A Gospel of Flourishing or a Gospel of Faithfulness?

As a seminary student, I spend a lot of time thinking about Jesus and the Gospel of his Kingdom. And one thing I’ve realized over the years is that the Gospel is slippery. If we aren’t careful, our wandering hearts are prone to distort the truth of the Gospel in small ways, so that over time, the truth is lost. What began as a disciplined corrective towards what we recognized as distortions of the truth slowly begins to take on a life of its own, becoming its own form of distortion of truth leading us away from Christ. In a way, it is Christians’ realism about our own tendency to deceive ourselves that we need to check our teachings against faithful expressions of the Gospel in summarized formulations like this one, which in turn we need to be constantly checking against the Scriptures. When we do so, we will find that where a faithful Gospel worldview and distorted worldviews part ways often comes down to subtle nuances – overemphases, shifts in focus, fine distinctions. Yet without fail, we will also find that the resources for critiquing and renewing our worldviews are invariably found within the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Happy or Holy?
Take the worldview that has been variously called “Word of Faith,” “Health and Wealth,” “Name it and Claim it,” and the one I’ll be using here – the “Prosperity Gospel.” (Speaking of which, I’m hoping to read this book at some point – anyone want to read it with me?) While there isn’t necessarily any organized set of doctrinal affirmations among Prosperity Gospel teachers, the general emphasis that characterizes this worldview is a tendency to conflate spiritual well-being and worldly prosperity, measured in terms of financial success, social status, physical well-being, happiness, etc. Recognizing this as a distortion of the Christian Gospel, believers sometimes respond by affirming aphorisms like “God is more interested in you being holy than happy.” Others may say that God calls us not to be so focused on earthly success, but to focus on “spiritual” success – glorifying God, converting souls, amassing treasures in heaven, etc.

Christians with a Gospel Worldview will be dissatisfied with both answers. To the prosperity gospel believers, we’ll point out that believers like Abraham who are commended for their faith in Hebrews 11 were those who also “died in faith without receiving the things promised.” We’ll point to the numerous places throughout the Scriptures that warn believers that the prevailing character of their existence before the return of Christ will be one of suffering, struggle, persecution. We’ll point to those proverbs, or heck Ecclesiastes even, that suggest that it is folly to put our ultimate trust in riches or health.

To those who react with a “spiritualizing” response, we’ll point to how what was promised to Abraham was a promised land – a thoroughly earthly blessingNo promise of some sort of spiritual joy or holy contentment here. The promise certainly was connected to Abraham’s spiritual faithfulness to God, but the blessing that was promised wasn’t only the happiness intrinsic to the very act of loving God, the happiness that comes from being holy. It certainly included that, but the promise was for the kind of blessing that what we all intuitively recognize as a gift from God every time we pray after a flight – “Thank you God for keeping me safe.” It is the daily blessings that we recognize God tells us to ask him for in the Lord’s Prayer: “Give us this day our daily bread.” They are blessings that don’t only have to do with our being spiritually in right relation to God, but blessings that have to do with our prosperity here on earth.

Faithfulness & Flourishing 
If we start from a robust Gospel worldview, we recognize that the world was created for comprehensive flourishing – for shalom. And that as long as humanity remained spiritually trusting God, God would cause their earthly existence to flourish, to prosper. With sin, humanity’s spiritual death led to death in all dimensions of creation, such that physical thriving and happiness being a direct result of spiritual faithfulness no longer remains the order of the day. Indeed, a dominant theme in the Psalms is lament about the reality that in our world, it is the faithful who suffer while the wicked prosper.

As Scripture progress, nevertheless, we find that God still continues to promise flourishing for those who by faith trust in Him; though the prosperity awarded to the faithful is no longer to be expected to be fulfilled in this broken world, it remains a promise to be fulfilled when God comes to end sin and evil, death and injustice, once and for all. Nevertheless, God’s promise of flourishing does at times break into our present broken world, as evidenced in God’s constant faithfulness to his people in “working all things out for their comprehensive good.” (Romans 8:28) Biblical prosperity, then, obviously includes our physical flourishing. The typical dichotomy that is made between spiritual and physical prosperity should instead give way to the more Biblical distinction between present and future prosperity. God continues to promise prosperity to those who remain faithful to him, and though that promise remains largely a future reality, we experience  glimpses of that glorious future in the present.

The Cross
So, perhaps this could be summarized by saying this:  God promises ultimately to bring prosperity to those who remain faithful, but prosperity in the present (think: “already-not-yet”) largely looks like living faithfully in anticipation of receiving that gift. This guards against us preaching a naive prosperity Gospel that neglects the guaranteed difficulty of the Christian life, but it also frees us from captivity to an otherworldly piety that is unable to give us the motivation to work for real justice and flourishing in this world.

For Reformation theologian Martin Luther, the best corrective for helping Christians critique worldview distortions such as the ones discussed above was the cross of Christ. He distinguished between “theologians of glory” and “theologians of the cross.” “Theologians of glory” – a derogatory term for Luther – are unable to discern the glory of God as they look at Jesus on the cross. Instead of looking to Jesus’ faithfulness to God as a picture of true, faithful prosperity in this age, theologians of glory look to typical definitions of glory and prosperity that don’t require having spiritual understanding to recognize. “Theologians of the cross,” on the other hand, recognize in what seems like the foolishness and weakness of Jesus hanging on the cross the wisdom and power of God (1 Cor. 1-2). They recognize that Christ on the cross was the embodiment of a faithful pursuit of prosperity, a pursuit which rejects temptations to seek cheap sources of fleeting happiness, to accrue success through injustice, to accept cheap substitutes of lasting, final, true flourishing. And they recognize that at his resurrection and glorification, Jesus ultimately did receive the glory and blessing promised to him – “all authority in heaven and on earth have been given to me.” (Matt. 28)

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9 thoughts on “A Gospel of Flourishing or a Gospel of Faithfulness?”

