Why Seeking God’s Reward is Different from the Prosperity Gospel

Aaron MartinFaith, Hope

This past Sunday was the final sermon in our Living Generously series. This year, we want to commit ourselves to generously pursuing Jesus through the Word and community, generously loving our neighbors, and generously investing our time, energy, and resources (including money) in gospel initiatives. Where is God asking you to take the next step in your spiritual disciplines, your service to others, and in your financial commitment to gospel work here at Community Bible?

During Sunday’s message, we discovered in Luke 19:11-27 that God rewards faithfulness. The aim of the parable Jesus taught is to instruct us in the right and wrong way to use the worldly possessions God gives to us. We don’t invest the resources and talents God has given us to secure an eternal home with God. We invest the resources and talents God has given us because we have an eternal home with God through faith in Jesus.

More than forty times in the Gospel of Luke there are promises of reward for obedience to God. Put simply: it’s wrong for us not to seek the reward Jesus promises us. He commands us to pursue it (Luke 12:33; 16:9). But we do not seek reward for earthly praise or material gain. We seek it because the reward is God Himself. We hear this in the praise of the psalmist, “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth I desire besides you.” (Psalm 73:25)

If seeking reward isn’t wrong, how is this different from the prosperity gospel? The prosperity gospel, what is sometimes called the “health and wealth” gospel, teaches that we live for God’s material blessing now. But the Bible teaches us that we live for God’s eternal glory, not our own. This is what Job means when he says, “The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD” (Job 1:21). Job is reminding us that abundant life in Jesus is independent of our circumstances (John 10:10).

But at the heart of the prosperity gospel is the false narrative that the abundant life promised to us in Jesus is dependent upon our circumstances. In other words, if we are not experiencing material prosperity, we’re missing something we’re supposed to have in our relationship with God (wait a minute, if that’s true, what does that mean for the thousands of poverty-stricken Christians all over the world? Is their faith faulty?).

David W. Jones outlines five false promises in prosperity theology[i].

  1. The Abrahamic covenant is a means to material entitlement. In short, prosperity gospel teachers say that the primary purpose of the Abrahamic covenant is material blessing. They often appeal to Galatians 3:14 to support this claim. It’s interesting they often ignore the latter half of the verse, which says “that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.” What is Paul’s point? The blessings of Christ are not primarily material, but spiritual.

 

  1. Jesus’ atonement extends to the “sin” of material poverty. The claim is that earthly healing and prosperity are tied to Jesus’ death on the cross. Of course, in the ultimate sense, yes, we will be healed completely in Christ. However, when you study the New Testament, you discover consistent focus on the fact that Jesus has accomplished so much for us in our atonement, that in response we should empty ourselves of riches in service to our Savior. We should leverage our wealth for the good of others (1 Timothy 6:17-19).

 

  1. Christians give in order to gain material compensation from God. I believe this is a point where I could have been clearer in Sunday’s message. We do not give in order to gain earthly reward. We should not expect God to always give us back (in this life) what we invest in the Kingdom. In fact, Jesus even warns about this in Luke 6:35: “Give, expecting nothing in return.” He then goes on to say, when we give in hopes of gaining nothing but God, our “reward will be great”. In other words, give without regard or care or interest in an earthly reward (e.g., financial prosperity). Instead, seek the heavenly reward (God himself).

God does, at times, reward faithful giving by returning to us the financial gifts we’ve given for the sake of the gospel (we heard a testimony stating such). As some have said, “We can’t out give God.” However, we should not expect that our “reward” will always yield the return of financial blessing. We are not giving to gain earthly wealth. We give because Jesus, “though he was rich, yet for [our] sake he became poor, so that… by his poverty [we] might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9). The wealth we gain is not a fatter bank account. We grow rich in God by our giving (“Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election, for if you practice these qualities, you will never fall. For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:10-11). We grow rich in God because Jesus died that we might experience every spiritual blessing through faith in Christ (Ephesians 1:3-14).

