A friend of mine worked in a bank overseas for about a year,
handling large amounts of
During training, she
studied various bills and learned
so she could easily discern
if they came along.
She studied the real thing
so she could identify distortions.
The same goes for the
gospel of Jesus Christ
We need to know the
so we can identify
and grasp how the truth applies to our lives.
But where do we start?
What Is the True Gospel
Romans 5 answers three questions that we can use as a
framework to help us grasp the true gospel:
Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand…God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. (Romans 5:1-2, 8-9)
Saved from what? The wrath of God.
There is no gospel apart from the wrath of God and his righteous judgment against sinners (v. 9). This is an uncomfortable reality, but one we must hold to because ignoring or belittling sin does not mean sin goes away. Jesus is the standard—each one of us has fallen short and sinned against him.
Saved by whom? Jesus Christ.Christians are saved from the wrath of God by the righteous blood of Jesus, the spotless sacrificial Lamb who absorbed the wrath on our behalf (v. 8). Only Jesus has the power to save desperate, dead sinners from God’s wrath by giving them eternal life in his Name, accomplishing what we never could.
Saved how? By grace through faith.
True faith says,
“I bring nothing to the table. I come empty-handed, but Christ gladly gives himself to me.” For, faith is trusting that when I was dead in sin, Jesus did everything to purchase eternal life for me by his death on the cross and his resurrection to new life. And faith is trusting that Jesus did this apart from anything I have done.
Seven Counterfeit Gospels
As we seek to believe and proclaim the true gospel, we should be aware of these seven counterfeit gospels about sin, Jesus, and faith:
1. The Good-People Gospel
This one says, “We’re all basically good people. We make mistakes – nobody’s perfect – but we’re good people at heart.”
This claim is wrong and dangerous. Ignoring sin does not make it disappear. Recognizing sin means there is Someone to whom we will be held responsible. Even though our pride doesn’t roll with that idea, sin is real, and it’s a power we need rescuing from. No one is good, not one (see Psalm 14:3).
2. The Self-Esteem Gospel
This distortion claims, “Believe in yourself! You might have some struggles and issues, but you’re resilient. There’s a Savior who will give all you need to solve your problems.”
This dangerous false gospel masquerades sin as “insecurity” or “negative self-image,” rather than calling it what it is. Remember, belittling sin does not make it go away. When we belittle sin, we lose the gospel. For Jesus says, “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17).
3. The Expressive-Individualism GospelThis one claims that Christianity is all about “being true to yourself,” “following your heart,” and “living authentically.”
But this idea runs counter to everything the gospel says. We’re sinners who can’t trust our hearts because they’re deceitful (Jeremiah 17:9). Apart from Christ, we’re slaves to sin, not free in ourselves (Romans 6:17). And our sin darkens our minds and blinds us to God’s reality so we’re unable to discover what’s authentic and true (2 Corinthians 4:4).
4. The Optional-Jesus GospelThis belief says, “Jesus is a way, not the way. A person can find their way to God through a number of different spiritual experiences.”
To say that Jesus is optional not only goes against the Bible’s teaching about who Jesus is (John 14:6; Acts 4:12), but it thwarts the gospel. For if Jesus is not really the holy, righteous Son of God, who came to bear sin, absorb God’s wrath, and make peace with God through reconciliation so I wouldn’t be condemned forever, there is no good news to believe.
Think about this: If Jesus is only “a way” to God, he’s either a lunatic or a liar for the divine claims he made, and his sacrifice on the cross was for nothing. It was a waste of a life. And if this is true, then “our faith is in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:14).
5. The Prosperity Gospel
This distorted view of Jesus says that he guarantees his followers a happy, healthy life with no troubles.
But the truth is this: Jesus suffered. Those who believe in him will suffer too. Jesus says, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34).
We must guard against the belief that Jesus is here to cozy up our lives and make everything easy for us. If we’re deceived into believing this, we won’t follow Jesus for long, for we will be disappointed, bitter, even hardened to God when things don’t go our way. The truth is, we follow a Suffering Savior in a fallen world affected by sin. Our Jesus did not avoid suffering, but entered into it to bring us salvation.
6. The Faith-And Gospel
This distortion claims that “faith and” something else is sufficient to save me: Faith and my good works; faith and enough self-loathing; faith and a right understanding of God.
It’s hard to believe that God would give salvation as a free gift without requiring that we earn it. Because our sin-nature screams for independence and control, we want to have something to do with our salvation. But we cannot add one thing to the work and person of Jesus Christ. “It is finished” (John 19:30); death is defeated; evil is overcome.
