What is the prosperity gospel?
The prosperity gospel is one of the most prominent false teaching movements of our day. Prosperity gospel preachers and televangelists have deceived multitudes around the world with a false gospel, teaching that individuals who exercise true faith in Christ will surely attain physical, material, and financial prosperity in this life.
When did it begin?
The Apostolic church had its fair share of false teachers who perverted the truth of the gospel by turning it into a tool for monetary profit or into a way to manipulate God for power (Acts 8:9–24; 19:11–20). Throughout church history, there have been many forms of this sort of false teaching. The modern-day prosperity gospel movement began in the 1950s as a post–World War II Pentecostal movement through the ministry of Oral Roberts, an American televangelist. Roberts’ books helped disseminate the message of the prosperity gospel movement. If You Need Healing Do These Things and The Miracle of Seed-Faith were among Roberts’ more popular works. The movement was carried forward by Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart, both of whom led massively influential televangelist ministries in the 1980s. Other key figures in the history of the movement include E.W. Kenyon and Kenneth E. Hagin.
Who are the key figures?
Kenneth Copeland, Benny Hinn, Joel Osteen, T.D. Jakes, John Hagee, Creflo Dollar, Paula White, Joyce Meyer, and Juanita Bynum are a few of the leading televangelists who have commercialized the teaching of the prosperity gospel in our day. For decades, these men and women have broadcast a false gospel over the radio and on television channels such as the Trinity Broadcast Network (TBN). In this way, they have exported their false teaching to Africa, South America, and Asia as well.
What are the main beliefs?
The prosperity gospel movement has four main beliefs:
Jesus purchased all the benefits of salvation for this life. Jesus purchased complete physical healing for His people in this life through His death on the cross. By perverting the teaching of Isaiah 53:5 and John 10:10, prosperity gospel preachers assert that Jesus died to take away every sickness in this life and to atone for the “sin” of financial poverty.
A present-day inheritance. In the Abrahamic covenant, God promised a vast material and financial inheritance for believers in this life. If a person believes in Jesus, he will inherit great possessions and tangible blessings in this life.
Give to get. Prosperity gospel preachers teach their followers that the way to gain riches is to give more money to the kingdom, especially by giving to their churches and ministries. The quantity of material and financial prosperity one expects to gain is in proportion to what one gives.
Name it and claim it. Faith and prayer empower people to lay hold of physical and material blessings in this life. Certain leaders in this movement have popularized the term Word of Faith to capture the essence of their teaching. Accordingly, if someone exercises enough faith, he will no longer have to be subject to the crippling effects of sickness and disease. If individuals continue to suffer afflictions or poverty, it is due to their lack of personal faith. When we pray in faith, we compel God to make us prosperous, particularly when we declare that we already possess the desired blessing. Likewise, some teachers discourage their followers from speaking negative words, lest they bring negative things into being.
Why do people believe this form of false teaching?
The false teachers of the prosperity gospel target their hearers’ desires for provision, position, and power. Instead of focusing on Christ, eternity, and the glory of God, they place an emphasis on living one’s “best life now.” Many people in economically depressed communities and in Third World countries follow this teaching because it holds out promises of social empowerment and deliverance from extreme poverty and disease. Others follow the teaching because it justifies greed.
How does it hold up against biblical Christianity?
According to Scripture, physical, material, and financial prosperity are no sure marks of God’s favor, and suffering is no sure mark of His displeasure. The Bible teaches that material prosperity is often a snare (Luke 12:15) and that suffering is often a mark of blessing (Matt. 5:10; 1 Peter 3:14). God’s Word teaches neither that the Christian life is all physical and material prosperity, nor that it is all suffering. Rather, it teaches that there may be times of prosperity and times of suffering in the believer’s life (Phil. 4:12). Scripture warns us not to set our hearts on riches (Ps. 62:10), and it teaches wealthy believers not to trust in their wealth (1 Tim. 6:17).
In contrast to the four main beliefs of the prosperity gospel, Scripture teaches the following:
In the Apostolic preaching of the cross, God calls people to come to Christ for the forgiveness of sins. Jesus died to atone for the sins of His people (Acts 2:38; 5:31; 10:43; 13:38; 26:18). The focus is never on physical, financial, or material prosperity in this life. While Jesus does secure everlasting blessings—including physical healing—for His people through His death on the cross, believers will come to enjoy the full benefits of the death of Christ only in the resurrection on the last day.
God promised Abraham that he would inherit the world (Rom. 4:13). This promise was fulfilled in the person and work of the Son of Abraham, Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:16). Everyone who believes in Jesus Christ is a son or daughter of Abraham and coheir of the inheritance promised to him (Gal. 3:29). By the same faith Abraham exercised, we receive the blessings of salvation—justification, adoption, the promised Holy Spirit, and the guarantee of the everlasting inheritance (Gal. 3:7–9). Believers will not fully possess the inheritance until the resurrection on the last day (Heb. 11:39–40; 13:14).
Believers have the duty and privilege of giving generously to the work of God’s kingdom in this life. God makes His grace abound toward His people when they give generously so that they will be equipped to continue giving generously (2 Cor. 9:8–11). Scripture never teaches us to give in order to gain and lay up treasure for ourselves.
The Apostle Paul prayed fervently to the Lord for personal healing, only to have Jesus tell him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:7–9). This was not a lack of faith on Paul’s part. God has not promised complete healing in this life. He promises complete healing for individuals only in the resurrection on the last day.
How can I share the gospel with those who hold to this false teaching?
Focus on Christ’s life and death for the forgiveness of sins. The central message of the gospel is that Jesus Christ died for the sins of His people. Jesus shed His blood on the cross in order to cover the sin of those for whom He died. The gospel reconciles sinners to God through the person and work of Christ. The Apostle Paul explained the message of the cross when he wrote, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21) and “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’—so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith” (Gal. 3:13–14).
Focus on the hope of eternal blessing. The Bible encourages believers to hope in God and to look forward to the eternal inheritance He has reserved for us. The Apostle Peter encouraged suffering believers to remember that they are being preserved by God for “an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you” (1 Peter 1:4). The writer of Hebrews also taught, “Here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come” (Heb. 13:14). The Apostle Paul explained that the sufferings we endure in this life are prerequisites to obtaining the eternal inheritance: “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Rom. 8:16–17).
Focus on the comfort we receive from sharing in Christ’s sufferings. Suffering is everywhere presented in Scripture as a prerequisite to glory (Rom. 8:17). Jesus was Himself a “man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isa. 53:3). His was a life of reproach, hardship, difficulty, opposition, poverty, loneliness, and suffering (Luke 9:58). His disciples followed in His footsteps. The only one of Jesus’ disciples to fall away was himself a lover of money (John 12:6). God has ordained that His people will suffer for the sake of Christ in this life (Phil. 1:29). He has promised resurrection wholeness, restoration, and abundance in the world to come (Rev. 21:4).
This article is part of the Field Guide on False Teaching collection.