I’d like to mention here my thoughts about New Creation Church, a Church I’ve been attending occasionally since March (I’m also attending another Church which I’ll mention later on). This is one of the biggest Churches in Singapore – second only to City Harvest Church. There are a few attractive features of this Church. Firstly, it preaches a very positive message. This is because it is a type of Church that teaches the “Word of Faith” message – some other names that describe such a message are “Health and Wealth”, “Prosperity”, “Name it and Claim it”. The leaders of this movement – which has a certain kind of theology – are people like E.W. Kenyon, Kenneth Hagin and Kenneth Copeland. Central to their message is that God wants to bless every Christian – especially in the areas of health and prosperity – through his/her faith. Thus a lot of messages will touch on how God wants Christians healthy and prosperous. And the way Christians get these blessings is through the power of their faith. Such a positive message of God wanting to bless Christians would of course makes the Church popular. Another attractive feature of this Church is that it preaches a strong – and some say one-sided – message of grace. I state this second point – on grace – independently from the first point of a positive message not because the message of grace isn’t in a certain sense a positive message. Indeed, the emphasis on grace is another aspect of the positive message heard in New Creation. But I state this as a second and independent point because I don’t see New Creation’s focus on Grace as integral to what other “Word of Faith” Churches teach. That is, other Word of Faith Churches do not emphasize grace the way New Creation does. New Creation is thus unique in this sense. Pastor Prince also acknowledges this regularly. In a sermon entitled “Walking in the undeserved favor of God” (28/3/04), he said:
Now I’ve been in the Word of Faith circle and I find that Word of Faith preachers know about favor. Churches of faith know about favor. The thing that I wish many of them would say though would be this – to use that phase – undeserved favor. Favor is good and the teaching of favor has produced tremendous testimonies but I would rather the Word of Faith preachers like myself use undeserved favor because that’s the true definition of grace. Now I didn’t learn amazing grace from Word of Faith though I’m a Word of Faith preacher. I had to learn that truly struggling on my own.
New Creation is in fact very well known throughout Singapore for its message of grace. I know a lot of people who have gone from City Harvest Church to New Creation Church (and vice-versa too) because the former Church stressed them out too much and they felt too much pressure upon them in terms of the commitments demanded of them. While City Harvest Church is a Church very much “on fire” and growing, many find they cannot stand the pressure and run out of steam, so to speak. Some even feel very condemned for not having lived up to the standards of what a good committed Christian ought to be like. In contrast to a Church like City Harvest, New Creation’s outlook of Christianity is almost the opposite. The message of grace and the finished work of Christ clearly gets through in every sermon. Rather than focusing on getting Christians to be more committed or to do more of this or that for Christ, the message of resting in Christ’s finished work and receiving from God is emphasized. Therefore, in this Church you aren’t obligated at all to join a cell group and therefore possibly only about less than 10-15% (my estimates based on the number of cells there are, which may be very wrong!) of Christians who attend the Church are part of a cell – in City Harvest, I believe everyone has to join a cell. Christians can come without commitment and there are a lot of couples who come by themselves and a lot of Christians from other Churches – whose commitment is to their home Church, though they come to New Creation as they benefit much from the message. A third attractive feature of New Creation is that they have perhaps the most charismatic and hilarious pastor in Pastor Joseph Prince. Everyone who goes there will definitely think have a good laugh one time or another – very often a few times – throughout the sermon.
I consider myself as one of those Christians I’ve mentioned above who attend New Creation Church (I do so occasionally) because he/she finds the message preached beneficial. I am attending another Church right now and am quite committed to it. However, I attend New Creation after the morning service of my home Church because I find I have learnt much there. And I want to continue to do so. Just as I won’t agree with everything taught in my home Church, I don’t agree with everything taught by Pastor Joseph Prince. But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t attend New Creation. I can still learn much from the stuff I find good.
I’ll warn you first that this section is pretty long. The reason is because it consists of many years of reflection. It is not because I’ve been to New Creation for a long time but rather I’ve reflected upon the issues for years. The theological issues that one confronts when one attends New Creation Church aren’t particularly new. Very seldom are ideas and teachings we encounter nowadays new – be it in the church or in the world. Most often, issues we face nowadays have been confronted in history. The difference is that they have now emerged in new forms. That’s why I believe it’s so important to learn about history for by understanding what occurred in the past, one will be wiser in dealing with what occurs in the present. Below, I will talk about three particular theological issues: a) grace, b) faith and c) health and wealth.
2) Thoughts on GRACE
Many Christian leaders have criticized New Creation of emphasizing too much on the grace of God. They say that the message of grace needs to be balanced by a message that challenges the Christian to greater commitment and good works. For me, I’ve thought a lot about the issue of grace before attending New Creation. It was my conclusion about grace that has helped me to appreciate and love Pastor Prince’s message of Grace. It’s because I have a pretty similar view on grace as he – though not totally identical.
Early on in my Christian life, I encountered strong grace teachings from people like Michael Horton (a Reformed Christian) of the magazine Modern Reformation who introduced me to Lutheran theology. Since then, I’ve always appreciated the Lutheran tradition of law/gospel antithesis/distinction and their theology of the cross. Also, the Reformed Heidelberg Catechism was organized into 3 Gs: Guilt, Grace and Gratitude. And Liturgies are usually organized by these 3 Gs – to remind the Christian than our sins that produces guilt are forgiven by grace we receive through Christ’s death and that we are to live our lives in gratitude. Indeed the Christian life is meant to be a life of gratitude: we do good not to earn God’s favor but because we have already received God’s favor. This way of viewing the Christian life prevents condemnation and legalism in the Christian life. My understanding of the Reformation view of justification and also my great interest in the Lordship Salvation controversy all helped me understand grace better. Jerry Bridges has also written (from a Reformed perspective) quite a bit of great stuff on the role of grace in the Christian life. And Robert Farrar Capon’s books and ministry have been so wonderfully focused on the topic of grace. Of all these influences, I think it’s the traditional Lutheran theology on the distinction between law and gospel that has helped the most – and to which probably all great teachings on the wonders of grace would trace its roots. While Pastor Prince’s message of grace is not new to me, I think it’s unique among Singapore Churches and even most Churches (though perhaps not unique to really good Lutheran churches that hold to their rich heritage) throughout the world.
