Prosperity Gospel, Deuteronomic Faith, and How Babies Come into It

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Let me go straight to the central question I want to address here. What is the difference between the prosperity gospel and the Deuteronomic blessings I like to talk about? And what is the essential difference between the various men who are bringing these respective messages to you?

The difference is that the former is selling you something, and the latter is telling you something. One is leeching, and the other is teaching. But this requires some unpacking.

Individual Consumers

If for some reason you get up in the middle of the night and turn on the television, the chances are pretty good that you are going to encounter infomericials. The infomericials are going to try to sell you a rugged vacuum cleaner that could suck up a tennis ball, an absolutely amazing Chamois cloth, a reverse mortgage, and gold coins for these troubled times in which we live. There will also be a televangelist on one of those channels, who has a row of teeth that are really something, and he too will be trying to sell you something.

And because what he is selling is a product, it needs to be a guaranteed product. Now, as is the case in these sorts of arrangements, terms and conditions may apply. He needs to sell you on the strength of the guarantee, and so that will be front and center in the message. The terms and conditions are found in the fine print, down there where it says that you need to have “enough faith.” Just last week, some other viewer laid his hands on the television, prayed the suggested prayer, and the very next day a distant uncle gave him a brand new Lexis.

These promises, and intimations, and strong suggestions, and broad hints, are very inexpensive to the ministry, and so they serve as a very effective loss leader, and there really isn’t even any loss involved. A loss leader is when a store loses money on highly desired items, and they price it below cost to get people into the store, and they make up all the money they lost on all the other stuff that is bought.

It is the same here, although, as I said, there is no loss involved. It is therefore a lie leader. You too can have a Lear jet. You too can give your wife the diamond ring of her dreams. You too can be the envy of all those people who laughed at you in high school.

They make their money elsewhere, through donations, and through $19.95 sales of little vials of water from the Jordan River. But the draw, the thing that attracts, is the promise of prosperity, the promise of health, the promise of wealth.

All of this is shallow, and simplistic, and individualistic, and crass, and transactional in a vending machine kind of way. I mean there is the thing that you want, on the other side of the glass, and you have the thing that they want in your right hand. The whole thing is transactional, but it is also reductionist.

And the mistake of critics is that they take aim at the transaction instead of taking aim at the reductionism. This is what I mean.

What Is the Opposite Direction?

Every faithful Christian should want to steer clear of this prosperity gospel, but some make the mistake of reacting away from it in a way is every bit as shallow, and simplistic, and individualistic as the health and wealth preachers are offering.

Instead of offering a prosperity gospel, they offer an adversity gospel—as though adversity were the point. The prosperity gospel preachers speak as though God and His gospel were a means to an end, that end being your bank account and the new car in your driveway. But adversity preachers do the same thing, as though God and the gospel were a means to an end, that end being the glory of your sacrifices, and the pride you take in how much opprobrium you can heap over the top of your own head.

Here is an illustration that I think captures the confusion quite well. Feminists have attacked the institution of marriage as being nothing more than a valorized form of prostitution. They say that marriage is an economic arrangement with sexual activity at the center of it. See? That’s what prostitution is. And on the surface, they have a point. Marriage is an economic arrangement. Marriage does have sexual activity at the center of it. Therefore, they argue, marriage is nothing more than socially respectable prostitution.

But prostitution is as ugly as it is, not because of the presence of money and the presence of sex, but rather because of all the things it leaves out. It leaves out kids, and a van, and car seats, and mowing the lawn, and taking kids with the croup to the ER in the middle of the night, and anniversary dinners, and sex afterwards, and balancing the checkbook, and getting leaves out of the gutter, and reading to the kids after dinner, and cleaning up the basement, and afternoon pick-up at school, and painting the kitchen, and watching a movie together, and gathering everyone up on the Lord’s Day to go worship Jehovah. The problem with prostitution is the reductionism, not the sex. The problem is the reductionism, not the money.

So marriage is not a financial transaction for sex. It is a myriad of financial transactions and personal relationships, and the central personal relationship is a sexual one, and so what else is new?

In the same way, the prosperity gospel is a reductionistic approach to blessing. The problem is not the blessing. The problem is putting money in the offering plate and expecting the “ordered” blessing to ship within 1 to 3 business days. I will come back to the nature of true blessing in the conclusion.

In the Meantime, That Passage in Hebrews

There is one glorious passage in Hebrews that shuts down the prosperity preacher and the adversity preacher in just the same way. All you have to do to shut either one of them down is to read the whole passage aloud, all the way through.

“And what shall I more say? for the time would fail me to tell of Gedeon, and of Barak, and of Samson, and of Jephthae; of David also, and Samuel, and of the prophets: Who through faith subdued kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, Quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, waxed valiant in fight, turned to flight the armies of the aliens. Women received their dead raised to life again: and others were tortured, not accepting deliverance; that they might obtain a better resurrection: And others had trial of cruel mockings and scourgings, yea, moreover of bonds and imprisonment: They were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword: they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, tormented; (Of whom the world was not worthy:) they wandered in deserts, and in mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.”

