Covenantal Prosperity, not Pietism, is the Bible’s Answer to the Prosperity Gospel (I)

“A little that a righteous man hath is better than the riches of many wicked. For the arms of the wicked shall be broken: but the LORD upholdeth the righteous”. (Psalm 37.16-17)

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The prosperity gospel, as proclaimed by false prophets such as Kenneth Hagin, Benny Hinn and Mike Murdock, is one of the many heresies of the modern Church. Over the last few decades, it may have been one of the most devastating heresies to churches in my own country, Brazil. R.. J. Rushdoony gave an accurate description of it in the first volume of his Systematic Theology: “Last Saturday, while traveling to Los Angeles, I listened on my car radio to an evangelist broadcasting from the other end of the country. While claiming to preach the word of God as a Bible-believing Christian, he preached a faith I could not recognize as Scriptural, nor the God I hear speak in the Bible. The man assured his converted and unconverted listeners that ‘God is always on your side’. He also spoke of God as our ‘Daddy’ in heaven, rich in resources and eager and anxious to help us if we would only allow Him to do so. I could not recognize in what he preached the sovereign God of Scripture nor anything that resembled His commanding word, the Bible. The evangelist was a humanist who was using, or trying to use, God as the greatest possible resource available to man; central to his thinking was man and man’s needs. He lacked any systematic theology of God; instead, there were traces in his brief message of a theology of man as true center and god of things”(R.J. Rushdoony, Systematic Theology, Volume I, “The Necessity of Systematic Theology”). The essence of the so-called prosperity gospel is simply the ethical standards that many have already grown accustomed to see in politics being applied in the Church – the psychological manipulation of the masses with empty promises. The consequences have been clear for all who want to see. In my own country, Christians have lost a great deal of credibility, millions have felt disappointed and left the Church, the preaching of the cross has been overshadowed by Mamom-worship. Giving an accurate response to the teachings of the prosperity gospel is a very important aspect of building up a Christian culture in places in which the Church’s mission and reputation has been devastated by it.

One contemporary preacher who has been highly engaged in fighting the prosperity gospel is Pr. John Piper. I sincerely believe that he has been used by God to teach Brazilians some important truths of the Gospel and to lead them away from many from some of these heresies. This, in itself, is praiseworthy. However, it must also be pointed out that, in his attempt to respond to the these heresies, John Piper makes big mistakes that that are quite dangerous to the mission of the Church and, therefore, need to be adequately responded to. In his attempt to respond to the prosperity Gospel, John Piper has launched a full-scale attack against Christendom – the ideal of Christian Civilization.

In one of his books, “Let the Nations Be Glad”, he dedicated a chapter against the prosperity gospel preachers called “Twelve Appeals to Prosperity Preachers”. In one section of this chapter he describes what he believes to be the differences between the Old and the New Testament. At this point we should ask ourselves: “What has that to do with the prosperity gospel? Why is it important to know these differences in order to respond to prosperity preachers? For them to be wrong is it necessary for these changes between the Old and New Testament to have occurred?”

In the beginning of this section, John Piper argues that the fundamental difference between the Old and New Testament is that “Until that time, God had focused his redemptive work on Israel with occasional works among the nations… Now the focus has shifted from Israel to the nations”. This is certainly true. Initially, the world was not dived in nations. The book of Genesis tells us that “the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech” (Genesis 11:1) and that they were sufficiently organized to go on a journey together to “a plain in the land of Shinar” (Genesis 11:2). The division came as a curse from God: “And the LORD said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech”. (Genesis 11:6-7) All nations that now exist originally came from the seed of Shem, Ham or Japheth (Genesis 10). The judgment of God against the tower of Babel was the beginning of an important change in the history of mankind. After Babel, God began working out his plan to make a nation out of Abraham and, up to the coming of Christ, His focus was mostly on Israel, as John Piper correctly stated. “He sheweth his word unto Jacob, his statutes and his judgments unto Israel. He hath not dealt so with any nation: and as for his judgments, they have not known them. Praise ye the LORD” (Psalm 147:19-20). Abraham came from the seed of Shem (Genesis 11:10-32), to whom he had already promised primacy over his brothers: “And he said, Blessed be the LORD God of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant. God shall enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant” (Genesis 9.26-27).  The words of Our Lord and Savior in the Great Commission – “teach all nations” –should be understood as an annulment of His previous long-term blinding of the nations. God, who had rejected the whole world (with some important exceptions), decided to bring them back once again through Jesus Christ: “Wherefore remember, that ye being in time past Gentiles in the flesh, who are called uncircumcision by that which is called the Circumcision in the flesh made by hands; That at that time ye were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world: But now in Christ Jesus ye who sometimes were far off are made nigh by the blood of Christ”(Ephesians 2.11-13).