  1. love this! thanks, jerm!

    i think one of the reasons why we often assign causal relations between earthly prosperity and spiritual flourishing is the human instinct to make sense of suffering. There are faithful Christians in our lives who seem to be doing well in life, and there are faithful Christians who seem to have many griefs to bear. We don’t deal with the mystery very well, because it’s hard to be content with promises that are only fulfilled in the future, and it’s hard to see glory in pain. (Which reminds me of another quote from Wolterstorff: ‘…maybe His sorrow is His splendor.’)

    I do wonder though, if some people see more glimpses of the future in the present, and if the promise of flourishing breaks into some people’s present lives more than others, and why? It’s probably another mystery.

    1. @ ivy

      I heard someone preach that both poverty and wealth are spiritual gifts.
      People in poverty are prone to be tempted by despair and cynicism, while people in wealth are prone to be tempted by contempt and arrogance. Like talents, some have more of one than the other, and we must learn to use them.

      A la John 9, I think what we see in human suffering is space for God’s glory; we cannot recognize suffering without implicitly assuming things could have been better; it seems like an empty space that we are called to fill not by desire or dissatisfaction, but by gratitude and hope. Many people who have successfully endured suffering wear it as a badge of pride later on.

      Like those happy janitors and humble workers with the richest smiles, there are some really beautiful things that can be made out of only the really smallest things. Perhaps in New Jerusalem there will be a group of magical people, able to make butterflies out of nothing. Where did you learn that? We grew up with nothing, and just figured out how to make the most of what we had.

  2. “Prosperity in the present (think: “already-not-yet”) largely looks like living faithfully in anticipation of receiving that gift”

    ^would looove if we could talk more about what that means and looks like! i remember touching on this in cap Bible study once, whether christian life is this long self-denying angsty anticipation of the one-day-Heaven-will-come or if it’s something much more full and alive RIGHT NOW. the analogy we came up with was like, if redemption and JC + Kingdom back on earth is like this HUGE AWESOME party > anything you can imagine, then living the Kingdom come right now even in our broken world = starting the pregame. (ya i know, eating club Bible study ha ha… haha :P) it’s not the full party yet but when we die to our selves and are birthed into new Spirit life, boom things change and we start seeing all things new, all things different, flourishing begins

    the thoughts i’m having now are mostly re: what does that flourishing look like exactly, practically, in real life? yes it’s daily bread and restoring justice to our systems and all these larger scale policy things i thought about during manna at princeton… but even before all that i think the biggest chunk of it, the most important incredible part of this pregame is the Spirit of God abiding in us, and us abiding in Him. being one with our LORD, John 15 style, dwelling in this living stream that gushes in and through and overflowing from us.
    being NEVER ALONE.
    from the outside it’s like ok what the heck? so you’re not alone but how is that useful if you’re still in poverty, there’s still war, injustice, the systems are so broken corrupt etc etc you’re not fixing it and what if you just die the next day etc?

    but from the inside
    it’s life, true life
    it’s always been easy for me to place gospel WORLDview/rebuilding the world/fixing things before the #1 feature of the Kingdom pregame, which is that God is Present with Us. it’s silly how easily and often i disregard that and prioritize Kingdom > King, because.. you know, you can’t SEE the King.. haha but i’m thinking if we realize that just sitting before His throne like Mary = the heart and core of flourishing, it becomes much clearer how people in poverty and earthly suffering, even those lacking daily physical bread, can still be said to be FULL.

    1. Yes! If we focus on the kingdom without the King, we lose the kingdom! The heart of flourishing is the renewing Spirit that renews our hearts – the spring of water, welling up to eternal life. And we can see this when Jesus talks about how the Kingdom is already present among us!

  3. Nice post, Jeremy! I think James K.A. Smith said somewhere in “Thinking in Tongues” that there seem to be more anti-prosperity gospel figures in the world than there are proponents of the prosperity gospel. Regardless of evaluating the issue itself, it seems that the prosperity gospel is a particularly attractive target for Christian academics. While I agree with you on many points regarding the harmful effects of the ideology when it presents a link, I daresay even a correlation between faith/material goods, I also believe that such overt hostility towards these people could belie a dualistic, condescending attitude of the accusers.

    There can be a “prosperity gospel” pastor in a megachurch in suburban Atlanta, addressing an upper-middle class audience in comfortable chairs, telling them that they can receive and take “in faith” the next new BMW, or new house in a favorable neighborhood. There can be a “prosperity gospel” pastor in southern Malawi, addressing a truly impoverished congregation which faces true starvation in bad harvest years, encouraging the congregation to include prayers of material goods and necessities in their lives, as blessings from God can most certainly include material, economic, financial blessings as well. At the root of things, I personally do believe that those who are grouped into this umbrella term are really too complex to aptly, swiftly condemn as a whole.

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