So I do have a great appreciation for the grace message which Pastor Prince teaches. Do I think it’s unbalanced? Yes, but I don’t think that it’s wrong in that sense to be unbalanced. As I mentioned in the above section in my comments on Justification, I think things are more complex than many Christians make it out to be. After all, the issue of the relationship between law and gospel/grace has never been settled definitively – even in the Protestant segment of the Church. I say all this because the so-called “Lordship Salvation” controversy is an issue within the Protestant Church. And since my interest in this controversy in 1997, I’ve always been listening in to how pastors preach law and grace. And through all this, one thing I believe very clearly is that many pastors themselves confuse law and gospel and because of this they’ll say one thing one time, and in another occasion say another thing. For example, pastors would say that we’re saved by grace and not what we do and so we can come to him “just as we are” – sinners – and through believing in Jesus, we will be saved. Then on another occasion when they preach about being a faithful Christian or works (in James) or when they mention so called “discipleship” passages or Jesus’ call to deny ourselves and all, the audience gets the impression that we have to do more than just believe to be a true Christian. By the way, I’m very sure that if Pastor Prince reads the last two paragraphs, he will know very well what I’m talking about. That is, I believe he knows how the message of grace gets blurred in many churches. And so he (and good Lutherans) emphasize the grace of God.
To answer more clearly what I think of all this message of grace (and also why I think it’s not wrong to be unbalanced in the sense of preaching grace constantly), let me comment on two issues concerning grace here. First it’s the message of grace in relation to a person’s salvation. The second is the message of grace in relation to the Christian who has already been saved.
2.1) Grace and Salvation
Firstly, in relation to grace and the salvation of a person, it’s very clear than Roman Catholics lean more towards the message that one has to have faith (in Christ’s death) and also be good and do works in order to be saved. Protestants should lean towards the message that one has to have only faith (sola fide) in order to be saved. This is after all one of the main issues (if not THE main issue) that separates Roman Catholicism from Protestantism. However, how some pro-Lordship Salvation Christians speak, you’d be forgiven if you thought there aren’t really any differences between what Roman Catholicism believe concerning how to be saved and what these Protestant pro-Lordship Salvation Christians believe. Below I’ll quote three authors who write some stuff that can be pretty representative of what many Evangelical pastors believe and preach. Even though all three authors will come out as supporting the “pro-Lordship” side of the debate, many other Christians and pastors who have no idea what the Lordship Salvation debate is all about often say pretty much the same things:
It is not enough to believe that only through Christ and His death are sinners justified and accepted, and that one’s own record is sufficient to bring down God’s condemning sentence twenty times over, and that, apart from Christ one has no hope. Knowledge of the gospel, and orthodox belief of it, is no substitute for repentance…The repentance that Christ requires of His people consists in a settled refusal to set any limit to the claims which He may make on their lives… He did not desire to make disciples under false pretenses… In our own presentation of Christ’s gospel, therefore, we need to lay a similar stress on the cost of following Christ, and make sinners face it soberly before we urge them to respond to the message of free forgiveness. In common honesty, we must not conceal the fact that free forgiveness in one sense will cost everything; or else our evangelizing becomes a sort of confidence trick. And, where there is no clear knowledge, and hence no realistic recognition of the real claims that Christ makes, there can be no repentance, and therefore, no salvation. (JI Packer, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God)
Without obedience, you shall not see life! Unless you bow to Christ’s sceptre, you will not receive the benefits of Christ’s sacrifice. (Walter Chantry, Today’s Gospel: Authentic or Synthetic?)
Salvation is for those who are willing to forsake everything. (John MacArthur Jr., The Gospel According to Jesus)
As seen from the above, the demand of forsaking everything, turning around to be good and obedience is a condition to be saved. And that’s how many Christians think. Many pastors preach one time the freeness of God’s grace and that one can be saved simply by believing that Christ died for his/her sins. But another time, they say that a Christian needs to turn from sin and be willing to submit to Christ in order to be saved. Very clearly, one can’t have it both ways! But many pastors preach it both ways and thus preach a very confusing message! And I think this is something that Pastor Prince is not happy about. He preaches free and pure grace and emphasizes that fact because that is how it should be. We become Christians purely by grace alone and through faith alone. To say that we need to give everything of ourselves or forsake this or that or become obedient to Christ is to make it like a message of works! And what I like about Pastor Prince’s message of grace is that he gets it right: Salvation is totally of grace. It’s about resting in Christ’s finished work. It’s about believing all is done and you don’t have to do anything to earn it but merely receive the finished work of Christ and forgiveness of sins for ourselves.
[By the way, just let it be known for those who are familiar with this Lordship Salvation debate that while I may seem to come out on the side of the non/anti-Lordship side, this is not totally true. I’ve been very influenced by Reformed authors like Michael Horton, magazines like modern Reformation and Lutheran theology. And therefore I do lean towards the non/anti-Lordship side. For those who are Reformed and think that the Reformed position supports the pro-Lordship side, I think they are very plain wrong! A lot of Reformed authors – past and present – will have great disagreements with those writing in the pro-Lordship camp. So overall, while I lean towards the non/anti-Lordship camp, I don’t agree with everything. But I agree very much with their emphasis on grace. And so would Pastor Prince. And so would many past and present Reformed authors. By the way, Charles Spurgeon’s books on grace are sold in New Creation’s bookstore. Other Reformed authors that would come out more on the non/anti-Lordship side and on the side of grace would be the Ralph Erskine, Thomas Boston and Horatius Bonar. Check out also the “marrow man” controversy]
Now, I’m going to write some stuff in this paragraph that will seem to overturn everything I’ve just said and argue for something that I’ve been arguing against! I appreciate Pastor Prince’s message of grace not because I think it’s totally right. But didn’t I just say in the previous paragraph that I think Prince “gets it right” in his message of grace? Yes, I did. And I do. But I think he gets it right on one side. What I mean is that up till this point of my life in my struggles with the issue of law and grace/gospel (and I’ve read a lot about it), I still cannot reconcile bible passages which seem to say that Salvation is totally free and all we have to do is believe, and bible passages which seem to say that Salvation requires obedience of us – these are, by the way, the same many Scripture verses that seem to inspire those three authors I quoted above and those who believe in the pro-Lordship camp and also Roman Catholics. What I’m saying is that I see there’s a tension in Scripture. We can easily get rid of that tension by leaning this or that way. When we do so, we have to somehow interpret away passages that seem to support the other side. And when this happens – and pastor Prince does that a lot to support his free grace view – it doesn’t seem right. What I mean is that it becomes a bit obvious that we’re trying to interpret away the certain passages that don’t fit into our pre-determined mindset of how it should be like. Down the ages, Christians have tried to take one side or the other. The fact that there’s a great division between Roman Catholics and Protestants – and further greater division within these two branches – prove that Scriptures are not absolutely clear in this area. There seems to be bible verses that support both sides. People end up staunchly on one side because they think only one side is the truth and they take a side and when faced with Scriptures that seem to support the other side, they will interpret away somehow. At this moment of my life, this is the way I see it: there seems to be tension in Scripture concerning this passage. That is not to say that I will not learn in future and change my thinking. I’m sure I will. So where does this leave me concerning my view of the message of grace? Though I acknowledge that there’s a tension in Scripture, if I were to err, I’d prefer to err on the side of grace. If I were to lean on one side, it’ll definitely be of grace. I’m not going to say it’s because I see more passages that seem to support the pro-grace/faith side. Maybe that’s so, but I don’t think it’s about the number of passages. I think that looking at Scripture as a whole, grace seems to be the dominant theological theme. God is after all love. I like how one author endorsed a book of Robert Farrar Capon (who writes to the extreme on grace) when he said, “Capon is at least half right – a very good score for a theologian.” I think that Pastor Prince too is at least half right – and perhaps even totally right! Who knows. As I said, though I see tensions in Scriptures, the overall theme of grace and God being gracious more than anything stands out. So I will continue to love the grace message!