The problem, however, is that John Piper believes that this change in focus meant that there was also a change in the way God grants material blessings to his people:

One of the main differences between these two eras is that in the Old Testament, God glorified himself largely by blessing Israel so that the nations could see and know that the Lord is God… the pattern in the Old Testament is a come-see religion… The New Testament does not present a come-see religion, but a go-tell religion… So if a prosperity preacher asks me about all the promises of wealth for faithful people in the Old Testament, my response is: Read your New Testament carefully and see if you see the same emphasis. You won’t find it. And the reason is that things have dramatically changed.

Here John Piper makes it clear that the reason he needs to describe what the differences between the Old and New Testaments in a chapter on the prosperity gospel is that he actually believes it can be defended on the basis of the Old Testament. If he didn’t think it could, he would not have dedicated an entire section of his book to tell us why prosperity preachers can’t quote the Old Testament. John Piper makes it perfectly clear that he believes that if this change had not occurred, then the prosperity preachers would be right. This is an absolutely incredible concession. In one paragraph, he simply handed over 75% of the Bible to his theological opponents. As we shall see, this is actually part of John Piper’s attack against Christendom.

Doubtlessly, there are several important differences between the Old and the New Testament. But none of these changes have anything to do with the promises of prosperity that we find in the Old Testament. Far from annulling these promises, the New Testament simply confirms them even more. This does not give any kind of support to the prosperity preachers. The problem with the prosperity gospel is not that it was true in the Old Testament but then it was abolished with the coming of Christ. The problem is that, from Genesis to Revelation, it never has been true. So if one of these preachers asks us about “all the promises of wealth” in the Old Testament, our response should not be “things have dramatically changed.” Our response should be an explanation of what the Old Testament really says. The Bible does not teach the prosperity gospel, but it does teach a specific theology of prosperity. This makes theologians like John Piper uncomfortable since it exposes his open hostility to Old Testament Law. But, whether the major opponents of the prosperity gospel like it or not, the Bible, in both testaments, teaches the concept of covenantal prosperity.  Deuteronomy 28 is an important text to understand what this means:

“And it shall come to pass, if thou shalt hearken diligently unto the voice of the LORD thy God, to observe and to do all his commandments which I command thee this day, that the LORD thy God will set thee on high above all nations of the earth” (Deuteronomy 28.1).

These blessings were:

1)       They would have peace, security, and prosperity wherever they went (v. 3).

2)       Their families would be big and prosperous (v. 4,11).

3)       Their animals would be fertile and vigorous (v. 4,11).

4)       Their crops would be blessed (v. 4,11).

5)       They would have a strong military (v. 7).

6)       They would be successful in everything they attempted to do (v. 8).

7)       They would be respected internationally (v. 10).

8)       They would have a stable climate with no droughts (v. 12).

9)       They would have great economic power (v. 12).

Deuteronomy 28 teaches us that Israel would have to persevere in obedience to God’s Law in order to keep being blessed. Israel’s blessings were conditioned to how much they were obedient to God. God promised peace, prosperity and cultural development providing that they remained faithful to Him. On the other hand, God threatened them with the exact opposite in case they became unfaithful: “But it shall come to pass, if thou wilt not hearken unto the voice of the LORD thy God, to observe to do all his commandments and his statutes which I command thee this day; that all these curses shall come upon thee, and overtake thee” (Deuteronomy 28:15). Deuteronomy 8:6-19 and Leviticus 26 are about the same – obedience to God brings in cultural advancement over time and disobedience to God brings in cultural destruction over time. Dr. Gary North commented on this:

This passage in Deuteronomy presents the biblical basis of progress in history… It establishes the concept of God’s sanctions in history, both positive and negative. The passage teaches that in history, there will be both ‘positive feedback’ and ‘negative feedback’ Any attempt to renounce this passage as no longer judicially binding in the New Covenant era is inescapably a denial of any biblical basis for God-honoring cultural progress in history.” (Gary North, Millennialism and Social Theory, “Covenantal Progress”)

