ or ‘you are blessed so nothing hurts.’ In Jacob’s limp we see God’s severe mercy going to great lengths to produce the transformation and blessing in our lives, but not always in the way we wanted.”

As we leave the Old Testament and enter the New Testament era under the New Covenant, “For all the promises [and, thus, blessings] of God find their Yes in him [in Christ]” (2 Cor 1:20). “[I]n the New Testament, blessing is always specifically in Christ” and Christ’s blessings can’t be disconnected from eternal life and the Kingdom of God. With this, the Holy Spirit is another blessing to Jesus’ people, who also empowers them to bless others. The indwelling Holy Spirit, along with Jesus’ resurrection (and even the church itself), are down-payments—assurances—of the coming fulfillment of divine blessing in the future new creation, ushered in by Christ. In the New Testament—under the New Covenant (Luke 22:20)—we experience the “partial fulfillment” (the “already/not yet” nature) of God’s blessing, which will be fulfilled when Christ returns. Even the Old Covenant’s physical blessings are a foreshadowing of the material blessing in the new creation, where there will be no more hunger, sickness, or death, and every tear will be wiped away (Rev 21). Again, those bemoaning a lack of blessings are too shortsighted.

3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places (Eph 1:3). 

So, Christ’s people already have “every spiritual blessing” in heaven at this very moment, yet full experience of God’s blessings won’t be obtained until the New Heaven and New Earth. As Osborne puts it: Cross, then Crown (for both Christ, and Christ’s people). But Christ’s people are also blessed because God will use all their suffering for our good (Rom 8:32). “If our notions of divine blessing require freedom from suffering or persecution, then our hope is grounded in the wrong thing, or maybe the wrong age.”

Osborne proposes a great test for the believer: “Does this ‘blessing’ draw me closer to the triune God? Does this need being met bring me nearer to the giver, or is it a distraction? No perceived ‘good gift’ will ever drive you away from the Lord.” 

(Crossway provided a free copy of this book for me to review.)

Of Christian Rap & Reality Shows (Part 2 of 2) Wealth, Prosperity Gospel & Preachers of LA

*Does Jesus want everyone to be stinking rich?  What’s scripture have to say about wealth?*

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(This continues my response to the TV reality show “Preachers of LA” and a look at the “prosperity gospel.”  Read Part 1 here.)

So, how does Reverend Clarence McClendon of the Preachers of LA justify his lavish lifestyle?  He says, “The Bible says that ‘I wish above all things that you prosper and be in health.  Even as your soul prospers.’  I believe that.”

Like all false teachers and cult leaders, Rev. McClendon quotes a little-known verse to support his view.  Now, little-known verses are still scripture, but if someone quotes a verse you’re not familiar with and it doesn’t jive with what you know other scripture clearly teaches, what do you do?  All you have to do is find the verse and read it in context.

This is an essential rule of thumb for everyone: when someone quotes scripture — no matter who it is doing the quoting — go read it in context.  People try to get scripture to say all sorts of things it doesn’t by taking it out of context.

When I first heard Rev. McClendon say this, I thought he was referring to John 10:10 when Jesus says, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly,” but when I looked the verse up I found it was in the very short letter by John towards the end of the New Testament called 3 John.

The verse Rev. McClendon quotes is in the opening greeting of the letter in 3 John:

“The elder to the beloved Gaius, whom I love in truth.  Beloved, I pray that in all respects you may prosper and be in good health, just as your soul prospers.  For I was very glad when brethren came and testified to your truth, that is, how you are walking in truth.”

So, John writes this line quoted by Rev. McClendon not in a long theological argument, but as a greeting.  Nowhere does John explain that growing in the faith will guarantee growth in material wealth or health, not in the rest of this letter or elsewhere in the New Testament.  John is praying for Gaius’s well-being and hoping the best for him, like any friend would do.  A greeting said between friends, even if it appears in scripture, is not the basis for a theology apart from the rest of the Gospel.