2.2) Grace and the Christian
Secondly, let me talk about the issue of the message of grace in relation to the Christian who has already been saved. I take it for granted that a person is saved by grace alone through faith alone – that the person does not need to do anything at all to be saved. Now, what are we to preach to the already saved Christian? Pastor Prince would want to preach more grace and grace to the Christian. Is that right? Is that too much grace? Ought we not to focus on holiness and being obedient to God now? That’s what, after all, most Churches do – preach demands and laws upon the believer to challenge them to be better and better Christians. New Creation doesn’t do much of that. More grace is being preached. So much so that perhaps go to the extent of not wanting to seem to impose the demand that everyone ought to join a cell and be involved actively in this or that ministry. Is this right? Or is it a bit unbalanced? Four points I want to mention: two of which are positive towards his emphasis on grace and two of which are negative.
2.2.1) Even as Christians, we need to hear about grace in order to overcome legalism.
I appreciate what Pastor Prince is trying to do in emphasizing grace even to believers. Jerry Bridges has written a lot on this area in his books on grace. I believe many pastors forget to preach grace or underemphasize it as they think their congregation of Christians know about grace already. After all, they’ve preached grace to be saved. Now, they think, we should focus on becoming more holy and obedient. However, while it may be true that Christians should know that they are saved by God’s grace, I believe it’s wrong to think that grace need not be preached to them. After all, many Christians forget that they’re saved by grace or rather tend not to internalize it as inside we’re all still very much legalists who believe we can earn God’s favor. Therefore, it’s still a must to preach grace to Christians. We still ought to remind even Christians that Christ died for their sins constantly. Or they will fall back into their works-centred, legalistic mindset that Robert Farrar Capon calls our “Resident Moralist”. And if so, our Christian life will be one more based on judgement and fear than on grace. That is, we may start to think that the way to earn God’s favor and remain saved is through being obedient and holy. The words of Rod Rosenbladt ought to be taken note of here:
The most important thing to remember is that the death of Christ was in fact a death even for Christian failure. Christ’s death saves even Christians from sin. There is always “room at the Cross” for unbelievers, it seems. But what we ought to be telling people is that there is room there for Christians too…. [I]n contemporary evangelicalism, the law (focus on discipleship and demands upon Christians) can come back to undermine the confidence of the gospel. It can still make threats; it can still condemn. There is wonderful grace for the “sinner”…but the question as to whether there is enough grace for the sinful Christian is an open one in many gatherings, and I have had many students tell me, “My last state is worse than the first. I think I’ve got to leave the faith because I feel worse now than I did before.” I have had people come up to me after I had spoken and tell me, “This is about the last shot I’ve got. My own Christian training is killing me. I can understand how, before I was a Christian, Christ’s death was for me, but I am not at all sure that his death is for me now because I have surrendered so little to him and hold so much back. My trouble really began when I committed myself to Christ as Lord and Savior.”
Many Christians are confused about their salvation just like the Christians whom Rod quoted above. One thing I love to do is to ask new Christians or even long time Christians whether they would go to heaven if they were to die this second. I do so not for the fun of seeing their response but I know many Christians are confused about grace and salvation. If you were to ask this question to your friends I’m sure you’d be amazed at how many would say they are not sure because they think they have not been living a good enough life. If that shows anything, it shows that they have not understood that their salvation is totally based on the grace of what Jesus did for them. The reason why I think so many Christians still think they need to be good enough to get to heaven is that even though they may have started their Christian life believing they are saved by grace alone and through what Christ did for them, the constant bombardment in many churches on what they have to do and how they have to live a good obedient and holy Christian life has caused them to doubt whether they are truly good enough to be saved. In a sense, they started with grace, but continued still relying on law. This confusion is caused by churches neglecting to teach grace to believers, thinking that they ought to preach more of the demands of God or about obedience. I think that’s wrong. And that’s why I appreciate the message of grace by Pastor Prince.
2.2.2) We need to hear about grace as it compels us to live for God.
Not only does an emphasis of God’s grace towards already Christians remind them not to fall back into a legalistic view of Salvation, in addition, I believe it is God’s grace and love shown to us in Christ that inspires, compels and motivates us to live for Him. If this is so, before talking about holiness or being obedient, we need to mention first about God’s wonderful grace. As we remember we are forgiven in Christ and know deep inside the extravagant grace God has shown towards us, we will start to want to obey God and pursue holiness. In a sense, the more we preach grace, the more God’s grace will compel us to want to live for him. In the Scriptures, there are passages where Paul exhorts his audience to live for God. But notice how he reminds them of God’s love and grace first and through that knowledge urge them to live for Him:
Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship. (Romans 12:1)
Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. (Colossians 3:12)
For Christ’s love compels us…that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again. (2 Corinthians 5:14-15)
Another way we properly understand what kind of messages Christians ought to be hearing is through understanding what is called the “indicative” and “imperative” categories of Scripture. However, I’ll leave that for another time. But what I wish to say here is that I do see emphasizing the grace and love of God as being conducive towards encouraging the congregation to live holy and obedient lives. Without their understanding how loving and gracious God is, they will not be motivated to live lives of gratitude. And the Christian life ought to be lived as a life of gratitude towards God. Therefore, if we want Christians to live a life of gratitude to God, we need to remind them of God’s grace and love as this will make them grateful towards God and live for God out of gratitude for what He has done for them.
2.2.3) A biblical message of grace is not at odds with exhortations and demands placed upon Christians.