Modern theologians like John Piper frequently attempt to dismiss Deuteronomy 28 and Leviticus 26 by arguing that it only applied to the nation of Israel, but not to the Gentiles. Cultural development, they believe, is ethically random and, therefore, Deuteronomy 28 and Leviticus 26 can have nothing to do with it. But did this really apply only to the nation of Israel? The Law was clear that, although at that point in time God’s special revelation was being given to Israel alone, the same principle applied to other nations as well:

Ye shall therefore keep all my statutes, and all my judgments, and do them: that the land, whither I bring you to dwell therein, spue you not out. And ye shall not walk in the manners of the nations, which I cast out before you: for they committed all these things, and therefore I abhorred them.” (Leviticus 20.22-23)

Here God talks about judging Gentiles. These Gentiles were “the Hittites, and the Girgashites, and the Amorites, and the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, and the Hivites, and the Jebusites” (Deuteronomy 7.1) It is important to remember that He had already promised to destroy the Amorites since the time of Abraham:

“And when the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram; and, lo, an horror of great darkness fell upon him. And he said unto Abram, Know of a surety that thy seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years; And also that nation, whom they shall serve, will I judge: and afterward shall they come out with great substance. And thou shalt go to thy fathers in peace; thou shalt be buried in a good old age. But in the fourth generation they shall come hither again: for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full.”(Genesis 15.12-16)

God prophesied that the nation of Israel would be enslaved by the Egyptians. After that, the Egyptians would be judged and Israel would be free from slavery. After setting them free, God would take them to the Promised Land, which is where Abraham lived when this prophecy happened. Part of the land already belonged to other nations. One of these nations was the Amorites. Therefore, Israel would have to defeat the Amorites in order to take over the land. So the Amorites would be judged in the same way Egypt would.

God explained why He would judge them: “For the wickedness of these nations the LORD doth drive them out from before thee” (Deuteronomy 9.4). And then He told the same thing could happen to Israel in case they behaved the same way: “Ye shall therefore keep all my statutes, and all my judgments, and do them: that the land, whither I bring you to dwell therein, spue you not out”. (Leviticus 20.22) The concept of “spueing” brings us back to what God had told Cain: “And now art thou cursed from the earth, which hath opened her mouth to receive thy brother’s blood from thy hand” (Genesis 4.11). Man’s sin defiles the earth because mankind is covenantally responsible for dominion over the earth (Genesis 1.26-28). Figuratively, the earth “swallows” sin and after it has “swallowed” too much, it must “spue”. The spueing means God’s judgment. It is God’s judgment in time and on earth against nations that rebel against Him.

So, this makes it very clear that the the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites,  Hivites, and Jebusites” (Deuteronomy 7.1) would be judged by the same standards that Israel could also be judged. That means that the God’s Law, Deuteronomy 28 and Leviticus 26 were binding on the Gentiles too and not only Israel. If it weren’t binding on the Gentiles, how could God threathen Israel to judge them by the same standards he was judging the Gentiles? The Apostle Paul made it clear that the Law is God’s perfect standard of righteousness for all mankind and, therefore, it brings judgment against all men: “that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world [not just Israel] may become guilty before God”(Romans 3.19).

What this is means is that the rise and fall of nations is not ethically random. The rise and fall of nations depend on how much these nations conform themselves to God’s Law. History is not random because God’s Providence exalts or punishes nations based on their obedience or transgression of His Law.  If we want to know how close or how far a nation is from destruction, all we have to do is to find out how close or how far the people there have given themselves into rebellion. Rebellion against God produces destruction, not only eternal destruction in hell, but also historical destruction on earth and in time. Sodom and Gomorrah, who were not Israelites, were among the first examples of the Bible. “Even as Sodom and Gomorrha, and the cities about them in like manner, giving themselves over to fornication, and going after strange flesh, are set forth for an example“. (Jude 1:7) This is the meaning of Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28. Psalm 94 gets to the point of calling fools those who do not believe the principle of Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28 are binding on the nations:

“Consider, ye brutish among the people; And ye fools, when will ye be wise? He that planted the ear, shall he not hear? He that formed the eye, shall he not see? He that chastiseth the nations, shall not he correct, Even he that teacheth man knowledge? Jehovah knoweth the thoughts of man, That they are vanity. Blessed is the man whom thou chastenest, O Jehovah, And teachest out of thy Law”(Psalm 94.8-12).

