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Monday, February 4, 2019

John Calvin (and some other guys) on the Prosperity Gospel

One of our prevalent modern heresies was apparently alive and well way back in the 16th Century! 

The "Prosperity Gospel" is the kind of teaching that says or implies that God promises to give us earthly, physical, and financial blessings (aka "health and wealth") if we have enough faith (or the right kind of faith). 

In my time with the Lord this morning I came upon the following quotes by John Calvin on Joel 2:30-31 (I'm studying Joel in preparation for a book project). The great Reformer is commenting on why God includes warnings of catastrophe right after promising blessing to his people (if they repent):

The Prophet warns them of what would be, lest the faithful should promise themselves some happy condition in this world, and an exemption from all cares and troubles; for we know how prone men are to self-indulgence. When God promises any thing, they flatter themselves and harbor vain thoughts, as though they were beyond the reach of harm, and free from every grief and every evil. Such indulgence the flesh contrives for itself. Hence the Prophet reminds us, that though God would bountifully feed his Church, supply his people with food, and testify by external tokens his paternal love, and though also he would pour out his Spirit, (a token far more remarkable,) yet the faithful would continue to be distressed with many troubles; for God designs not to deal too delicately with his Church on earth; but when he gives tokens of his kindness he at the same time mingles some exercises for patience, lest the faithful should become self-indulgent or sleep on earthly blessings, but that they may ever seek higher things.

We now then understand the Prophet’s design: he intends not to threaten the faithful, but rather to warn them, lest they should deceive themselves with empty dreams, or expect what is never to be, that is, to enjoy a happy rest in this world.

Calvin then goes on to discuss the irony that such warnings, in addition to keeping us from expecting material prosperity, are actually intended to increase our spiritual prosperity--they make us realize how much we need the Lord and enable us to receive more of the grace that he gives to the humble (James 4:6, I Pet. 5:5)...

We then see that this was added for the fuller commendation of God’s grace, that men might know, that they would be much more miserable if God called them not to himself by the shining light of his Spirit. And that this was the Prophet’s design, we may learn from the discourse of Christ, which he made to his disciples a short time before his death. They asked what would be the sign of his coming, when he reminded them of the destruction of the temple, (Matthew 24:3-25:46). They thought that he would immediately accomplish that triumph of which they had heard, that they would be made participators of that eternal beatitude of which Christ had so often spoken to them. Christ then warned them not to be deluded with so gross a notion. He spoke of the destruction of Jerusalem, and then declared that all these things would be only the presages of evils.... As Christ then corrected the mistake, with which the minds of the disciples were imbued, so the Prophet here checks vain imaginations, lest the faithful should think that Christ’s kingdom would be earthly, and fix their minds on corn and wine, on pleasures and quietness, on the conveniences of the present life.

In recent years I've corresponded with a friend who has been influenced by some Property Gospel teachers in the "Word of Faith" movement. Here are some summary thoughts I shared with my friend in an email:

The bottom line, as simply as I can put it after studying the Word for many years, is this: I believe that the idea that God promises us physical health and wealth in this life is a false teaching. He absolutely promises us spiritual and heavenly health and wealth if we obey and give, but taking all the Scriptures together reveals that he will only bless some believers at some times with those physical earthly blessings. Our faith/confidence should be in the fact that he guarantees spiritual and heavenly blessings to us, even if and when we are suffering physically or financially on the earth. And that can happen even when we are fully believing God and sacrificially giving to his work. In other words, our physical or financial suffering is not necessarily a result of a lack of faith, and it will not necessarily be "fixed" by more faith on our part.

This reminded me of the following section from an appendix in From Embers to a Flame by Harry Reeder and me, where we were talking about a best-selling book called The Prayer of Jabez (remember that craze?). The Word of Faith movement is not the only place Prosperity Gospel belief and teaching can show up...

God often answers our prayers with a “No,” and He also often answers them in a way that is contrary to our desires (Matt. 26:39-42; 2 Cor. 12:8-9).  And this leads to another major problem with the Jabez book:  it implies that the “blessing” of God will always be something we like.  The Bible says, “Blessed are those who mourn” (Matt. 5:4) and, “If you should suffer for the sake of righteousness, you are blessed” (1 Pet. 3:14, 4:14), But Wilkinson gives the impression that “praying Jabez” will get you what you want.  He begins the book by saying, “I want to teach you how to pray a daring prayer that God always answers,” and he apparently believes that the answer will always be “Yes.”  I say that because the book never discusses the idea of unanswered prayer.  Nor does it ever teach the important biblical truth that God knows better than we do, and therefore many times He does not give us what we want, because it would be bad for us.  All of Wilkinson’s examples, on the other hand, are examples in which his desires were fulfilled.  And he says repeatedly that the result of this prayer will be “miracles”—hardly a term that can be understood as including blessings like suffering and persecution!  In this way The Prayer of Jabez unfortunately echoes some themes associated with the “prosperity gospel,” as its critics have pointed out. 

The prayer recorded in 1 Chronicles 4 is part of a narrative portion of Scripture, and therefore must not be taken as normative.  Jabez received what he wanted, by God’s sovereign design, but that result cannot be expected by everyone who seeks it.  In His infinite wisdom and love, God often blesses us by withholding the “blessings” we ask for.  So the many testimonials of “answered” prayer in Wilkinson’s book do not necessarily prove anything.  There could be just as many testimonials of “unanswered” prayer, like the one displayed on a piece of clothing (an interesting addition to the parade of merchandise):

“I prayed the prayer of Jabez for 30 days, and all I got was this lousy T-shirt!”

And here's a quote from Gary Gilley that we used in a footnote:

What we have here is the sanctification of selfishness, and of course this is one of the attractions of The Prayer of Jabez…. Wilkinson’s theology is much closer to the prosperity gospel than to biblical Christianity, though he denies it (p. 24).  In the prosperity gospel, miracles are constantly being promised when we meet certain conditions.  The proof that God will deliver is always based on testimonials, not on the foundation of Scripture.  Wilkinson has borrowed a page from the prosperity gospel’s handbook and is offering it to Christians, some of whom perhaps have never been exposed to such teaching before.  And he is doing so with great success”(I Just Wanted More Land, pp. 34‑35).

Whatever form it appears in, and whatever source it comes from (even otherwise good teachers), beware of the Prosperity Gospel! It has always been a danger, from the time of the Scriptures to the age of the Reformation, down to our own day today.

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