While I greatly admire Pastor Prince’s message of God’s grace towards Christians – and I explained why I think it’s a good move above – I believe that he could be overdoing it. I understand him wanting Christians to be reminded of grace constantly and not forgetting that they are saved by God’s grace and not by their works. I also understand him wanting his message of grace to motivate and inspire Christians towards holiness and good works on their own accord. However, Scripture clearly does speak of exhortations towards Christians. Paul reminds his audience not only that God loves them and is gracious, but he tells them to be obedient and live for God based on that. He doesn’t just spell out grace and leave it at that. Christians are not left to decide on their own accord whether they want to obey God or not because of what God has done for them. No, Paul goes on and exhorts Christians to be holy. He places demands upon them and he challenges them to grow. I’ve already mentioned the above Scriptures, but we see even in Romans that the first 11 Chapters speak of God’s plan and grace and love. From Chapter 12 to 16, instructions and demands are placed upon Christians. In Ephesians, the first three chapters speak of God’s grace, then the last 3 of how we’re to live out God’s grace. While we definitely need to be aware of how preaching too much of the demands placed upon Christians can backfire, we can be sure that if we preach demands and exhort the congregation properly, we need not fear. There are examples I’ve mentioned already in Paul’s writings. The trick is basically to ground exhortations upon the grace of God. We always ought to mention the grace of God. But we also need to let Christians know that the grace of God ought to compel them to live for God. Therefore, there is a way to challenge and exhort the congregation to live obedient and godly lives without giving them the impression that they ought to be obedient and godly to earn God’s love and grace. The way to avoid giving the impression that their obedience earns God’s love and grace is to put the horse before the cart: we tell Christians that God’s grace is undeserved and free but that it ought to live godly lives for Him because of such great and wonderful and magnificent grace shown towards us. Or to put it another way: we ought to live godly lives for God but we need to be clear that it’s not to earn God’s grace but because God has already favored us with His grace and love. The point of it all is that there’s no need to be afraid of talking about demands or obedience or holiness. We can do so without feeling guilty. The Bible does so. God does so. Paul does so. And we can do so without giving the impression to Christians that it’s their obedience that earns God’s grace.
2.2.4) A biblical message of grace is not at odds with actively encouraging Christians to be involved in Christian/Church ministry.
Another way I believe Prince’s message of grace can be overdone is in terms of the way ministry is done. I believe that in wanting to keep the message of grace central, the need for a Christian to be involved in Christian service and ministry becomes downplayed. For example, serving in the Church and being committed to a cell group or ministry is not actively encouraged. There are of course appeals for ‘members’ to take part in a certain ministry and occasionally members are informed that there are cell groups that they can join. But for such a big Church (of more than 10,000 people in attendance) where community has become very impersonal (you wouldn’t actually know the person beside you if they are not your close friends who probably came along with you – at least this is so in the Adult services) – as it’s normally so for big churches – it’s very unusual that the church is not passionately encouraging every member to be part of a cell group. I do find New Creation Church very impersonal. I never liked big Churches to start with as it’s too impersonal for me. But at least if every member of a big Church is part of a cell, there is a level of community available to each member. Relationships can be developed – and that should be the case as Christianity is about relationships, first with God, but also with others. A close and loving community is an important element of Christianity. And this is what I see is very much lacking in New Creation Church. Yet if I’m right in why they are like that, I understand and am a bit sympathetic (not totally so) to why they are doing things the way they are. I believe they don’t want to impose upon any ‘member’ of the Church the obligation to attend a cell as this could easily turn into a demand (‘law’ in Lutheran terms) and become legalistic. Also, I think that perhaps New Creation attracts so many Christians who attend another Church they would call their home Church (perhaps because of the community they find in their home Church) that it would anyway be hard for them to get these people involved in cells and ministry. However, I still think that overall it’s sad to see so many Christians – and I believe there are many – attending New Creation whose only Church/Christian involvement is the attendance of a New Creation’s service. For them, cell group involvement is not needed. There is in that sense no accountability, no building of Christian relationships, no receiving of encouragement, no forms of service and no Christian community for these Christians who merely attend a New Creation service and no more.
Again, I wish to state I do attend New Creation sometimes though I do have another Church I’d call my home Church. I don’t think I’ll ever consider a Church like New Creation my home Church – for one reason, because it’s too big. And I tend to think that a Church that has become too big should split up for the sake of retaining a viable community that is personal and close. I would never like to serve in a big Church because it would be too ‘bureaucratic’ and impersonal in nature. The leaders would be too far up there. But I wouldn’t like to criticize New Creation much on this area because there are a lot of big Churches around the world – though big churches like City Harvest do see the need of getting Christians to be involved in smaller communities of cell groups. Although I would still think it’s best if a Church splits rather than get bigger and bigger in size, I understand why Churches don’t want to do so. In a sense, there would be a loss of continuity and that would require a different pastor leading the other Church. And especially when Pastor Prince is as charismatic as he is and such a ‘crowd drawer’, it’ll be hard for the other church led by another pastor to attract members who want to hear Pastor Prince and his message. Overall, I still think it’s almost impossible in a Church like New Creation to see true community like the early Church if a large majority of its ‘members’ aren’t channeled into a strong cell ministry which facilitates a sense of Christian community. But then again, no Church is perfect and New Creation is strong in its own areas.
Before I conclude this section, I want to point out something from the history of the Church. If we study Church history, we’ll realize how ideas and teachings move from one extreme to the other. Before the 16th Century Reformation period, the focus was more works centered. Then came the Reformation, which emphasized Justification by grace alone through faith alone. Then within one or two centuries, the Puritans preached a message which was different in emphasis from the Reformers. The Reformers (during the Reformation) were countering the Roman Catholic works centered gospel and so preached the free grace of God and that we find assurance of Salvation in Christ alone. But by the time of the Puritans, the emphasis of free grace created many Christians who were dead in works. That is, while faith ought to produce works and a Christianity that is alive, the free grace preaching resulted in many Christians being slack. To counter this, the Puritans preached with a different emphasis. Their emphasis was no longer that of the Reformers as they were facing not people who trusted in their works, but rather people who trusted in Christ so much they thought there was no need to be full of works. A different situation demanded a different remedy and the Puritans thus preached a more slightly more works-centered gospel than the Reformers. They were famous for exhorting Christians to look at their works or fruits of faith for their assurance of salvation.
It’s hard to come up with a balance – if such a balance is possible in the first place. Sometimes, we need to focus more on grace. Sometimes we need to use the law to slay and humble the proud, and then and only then give grace to the humble. Grace is for the humble, law is for the proud may be something we need to keep in mind. New Creation is a church for those who need rest and for those who need the focus and emphasis on grace. Many wearied and worn-out souls have come from City Harvest Church to New Creation. It’s perhaps good for them to rest in New Creation. The danger is that they rest too much and slack and forget their responsibility to live out their Christian lives. And those who have become too comfortable and slack in their attendance of New Creation perhaps need to be challenged in a church like City Harvest. Both churches with different emphasis are not wrong.
In conclusion, I think Pastor Prince’s overwhelming message of grace ought to make us think more clearly about how we ought to preach about the grace of God – in relation to how a person gets saved and also how a Christian grows more godly. I’m basically for his message of grace. I may not agree fully with the way he preaches grace (and I’ve mentioned areas I believe he could improve above, especially in terms of preaching grace to Christians) or all of what he says but I do believe that ultimately mercy triumphs over judgment and the overarching theme of Scriptures and the dominant characteristic of God is His grace and love. If so, in the end, if Pastor Prince preaches grace to the extreme, he can’t go wrong, and may sometimes be more right than others.