7. The Faith-So Gospel
This opposite end of the spectrum is what theologians call “cheap grace,” which says, “Jesus is my righteousness and perfection, so I can live however I want because in the end, I’m saved!”
Yes, it is for freedom that Christ has set us free (Galatians 5:1), but we are set free from sin’s power to live for Christ, not to remain in our sin and live any way we want. To take wrong advantage of God’s grace and forgiveness that “sin may abound” belittles what Christ did and cheapens his free gift of grace. Faith does not give us the freedom to stay in sin; it frees us from sin so our lives increasingly point to Jesus.
Grasping the Gospel
Friends, though we need to know the truth of the gospel from its counterfeits, we must know that the gospel is about the person of Jesus Christ and his grasp on us.
You can intellectually assent to the gospel—you can “know it”—without ever grasping it, without ever marveling at what a miracle Christ has accomplished, without it ever transforming your heart.
But Jesus came so you would love him, walk closely with him, worship him, and see him at work in the realest moments and seasons of your life.
That Satan labours might and main,
which are his messengers and ambassadors, to deceive, delude, and for ever undo the precious souls of men (Acts 20:28-30; 2 Cor. 11:13-15; Eph. 4:14; 2 Tim. 3:4-6; Titus 1:11,12; 2 Peter 2:18,19): 'I have seen folly in the prophets of Samaria; they prophesied in Baal, and caused my people Israel to err.' (Jer. 23:13). 'The prophets make my people to err.' (Micah 3:5). They seduce them, and carry them out of the right way into by-paths and blind thickets of error, blasphemy, and wickedness, where they are lost forever. 'Beware of false prophets, for they come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves'. (Mat. 7:15). These lick and suck the blood of souls: 'Beware of dogs, beware of evil workers, beware of the concision.' (Phil. 3:2). These kiss and kill; these cry, Peace, peace, till souls fall into everlasting flames, &c., Proverbs 7.
Now, the best way to deliver poor souls from being deluded and destroyed by these messengers of Satan is, to discover them in their colors, that so, being known, poor souls may shun them, and fly from them as from hell itself.
Now you may know them by these characters following:
1. False Teachers are Men-Pleasers
False teachers are men-pleasers (Gal. 1:10; 1 Thess. 2:1-4). They preach more to please the ear than to profit the heart: 'Which say to the seers, See not; and to the prophets, Prophecy no unto us right things: speak to us smooth things; prophecy deceits'' (Isa. 30:10). 'A wonderful and horrible thing is committed in the land: the prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests bear rule by their means, and my people love to have it so. And what will you do in the end thereof?' (Jer. 5:30,31). They handle holy things rather with wit and dalliance (playful come-on) then with fear and reverence. False teachers are soul-undoers. They are like evil chirurgeons, that skin over the wound, but never heal it. Flattery undid Ahab and Herod, Nero and Alexander. False teachers are hell's greatest enrichers. Non acerba, sed blanda, Not bitter, but flattering words do all the mischief, said Valerian, the Roman emperor. Such smooth teachers are sweet soul-poisoners
2. False Teaches Throw Dirt at Christ's People
False teachers are notable in casting dirt, scorn, and reproach upon the persons, names, and credits of Christ's most faithful ambassadors. Thus Korah, Dathan, and Abiram charged Moses and Aaron that they took too much upon them, seeing all the congregation was holy (Num. 16:3). You take too much state, too much power, too much honour, too much holiness upon you; for what are you more than others, that you take so much upon you? And so Ahab's false prophets fell foul on good Micaiah, paying of him with blows for want of better reasons (1 Kings 22:10-26). Yea, Paul, that great apostle of the Gentiles, had his ministry undermined and his reputation blasted by false teachers: 'For his letters'' say they, 'are weighty and powerful, but his bodily presence is weak and contemptible' (2 Cor. 10:10). They rather contemn him than admire him; they look upon him as a dunce rather than a doctor. And the same hard measure had our Lord Jesus from the Scribes and Pharisees, who laboured as for life to build their own credit upon the ruins of his reputation. And never did the devil drive a more full trade this way than he does in these days (Matt. 27:63). Oh! the dirt, the filth, the scorn that is thrown upon those whom the world is not worthy. I suppose false teachers mind not that saying of Austin, Quisquis volens detrahit famae, nolens addit mercedi meae, He that willingly takes from my good name, unwillingly adds to my reward.
