The True Prosperity Gospel

According to a recent survey by Lifeway Research, about a third of Protestant churchgoers believe that God will bless them if they put money in the offering plate. Two-thirds say that God wants them to prosper. One out of four believes that they have to do something for God in order to receive a material blessing in return. I’m not really surprised. I’ve been hearing some version of these ideas all my Christian life, mostly from preachers that nobody would ever accuse of promoting a prosperity gospel.

Every November was declared to be “Prove Me Month” at Calvary Baptist Church in Hazel Park, Michigan. Perhaps it was no accident that this giving campaign always came just before the December slump when the bills came due for the church’s annual Christmas extravaganza. Calvary wasn’t the first church I ever attended but it was the first where I heard serious, expository preaching on a regular basis. There was a lot of Bible at Calvary, far more than is typical of churches today. The pastor, an old school Fundamentalist, preached every Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and Wednesday night. In fact, on Sunday nights he actually preached two messages. One was essentially a verse by verse commentary on some book of the Bible. The other sermon was an expository message that always concluded with an invitation to trust in Jesus. The choir sang “Just as I Am” as the congregation waited, with heads bowed and eyes closed, for convicted sinners to approach the altar. I often peeked.

During Prove Me Month, the pastor quoted Malachi 3:10 (from the King James Version, of course): “Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be meat in mine house, and prove me now herewith, saith the LORD of hosts, if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it.” God will be no man’s debtor, we were told, and if we dared, we could test God on this point. “You shovel it in, God shovels it back, and God has the bigger shovel!” the pastor promised.

Despite the language he used, I never took this to mean that I could manipulate God with my money. It sounded more like a matter of priorities. If I made God’s interests mine, I could trust Him to look after the things that were important to me. This was no guarantee of riches but an assurance of divine care. In those days I was still living at home and working for just a little more than minimum wage. I drove a car with dents in the door and holes in the floor and had no idea what direction my career was supposed to take. The thought of living on my own, being married, and owning a home, all seemed impossible to me. I used to worry about it a lot.

As a remedy, I would often turn to Matthew 6:31-33: “So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” Perhaps it was the pastor’s preaching that pointed me to this verse. Maybe I found it on my own. I can’t honestly recall. But the promise was clear to me. The message was not, “Give to God and you will get whatever you want.” It was, “Your Father in heaven knows what you need.”

The church has gilded this promise so much down through the centuries that it now feels like a Hallmark sentiment to most of us. Yet as pastor and theologian Helmut Thielicke has pointed out, it was made by someone whose life was far from gilded. “Were not the somber shadows of the Cross already looming over this hour of the Sermon on the Mount?” Thielicke observes. “Was not Jesus already seeing the ‘tomorrow’ of his own life, the tomorrow which he bids us not to worry about, filling up with dark clouds from which very soon lightning will flash upon him?” In a very short time, Jesus would come to a tomorrow that would make Him tremble with fear and cause Him to beg His heavenly Father to let that cup pass from Him if it was at all possible. It wasn’t.

The kind of carefreeness that Jesus promises is not freedom from concern. It is not “financial freedom,” whatever that is. It is certainly not a blank check which guarantees that God will fulfill all the items on my wish list. It is the freedom of faith, a childlike trust that God has got my back. He has my front too, according to Psalm 139:5: “You hem me in—behind and before; you have laid your hand upon me.” Such a promise is, as the Psalmist rightly observes, too wonderful to grasp.

After sixty-five years, one wife, two children, three houses, two dogs, and several careers, I find that I still worry about the future. Will something bad happen to me or to the people I care about the most? How long before my body finally betrays me and my health breaks beyond repair? When I retire, will I feel like I don’t have any value anymore? Sometimes questions like this keep me awake. On those long nights, when I cannot seem to find rest, I take refuge in one of the first promises I learned as a young believer. I am not an orphan. My Father in heaven knows what I need. Jesus is the proof that this is true. When He passed through the darkest night that anyone has ever known, He found God on the other side. You will too.

The Myth That Became Reality

nativity

Once upon a time there was a young girl who lived in a small village. She was poor but virtuous. One day, shortly before her marriage was to take place, she was startled by an unexpected visitor. “Do not be afraid,” the visitor said. “I have good news for you. You are going to have a child. He will be a great king.”

Sound familiar? This could be the beginning of any number of stories. But it is the beginning of one particular story. None of the Gospels opens by saying, “Once upon a time….” Yet when we read them, we get the feeling that they might have. The mysteries and wonders they describe are the sort one reads about in fairy tales. A peasant girl gives birth to a miraculous child. A star appears in the heavens and announces his birth. Magi travel from a distant land to pay homage to him. The hero descends to the realm of the dead and returns.

This is the stuff of myth and fantasy, except the Bible does not call it by either of those names. The Bible does not even call it a story. Not really. According to the Scriptures it is truth. It is “good news.” The Gospels do not spin tales, they bear witness. Yet the Gospels’ embodied and historical nature does not negate the mythical quality of the real events they describe.

In an essay entitled “Myth Became Fact,” C. S. Lewis described myth as “the isthmus which connects the peninsular world of thought with the vast continent we really belong to.” Myth in this sense not a fanciful story although, as Lewis observed in An Experiment in Criticism, myth always deals with the fantastic. It is an account which connects our experience with a realm of truth that would otherwise be out of our reach.

But the historical events the Gospel’s describe go beyond myth. “The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact” Lewis explains. “The Old Myth of the dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history.” In the fantastic but true account of Christ’s birth we meet the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us. Although He is “not far from each one of us,” without the Gospel record of these events He would be forever beyond our reach. No wonder the ancient church sang:

Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
And with fear and trembling stand;
Ponder nothing earthly minded,
For with blessing in His hand,
Christ our God to earth descendeth
Our full homage to demand.

