I came across a Netflix documentary this weekend called American Gospel: Christ Alone. The film’s website asks the question: Is Christianity Christ + the American dream? American Gospel examines how the prosperity gospel (the Word of Faith movement) has distorted the gospel message.
The film was made in 2018 and is part of a two part series. The documentary features interviews with John MacArthur, Mark Dever, Bryan Chappell, Steve Lawson, the late Nabeel Qureshi, and a host of others. I honestly can’t remember the last time I saw something on a streaming service (or television) which was straight up preaching the gospel and bringing Biblical truths. It was refreshing.
The first 40 or so minutes of the documentary is talking about the gospel message and what it is. Humanity is sinful, unable to live up to God’s mortal holiness, but the good news is that God has made a way for sinful people to be redeemed. God saves people not because we’re good but because he’s good, and for his own glory. The scholars talking about the Bible and the centrality of the gospel was very encouraging and edifying.
In the documentary we also meet a woman named Katherine Berger who became a Christian as an adult and talks of her joy in Christ, in spite of several severe health issues, including a rare genetic disorder. We meet Costi Hinn, the nephew of famed prosperity preacher and claimed faith-healer Benny Hinn who used to work in his uncle’s ministry before realizing the false claims that were being made.
The documentary contrasts the true gospel against the counterfeit prosperity gospel. The documentary features numerous clips from prosperity preachers such as Joel Osteen, Benny Hinn, Todd White and Kenneth Copeland. The documentary really roots out the shallow theology of the proponents of prosperity theology. It’s a theology that undermines the sovereignty of God, distorts clear Biblical teachings on suffering, and sells people the idea that God wants to give them material blessings and health and that it’s there for the taking as long as a person is faithful enough and moral enough. But the idea that our lives will manipulate God to bend to our desires is idolatrous.
Some of the things said in the context of the prosperity gospel are outright blasphemous. For instance, the New Testament says that Christians will suffer (James 1:2-4; Romans 5:3-5; 2 Timothy 3:12). In his sovereign will, God uses suffering for our ultimate good (Romans 8:28; Genesis 50:20), and for his own glory. When people who claim to teach the Bible say that suffering is never part of God’s will, it puts an unbiblical burden on a person that things would have been different for them had they been more faithful, or prayerful, or moral.
One of the Evangelical scholars in the documentary talks of a friend who believed in the prosperity gospel and put off going to the doctor for a serious medical complication. The person believed they would be healed and ended up dying. The theological belief system itself is destructive.
Certainly, it’s easy to understand why this theology is popular and draws crowds. It depicts God as a genie who just wants to bless people. But the reason why this theology is so shallow is that God desires so much more for his people than simply giving us what we think we want today. Prosperity theology is bankrupt. God wants to eternally bless his people and bless them today with the greatest blessing of all: knowing Him. Whatever toys or fortunes we want to amass are things that are finite and that we can’t take with us. We cheapen the spiritual blessings that God gives to his people when we make life revolve around health and wealth. Those things are not meant to fulfill the longings of the human soul. Only God can do that.
Prosperity theology also appeals to people because we love moral scales, we love to be able to think that we’ve done enough good, prayed enough, given enough money, etc and that we can rest on our own merits. But once again, that is not the gospel. The gospel is that Jesus came into the world and took the penalty of our sins because we could not redeem ourselves.
I recommend this documentary. I do think that it can be used to point people to the truth of Biblical teachings and away from the lies of prosperity theology. Constance Troutman is featured in the documentary. She talks of her past experience in a prosperity preaching church which had purchased a teaching curriculum. It was through that curriculum that Troutman (1) heard the gospel and became a Christian and (2) realized that the church she attended was not teaching the Bible.
This all resonates with me. When I started going to church as an 18 year old, I used to love watching a well known prosperity preaching televangelist every Sunday. It was around that time that I also started listening to the radio ministry of John Piper. One thing that quickly stuck out to me, even though I enjoyed both pastors, was that I respected that fact that Piper obviously wasn’t just there to preach the easy-listening message and to tell me what I wanted to hear. I was young, but that stood out to me. Never underestimate the value of Biblical truth.
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