This is not a difficult principle to grasp since it is clearly expressed in the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. The problem is that the modern world tends to be extremely individualistic and, therefore, too many Christians read their Bibles with all these modern individualistic ideas in their mind. Both the prosperity preachers and most of their theological opponents like John Piper read their Bibles in this fashion and that is why when they get to Deuteronomy 28, they are not able to see anything but individual promises. Prosperity preachers see them as promises to individual Christians and, therefore, they teach their followers that every single Christian can have every single promise there. On the other hand, most of their opponents read Deuteronomy 28 in the same individualistic way, but they are unable to understand how these promises can be binding in the New Testament if the apostles, for instance, lived the way they did. That is why they need to come up with an explanation as to why Deuteronomy 28 has been annulled and why the Old Testament is practically useless.

The fact is that Deuteronomy 28 does not contain promises to mere individuals, but to nations, cultures and civilizations. Let’s take a few examples that will demonstrate how that works. The sixth commandment is: “Thou shalt not kill”(Exodus 20.13). The ninth commandment is: “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor”(Exodus 20.16). At every moment of our daily lives, we depend on people obeying these two commandments, at least externally. If I go to the bakery to get some bread, I have no real means of finding out if the bread doesn’t contain some deadly substance. But although I cannot be absolutely sure the baker has not poisoned the bread in order to kill me, I still buy his bread. To do that, I must trust the baker. I must believe him as he presents himself as someone who sells good food. But, in principle, he could be lying, couldn’t he? He could have deadly substances on his bread. Imagine that every bakery and supermarket in a country was completely based on lies and cared not the least for their costumers’ lives. Could we trust anything we buy? Could we be sure that the food is not rotten or poisoned? What would happen to society? So, in order to eat we depend on mutual trust. We depend on the sixth and the ninth commandment. The more a society loses respect for the sixth and the ninth commandment, the more there will be suffering and tyranny. Last week, I hurt my leg badly, was under a lot of pain and had to see a doctor. As is not uncommon in many Brazilian public hospitals, I had to wait for about four hours in line to see a doctor. It was supposed to be an emergency line and most people waiting with me were under some kind of pain. When I got to the doctor’s room, there were three doctors. One of them would get on Facebook between one patient and another to have a few laughs and seemed to be too lazy to work. Patients were waiting. “Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise” (Proverbs 6.6). What happens to a nation when this commandment is not honored? But what if the Law-breaking was even more severe? I had to take a shot. I had to take medicine. I had to trust the doctors. What if the Law-breaking was even more severe? What would happen to a country if the sixth commandment were completely disregarded by doctors?  Deuteronomy 8.6-19 and Leviticus 26 are and always have been true. Obedience to God’s Law brings in cultural advancement over time and disobedience to God brings in destruction over time. God’s Providence is not ethically random. According to Psalm 94, it is foolish to think otherwise.

The promises and threats of Deuteronomy 28 and Leviticus 26 have not been annulled in any way and neither have all other Old Testament prosperity promises that are simply the same principle being restated. The New Testament does not abolish such promises, but confirms them even more through Jesus Christ (II Corinthians 1.20). Christ threatened Israel with God’s historical covenantal sanctions in Matthew 23.29-39 and Paul did the same in I Corinthians 10:1-11. Contrary to modern Pietism, the apostle Paul argued that the principle behind Deuteronomy 28 and Leviticus 26 is still fully in force: “Now all these things happened unto them for examples: and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come”(I Corinthians 10.11). What modern theologians like John Piper don’t understand is that these promises and threats must be understood in the context of cultures and civilizations, not merely individuals. That is why it is possible for the real law-abiding saints to live in a way that they do not experience the material blessings stated in Deuteronomy 28 and Leviticus 26. The reason is that they might live in Law-hating cultures: “Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you”(Matthew 5:11-12). This texts makes it perfectly clear that the existence of Christians who do not experience the material blessings stated in Deuteronomy 28 and Leviticus 26 does not mean these promises have been annulled. Nobody will argue that they were not binding during the prophets’ time. But the prophets were also persecuted just like many Christians today are (which is contrary to the promises of Deuteronomy 28 and Leviticus 26). Why so? Because they lived in Law-hating cultures. The promises and threats must be understood in the context of cultures and civilizations, not merely individuals. When a godly individual lives in an extremely Law-hating culture, he will not experience most of the covenantal prosperity because they have been forsaken by the culture he is in. That’s how it worked in the Old Testament and that’s how it works today.

