Health, Wealth & Happiness | Book Review
The prosperity gospel is preached every day. Whether it comes through the radio, television, books, or a live-stream on a mobile device, the message is being preached that God wants people happy, healthy, and wealthy, and all one needs to achieve these benefits is the right amount of faith. Though the prosperity gospel promises it all, it leaves Christians wondering, is this message the true gospel? Or is this message like a subtle disease that feeds off people’s materialistic impulses and rejects the true message of Jesus?
David W. Jones, (PhD) Associate Professor of Christian Ethics and Coordinator of ThM and Thesis Studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Russell S. Woodbridge, (PhD) former Assistant professor of Theology and Church History at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary currently serving on the Eastern Europe International Mission Board, both seek to answer these questions with pastoral care in their book Health Wealth and Happiness.
The goal of Health, Wealth & Happiness is to show that the prosperity gospel is a false gospel. It is a gospel “that contains false promises, promotes self-exaltation, and ultimately does not satisfy” (165). This book also seeks to “inform readers about the prosperity gospel, including its history, theology, and errors” (165). Some error topics include, “the gospel, faith, the atonement, the Abrahamic covenant, the mind, prayer, [and] Bible interpretation” (102). The authors also seek “to give biblical teaching on wealth, poverty, suffering, and giving” (165).
Jones and Woodbridge begin by showing the growth of the prosperity gospel throughout the world. The authors point out seven reasons for the growth: First, the prosperity message contains “a grain of biblical truth” (18). That truth has been greatly distorted, but there has been enough truth that people will listen. Second, this false gospel appeals to the human desires to be healthy, wealthy, and successful. Third, the prosperity message holds out many promises, but asks for little in return. The authors pointed out that Jesus is portrayed “as one who can help believer help themselves” (18). Fourth, the winsome personalities behind the prosperity gospel have polished presentations and are great motivational speakers (18). Fifth, the actual followers of this movement “have little knowledge of biblical doctrine,” leaving them susceptible to false teaching (19). Sixth, there are some who claim to be successful and claim healing through the prosperity gospel (19). Seventh, many people in the church today lack discernment (19). Furthermore, the authors claim that, “Christians often define happiness, joy and success by the world’s standards instead of using God’s standards” (19). Such a definition has caused many churches to be infected with a false gospel.
Analysis and Evaluation of the Text
The authors astutely show how the prosperity gospel comes from the New Thought Movement: “New Thought ideas are often taught using biblical words and are justified by distorting Scripture” (48). The authors unmask the founders by saying, “New Thought proponents such as Emanuel Swedenborg, Phineas Quimby, Ralph Waldo Trine, and Norman Vincent Peale were adept at taking pagan ideas and wrapping them in Scripture” (48). Some of those pagan ideas taught that right thinking, right words, and proper visualization will lead to health and wealth (49). The face-value claim of the New Thought Movement is that, “God wants you to be prosperous in everything in the here-and-now” (56). While these claims may sound appealing, they are fundamentally pagan, not Christian.
Next, the authors show how the prosperity gospel actually goes beyond the claims of the New Thought Movement. The second chapter repeats many of the assertions made in the first chapter due to the overlap between the two schools of thought, namely, the “five pillars” of the New Thought Movement: “a distorted view of God, an elevation of the mind over matter, an exalted view of mankind, a focus on health and wealth, as well as an unorthodox view of salvation” (80).
Jones and Woodbridge provide further ground for their thesis by highlighting the fact that prosperity gospel “rejects the orthodox view that God is one in essence and yet also three in person, coequal and coeternal” (57). The authors then show how this confusion about God leads to a distorted view of salvation. Confusion concerning the hypostatic union leads to confusion concerning the sufficiency of Christ. The conclusion is true: an insufficient Jesus and a misshapen gospel rob God of the glory he is due.
God has been distorted in the prosperity gospel, but people condoning this message also fail to make a distinction between God and man. Thereby they have believed that, “words are a force and possess the power to create—mind over matter” (62). According to this view, God can be manipulated by the whims of any man. For example, Joel Osteen substantiates his claims by making factual errors, allegorizing the meaning of the text, and preaching self-confidence (74).
Not only is God distorted, but also “prosperity advocates view human beings to be divine” (63). This is a form of pantheism and is not Biblical. The authors quoted Edward Pousson’s observation where he said, “the prosperity message is in captivity to the American dream” (65). In response to these shocking claims, the authors do well to show how the overemphasis on prosperity leads to further bondage, not to freedom.
The authors testify that suffering is normal and should be expected in the Christian life. Suffering does not indicate a lack of faith. In fact the Bible teaches that suffering will likely increase because of faith. Suffering is often used to grow believers and conform that into the image of Jesus. While suffering is not desirable it is good to remember that it cannot stop God’s redemption plan (122). Furthermore, the authors seek to show biblical evidence that suffering can and will take place even for believers. They share that, “three main sources of suffering exist in this present world: the curse of the created order, personal sin, and the sins of others” (122). Suffering may not be avoidable, but the authors point out that “there is value in suffering, God is acquainted with suffering, and God is sovereign” (122).
Health, Wealth, and Happiness proves to be a significant supplement to John M. Frame’s The Doctrines of the Christian Life, which further expands on themes such as the sovereignty of God.
One area where the book could use more substantiation is the topic of the connection between body, mind, and spirit, particularly as it relates to physical healing. The authors rightly showed the problems with the views of the prosperity gospel on this issue, but the treatment of a biblical view on this topic seemed slim.
This book is valuable in that it brings a clear explanation of the origin, practice, and modern examples of the prosperity gospel. It is a welcome contribution for our generation, a generation that desperately needs to be freed from the American Dream. Not only is America being plagued with this false doctrine, but sadly missionaries and prosperity gospel resources are also being sent out all around the world. This book is helpful in exposing the lies and false teaching, as well as revealing the subtle ways even believers can slip into this kind of wrong thinking. It is my hope that this book continues to be well received and proves helpful for many in this generation.
Health, Wealth & Happiness. By David W. Jones and Russell S. WoodBridge. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2011. 201 pages. Reviewed by Ashley Baker.