By Sean DeMars
Explain the True Gospel
How do we help our family members, friends, coworkers, or even fellow church members who are swept up in the prosperity gospel? Here are a few simple ideas as you prayerfully engage their error.
The most important way to help is to teach them a right understanding of the gospel.
According to Scripture, the gospel says we were dead in sin (Eph. 2:1), separated from God, and destined for his holy wrath (Isa. 59:2). But even when we were dead in our sins, God loved us and sent his Son to die for us (Rom. 5:8). Through Jesus’s death and resurrection, God has reconciled us to himself (2 Cor. 5:18). The benefits of Christ’s work are applied to us personally when we recognize this message to be true and respond by repenting of our sin and trusting in Christ alone, joyfully recognizing Jesus’s lordship over our lives (Mark 1:15; Rom. 10:9; 1 John 5:3). This free offer of salvation comes to us by God’s grace alone, and we receive this salvation by faith alone (Rom. 4:5), a faith that is itself a gift from God (Eph. 2:8–9).
Let me suggest that as you explain the gospel, a good place to begin would be Isaiah 53—ironically, a passage prosperity preachers often use to defend their theology.
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that
brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
Prosperity preachers point to this verse as a promise of physical healing purchased by Jesus through his work on the cross. At first glance, that idea doesn’t seem unreasonable. But is that really what the passage is saying?
When we’re interpreting the Bible, one important rule to remember is that we must always let Scripture interpret Scripture. Furthermore, we always want to look to the New Testament anytime we’re interpreting the Old Testament. After all, we want to interpret the Bible like Jesus and the apostles, right?
It turns out, the apostle Peter comments on Isaiah 53:5 in 1 Peter 2:21–25. Here’s that passage in context:
For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.
As you can see, Peter teaches that the prophet Isaiah wasn’t promising that Jesus would bring physical healing, but spiritual healing—healing from our sin-sickness. Here it is again:
He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. (1 Pet. 2:24)
Using nothing more than a simple cross-reference, you can show someone what it means to be “healed” by Jesus’s wounds. Christ died ultimately to take care of our biggest problem, our guilt before God on account of our sin. He took on himself the punishment our sins deserved so that we might stand before God with his righteousness, not our own (2 Cor. 5:21).
On the subject of physical healing, you can also ask questions like, “If all believers are
supposed to be able to access healing in the atonement, then why does God give the ‘gift of healing’?” Or you can read James 5:14 and simply ask, “If all Christians have the ability to claim healing in Jesus’s name, then why does the book of James instruct Christians to go to the elders of the church and ask for prayer?”
These questions aren’t intended to “win” an argument. But questions like these, asked in a spirit of love and humility, can often plant a seed of doubt that the Spirit may use to lead someone to the true gospel of Jesus.
Consistently Point to the Bible
Scripture is brimming with saints who were loved by God but who nevertheless suffered greatly as part of God’s good plan for their lives. Consider some of the people who suffered as children of God. Job was righteous (Job 1:1), yet the Lord willed for him to suffer greatly. But God was glorified in Job’s suffering.
Consider the ministry of the apostle Paul. Here was Jesus’s promise for Paul’s life:
For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name. (Acts 9:16)
This was Paul’s best life. Listen to Paul describe the fulfillment of God’s loving plan:
Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, a night and a day I have spent in the deep. I have been on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my countrymen, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers on the sea, dangers among false brethren; I have been in labor and hardship, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. Apart from such external things, there is the daily pressure on me of concern for all the churches. Who is weak without my being weak? Who is led into sin without my intense concern? (2 Cor. 11:25–29 NASB)
Remember, Paul wasn’t an enemy of God when he suffered. He was an apostle, chosen
by God, and given the grace to be a leader in the early church. He was called by God, faithful to God, and blessed for the glory of God. Yet his life looked like his master Jesus’s life: full of suffering.
Which brings us, of course, to the final example of suffering in Scripture: the Lord Jesus Himself.
Jesus is the suffering servant of Isaiah (Isaiah 53). He was God’s beloved Son (Matt. 3:17). God was well pleased with him (Matt. 3:17). And yet, it was the will of the Father to crush
him (Isa. 53:10). Jesus knew this would all happen to him. He knew that suffering was part of the Father’s plan for his life (Acts 2:23), and he spoke of it frequently with his disciples (Matt. 16:21).
If Jesus was promised suffering in his service to the Father, then what does that mean for us? No servant is greater than his master (John 15:20). If Christ suffered, so shall we.
For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake. (Phil. 1:29)
Sometimes, we think that correcting error or defending the gospel is for “those guys”—pastors, Sunday school teachers, and Christians who just seem to love to argue. But helping those we love to see the error of a false gospel is something that any one of us may be called to do (1 Pet. 3:15). And if the Lord gives us that opportunity, we shouldn’t be anxious about it, worrying about whether or not we have the right training or gifts to communicate the gospel (Ex. 4:12; Luke 12:12). If we have open Bibles, humble hearts, love for our neighbors, and the Spirit of God, then any of us can be used by God to bring light to those in the darkness of the prosperity gospel.
If you’ve believed in the prosperity gospel, I would ask you to prayerfully consider the verses we’ve just finished walking through. Ask yourself, does my understanding of the gospel and of the Christian life make sense of the entire testimony of Scripture?1
- For two excellent books which explore the biblical gospel, see Greg Gilbert,Who Is Jesus? (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015); and Gilbert, What Is the Gospel? (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010).
This article is adapted from Does the Gospel Promise Health and Prosperity? by Sean DeMars.