 

  1. Faith is a self-generated spiritual force that leads to prosperity. According to prosperity theology, faith is self-generated rather than God-generated. Faith is a “humanly wrought spiritual force”. And what we lack in this life, we lack because we lack faith. In other words, God’s faithfulness is predicated on our faithfulness. Oh, how wretched this false doctrine is! Think of Job. Did he suffer because he lacked faith? Of course not! His faith was tested and what he experienced revealed a depth of faith that brought him into closer communion with the eternal God. What we eventually see in Job’s life is a portrait of faith revealing that Job loves God for who He is, not what He gives.

The Bible clearly teaches us that Christians will have tribulation (John 16:33). We shouldn’t be surprised when we suffer (1 Peter 4:12). We should expect trials and count them as joy, as God’s way of accomplishing our sanctification (James 1:2-4). Our afflictions lead to abundance and glory (Romans 5:3-5; 8:18; 2 Corinthians 4:17). And none of these hardships necessarily come because we lack faith. Yet, in many cases, prosperity theology wrongly asserts that these states hardships are the result of faulty faith.

 

  1. Prayer is a tool to force God to grant prosperity. The idea is that we have not because we ask not (hey, didn’t Jesus say that?). The problem is that prosperity theology focuses far too heavily on personal interests. It’s selfish in orientation. Maybe we should consider that sometimes God doesn’t give us what we ask for because we ask for it with wrong motivations (see James 4:3). Within prosperity theology, the focus in prayer is more on man than God. The result is a view of God that turns him into a vending machine. Pray the right prayer with the right amount of faith, and you’ll get exactly what you asked for.

The prosperity gospel is no gospel at all. The prosperity gospel says God is most glorified when all our earthly needs are met. But is this true? No. in fact, it’s a pernicious lie. The testimony of Scripture tells us that sometimes God delivers people and they experience the best this world has to offer, and He’s glorified when He does this (see Hebrews 11:1-35a).

But sometimes, people aren’t healed, yet God is still glorified. Sometimes the dead aren’t raised in this life, yet God is still glorified. Sometimes faithful Christians suffer loss, tragedy, mistreatment, and human isolation, yet God is glorified. How is He glorified? He’s glorified when His saints declare God as sufficient, despite great loss. He’s glorified when everything is stripped away and all they have left is God Himself. Like Job. Like the Apostles. Like the modern persecuted Church.

This brings us full circle to Sunday’s sermon. God does reward faithfulness, but His faithfulness is not predicated on our faithfulness. Paul writes, “If we are faithless, he remains faithful – for he cannot deny himself” (2 Timothy 2:13). The Father will always be faithful to His character and to the finished work of Christ on the cross. He will not abandon His true children. We are safe and secure, clothed in the righteousness of Christ Himself.

But when we are faithful, God sees our faithfulness, and He prepares us in our faithful invest in the Kingdom for future work in His Kingdom (Luke 19:17, 19). The greatness of our rewards in the age to come correspond with faithful obedience to God in this life (that was clear from Sunday’s parable).

We will never “deserve” the reward. Whatever reward God bestows upon us Is evidence that He looks with favor upon the work of grace that He has accomplished in our lives. The rewards of God are really nothing more than, as John Piper says, “occasions for happiness in heaven, not disappointments”. Another way to say this is that our faithful obedience to God on the earth is preparing us for greater capacities of joy in heaven.

If you are intrigued and want to read a bit more in Scripture about the concept of rewards in the Kingdom, you could read the following (also note that I pointed out the concept of reward is significant in Luke’s Gospel): Matthew 10:41; 2 Corinthians 5:10; Ephesians 6:5-8; Revelation 2:23.

To summarize this now rather lengthy blog post, the concept of reward that we see in Scripture is nothing like what is taught in prosperity theology. I believe the prosperity gospel fails to rightly understand and interpret Scripture, especially the Old Testament and its application to follower of Christ.

But Scripture does encourage us to live generously because God rewards faithfulness. We are not to see earthly praise or material gain in our giving (of our time, money, talents, resources, etc.), but to rest in the sufficiency of Christ and trust that all we need for eternal joy has been purchased for us in the gospel, and we experience the fullness of life in Christ by grace through faith alone.

Seeking to Live a Generous Life Together,

Pastor Aaron

 

[i] https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/5-errors-of-the-prosperity-gospel/