Prosperity doctrine: a corrective

Throughout the twentieth-century the Pentecostal movement increasingly emphasised a theology of material prosperity. The origins of Prosperity doctrine have been discussed, but it remains the case that contemporary Pentecostals appeal directly to the Bible to explain their belief in God’s desire and promise to make Christians rich.

Diversity on Prosperity in the Bible

The Bible certainly has much to say about prosperity, though the various attitudes to wealth found within the Bible are diverse and at times seem to convey almost contradictory messages. Consider the multiple perspectives on riches and poverty contained within the following brief list of passages:
“…It is [the LORD your God] who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant…” (Deuteronomy 8:18)
“The king… must not accumulate large amounts of silver and gold.” (Deuteronomy 17:16-17)
“…It pleased the LORD to make you prosper and increase in number, so it will please him to ruin and destroy you…” (Deuteronomy 28:63)
“The LORD sends poverty and wealth...” (1 Samuel 2:7)
“With [wisdom] are riches and honor, enduring wealth and prosperity.” (Proverbs 8:18)
“…Give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread.” (Proverbs 30:8)
“…Money is the answer for everything.” (Ecclesiastes 10:19)
“I am the LORD… I bring prosperity and create disaster…” (Isaiah 45:6-7)
“…Why does the way of the wicked prosper?” (Jeremiah 12:1)
“… Their gold … has made them stumble into sin.” (Ezekiel 7:19)
“…It is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 19:23)
“He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:51-53)
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God… But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.” (Luke 6:20, 24)
“You will be made rich in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion…” (2 Corinthians 9:11)
“…Godliness with contentment is great gain… People who want to get rich fall into temptation…" (1 Timothy 6:6-9)
“…[God] richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.” (1 Timothy 6:17)
“…The one who is rich should take pride in his low position…” (James 1:10)
“You say, 'I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.' But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.” (Revelation 3:17)
" 'Woe! Woe, O great city… glittering with gold… In one hour such great wealth has been brought to ruin!' (Rev 18:16-17)
Gratitude, concern and caution

Although the Bible contains no one single attitude to prosperity, Jack Mahoney categorizes the Bible’s various teachings on wealth into three strands, gratitude, social concern and spiritual caution:
“A triple message emerges from the Hebrew Bible on the right approach to wealth: a theology of gratitude to God for his bounteous generosity to his favoured ones; a social theology on the need for a just distribution of wealth in society to meet the needs of all without exception; and a spiritual theology on the dangers of the wealthy becoming so immersed in making or enjoying their wealth that they lose all proportion and forget their radical need to center their whole life on God.” [1]

A theology of gratitude in relation to wealth is highlighted throughout the Bible, but particularly in the Patriarchal literature beginning with God’s promise of blessing to Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3), and throughout the Former Prophets who spoke of Israel’s golden years under Solomon (1 Kings 3:13). Since everything belongs to God (Psalm 24:1), he chose to bless his chosen ones throughout Israel’s history by providing them with a share of his abundance.

Social concern

The social theology of wealth is particularly seen in the Latter Prophets, who were grieved that many of Israel’s rich had risen to prosperity by exploiting the poor (Isaiah 58:3-10; Amos 2:6-8; 3:10; 4:1), but is also evident in the teaching of John the Baptist and Jesus. The ‘rich’ became a theological term for the enemies of God, and the ‘poor’ God’s friends, language that is picked up in the New Testament (cf. Luke 6:20, 24).


The third message on the dangers of wealth features strongly throughout the Bible. The Law safeguarded against the dangers of riches to God’s people by commanding Israel’s future kings to not accumulate large amounts of wealth (Deuteronomy 17:17). In the end, Israel’s expulsion from the Land was attributable (in part) to the temptations of wealth (Ezekiel 7:19). It is this spiritual theology on the risk to the soul of riches that the New Testament emphasizes strongly, with some of most serious warnings coming from Jesus himself.

No simple answers

Mahoney’s three-part categorization is helpful, though it may be too simplistic. The message of the Wisdom literature in relation to wealth, for example, cannot be neatly fit into these groups. The Proverbs, the book of Job and Ecclesiastes each contain contrasting messages on prosperity that collectively must be kept in tension with one another.

Proverbs on prosperity

The Proverbs generally advocate a common sense attitude in relation to money – that wealth is the product of hard work (Proverbs 10:4) – but also that riches are the reward of God for righteous, and poverty his repayment to sinners (Proverbs 13:21; 21:21).

Job on prosperity

This almost mechanical view regarding the relationship between prosperity and righteousness, and poverty and wickedness, is sharply contrasted by the message of the book of Job, which challenges this popular wisdom in Israel (cf. Job 15:29). The dialogue between Job and his friends serve to prove that the common sense rules relating to prosperity do not always hold. Prosperity and poverty are not governed by any type of formulaic relationship or logic, but by God himself in his sovereignty. The Scriptures also repeatedly make clear elsewhere that God is the ultimate cause of all prosperity and poverty, including the prosperity of the wicked and the poverty of the righteous. (1 Samuel 2:7; Isaiah 45:6-7).

Ecclesiastes on prosperity

Ecclesiastes also has a different message again to bring. Ecclesiastes questions the point of working hard and accumulating wealth at all by highlighting the meaninglessness of riches in view of the certainty of death and the many other factors in life that make prosperity a vanity and a grievous evil, though he does retain something of Mahoney’s theology of gratitude (Ecclesiastes 5:8-20) which no doubt is based on an underlying theology of creation and God’s curse as a result of sin (Genesis 3:14).