3) Thoughts on FAITH
New Creation’s view on faith in relation to prayer is typical to all Word of Faith Churches. I was once a fan of the Word of Faith movement and had nearly gone into it. I remember how when a friend of mine and I discovered the Word of Faith teachings during my charismatic Christian days (in 1995/1996), we nearly signed up for the Rhema Correspondence Bible School’s course. Though I didn’t stay interested for long and even became quite weary of its teachings, I never ceased to be interested in the role of faith in prayer. I knew the Word of Faith’s teaching on prayer pretty well: confession of God’s word brings possession, believing we receive our answers in the spiritual realm the moment we pray though it may take time for the answer to be manifested in the physical realm…etc. Basically, it’s based ultimately on a very literal view of Scripture and on taking God at His Word. Even when I was more Reformed in thinking, I was very influenced by the Word of Faith’s teaching on prayer – to the great dismay and exasperation of many of my Reformed friends who taught I should have seen through the errors of the faith teachings on prayer. Well, truth is, I never saw any great wrong with what I heard about the importance of faith in receiving one’s answers to prayer. In fact, I saw it all in Scripture and I thought and still think a conservative Christian’s view of prayer can be very unbiblical in terms of how it is blind to seeing how faith contributes to the answering of prayers. (I’ll comment later on what I think of the Word of Faith’s teachings on healing and prosperity as I see both of these as separate issues from their teachings on faith and prayer.)
The fact that faith has a role in the answering of prayers is so prevalent in Scriptures. Jesus mentions it so many times that I cannot understand why so many Christians seem to ignore Him on this matter or at the very least don’t take what He says so seriously. Actually, I do understand. I believe it’s an over-reaction to the Word of Faith movement that so many Christians ignore their message on faith and prayer. And also I think it’s just our plain prejudice and biases – see my take on Postmodernism above. While I may not agree totally with the Word of Faith’s teaching on prayer, I agree with most things and I think Christians have so much good to learn from the movement – they actually don’t have to learn from the movement if they would only open their eyes to what Jesus says on faith and prayer! Here are some of the passages in Scriptures concerning faith and prayer: Matthew 7:7-8, Mark 9:23, Mark 11:22-24, Matthew 21:21-22, Matthew 17:20, James 1:6-8 and Matthew 18:19. I think the simple reason why people don’t take these passages seriously – especially Mark 11:24 – is because they don’t believe it. In a way, it’s too good to be true. God says He will give us what we ask for – how can we believe God is so good? But I think He is much more gracious and wanting to answer our prayers than we think He is. Another reason also is because it doesn’t seem to work like that in the real life! But the fact that it doesn’t work in real life is not a good excuse. Surely if we believe God, we ought to believe Him above our circumstances! So I think conservative Christians should stop interpreting the passages away and have more faith in what Jesus said. And also have greater faith in the fact that our God wants to answer our prayer requests and bless us. One reason I like to listen to Pastor Prince’s messages is precisely because I am reminded God is a big God and can do big things and that God wants to bless us all. This builds faith in me to believe Him for wonderful things.
In many of those passages above, Jesus talks a lot about believing Him when we ask of Him in our prayers. There are other passages that relate to healing which speaks of the role of faith in healing. The message is very clear that faith pleases God (Hebrews 11:1, 6). And we’re not only talking about the effective role of faith in our Salvation by also the effective role of faith in our prayers. I know people who deny that faith has a role in the receiving of our prayer requests. I’m stunned because if they really want to believe so so, they would have to cancel out a lot of Scriptures.
I believe a reason a lot of people refuse to give faith an important role in the receiving of our requests is probably because they don’t want to have the responsibility to believe. That is, if they don’t receive what they ask, they are more comfortable in saying, “Oh well, God’s ways are higher than ours and He must have his reasons. I did nothing wrong. I tried my best. Just too bad.” They’d rather say that than blame it upon their lack of faith. But if Jesus spoke of how faith resulted in healing, then it must be so that some people would not get what they ask because they don’t believe. That is the clear implication. Does that mean that I believe that if a person doesn’t get what he ask for it’s due to his/her lack of faith and that if he/she would have believed, he/she would have received from God? Yes and no. Yes, I believe that in some cases this is so. Though, no, I believe in some cases it’s not because of the person’s lack of faith (and here’s where I differ from the Word of Faith movement). However, what I’m upset about is that most conservative Evangelicals would not even acknowledge that in some cases the lack of faith was the cause of the person not receiving something he/she had asked for. They are afraid of believing such could be the case because they think that if they believe that in some cases that is so, they should believe in all cases it’s so. And it seems a bit cruel to blame all unanswered requests on a lack of faith. I agree it’s cruel to always point to a lack of faith as the cause. I don’t do so. Yet I believe we can acknowledge that some requests are not answered due to a lack of faith without implying it’s the case for all unanswered prayers. And I believe that as we have a theology that is more balanced – one that doesn’t blame all unanswered requests on a lack of faith, while acknowledging that some could be the result of a lack of faith – more people would be willing to believe in the importance of faith. Before I write about how I think we can come out with more balanced theology, I’d like to quote from two Reformed authors. The Reformed tradition has very strong views on the sovereignty of God and that tends to make Reformed Christians not see the role of faith in answered prayers. Firstly, Steve Brown is a pretty open Reformed author and in his book on prayer he writes:
For so long I had taught about the dangers of presumption in prosperity theology that when we started suggesting that God might not always say no, it took some convincing. In my overreaction to those who assume that God will jump to our command, I found I had created a stoic congregation of Christians who decided that there was no use in asking anyway
In another section of the book, he answered the question, “What do you think about the ‘faith movement’? Is it biblical?”:
They are wrong and sometimes presumptuous. But the truth is that our glass house should prevent us from throwing too many stones. My own Reformed and Presbyterian family does it wrong too. We are so sure that God has stopped speaking and has quit acting in supernatural ways, that our prayers are often limp. We become Christian stoics and don’t believe that God answers any prayers. The faith movement folks believe that he answers all of them. God probably blushes because of both of us.
These quotes below are from Charles Spurgeon. The thing that really intrigued me as I read them was how they could pass off as coming from any Word of Faith teacher! Spurgeon below presents a view of faith’s role in prayer just like any Word of Faith teacher that if I don’t tell anyone where these quotes come from, most would guess they are from a Word of Faith teacher. No one would expect such quotes to be the work of the conservative Reformed Charles Spurgeon!:
We ought to treat the promise as in itself the substance of the thing promised, just as we look upon a man’s check or IOU as an actual payment. Promises to pay are passed from hand to hand in daily business, as if they were current money of the merchant. God’s promises should be regarded in the same light. Let us believe that we have the petitions which we have asked of him. He wants us to do this and promises to reward such faith.