3. False Teachers are Driven by Their Own Heads and Hearts
False teachers are venters of the devices and visions of their own heads and hearts. 'Then the Lord said unto me, The prophets prophesy lies in my name: I sent then not, neither have I commanded them, neither spake unto them: they prophecy unto you a false vision and divination, and a thing of nought, and the deceit of their heart (Jer. 14:14); 'Thus saith the Lord of hosts, Harken not unto the words of the prophets that prophecy unto you; they make you vain: they speak a vision of their own heart, and not out of the mouth of the Lord' (Jer. 23:16). Are there not multitudes in this nation whose visions are but golden delusions, lying vanities, brain-sick phantasies? These are Satan's great benefactors, and such as divine justice will hang up in hell as the greatest malefactors, if the physician of souls does not prevent it.
4. False Teachers Pass Over the Law and the Gospel for Other Things
False teachers easily pass over the great and weighty things both of law and gospel, and stand most upon those things that are of the least moment and concernment to the souls of men. 'Now the end of the commandment is charity out of a pure heart, and of a good conscience, and of faith unfeigned; from which some have swerved, have turned aside unto vain jangling, desiring to be teachers of the law, and understand neither what they say nor whereof they affirm' (1 Tim. 1:5-7). 'Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint, and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith; these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone' (Matt. 23:2,3). False teachers are nice in the lesser things of the law, and as negligent in the greater. 'If any man teach otherwise, and consent not to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which is according to godliness, he is proud, knowing nothing, but doting about questions and strife of words, whereof cometh envy, strife, railings, evil surmisings, perverse disputings of men corrupt minds, and destitute of the truth, supposing that gain is godliness: from such withdraw thyself' (1 Tim. 6:3-5). If such teachers are not hypocrites in grain, I know nothing, Romans 2:22. The earth groans to bear them, and hell is fitted for them, Matt. 24:32.
5. False Teachers use Clever Language and Appearances to Disguise Themselves
False teachers cover and color their dangerous principles and soul-impostures with very fair speeches and plausible pretenses, with high notions and golden expressions.
Many in these days are bewitched and deceived, viz. illumination, revelation, deification, fiery triplicity, &c. As strumpets paint their faces, and deck and perfume their beds, the better to allure and deceive simple souls (Gal. 6:12; 2 Cor. 11:13-15; Rom. 16:17,18; Mat. 16:6,11,12; 7:15), so false teachers will put a great deal of paint and garnish upon their most dangerous principles and blasphemies, that they may the better deceive and delude poor ignorant souls. They know sugared poison goes down sweetly; they wrap up their pernicious, soul-killing pills in gold.
6. False Teachers Strive to Win People to Their Opinions by Winning Debates
False teachers strive more to win over men to their opinions, than to better them in their conversations. 'Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves' (Matt. 24:17). They busy themselves most about men's heads. Their work is not to better men's hearts, and mend their lives; and in this they are very much like their father the devil, who will spare no pains to gain proselytes.
7. False Teachers Gain from Their Followers
False teachers make merchandise of their followers. 'But there were false prophets also among the people, even as there shall be false teachers among you, who privily shall bring in damnable heresies, even denying the Lord that bought them, and bring upon themselves swift destruction. And many shall follow their pernicious ways; by reason of whom the way of truth shall be evil spoken of. And through covetousness shall they with feigned words make merchandise of you: whose judgment now of a long time lingereth not, and their damnation slumbereth not' (2 Peter 2:1-3). They eye your goods more than your good; and mind more the serving of themselves, than the saving of your souls. So they may have your substance, they care not though Satan has your souls (Rev. 18:11-13). That they may the better pick your purse, they will hold forth such principles as are very indulgent to the flesh. False teachers are the great worshippers of the golden calf (Jer. 6:13).
Now, by these characters you may know them, and so shun them, and deliver your souls out of their dangerous snares; which that you may, my prayers shall meet-yours at the throne of grace.