King of kings, yet born of Mary,
As of old on earth He stood,
Lord of lords, in human vesture,
In the body and the blood;
He will give to all the faithful
His own self for heavenly food.

Rank on rank the host of heaven
Spreads its vanguard on the way,
As the Light of light descendeth
From the realms of endless day,
That the powers of hell may vanish
As the darkness clears away.

At His feet the six winged seraph,
Cherubim with sleepless eye,
Veil their faces to the presence,
As with ceaseless voice they cry:
Alleluia, Alleluia
Alleluia, Lord Most High!

Thanks be to God.

Offering the Hope of the Gospel in the House of Death

I was once asked to perform the funeral for a neighbor’s son who had committed suicide. He was a hard living man who plied the waters of the Illinois River working on a barge. During his life he expressed little interest God.

God alone knows the heart, but by all outward appearances, this lack of interest did not change on the day he took his life. Like so many others in this sin torn world, he lived without God and died without him.

I felt nervous when his parents asked me to officiate at the funeral. They were not church going people. They did not want church music. Instead, they asked the funeral home to play “Proud Mary,” the song made famous by Creedence Clearwater Revival. I breathed a sigh of relief when the funeral director politely informed the family that he didn’t have a copy of that particular song on hand. But I worried that they might ask me to recite the lyrics like poetry.  I imagined myself standing before the coffin chanting:

Big wheel keep on turnin’,
Proud Mary keep on burnin’,
Rollin’, rollin’, rollin’ on the river.

 Instead, I preached a sermon about the foolish man who built his house on the sand: “The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash” (Matt. 7:27).

How do you offer comfort to people who have no reason to hope for it? What can you say to those whose loved ones have ordered their lives in such a way that they have left little room for God? I thought about the advice we had been given in seminary for dealing with situations like this. Back then an old school preacher with a booming voice and a soft heart who taught courses in preaching and pastoral care had urged:  “Gentlemen, don’t say anything about the destiny of their loved ones. Leave that to God. Just preach the hope of the gospel and make the condition of faith plain.”

 I confess that at the time I wondered if this approach was a little soft. “After all,” I reasoned, “if these people have rejected Christ, why not come right out and say it? The shock might do the mourners some good.” That was when I was young and brash. It was only after pastoral ministry took me to the bedsides, emergency rooms, and funeral visitations of my congregation that I really learned to look into the hollow eyes of grief.

So when the time came to do the funeral, I followed my old professor’s advice. I chose to trade in hope not despair. I preached the hope of gospel, making the need for faith in Christ clear, and left judgment of the deceased in the hands of God. I’m glad I did. He can handle the responsibility better than I can.

How ‘Christ Centered’ Should Our Preaching Be?

One of disparities between apostolic preaching and our own is the degree to which we have marginalized the gospel. We have not abandoned the gospel, only relegated it to the outskirts of our Christian experience. As a result, the message of the cross is primarily reserved for those who are on the threshold of faith. The gospel has become one of the “elementary truths” believers expect to “leave” when they are ready to “go on to maturity” (Heb. 6:1).

This is a conviction shared by our listeners, whose hearts often sink if they suspect that the sermon is “just a gospel message.” The gospel is something they have already heard. They believe and appreciate it. But now they want to learn about the God who gave the gospel. They do not want to be like those about whom the writer of Hebrews complains, who should have been teachers but needed someone to teach them the elementary truths of God’s word all over again.  

These assumptions, while understandable, are problematic. It is true that there is more to God’s word than the gospel both theologically and practically. The horizon of subjects upon which the Bible touches is as wide the scope of human experience. Its concerns span all the theological categories from theology proper to eschatology. But if our goal in preaching is for people to know God, it must be asked whether this is possible in any meaningful way apart from the gospel.

 Preaching, since it has to do with God, is dependent upon divine self-revelation. We could not know anything about God if he had not taken the initiative to reveal himself. It is, of course, possible to know things about God apart from Christ. The heavens declare the glory of God. Our consciences reveal his eternal power and divine nature.  But it is not possible to know God relationally except through Christ. The God who in the past spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, has in these last days spoken to us through his son (Heb. 1:1-2). Jesus is God’s final and best word about himself. This side of the incarnation, all that we know about God must be seen and understood through the lens which Christ provides.

Ministry Monday: What Happened to Bob?

Something happened to Bob during the sermon yesterday. He got saved. I’d like to take the credit, but I am afraid that I had very little to do with the whole affair. As he explained the experience to me after the service, it seemed to me that what he heard had little correlation with what I actually said.

 I do not blame Bob for this. He was doing his best to pay attention. But a third party distracted him. At some point the Holy Spirit drew Bob aside and resumed a conversation that the two of them had begun earlier. When it was over, Bob was in tears. He prayed with one of the church’s elders after the service and committed his life to Christ.

 It would be nice to think that the incisiveness of my reasoning, the power of my delivery or the clarity of my outline pushed Bob over the line. But the more he thanked me for the message, the more I felt like an awkward bystander who has stumbled upon someone else’s intimate conversation.

 I am not saying that my words played no role at all. I was, after all, preaching about Christ. I think the outcome would have been entirely different if I had been reading recipes from a cookbook. But I have been preaching long enough to know that the power does not lie in my rhetoric or my structure, as important as those things are to my preaching. This is not the first time that the Holy Spirit has stolen my thunder.

 In his book Preaching and Preachers, Martyn Lloyd Jones speaks of the “romance” of preaching. One dimension of this, according to Lloyd Jones, is the element of surprise: “…you never know who is going to be listening to you, and you never know what is going to happen to those who are listening to you.” I would add that you never really know how it will happen. “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going” Jesus told Nicodemus in John 3:8, “So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” Thanks be to God.