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Further, let’s look at the verse I originally thought Rev. McClendon was referring to in John 10:10.  Will this support his view?  Yet again, we have an issue when we look at the verse in context.  Nowhere does Jesus equate abundant life to material wealth.  If fact, there may be good reason for Rev. McClendon not to refer to John 10 because it appears right in the midst of Jesus’ parable about the good shepherd:

“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.  I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep.  He who is a hired hand, and not a shepherd, who is not the owner of the sheep, sees the wolf coming, and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them.  He flees because he is a hired hand and is not concerned about the sheep.  I am the good shepherd, and I know My own and My own know Me, even as the Father knows Me and I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep” (John 10:10-15).

Would the prosperity preachers lay down their life for their flock?  Or are they just thieves and hired hands?

Since we’re looking at scripture, let’s look at some verses that do have clear implications concerning wealth — verses that would be difficult to misinterpret even if they were taken out of context.

1 Timothy 6:6-10: “But godliness actually is a means of great gain when accompanied by contentment.  For we have brought nothing into the world, so we cannot take anything out of it either.  If we have food and covering, with these we shall be content.  But those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a snare and many foolish and harmful desires which plunge men into ruin and destruction.  For the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.”

So, godliness is gain; we should find contentment in having our basic needs for food and shelter met; and chasing after material gain leads to destruction.

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Luke 9:57-58: “As they were going along the road, someone said to Him, “I will follow You wherever You go.”  And Jesus said to him, “The foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man [Jesus] has nowhere to lay His head.””

It certainly sounds like Jesus is saying he doesn’t have wealth, maybe not even a home, and that those who follow him shouldn’t expect more than this either.

And if those weren’t clear enough, look at this one:

Matthew 6:24: “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other.  You cannot serve God and wealth.”

Hard to misinterpret that one, isn’t it?

When thinking of the prosperity preachers, I can’t help but think of the interaction between Jesus and the rich young man in Matthew 19.  The rich young man claims to have followed all the commandments flawlessly and he wants to know what more he needs to do, so Jesus tells him, “If you wish to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.”  The young rich man “went away grieving; for he was one who owned much property.”  This didn’t surprise Jesus.  He knew where this young man’s heart truly lied.

How would the prosperity preachers react if Jesus asked them to do the same thing?  Would they choose their wealth or Jesus?

After the young rich man walks away, Jesus says his famous line, “Truly I say to you, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.  Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

Jesus’ message here is so important that he emphasizes it not only by starting it with his “Truly I say to you” introductory phrase, but he repeats it twice!  Fortunately for the rich, Jesus concludes this teaching: “With people this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”  So, as I said earlier in the first post, money isn’t inherently evil, but Jesus and the New Testament writers undoubtedly spend a lot of time explaining how easily money can lead us astray.

This is particularly important to all of us living in the United States or other wealthy countries.  We are the rich!  Having clean, running water in our homes alone makes us richer than most of the world.  Being surrounded by stores providing an endless supply of food and entertainment makes us wealthier than most of the world.  Owning a car or TV or computer or a closet full of clothes, no matter how “outdated,” makes us richer than the majority of the world’s population.

Finally, the prosperity gospel preachers (and all of us) should consider with serious foreboding what Jesus says in Matthew 7 concerning false prophets “who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves.”  On the day of final judgment, Jesus says:

“Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’  And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.’”

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Of Christian Rap & Reality Shows (Part 1 of 2) False Teachers & False Gospels

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It doesn’t seem like it was all that long ago when I first heard the phrase the “prosperity gospel” or the “health and wealth gospel.”  From what I could gather, it sounded like there were some preachers, grown from the Pentecostal tradition, out there proclaiming that if you’re a good Christian, God will bless you with good health and plenty of money.  I didn’t find this surprising.  I remember the rise and fall of several TV evangelists in the ‘80’s and ‘90’s, and these “prosperity gospel” preachers were just the new school of that same tradition of celebrity pastor con men.

Earlier this year, Christian hip hop artist Shai Linne released his album “Lyrical Theology, Pt. 1: Theology” (which I highly recommend) and caught a lot of people’s attention with his song “Fal$e Teacher$,” which criticizes the prosperity gospel.  Not only does Shai Linne show how a catchy song with blunt lyrics backed by tight biblical theology can be powerful, but he also names twelve celebrity preachers, proclaiming them all to be false teachers, including Joel Osteen, T.D. Jakes, and Joyce Meyer.  Even respected evangelical preacher and author John Piper praised Shai Linne in a tweet for his stance.