There are many popular and prominent pastors and writers who preach and teach what is known as “The Prosperity Gospel.” It is also commonly called “the health and wealth” gospel and essentially teaches that if you have faith in God, you will experience material blessings like good health and much wealth. This teaching seems to have really grown in prominence in America over the past couple of centuries and has become an unfortunate export from America to places such as Africa, where it now permeates the church as well (For more on the how and why of its growth in America, see Russell Woodbridge’s article “Prosperity Gospel Born in the USA.”) Because it is so widespread and a dangerous misrepresentation of the Christian message, it is important for us to know about it and what makes it so problematic. Here are four reasons why this teaching does not reflect the truth found in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Problem #1 – It Ignores (and Contradicts) Many Passages in the Bible
I am not sure how someone can believe that we will have healthy and wealthy lives on this earth after reading what Jesus says in John 16:33: “In the world you will have tribulation.” Or Paul’s words to Timothy: “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12). Or these words from Peter: “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you” (1 Peter 1:12). I think you get my point. The Bible features many, many stories of people of God who have neither good health nor much wealth (think of the Apostle Paul and all his sufferings in ministry), and Jesus teaches us to take up our cross daily (Luke 9:23)! In fact, Jesus (who I think we would all agree was the most faithful person who ever lived on earth) did not have wealth or even a home, as he said, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head’’(Luke 9:58). We should be prepared to deal with hardships, not being ashamed or fearful of them, but rather to see how God is still with us and growing us through them (see passages like James 1:2-3). The number of times the Bible teaches about godly people still experiencing suffering could almost make us wonder if something is wrong if we are not experiencing suffering; suffering, not happiness and protections from ill, seems to be the normal Christian life. In summary, the Bible does tell us that we will not avoid suffering, but will encounter it and God will grow us through it. The Prosperity Gospel either ignores these clear teachings…or blatantly contradicts what God has told us.
Problem #2 – It Takes Many Verses Out of Context
Prosperity Gospel advocates seek to use the Bible to justify their teachings, but they are only able to do so by teaching passages of Scripture out of their specific and overarching context. It might be through taking a particular example – such as Abraham who “was very rich in livestock, in silver, and in gold” (Genesis 13:2) – and then saying this is God’s desire and plan for all who are faithful. Or it might be by taking promises connected to the covenant that God made with the people of Israel concerning the blessings their land would receive if they remain faithful (such as Deuteronomy 28:1-14) and then applying these to Christians today who stand in relationship to God via another covenant. Another form of literature that is misused are wisdom texts, especially Proverbs but also various Psalms (such as Psalm 1 that speaks about one prospering in all one does when faithful to God), as the nature of wisdom literature is to teach principles and not issue promises or guarantees with no exceptions. It is not just Old Testament passages that are taken out of context, as various verses that speak about Jesus’s work can then be used to claim that all blessings and promises are given now. For example, some say that Jesus’s work brings complete physical healing to people now because of Matthew 8:17 and that Jesus’s words in Mark 11:24 mean that God must give us anything we ask for in faith (see Mark 11:24). These claims ignore the reality that our salvation is achieved now in part but not in full. In addition, they do not recognize that these promises of prayer have various disclaimers such as obedience (John 15:7) and right motives (James 4:3) or that individuals like Paul and even Jesus did not always receive what they requested.
Problem #3 – The Nature and Timing of our Ultimate Hope is Forgotten
The Prosperity Gospel seems to make the nature of God’s gift of salvation more akin to the American Dream than to the Kingdom of Heaven, and that this is something that happens today rather than at the return of Christ. The focal point appears to be achieving health, wealth, and prosperity as a result of faith in God, rather than having a restored relationship with God through the forgiveness of sins. In some ways, it is as if knowing God is not enough as we are looking for more. It would be similar to entering into a relationship with someone because of what they can give to you as opposed to for the relationship itself. In addition, by emphasizing that we receive blessings now (or as some might call it, “our best life”), we forget the nature of hope that the truly best will come later when Christ returns. Of course we do receive some benefits now from what Christ has done for us, but not the full benefits, and this is only a glimmer of what is to come. Christ will end all suffering and cure all illness, but not until His return. Therefore, the Prosperity Gospel is defective in that it focuses too much on the gifts instead of the giver and too much on the “already” element of salvation (which we receive now) and not enough on the “not yet.” In the Christian life, this tends to minimize the hope for Christ’s return when the resurrection of the dead and the transformation of this broken world will occur.