Hebrews 11:32–38 (KJV)

What does faith do, Pastor Otis P. Grabit? It lives in caves and dens. It wanders in deserts. It is poor, beyond destitute. It dresses in goatskins or sheepskins. It is afflicted, and tormented. It is killed with the sword, hacked to pieces. It is tempted and tried. It is sawn in two, like Isaiah was. It is stoned, as Paul repeatedly was. Faith is tortured in the hope of a better resurrection. It is thrown into prisons, and bound in chains. It is tied to a whipping post, and then flogged. It is jeered at and mocked. That’s what faith does, Otis.

What does faith do, Rev. Jaber T. Buzzkill? It conquers kingdoms. It obtains promises, and holds them in the hand. It accomplishes righteousness, which means the righteous thing gets done. It stops the mouths of lions, down in the lions’ den. It quenches the fire so that it does not burn. It escapes from the power of the sword, completely delivered. It is transformed from weakness into strength. It grows valiant in battle, and completely routs the invaders. Women even received their dead back to life. That’s what faith does, Jaber.

And given the different kinds of stories we are obviously dealing with here, that is why faith is necessary. This is because faith is spiritually literate. Faith knows how to read the different kinds of stories that God weaves, and when faith is in the midst of a story of hard providence, as many above were, they know how to read the story, looking for the joy that is set before them. And when they are in a deliverance story, they know how to look for the eucatastrophe. This is because faith is literate.

The doom and gloomer is illiterate, so he demands that the story always has to go the same way. That way he can know what to expect. The health and wealther is illiterate, so he demands the story always go the same way also. That way he can know what to expect. The D&Ger and the H&Wer both walk by sight, and not by faith. They are both reading off a script that is entirely predictable. So when the D&Ger sees someone, for example, waxing valiant in battle, he can worry about an incipient health and wealth tendency. And if the H&Wer sees someone tied to a stake, refusing to deny Christ, he can wonder why he simply doesn’t exercise “more faith”—when the martyr has more faith in his little finger than the prosperity preacher ever even thought about having.

Deuteronomic Blessings

So Deuteronomic blessings are granted in real time, in real life, in the presence of real enemies, and without denying the realities of real troubles. At the same time, there is a recognition that God is telling a fantastic story, one with champions, and martyrs, and missionaries, and explorers, and farmers, and inventors, and preachers in the vanguard.

I am fond of saying that God draws straight with crooked lines. Read through the observations made by Job’s three friends, who didn’t understand this principle at all. There is a lot of good theology there, radically misapplied. So when confronted with a trial, I don’t have to pretend that it is something else, but I do have to place it in the context of God’s larger story. Job’s friends thought the problem was a simple one, but God’s answer from the whirlwind showed them all that it was anything but.

The foolish man stands in front of the vending machine, wondering why he didn’t get his M&Ms. The wise man confronts his particular situation, and he looks to his left and right, seeing all the variables there, up and down the line. In addition, he also looks back at his ancestors, and forward to his descendants. And why? Because stories occur over time. Read reads the stories over time. And the fact that a number of chapters lie ahead brings me to the next point.

I promised that babies would come into it at some point, and so I need to give a trigger warning at this point to our baptist friends. Proceed at your own risk. Deuteronomic blessings are longitudinal—they extend across generations.

“Know therefore that the Lord thy God, he is God, the faithful God, which keepeth covenant and mercy with them that love him and keep his commandments to a thousand generations”

Deuteronomy 7:9 (KJV)

Modern Christians, in the grip of unbelief, think that this is a promise that is somehow contained by the Old Testament. “Yeah, it promises covenant and mercy to a thousand generations, but that was for the Old Testament.” No, it wasn’t. The promise was made in the Old Testament, but find me a place back there when there was staunch faithfulness, generation after generation. You can’t do it. The faithfulness back then, when it happened, was episodic and sporadic, and fun while it lasted.

The Old Testament is not the place where the promises to a thousand generations were fulfilled. The Old Testament is the place where we wonder why the promises weren’t being fulfilled. The New Testament is where God begins to fulfill everything. The new covenant is not the erasure of the promises, but rather the fulfillment of all of them.

“For all the promises of God in him are yea, and in him Amen, unto the glory of God by us.”

2 Corinthians 1:20 (KJV)

And as you gear up to learn how to believe as you ought, Thomas Chalmers once put it this way. Regardless of how large, your vision is too small.

“But as it is written, Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.”

1 Corinthians 2:9 (KJV)

So stand up straight. Open your eyes. Take up the promises. Take your wife to your side, and gather your children around. Make sure everyone is baptized, and walking in faith. Expect an adventure story.