(Listen to “Fal$e Teacher$” here and read the lyrics* and watch Shai Linne’s explanation of the song here.) ShaiLinne_album

(*Or see the lyrics at the bottom of this post)

Then, came the trailer for an upcoming TV reality show on Oxygen, The Preachers of LA.  As soon as I saw the trailer, Shai Linne’s “Fal$e Teacher$” burst into my head.  But when I sat down to watch the premier episode this past week, I tried to keep an open mind.  Not knowing anything about them, it’s hard to criticize all of the pastors on the Preachers of LA based a single hour-long show.  One or two of them might actually be legit and not as filthy rich as the rap-like slow-motion and shiny cars make them appear.

(Watch The Preachers of LA trailer here.)

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I didn’t want to immediately dismiss these pastors as false teachers of the prosperity gospel.  Running a “mega-church” or driving a nice car doesn’t automatically make a pastor corrupt.  Many pastors write books, travel to speaking arrangements, and are involved in ethical businesses that may or may not have anything to do with their ministry, and if they work hard for their money and earn it honestly, what’s the issue?

Of course, this could move us into a discussion on Christian giving and sacrificial living, but I’ll say one more thing and leave this issue here for now: There’s nothing wrong with a pastor having money gained through honest means, but whenever we see a pastor with a lot of money – especially if he flaunts it – it should be a billboard-sized warning sign something could be amiss.

Another issue with watching Preachers of LA is an issue I have with all “reality” TV in general.  I know people who have worked on “reality” TV shows, so I know just how staged many of these shows are.  It’s really hard for me to watch a “reality” show and not feel like I’m being manipulated.  Further, it’s not hard to edit scenes and dialogue out of context to make characters appear to be saying or doing something that’s not reality at all.  I even read about editors bleeping words that weren’t even curse words in episodes of Duck Dynasty to make it appear as if the characters, who are Christians, were using foul language.  In the industry, these sort of shows are sometimes called “docu-dramas” because they have the feeling of “reality,” and there may be a lot of truth behind the characters, but the situations and conflicts are completely fabricated.

DuckDynasty

So perhaps this idea of a “docu-drama” about some prosperity gospel preachers is fitting because their preaching, like the show, is reality with just enough fiction mixed in to consider it phony.  Like docu-drama, the prosperity gospel preachers are giving a lot of truth about God, Jesus, and the Bible, but they are mixing in enough of a lie to make it heresy.  This is how false teachers operate, and in fact, how cults operate.  It’s rare to find a cult that doesn’t have a lot of truth molded into their lies.  Shai Linne addresses this in his song when he raps, “And you’re thinking they’re not the dangerous type because some of their statements are right – that only proves that Satan comes as an angel of light.”

Kate Bowler, an assistant professor at Duke Divinity School and author of “Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel” has a different take on the prosperity gospel in her editorial “Believers in Bling: Behold the Prosperity ‘Preachers of LA’” on CNN.com and portrays it quite positively.  She writes, “As my own research shows, millions of American Christians have turned to the prosperity gospel to help them understand God as deeply invested in their everyday lives.  They want a God who cares about their health, their mortgage payments and their ability to afford a better life.”

I don’t think you’ll find any Christian pastor who would disagree that God wants to be (and should be) involved in all aspects of our lives and wants what’s best for us, but this is not the only message the prosperity gospel preachers are spreading.  Even Bowler writes, “These pastors’ Midas touch provides endless sermon illustrations designed to tantalize audiences: If only you believe what I believe, you can have what I have, too.”

Bowler appears to think this message is legitimate Christianity, but this is exactly the whole issue with the prosperity gospel!  Nowhere in the Bible does God promise to bless us with material wealth, great health, or a life free of hardships if we follow him.  In fact, Jesus says quite the opposite.  In Matthew 16:24-26, he tells his disciples, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me… For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?”

Elsewhere, Jesus tells his followers that they will be persecuted.  Paul, Peter, and most of the other apostles met early deaths by following Jesus.  What would Paul and Peter think of the prosperity gospel?  Where’s their wealth and good health?

Even if 95% of what the prosperity gospel preachers are saying is true, that still leaves 5% as false.  And anything added to or taken away from the true Gospel of Jesus Christ is not the true Gospel of Jesus Christ at all.