Diversity of Christian thought on prosperity

With such a great diversity of attitudes within the Scriptures themselves in regard to the subject of wealth and prosperity, it is little wonder that a great diversity of Christian thought, attitudes and teachings on wealth exists, both in present and throughout Church history.

Mahoney has also observed that placing an emphasis on any one of the Bible’s core teachings profoundly shapes Christian attitudes, including their attitude to money and processions; that is, a particular emphasis within Christianity on the doctrine of human sinfulness, for example, would affect different attitudes to wealth than would a particular emphasis on the doctrine of creation.

The Protestant emphasis

Historically, Protestants have emphasized the doctrine of justification; that Christ’s resurrection from the dead brings forgiveness from God for the sin of fallen humanity. The Reformation was a movement that realigned Christianity to the Scriptural doctrines of justification through faith alone, by God’s grace alone, and revealed in the Bible alone.

However, justification entails that saved humanity is still inherently sinful, and consequently, reason remains an untrustworthy guide to moral behaviour. Thus, Protestants have relied solely upon the Biblical revelation, which reaches its climax in Jesus, who gave his own moral teaching as the fulfillment of God’s law. Consequently the New Testament’s emphasis on the dangers of wealth has been emphasized within Protestantism. This in turn has reinforced the Protestant stress upon the doctrine of justification, because the teaching on the dangers of money and the risks of the soul acquiring many possessions throws light back onto the inherent sinfulness of people, even forgiven people, who are in continual need of forgiveness through Jesus’ death and resurrection life.

The Pentecostal emphasis

From within Protestantism, Pentecostalism emerged early in the twentieth-century. It is apparent from the history of the development of Pentecostalism that the movement has taken many steps away from the determined emphasis of traditional Protestantism and the more recent Evangelical movement, out of which it was born, which continues to emphasize justification by God’s grace, through faith in Christ, revealed in the gospel of the Bible.

Pentecostalism shifts the emphasis onto the subjective inward work of the Spirit subsequent and in addition to justification, which is insufficient to enable ‘full’ Christian living. The Pentecostal gospel has become less about the objective work of God for people in history, and more about the fruit of the Spirit’s work in people. The ‘full gospel’ involves Spirit-baptism as an experience of empowerment for Christian service, and entails the right of Christians, by means of faith in Christ’s atonement, to walk in divine health and divine prosperity.

Pentecostalism’s increasing desire for wealth and material prosperity may well be the result of a simplistic emphasis on the doctrine of God’s original purposes for humanity, coupled with an emphasis on prosperity from an allegorized interpretation of Old Testament history, a covenantal understanding of the Proverbs (as binding promises), a literalistic interpretation of the Prophets, and a failure to rely on the historical context of the Old Testament to provide the context for interpreting the Gospels and Acts. This, coupled with a wholesale decline in systematic exposition of all of the New Testament, has contributed to the development in Pentecostalism of an altogether different attitude to prosperity than what is seen in the overall message of Jesus and his Apostles.

The need for a Biblical Theology of Prosperity

It is one thing to select particular passages in the Bible that collectively demonstrate one single attitude on the subject of wealth, such as a positive belief in its created purpose, but it is another thing to give due weight to all the biblical data that bare on the subject and observe where the Bible itself places the emphasis in its own unfolding revelation in salvation history from Genesis to Revelation. This is the discipline of Biblical theology, which may be the answer for Pentecostalism in the twenty-first-century. (See The answer for Pentecostalism: Biblical Theology).

A Biblical theology of prosperity begins, not by conducting word searches and undertaking a topical study of wealth in the Bible, as incredibly informative as that is when done comprehensively, but by reading the Bible from beginning to end and carefully allowing its own progressive revelation within the context of the stages of Biblical history to inform its own message on the subject of wealth.

Because the Bible is an unfolding revelation about historical events and their meaning, we expect a Biblical theology of prosperity to reach its climax in the climax of salvation history itself. This must allow the Old Testament to focus its emphasis on wealth onto the perspective given in the full height of God’s fulfilled revelation in the gospel of Jesus Christ and his New Creation. It remains for us to discuss such a biblical theology of prosperity and how this provides a corrective to the prosperity doctrine of the Pentecostal movement today.

A corrective

In Neither Poverty nor Riches, A biblical theology of possessions, Craig Blomberg provides this urgently needed corrective to the Prosperity movement [2]. He also refers readers to Bruce Barron's The Health and Wealth Gospel (1987, Downers Grove: IVP) for a "relatively sympathetic critique" of the prosperity gospel.


[1] Companion encyclopedia of theology / edited by Peter Byrne and Leslie Houlden, London : Routledge, 1995, Theology, wealth and social justice (Jack Mahoney), p. 760.

[2] Blomberg, Craig L. Neither Poverty nor Riches, A biblical theology of possessions, IVP, 1999.

The Oxford companion to Christian thought / edited by Adrian Hastings ... [et al.] Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2000, Prosperity. | joe towns: christian discussion on pentecost, charisma, pentecostal and charismatic beliefs, the Bible and Jesus; including the origin and history of pentecostalism, baptism in the Holy Spirit, speaking in tongues, gifts and miracles, divine healing and word of faith, prosperity and wealth, praise and worship, guidance and hearing the voice of the Holy Spirit.