Problem #4 – It Emphasizes What We Do More Than What God Has Already Done
Another problem in Prosperity Gospel teaching is that it often elevates what we do over what God does and in particular what He has done for us. There is a stress by Prosperity Gospel teachers that the path towards the health and wealth they claim God has promised is found in thinking and saying the right things.This is why it is often also called “name-it and claim-it” theology or the “word of faith” movement. Rather than originating from the Bible, this idea comes from what was known as the New Thought philosophy, but it was adopted and adapted by early prominents of the Prosperity Gospel. While we are encouraged our thoughts reflect what is noble and right (Philippians 4:8) and to believe and ask for God to do amazing and impossible things, the focus should always remain on God and not our faith. It is the object of our faith, not the strength of it or our own virtues that lead to God answering our requests. This emphasis on our faith shown in words and thoughts can also reduce the importance of what God has done for us in Jesus and what He will do in the future.
Responding to this Problematic But Popular Teaching
There are many other issues and problems with the Prosperity Gospel that I can’t include in this post due to space; I have only tried to highlight those I found most central. We need to both recognize its errors and also seek to resist them in our lives and refute them when we see them. That will require us to really know our Bibles – not just Bible verses, but the overarching teachings of the Bible. We need to develop what is often called a “biblical theology” (what the Bible teaches through its storyline) about various things like suffering, wealth, illness, and many other things. This will help us retain a proper perspective, not falling into the errors of this false teaching or other potential dangers (such as a faith that overdelights in suffering or does not think it can enjoy any blessings in this world). We need to remember the importance of contentment and also the dangers of wealth and possessions, as our hearts are susceptible to seek treasures on earth rather than treasures in heaven. Above all, let us keep our eyes focused upon Jesus, remembering both his sufferings and the salvation that we experience in him in part, not but in full until his return and our resurrection.
The doctrine of the prosperity gospel states that material wealth and possessions are the right of every Christian. It states that if correct spiritual practices are followed, those who profess Christ are guaranteed prosperity in this life. However, it is Jesus who tells us that “you cannot serve God and money” (Matthew 6:24).
One would have expected that the word “devil” would have been used by Christ instead of the word “money,” but He knew that devil-worship cannot be as appealing as worshipping God. When it comes to money, that’s a different story. In the same verse, Jesus gave us two choices: to love God and hate money, or hate God and love money. The enemy cleverly introduced the worship of money into our churches through the concept of the prosperity gospel.
The prosperity gospel promotes idolatry. Through the messages preached in some churches, money has become the object of worship with God being nothing more than a means to an end. The reason why some people identify as Christians today is that they were told that coming to Jesus would make them rich.
In some African churches, pastors instruct worshipers to tithe with the scope of receiving returns on their money in the future. Many people who went to church in search of riches, returned home poorer because they have been shortchanged. In return, they receive unrealistic prophetic words which most often never come to pass. The result is that these people end up being angry with God Himself. Many of them have abandoned their faith altogether. This is not healthy for the Christian Church!
This ideology distracts Christians from the cross and focuses their attention on money and wealth. It negates the doctrine of Christian suffering that is the gateway to the Kingdom of God (Acts 14:22). It makes believers concentrate all their physical and spiritual strength in search for wealth and comfort. It diminishes the value of eternity and the soon-coming Kingdom and makes people believe that the things of this world should be prioritized.
Moreover, this teaching distracts us from the glories of Heaven. It says that when Christians give generously, God will compensate them here on earth. But Christ promised us rewards when He returns. “But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just” (Luke 14:13-14).
Christ’s teaching on heavenly treasures stands in stark contrast to all of this: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal” (Mathew 6:19-20).
The law of positive confession of the prosperity gospel places the will of man above the will of God. Believers are encouraged to demand whatever they want from God, and God is obligated to deliver, if these requested are made in faith. This completely ignored the fact that the will of God is superior to the will of man and always prevails — no matter the volume and the length of positive confessions.
Jesus asked for the will of the Father to be done in His life even when He knew that His Father’s will was not what His flesh wanted at that particular point in time (Luke 22:42). Why didn't Christ confess positively so that the cup be taken from Him by the Father? He knew that God’s will cannot be subservient to man’s will.
Many of the prosperity gospel advocates are selfish and lack compassion for others. They believe that the poverty of the poor is attributed to their inability to follow the formula of the law of tithing, sowing and reaping.
According to Gordon Fee, a foremost expert on textual criticism of the New Testament: “Prosperity gospel is an insidious disease which has little of the character of the Gospel in it.” I agree. And the only way to immunize the Church from the disease according to Fee is with a good healthy dose of biblical theology.
The central message of the Gospel is Christ and Him crucified. The apostles never preached prosperity. This teaching is exploitative, manipulative, and fundamentally wicked. This is no Gospel at all and should be discarded by every heavenly bound believer in the Church.