Contrary to modern theologians like John Piper, the great Protestant Reformer John Knox understood this quite well. In 1553, he sent out a letter to Christians in London, Newcastle and Berwick. It was a serious letter of warning. In view of the spreading apostasy in England, John Knox warned the British about the cultural consequences of Law-breaking and the impact their actions would have on their posterity:

When I remember the fearful threatenings of God, pronounced against realms and nations to whom the light of God’s word has been offered, and contemptuously refused by them (Leviticus 26:14-39; Matthew 10:14-15); as my heart unfeignedly mourns for your present estate, dearly beloved in our Saviour Jesus Christ, so do the whole powers of body and soul tremble and shake for the plagues that are to come. But that God’s true word has been offered to the realm of England none can deny, except such as by the devil are held in bondage (God justly so punishing their proud disobedience, 1 Timothy 1:9), and have neither eyes to see, nor understanding to discern good from bad, nor darkness from light… The end of which my admonition is, that even as you purpose and intend to avoid God’s vengeance, both in this life and in the life to come; that so you avoid and flee, as well in body as in spirit, all fellowship and society with idolaters in their idolatry… And albeit that abominable idolaters triumph for a moment, yet the hour approaches when God’s vengeance shall strike not only their souls, but even their vile carcasses shall be plagued, as he has threatened before. Their cities shall be burned, their land shall be laid waste, their enemies shall dwell in their strongholds, their wives and their daughters shall be defiled, their children shall fall by the edge of the sword. Mercy shall they find none, because they have refused the God of all mercy, when lovingly and long he called upon them (Leviticus 26:14-19; Jeremiah 6:11-12; Leviticus 26:1-13). You would know the time, and what certainty I have thereof. To God will I appoint no time, but these and more plagues shall fall upon the realm of England (and that ere it be long, except repentance prevent), I am so sure as that I am that my God lives… But you would know the grounds of my certitude; God grant that hearing them you may understand and steadfastly believe the same. My assurances are not the marvels of Merlin, nor yet the dark sentences of profane prophecies, but (1.) the plain truth of God’s word, (2.) the invincible justice of the everlasting God, and (3.) the ordinary course of his punishments and plagues from the beginning, are my assurance and grounds. God’s word threatens destruction to all the disobedient; his immutable justice must require the same. The ordinary punishments and plagues show examples (Deuteronomy 28:15-68; Jeremiah 5.15-17; Amos 3:2, 11-15; Deuteronomy 29:10-29). What man, then, can cease to prophesy? The word of God plainly speaks, that if a man shall hear the curses of God’s law, and yet, in his heart, shall promise to himself felicity and good luck, thinking that he shall have peace, although he walks after the imaginations of his own will and heart; to such a man the Lord will not be merciful, but his wrath shall be kindled against him, and he shall destroy his name from under heaven. How the Lord threatens plague after plague, and ever the last to be sorest, while, finally, he will consume realms and nations if they repent not, read the twenty-sixth chapter of Leviticus (vvs. 14-39); which chapter oft have I willed you to mark, and I yet do unfeignedly. And think not that it appertains to the Jews only. No, brethren, the prophets are the interpreters of the law, and they make the plagues of God common to all offenders. The punishment ever begins at the household of God (1 Peter 4:17).

Contrary to prosperity gospel preachers, John Knox didn’t believe God’s covenantal sanctions were about how lazy and greedy people could work magic get their own BMW and beautiful houses by the beach.  And contrary to modern pietists, John Knox wasn’t comfortably sitting in air-conditioned rooms writing about how the Law had been annulled and therefore God had ceased to destroy wicked nations in order to build up a godly civilization. God’s Law, Deuteronomy 28 and Leviticus 26 were, in the mind of the truly Reformed, a blueprint for Christendom, Christ’s Kingdom, Christian Civilization. True worship and obedience to God’s Law was not only about escaping eternal torment in hell-fire. It was also about escaping God’s judgment in history. God’s Kingdom was not only what we would see in heaven or after Christ’s Second Coming. Christ’s Kingdom is what we must build now, on earth and in time. God’s Law is God’s blueprint for the Kingdom and through His historical sanctions he destroys the Kingdom’s enemies and blesses the labor of those who have laid down their lives to uphold it.

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About Frank Brito

Frank Brito is involved in missionary work in his homeland, Brazil - planting churches that are committed to a comprehensive Biblical Worldview and providing translations of sermons, books and videos from both historic and modern Reformers that will help build the spiritual and intellectual foundation for the future Christian civilization in Brazil. Currently, he is working to develop an online Institute that will provide for the theological education of those who wish to become church leaders.
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