What is prayer but the promise pleaded? A promise is, so to speak, the raw material of prayer. Prayer irrigates the fields of life with the waters which are stored up in the reservoirs of promise. The promise is the power of prayer. We go to God, and we say to Him, “Do as you have said. Oh Lord, here is your Word; We ask You to fulfill it” Thus the promise is the bow by which we shoot the arrows of supplication. I like in my time of trouble to find a promise which exactly fits my need and then to put my finger on it and say, “Lord, this is your word. I ask you to prove that it is so, by carrying it out in my case. I believe that this is your own writing and I pray that you make it good to my faith…I delight to hold the Lord to him to do as he has said because he has said it. It is a great thing to be driven to prayer by necessity. It is a better thing to be drawn to it by the expectation which the promises arouses. Should we pray at all if God did not find us an occasion for praying and then encourage us with the gracious promises of an answer?
Let us also make use of the promises. A little while ago, a friend gave me a check for certain charities and he said to me, “Be sure that you pay it into the bank today”. You may rest assured that this was done. I do not keep checks to look at and play with. They go to the banker’s, and the cash is received and expended. The precious promises of our great God are expressly intended to be taken to Him add exchanged for the blessings which they guarantee. Prayer takes the promise to the Bank of faith and obtains the golden blessing. Mind how you prayer. Make real business of it. Let it never be a dead formality. Some people pray a long time but do not get what they are supposed to ask for because they do not plead the promise in a truthful, business-like way. If you were to go into a bank and stand an hour talking to the clerk and then come out again without your cash, what would be good of it? If I go to a bank, I pass my check across the counter, take up my money, and go about my business. That is the best way of praying. Ask for what you want, because the Lord has promised it. Believe that you have the blessing and go forth to your work in full assurance of it. Go from your knees singing because the promise is fulfilled. Thus will your prayer be answered. It is not the length of your prayer but the strength of your prayer which wins with God. The strength of prayer lies in your faith in the promise which you have pleaded before the Lord.
Timorous souls find much difficulty in laying hold upon the promises of God as being made themselves. They fear that it would be presumptuous to grasp things so good and precious. As a general rule, we may consider that if we have faith to grasp a promise, that promise is ours. He who gives us the key which will fit the lock of His door intends that we should open the door and enter. There can never be presumption in humbly believing God. There may be a great deal of it in daring to question His Word. We are not likely to err in trusting the promise too far. Our failure lies in want of faith, not excess of it. It would be hard to believe God too much. It is dreadfully common to believe Him too little.
The promise which our Lord made to those who seek favors in prayer runs thus : “…Believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them” (Mark 11:24). This sound strange but it is true. It is according to the philosophy of faith. Say, by a realizing faith, “this promise is mine,” and straight away it is yours. It is by faith that we receive promises and not by sight and sense.”
Wonderful words! To continue, how do we come out a theology that is more balanced? I think for a hopeful (one that is positive and believes that faith has a role in prayer and which challenges Christian to believe God for big things) and non-condemning (one that doesn’t sweepingly believe that the cause of all unanswered prayers is a lack of faith) theology, we need to reconcile two plain truths. The first comes from Scripture; the second from experience. Take the first away and you get a defeatist theology; take the second away and you get a condemning theology. Seek to reconcile the two and one will have a better theology of the role of faith in prayer. What are the two truths?
The first truth from Scripture is that if we take God at His Word, we have to believe that faith does have a role in the receiving and lack of receiving of prayer requests. I would have to believe this because Jesus said so many times (see above Scriptures). The second truth from experience is that it cannot be simply the case that the lack of faith is always at the root of unanswered prayers. This is because a lot of prayers don’t get answered. And while we could point to the lack of faith as the reason for all these unanswered prayers, I think there’s just too many for all to be accounted for as due to a lack of faith UNLESS faith is something difficult and very hard to muster up. If so, then we could say that a lack of faith played the part in probably all unanswered prayers. However, I don’t think that faith is something hard to come by because Jesus mentioned all we need is faith as small as a mustard seed. Faith thus isn’t something difficult or great. And even among Word of Faith churches, there are lots of people who have their prayers unanswered – even by leaders and supposedly great men of faith themselves. So I would rule out that all unanswered prayers are due to a lack of faith. How do we reconcile the truth that faith plays an important role in the receiving of prayer requests yet there are some prayer requests that aren’t answered even if a person had the faith for it? Indeed, how can we explain the lack of answers of some prayers by people who had faith? I believe if we understand that the Kingdom of God has come in an “already” and “not yet” form, we will then be on our way to avoiding the twin errors of not believing that God is going to answer our prayers and believing that God is always going to answer our prayers.
What do I mean by the Kingdom “already” and the Kingdom “not yet”? George Eldon Ladd has written much in this area that has also influenced the late John Wimber and the Vineyard movement’s approach to the miraculous and healing. I was actually very appreciative of the balance of the Vineyard movement during the days of Wimber as I felt they had done much in countering much excesses in the charismatic movement, while not letting go of the good points of the movement. The charismatic movement and way of viewing God is by nature a very triumphalistic movement. That is, charismatics emphasize joy, exuberance and all good things expected of God – like healing and miracles…etc. This is a strong point of their movement. However, they tended to over do things and expected too much now of God. That is, they often expected a lot of healings and miracles and all that. In a sense, you could say, metaphorically, they expected all good things associated with heaven and perfection to come to earth now, rather than in the future. And very often God did bless these charismatic Christians with wonderful healings and miracles and prophetic words coming to pass. However, very often too, things were not totally as they had wished – with many not healed and prophetic words turning out wrong…etc.
What has all this got to do with the Kingdom “already” and “not yet”? Basically, it reminds us that Jesus ushered in the coming of the Kingdom of God in His first coming 2000 years ago. However, the fullness of His Kingdom will not occur until He returns again. So in these days of post-Jesus’ first coming and pre-Jesus’ second coming, we live in an age where the Kingdom is “already” here, although “not yet” in its fullness. The well-known New Testament scholar Oscar Cullman explained the situation we’re in by using the imagery of D-Day and V-Day of the Second World War. On the 6th of June, 1944, the allied forces landed on the beaches of Normandy and this day became known as D-Day. At that moment, one could say that the German forces were defeated in principle. However, the battle continued for nearly a year. Only on the 8th of May, 1945, was the German army formally and completely defeated and this day is known as V-Day, the day of Victory. In the same way, Jesus’ first coming is like D-Day and his second coming like V-Day. Jesus brought in the Kingdom of God and a proof if it was his ministry on earth in driving out demons – “But if I drive out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Matthew 12:28). When Jesus came, He brought miracles and healings and all blessings good and perfect. But though the Kingdom of God has come in Christ’s first coming and we can taste aspects of being under God’s reign and rule from then till His second coming, we will not taste it’s fullness till He comes again. D-Day did not bring an end to the war and battles continued until V-Day. But from D-Day till V-Day, there was a sense that victory was imminent, that the German army would be defeated. But this victory was not fully realized until V-Day. We are living between D-Day and V-Day. And we need to remember two things. Firstly, the Kingdom of God has already come and therefore we can taste a bit of what it means to be in the Kingdom of God. That’s why there are healings and miracles and blessings and so forth. To deny that all this is available is to deny that the Kingdom of God has come. To say that all these wonderful blessings are only for when Jesus comes again is to deny that Jesus’ first coming has ushered in the Kingdom of God. We dare not forget that we can expect to see God’s wonderful blessings and reign even now and don’t have to wait for the future. Secondly, the Kingdom of God has not yet come in its fullness and will only be present in all its fullness and reality when Jesus comes again. That means that though we taste a bit of what it means to be in the Kingdom of God, we still have to wait to taste all the blessings of God installed for us when He reigns in fullness when Jesus comes again. So while we expect blessings of being in the Kingdom now, we cannot expect to see perfection till He comes again.
