Every now and then, people would approach me and ask about prosperity gospel. The questions come in different forms but the gist always boils down to this: are we preaching prosperity gospel in Victory?
My short answer is “no”. My long answer is “Noooooo!!!” We preach finance sermons from time to time because money is one of the common idols of our day and one biblical way to battle idolatry is to expose it in the light of the gospel.
In one Ask Pastor John podcast, John Piper lists six keys in detecting prosperity gospel in a church: the absence of a serious doctrine of the Biblical necessity and normalcy of suffering; the absence of a clear and prominent doctrine of self-denial; the pastor keeps going back to his favorite texts without really doing some serious exposition of Scripture; the pastor doesn’t preach the tensions of Scripture but is happy to skip problematic verses; the pastor lives an exorbitant lifestyle; and the pastor’s wife, kids, and dogs are more prominent in his sermons than the greatness of God.
A Look at Our Past Sermon Series
Victory has never shied away from preaching the wide range of Biblical themes. We’ve had a series on pain and suffering (Hole-Hearted Series) and obedience and submission (I Wish Jesus Didn’t Say That Series). Every year we preach missions (Uncharted Series), discipleship (Radical Series), and compassion to the poor (Who Cares Series). We tackled sexual purity (Uncensored Series) and hard work (Thank God It’s Monday Series) too. And in recent years, we did some theological series like the holiness of God (Set Apart Series), the Apostles’ Creed, the Ten Commandments, Christology (Past Perfect Series), Pneumatology (Behind the Seen Series), Eschatology (The End Series), and Spiritual Disciplines (Cross Training Series). (Edit: In 2017, we had a sixteen-week series on the Sermon on the Mount and two book studies on John and Malachi. In 2018 we preached on Bibliology, Soteriology, poverty and social responsibility, Biblical anthropology, and the Incarnation. In the last five months we preached a long series on faith from Hebrews 11, the cost of discipleship, and the messianic prophecies from Isaiah. You can listen to most of my podcasts here.)
The purveyors of prosperity gospel will never preach the doctrines of grace and Christ-centered sermons like these. Their teachings on health and prosperity clash with the reality of suffering which Jesus, Paul, Job, and Jeremiah endured. Their sermons always revolve around the power of man’s words: confess it, you’ll have it; command the blessings of God to go this way and that way; speak your destiny into existence; live your best life now; and call forth security, health, and success. They also teach that being poor is wrong and for God to bless you, you just need to buy this [overpriced] book, attend this [powerful] conference to unlock your destiny, or sow financial seeds into the pastor’s vision. These are empty promises. They sound nice to our ears, but they also cater to our greed and materialism.
The Fine Line series, for example, does the exact opposite of prosperity gospel preaching. The theme focuses on contentment, our true security in Christ, generosity, and looking at money through the lens of eternity. These are not get-rich-quick schemes and empty promises. These are gospel themes that come right out of the pages of the Bible.
On Naming Heretics and False Teachers
Despite these obvious indicators of balanced preaching, I’ve heard some people say that we endorse prosperity gospel. We don’t. Others venture to assert that we have false teachers in our ranks. That’s a charge that demands serious examination.
When you evaluate whether or not a ministry endorses prosperity gospel, you need to look at the wider sampling of its published books, manuals, training materials, and sermons covering a longer period of time, not just the two or three weeks that made you cringe. You can’t say that someone is a false teacher just because you heard him say something inaccurate. It’s worse if your source is just one photograph or a social media post without context. If you want to see the core doctrines of Victory, read the second semester manual of Leadership 113 (start with Week 10).
Justin Holcomb, in his book “Know the Heretics,” cautioned us against accusing a ministry of false teaching by the few times a pastor uttered a poorly worded sentence in a sermon. While the erring pastor needs correction (he certainly does) and further education (we have an ongoing, year-long supplementary theological trainings), we must also recognize that no preacher can articulate all the fine points of theology in a forty-five minute sermon. Even Jesus didn’t explore the nuances of grace in the Sermon on the Mount.
I say this because some people expect pastors to deliver well-nuanced, flawless theology all the time. But preachers grow in their theology too. Bavinck, Vanhoozer, Turretin, or Tim Keller didn’t become smart overnight. They grew over a period of many years. At one point of their ministerial careers they were immature too. How many times did Calvin edit the Institutes? Even C.S. Lewis, Augustine, William Barclay, Martin Luther, Billy Graham, and John Stott all died with their major theological flaws uncorrected and yet we embrace them. We just take the meat and throw away the bones from their works.
I am thankful to God for friends from other churches who raise questions about the sermons we preach in our pulpits. They help us see the theological content of our sermons more clearly and objectively. But allow me a few words of exhortation here.
Tucked away in Acts 18:24-28 is an interesting story of a preacher named Apollos. He preached accurate things about Jesus but he got some things wrong. Priscilla and Aquila did not right away organize a seminar to denounce Apollos. They “took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately.”
This, brothers and sisters, is the way of Christian charity. You don’t just ‘shoot now and ask questions later.’ You reach out first, you clarify, you go out of your way to help make things right. This is, after all, the body of Christ built on grace and truth. It’s not all grace. If it is, it will breed false unity. It’s not all truth. If it is, it fosters arrogance and leaves broken hearts in its wake. It has to be both grace and truth.
Calling someone a false teacher is a tricky business. You have to be absolutely sure you are right because you do not want to end up slandering a precious brother in the Lord and ruining the faith of many people. But if you must denounce someone as a false teacher, at least have the decency of alerting him of your accusations. Pick up your phone and call him. Send an email. Exhaust all possible means to give the other person a fair hearing. Secular journalists do this all the time. Even Arius the heretic was given the chance to defend himself. We must make sure that in our eagerness to defend the doctrines of grace, we do not end up becoming ungracious and unloving to the men and women who labor hard in the kingdom of God.
To all my friends who find something erroneous in my sermons, I look forward to receive a message from you as you take me aside to explain to me the ways of God more accurately. I’d be happy to have coffee with you if you are cool about associating with someone who says non-orthodox things from time to time.