On more than one occasion I’ve heard contemporary proponents of the so-called prosperity gospel appeal to Paul’s use of the principle of sowing and reaping to support their view.
But was Paul really an intentional or inadvertent advocate of this view?
Twice in his writings Paul appeals to the principle of sowing and reaping when making an appeal for Christians to be generous and sacrificial in giving money to ministry causes.
First, in Galatians 6 he writes:
Let the one who is taught the word share all good things with the one who teaches. Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith. (Gal. 6:6–9)
In this context, the sowing and reaping refers to generosity in giving. This is how Paul uses it in the second passage, too. In 2 Corinthians 9, he has in mind the person who selfishly uses wealth for personal gain:
Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each one must give as he has decided in his own heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work. . . . He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way. (2 Cor. 9:6–8; 10–11)
This idea of sowing and reaping, John Stott observes, is “a principle of order and consistency which is written into all life, material and moral.” It’s something God has embedded in reality. If you want a harvest of wheat, you must sow wheat. You can’t sow corn and expect lima beans. A good seed will produce a good crop, and a bad seed a bad one. This is just as true in our spiritual lives. If you sow little, you will reap little. If you sow into yourself, you will only reap for yourself. Our actions have consequences.
A closer look at 2 Corinthians 9 confirms that the reaping Paul has in mind—as well as in Galatians 6—isn’t for the purpose of building personal wealth. God will grant a bountiful harvest to the one who sows bountifully, so that the Christian “may abound in every good work”—namely, being even more generous “in every way.”
Prosperity-gospel advocates who argue “if you give a lot, you’ll get a lot—and finally be able to afford a significant upgrade in your standard of living” cannot legitimately appeal to this passage or to Galatians 6, though they often do.
So You May Give Even More Away
The prosperity gospel says you should give in order to get—and stops there. The Bible says you should give in order to get—so you can give even more away.
Paul’s language is designed to counteract the fear that people experience with giving. They’re terrified that if they give, they won’t have enough to meet their own needs. But God promises to supply abundantly those who give generously. Paul wants the Corinthians to be free from the fear that generous giving will leave them impoverished. His language is unmistakable: “God is able to make all grace abound to you . . . [and] will supply and multiply your seed . . . [and] you will be enriched in every way.”
So does this mean the prosperity people were right after all? No, for we must ask: To what end or with what goal does God cause the generous Christian steward to abound? Why does God promise financial abundance to those who sow abundantly—that is, who give cheerfully and freely to others? Let’s allow Paul to speak for himself:
God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work. (2 Cor. 9:8)
He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. (2 Cor. 9:10)
You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God. (2 Cor. 9:11)
Not a Prosperity Apostle
The point is that God won’t stir your heart to give and then fail to supply you with resources to do so. But the idea that we should give so God will enrich us personally—with a view to increasing our comfort, convenience, and purchasing power—is foreign to Paul’s teaching. He views personal wealth not as an end in itself, but as a means to a yet higher goal: continued generosity to those in need.
If you give generously now, you’ll discover God not only sustains your desire to give, but also increases your resources for yet more joyful and glorious giving down the road.
So, no. Paul was not an advocate of the contemporary prosperity gospel.