Perhaps someone should remind these prosperity preachers of what Paul said in Galatians 1:6-9:

“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel — which is really no gospel at all.  Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ.  But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse!”

You don’t get much clearer than that.  Paul, the church’s greatest missionary and writer of much of the New Testament, tells his audience if he, the other apostles, or even an angel from heaven tells them something different than the Gospel of Christ, he, the apostles, and the angel are cursed by God!

NEXT: Part 2:  What does Scripture have to say about the prosperity gospel?

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(Take a moment to listen to some insightful thoughts from John Piper about the prosperity gospel here and here.) 

 

 

 

 

 

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**LYRICS**  Shai Linne  “FAL$E TEACHER$”

One two one two, Yo!
Special dedication to my brothers and sisters on the great continent of Africa
To Saints in Malawi, Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, Zimbabwe.
Don’t be deceived by what America is sending y’all man, yeh?

Let me begin, while there is still ink left in my pen,
I am set to contend for Truth you can bet will offend,
Deception within the church man, who’s letting them in?
We talked about this years ago, let’s address it again. (Yeh)
And I ain’t really trying to start beef, but some who claim to be part of his sheep got some sharp teeth.(they’re wolves)

You cast at me when you criticize them when you criticize them, but Jesus told us: Matthew 7:16, we can recognize them!
And God forbid that for the love of some fans, I keep quiet and watch them die with their blood on my hands!
(so…)There’s nothing left for me to do except to speak to you in the spirit of Jude 3 and 2 Peter 2
And I know that some would label me a Pharisee, because today the only heresy is saying that there’s heresy:
“How dare they be specific and drop some clarity on the popularity of the gospel of Prosperity”

Turn off TBN that channel is overrated. The Pastor’s speak bogus statements, financially motivated. It’s kind of like a pyramid scheme. Visualize Heretics christianizing the American dream.
It’s foul and deceitful, they’re lying to people, teaching that camels squeeze through the eye of a needle!
Ungodly and wicked, ask yourself how can they not be convicted treating Jesus like a lottery ticket.
And you’re thinking they’re not the dangerous type because some of their statements are right,
they’re only proof that Satan comes as an angel of light.
This teaching can’t be believed without a cost, the lie is you can achieve a crown without a cross
And I hear it all the time when they speak on the block
Even unbelievers are shocked how they’re fleecing the flock
It should be obvious then, yet I’ll explain why it’s Sin, peep the Bible it’s in 1 Timothy 6:9-10
It talks about how the desire for riches has left many souls on fire and stitches mired in ditches
Tell me, who would teach you to pursue as a goal the very thing that the Bible said will ruin your soul! (huh?)

Yet they’re encouraging the love of money,
to make it worse, they’ve exported this garbage into other countries!
My heart breaks even now as I am rhyming. Do you wanna know what all false teachers have in common?(what?)
It’s called self(ism) the fastest growing religion; they just dress it up and call it “Christian”.
Don’t be deceived by this funny biz, if you come to Jesus for money, then he’s not your God, money is!

Jesus is not a means to an end, the Gospel is He came to redeem us from sin, and that is the message forever I’ll yell!
If you’re living your best life now you’re heading for hell!

(Talk to them)
Joel Osteen – false teacher!
(Let them know)
Creflo Dollar is a false teacher!
(Who else? Who else?)
Benny Hinn is a false teacher!
I know they’re popular but don’t let them deceive ya!
(Talk to them)
TD Jakes is a false teacher!
(Tell the Truth)
Joyce Meyer is a false teacher!
(Let them know)
Paula White is a false teacher!
Use your discernment, let the Bible lead ya!
(Keep going)
Fred Price is a false teacher!
(Tell the Truth)
Kenneth Copland is a false teacher!
(Who else? Who else?)
Robert Tilton is a false teacher!
I know they’re popular but don’t let them deceive ya!
(Talk to them)
Eddie Long is a false teacher!
(Let them know)
Juanita Bynum is a false teacher!
(Who else? Who else?)
Paul Crouch is a false teacher!
Use your discernment, let the Bible lead ya!

“But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed. And in their greed they will exploit you with false words. Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep.” 2 Peter 2:1-3

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