It was this sort of teaching and understanding of the distinction between the Kingdom “now” and the Kingdom “not yet” that enabled John Wimber and the Vineyard movement to be more balanced. They realized it was correct to expect healings and wonderful answered prayers from God. Yet they realized that they couldn’t expect everything now! We need to wait for the future for some things. Therefore, not all will be healed here on this earth. If you’re following me, you’ll know where I’m heading in explaining all this Kingdom “now” and “not yet” business and how all this relates to a theology of the role of faith in healing that is more balanced. Here’s how: We can’t expect all our faith-filled prayers to be answered just as we can’t expect the fullness of God’s Kingdom and its related blessings to be already present. Even as there is a sense in which God’s Kingdom and its related blessings are already present though yet to come in its fullness, so there is a sense in which we ought to pray in faith and expect our prayers to be answered though also realizing that only in the future can we expect the full perfection and blessings we long and pray for.
(We can put all this in another way, which may be simpler to understand. Jesus death on the cross secured for us salvation and eternal life – in a sense, full healing. However, do we experience the benefits of His death immediately? No. Rather, we will experience the full benefits only when He comes again. In the same way we don’t experience all the benefits of His death now, we don’t experience full healing now. Sometimes there will be healing, sometimes not. We cannot expect the full manifestation of His death here and now – only in the future.)
We can go even one step further. I believe that we also need to have a theology of suffering. I understand how Charismatics in general and Word of Faith Christians in particular hate it when they hear that God may have a plan for our suffering and therefore we should see good in it. That is because they tend to think of all this as a cop-out. God doesn’t want us to suffer, they say, and we should pray for deliverance and healing, not for grace to endure. To pray for grace to endure is not being expectant and full of faith for God’s deliverance. Now, I am very sympathetic to this view and I do think that in conservative churches, there’s too much of this “defeatist” attitude around. However, I still have to acknowledge that God has a theology of suffering (most exemplified in Christ’s sufferings and as seen in Paul’s writings in 2 Corinthians 12). Therefore, I feel there are occasions whereby it’s right to endure the suffering and learn something through it rather than pray for deliverance. A Word of Faith Christian may reply that Christ’s suffered for us precisely so that we don’t have to suffer and we can be healed. That’s totally true: He took upon Himself what we deserve, so that we can have what we don’t deserve. And all this includes salvation, healing, blessings…etc. However, I will go back to the Kingdom “now” and “not yet” and say that all that He deserves that has been given to us will not be ours fully until He returns again. V-Day and total victory will come in the future, though we can experience the benefits of D-Day and God’s “already” present Kingdom among us.
I acknowledge that all this poses a tricky question of practice. I’ve already explained that as the Kingdom is “now”, we ought to pray expectantly in faith, believing that God will answer our prayers. Yet as the Kingdom is “not yet”, we ought to recognize that sometimes we may not get what we ask for even if we have faith. Aren’t both propositions a bit contradictory? As in, how can we pray expecting God to answer, yet recognize that we may not get it? If we harbor a thought that we may not get it because of Kingdom “not yet”, wouldn’t it affect our faith to believe that our prayers will be answered? I very much believe that this is a serious question and that very often thinking too much of Kingdom “not yet” can affect our expectation and faith in our prayers. And I think this is one of the reasons why pastors don’t say, “Don’t get too disappointed and doubt God or your faith if your prayers aren’t answered. It’s due to Kingdom “not yet” and unanswered prayers may not have to do with your lack of faith” – even though this sentence is totally true! The reason they don’t harp on this fact but want to emphasize more on how the congregation ought to have faith in their prayers to receive answers is because too much on harping on the fact can make a person less expectant that what he prays for will be answered. So it’s tricky business to be able to have a theology that allows for unanswered prayers due to Kingdom “not yet” and not discourage a person from being fully expectant and faith-filled in his/her prayers! The answer perhaps is to let the Kingdom “not yet” be understood, but don’t talk so much about it. We should rather encourage ourselves that God wants to bless us and answer our prayers if we have faith. The focus should be on a message that challenges us to believe and fills us with faith. And that’s why I like to be under the preaching of Pastor Prince for he encourages me to believe in God for mighty things. He probably doesn’t believe the same way as I believe in terms of the Kingdom “not yet” resulting in our prayers not being answered sometimes, but I do. I will never despair if I don’t see answered prayers as I know the reason that sometimes prayers aren’t answered not because of our lack of faith but because of Kingdom “not yet”. However, I also need to challenge myself to always believe. In a way, I would never know if the reason for my unanswered prayers is because of Kingdom “not yet” or if it’s because of my lack of faith. So I need to be aware to not always justify my unanswered prayers on the Kingdom “not yet” as sometimes it could be due to my lack of faith! However, sometimes it could genuinely be due to Kingdom “not yet” and so I won’t despair and think God has not come true on His Word. On this point, I think a lot of Christians who have been to Word of Faith Churches who are given the impression that if they only have faith then all prayers will be answered – a lot of these Christians who later find out that their prayers aren’t answered get disappointed in God or themselves. This is unfortunate and would not occur if we had a more balanced theology. Yet as I have said, even having a more balanced theology may sometimes work against having faith and receiving blessings. The trick is how one preaches one’s theology. I think that Word of Faith and Charismatic Churches which tend to emphasize the Kingdom “now” aspects have much to teach more conservative Churches. And perhaps the opposite would be true too.
(One point to note is that I’m surprised that New Creation Church does not have a prayer ministry. Perhaps it is taking their beliefs to the extreme – that is, if they believe that a prayer of faith is believing that one receives the thing asked for the moment one prays, then why the need for much prayer or even persistent prayers? I think once again a balance is needed. The bible certainly talks about faith receiving what one asks that moment. To a certain extent, long and intensive prayer meetings could very easily be a covering for a lack of faith in one’s prayers and the thinking that God should answer us because we’ve labored hard and long. However, the Bible also speaks of persistent prayers and Jesus certainly spent much time in prayers too.In addition, we ought not to forget that prayer isn’t only for the purpose of getting what we want, but also to spend time in a relationship with God.)
