I won't even call the perversion of Christianity proffered by those preachers and authors who claim that God wants true believers to be rich, happy, and blessed a "prosperity gospel" because "gospel" means good news, and there's nothing good about their message. In Sunday's reading from Romans 5, we encounter Paul's repudiation of this false teaching so clearly and resoundingly that one wonders whether Joel Osteen and Creflo Dollar had first-century counterparts who were just as slick and popular. More importantly, Paul's words not only refute the bogus belief of prosperity for the faithful; they also show that such claims are antithetical to a gospel of grace, founded upon justification by faith.
"Since we are justified by faith..." Paul writes. For the last few Sundays, we've been jumping around in Romans, so don't lose sight of what comes right before this introductory clause. In Romans 4, Paul writes about Abraham and how he was justified not by works but by faith. As we heard last week, "For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness" (4:2-3). For the rest of the chapter, Paul expounds upon this point, showing how circumcisions is a sign of justification and not a prerequisite for it. At the end of the chapter, Paul returns to Abraham as the paragon of justification by faith whose example leads us into the same, writing,
No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. That is why his faith was 'counted to him as righteousness.' But the words 'it was counted to him' were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification. (4:20-25, ESV)This is the thesis of Paul's letter and his entire theology of salvation. For him and for us, it is the core of the gospel. That's why he continues in Sunday's reading with, "Since we are justified by faith..." He wants us to see that the benefits of justification by faith are numerous, and, chief among them, is a hope that transcends earthly prosperity, success, and peace.
"Since we are justified by faith," Paul writes, "we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ." Without justification by faith, which is to say under justification by law or works, we have no peace--no persistent, unfailing, unwavering status of right-ness with God. Why not? Because, as Paul stresses in the previous chapter, "Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due," which sounds promising enough until we remember that, "if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God." Works are find and good if you're trying to measure up to your boss, but they won't work with God. God's demand is a perfection we cannot provide. The failing, futile effort would be never-failing. Instead, because of justification by faith, we have a peace with God that otherwise could not be found.
How is this related to a theology of prosperity? Because, as Paul writes in Sunday's epistle lesson, "We also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us." We don't tout our wealth as a sign of God's blessing. We celebrate our poverty instead. We do not point to our power as a sign of God's work. We remember that our suffering is where God's glory is manifest. Our hope, our character, our endurance--they do not come from luxury cars, fine houses, country club memberships, vacation properties, corner offices, and investment portfolios. They come from hunger, beatings, imprisonment, poverty, and destitution. Unless we recognize that God's blessings come not to the powerful but to the meek, we cannot know a theology of grace. Unless we reject the false teaching that the faithful will be rewarded in earthly terms, we cannot know justification by faith. And we are lost--perhaps even beyond saving.
As Paul writes, Christ died for the ungodly. He died for us while we were still weak. He did not wait for us to be good or faithful before saving us. He came to us when we needed him most. Jesus does not come to us when we are in good standing. He comes to us when we are lost. If we believe that God's blessing comes in the form of prosperity for the faithful, we lose sight of everything Jesus came and accomplished. God's dream is not to reward our faithfulness with earthly success. God dreams of remaining with us in our poverty and saving us while we are there. That is where God is to be found. We cannot allow antichrists to make their claims without openly rejecting them. We cannot be silent while the gospel of grace is perverted by those wolves in sheep's clothing who lead the flock away from true salvation into a wilderness of empty promises and lies. Those who claim riches for the faithful are substituting works-righteousness for justification by faith because they implicitly teach that those who are poor must not be saved. Their faith must not be strong enough. Their gifts must not be generous enough. Their religion must not be pure enough. And to that the gospel says, "No!" We must preach the gospel of justification by faith and celebrate salvation for the poor and struggling. On that solid rock our hope is built. All other ground is sinking sand.