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 blessing. No 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.
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)