4) Thoughts on HEALTH AND WEALTH
My thinking on healing is clearly explained above where I wrote of understanding the Kingdom “now” and “not yet” model. Because the Kingdom has come already but has not come in its fullness, I do not think everyone will be healed, but we should expect lots of healings. Perhaps even more as Jesus’ return draws nearer. I believe a lot in healing and I’m quite unhappy that conservative churches don’t speak much on healing. Healing will only come where there is faith and expectancy and that will only occur where healing is being preached and faith is being awakened. I believe many people – not all – in conservative Churches would be healed if only they went to a charismatic or Word of Faith Church. Recently, New Creation has been emphasizing on the importance of Holy Communion. And I think that’s wonderful. I have a high view of Communion. And I love it when Churches partake in the Communion every week – I believe that’s how it should be done. I also believe Communion is more than just to remember Christ’s death but that supernaturally, by the power of the Spirit, we are blessed and made stronger in our faith through it. This is not a New Creation or Charismatic thing. In fact, John Calvin (and, of course, Martin Luther) had a higher view of Communion than most evangelical Churches today.
In regards to wealth and prosperity, I have thought a lot about this too. Though I have to say I would like to read and think more about this issue. It’s a complex issue (like many others). It will not do just to quote bible verses from the OT and apply it to us Christians here in the NT. Central to understanding how material prosperity relates to the Christian today is understanding how the OT and NT relates to each other. Thus this involves understanding a lot of advanced hermeneutical issues. Questions that need to be answered include those of how God’s promises of material prosperity to Israel in the OT relate to the Church in the NT and whether such promises in the OT are thoroughly fulfilled spiritually in Christ in the NT. As I gain more understanding of this issue, I would have more to say but for now other things concern me here in regards to material prosperity and the Christian.
I think that no matter how one answers some of the important questions I mentioned in the above paragraph, we can all agree that God blesses His people. And I believe we can all agree that He blesses us holistically. That is, He doesn’t bless us only spiritually but also emotionally, physically and materially. Thus I have no problems with Christians seeking God for material blessings just as I have no problems with Christians seeking for physical blessings (healing). My view of God is that He is someone who loves us and desires to bless every part of our life, and not just the spiritual part.
However, I do have a great concern here. Many prosperity gospel Christians say “we’re blessed to bless others” and I think that is so true. If prosperity gospel Christians actually believed that and followed that, then I would have no problem. But I don’t really see that happening. I see people so focused on prospering materially that it seems that material prosperity is all they really care about. And I see Christian leaders who have “made it” prosperous with big houses and cars living a luxurious lifestyle. Now, if really “we’re blessed to bless others”, why are we living as though all that matters is that “we’re blessed”? Where has the “to bless others” part gone? We live in a world where a couple of billion people are poor. People are suffering and dying everywhere in the developing world. Simply put, there are just so many people that we can bless. Yet why do prosperity gospel Christians (and also non-prosperity gospel Christians) continue to live as though the poor and dying are invisible?
Let me quote from Indian prosperity gospel preacher P.G. Vargis which can be found here:
I live a simple life. Do not misunderstand me – I am not preaching a poverty gospel, neither do I practice it… .I spend money if it is really necessary. I have not saved any thing [sic], money, land or a house for me or my children. Whatever I get for the ministry is put into the ministry… Live a simple life and give all the rest to the mission – that is my policy.
Here’s a prosperity gospel preacher who isn’t dictated by greed, materialism or consumerism. Here’s one who understands truly what it means by “we’re blessed to bless others”. He believes in material prosperity, but he believes in something more important than material prosperity: using our material prosperity to bless others.
I have nothing wrong with people seeking material prosperity and praying for it. God desires to bless us materially. Material goods aren’t evil in themselves. They can be enjoyed. We can bring glory to God by enjoying the material things He’s given us. However, having said that, there’s something more important than enjoying material things. There’s something that brings more glory to God than glorifying God through enjoying our material possessions. There’s something we can do that’s greater in God’s eyes than our enjoyment of material possessions. What is it? It’s simply LOVE.
The greatest commandments are loving God and loving our neighbors. This is more important than enjoying material things. Therefore, when faced with the question, “Should I buy (fill in the blank with material good) or should I spend the money on helping the poor?”, I think answer is clear. We ought to love the poor and help them and this is more important than spending our money on things that make us happy. Loving the poor through blessing them with our material prosperity should therefore take precedence over enjoying our material possessions. It’s not that enjoying material possessions is sinful. It’s definitely not sinful. It’s just that loving the poor and blessing them is much more important in God’s eyes.
I want to touch on a further point that Christians (prosperity gospel believers or not) rarely talk about or like to confront in their lives. And it’s really a very simple point that is merely the logical consequence of the points that have been made above. To recap some of the propositions I think we can all agree with.
1) God desires to bless us materially and doesn’t want us to live in poverty. He delights in seeing us enjoy the material blessings He’s given us.
2) There is great poverty – almost unceasing – in the world.
3) As love is more important than enjoying the material blessings God’s given us or as blessing others is more important than receiving blessings or as giving is more important than receiving, we ought to therefore use our material prosperity to love and bless and give to the poor, needy, naked, sick and homeless.
So far so good? What is the logical consequence of all the above three points? It’s something that P.G. Vargis grasped extremely well: we ought to live a simple lifestyle. Why do P.G. Vargis and I think that such is the case? Because in the light of almost unending poverty in the world and endless opportunities to help the poor, what justification do we have to live a luxurious lifestyle when by cutting down on such a lifestyle we could bless and love the poor? Indeed, there is no justification for us to buy and enjoy luxurious material possessions when we could use the money to bless the poor. Because there are always going to be opportunities to help the poor as there are just so many poor around, we really ought not to spend on ourselves so much but rather spend on the needy. That’s why I believe we Christians (prosperity gospel advocates or not, for all ought to acknowledge that love is the greatest virtue of all) ought to live simple lives.
I believe living a simple life is the ideal lifestyle of a Christian. I acknowledge that ideals are often difficult to achieve, if not impossible. Even I myself will probably never come close to achieving this ideal I so strongly believe in. That’s because all of us are imperfect. But ideals are there to direct us and challenge us. I believe all Christians (prosperity gospel types or otherwise) ought to strive to achieve such an ideal. We’ll always fail. But the important thing is to challenge ourselves to move closer and closer to it.
It can be argued too that the above ideal is not as impossible to achieve as we’d like to think. After all, the early Church did seem to come extremely close to living out such an ideal:
All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. (Acts 2:44-45)
All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had…There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need. (Acts 4:32, 34-35)
Christians nowadays – especially charismatic ones – love to look at the early church in Acts as a model for us to take after. We want to see the miracles and healings today just as it occurred then. But I hope we also strive to live out that simple lifestyle that the early Christians lived. May God’s love as demonstrated in the death of His Son Jesus Christ inspire us to place loving the poor and needy above the accumulation of material possessions. As 1 John 3:17 says:
If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?
(More of my thoughts on the responsibility of Christians to help the poor in the world can be read here: Encountering Peter Singer).