An Old Testament theology of prosperity

By Danson Ottawa |
Luxury jet
Yaroslav Muzychenko/Unsplash

The prosperity gospel teaches that God wants his people to be wealthy and healthy. At its core is often the idea that in Christ God has restored to us the blessings of the covenant made with Abraham. These blessings are understood in a primarily material way, including good health, economic prosperity, and an all-round victory in most areas of life. Prosperity gospel preachers rely heavily on the Old Testament to make this case, arguing that God promises his people abundant wealth and abounding health.

Prosperity gospel preachers rely heavily on the Old Testament to make their case.

The threat of the prosperity gospel has been well-documented, from the devastating revelations concerning the late T. B. Joshua to the undeniable ways it distorts both an individual’s faith and the church’s corporate witness. In this article I want to show how having a better understanding of the Bible’s overarching redemptive story—and covenants—is an important corrective to the prosperity gospel.

Meet the God Who Lacks for Nothing

The Bible’s creation account teaches that God created the world and everything in it. At every stage of the creation, God calls what he has made “good” (Genesis 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31). This is a testament to the all-surpassing wealth and abundance of our God. The work of creation isn’t merely functional but bountiful. We don’t only see God’s power, but also that he lacks nothing.

God’s working in this world isn’t incentivised by our giving or sacrifices.

There’s an implication here. God is self-sufficient. His working in this world is not incentivised by our giving or sacrifices. The same is true of how he treats us. Importantly, this understanding of God guards against the temptation to treat God as a kind of talisman, who is motivated to give us wealth because of what we do for him.

Meet the People Who Lost Everything

Having met the Creator God, let’s consider the zenith of his creation: people (Genesis 1:31). These opening chapters of Genesis teach that God grants man dominion over the rest of the world (Genesis 1:28-30; 2:15). Why? Well, just like everything else God made, humankind exists to bring God glory. Our ruling over the world, this dominion, was meant to display God’s splendour; to give him honour. As God’s representative, those who image God (Genesis 1:27), man was entrusted with the blessings of God’s rule and power.

Man turned from, rather than to, God in search of satisfaction and significance.

But man turned from, rather than to, God in search of satisfaction, significance, and security. We forsook the all-sufficient Creator and put our faith in the creation (Genesis 3:6Romans 1:21-23). The worst result of this wasn’t poverty or poor health. In fact, the people we meet in Genesis after the fall live incredibly long lives and enjoy economic prosperity. The problem is, all of them die; all of them endure spiritual poverty, being kept from entering Eden and enjoying the presence of God that Adam and Eve had.

Humanity’s poverty therefore isn’t a lack of material riches or good health; it’s enmity with God.

Old Testament Patriarchs and Prosperity

In the Abrahamic Covenant, God promises to call out a people for himself. Through these people, God promised to bless the whole world. God promises that from Abraham’s many descendants (Genesis 12:2-3; 15:16) will come nations (Genesis 17:6). He repeats these covenant promises to Isaac and Jacob. Once the nation of Israel is established, God continues to covenant with them (2 Samuel 7:12-16), promising that a “son of David” rule over Israel and the nations forever (Isaiah 11Micah 4Zechariah 8).

How and when were those promises fulfilled? In short, in the new covenant (Jeremiah 31:31-34Luke 22:20); through Jesus Christ, the descendant of both Abraham and David, the promised seed of Eve (Genesis 3:15).

At the heart of prosperity preaching is the idea that material wealth is a sign of God’s spiritual blessing.

But at the heart of prosperity preaching is the idea that material wealth is a sign of God’s spiritual blessing. It views the Abrahamic covenant as grounds for our claim to health, wealth, and prosperity. After all, prosperity teachers argue, the blessings of Abraham are ours, according to Galatians 3:14. So the prosperity gospel asserts that those who are in Christ, who have faith, are guaranteed a good life, your best life. But this is to ignore the whole of that verse. For Paul writes, “so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.” At the core of God’s promises and covenant is salvation by faith.

Prosperity According to the Prophets

One can be incredibly rich and under God’s condemnation.

The prophets rebuke Israel for many things. Repeated among those is God’s rebuke of the rich for doing whatever it took to get richer. This often meant extorting and oppressing the poor and marginalised (Ezekiel 22:29Micah 2:2Amos 4:1; 5:11-12Hosea 12:7Amos 2:6-8Malachi 3:5). So one can be incredibly rich and under God’s condemnation.

The prophets also rebuked Israel for pride, placing confidence in their wealth, believing it could protect them from judgment. For example, the wealthy men of Israel failed to grieve their sin, seeking security in their luxuries and pleasure (Amos 6:4-7). Their end was exile.

On the other hand, through his prophets God promised restoration. He wouldn’t forsake his people or forget his promises. Thus we read about the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53. Significantly, God promises to send him to deal with his people’s sins, with the poverty of their hearts. That language isn’t coincidental. It again highlights the depths of Israel’s problems; what God needed to deliver them from. It wasn’t material poverty or poor health, but their rebellion against God.

How the Prosperity Gospel Misses the Point

The brief survey above reveals Israel’s spiritual poverty and the seriousness of sin. Salvation, therefore, isn’t more money in the bank. However that is precisely what prosperity preachers prescribe. They treat material prosperity as the definitive sign of faith and spiritual growth. Even a glancing look at the Old Testament tells us that one can be well off and far from God; healthy and on their way to hell.

You can be well off and far from God; healthy and on your way to hell.

The new covenant points to Christ. He died in order to save us from a much worse fate than poverty and sickness. He also called on those who follow him to take up their crosses while holding their material possessions lightly (Mark 10:17-211 Timothy 6:17-18). The Christian life will even include persecution (Matthew 5:11-122 Timothy 3:21 Peter 1:6).

As Randy Alcorn puts it, “We no longer look to material riches, because of the spiritual riches that are ours in Christ.” Or, consider these famous words from the Irish monk, Dallan Forgill:

Riches I heed not, nor man’s empty praise
Be Thou mine inheritance, now and always
Be Thou and Thou only the first in my heart,
O High King of heaven, my Treasure Thou art.

Originally published by The Gospel Coalition Africa Edition. Republished with permission.

Danson Ottawa is the National Coordinator for the Africa Center for Apologetics Research (ACFAR), Kenya, a ministry equipping believers in Africa for the defense of the faith, biblical discernment, and cult evangelism. He is pursuing a Master of Divinity in Biblical Studies at Africa International University. Danson fellowships at Emmanuel Baptist Church, Nairobi-Kenya.

The views expressed in this or any other opinion article do not necessarily reflect the views of Christian Daily International.