Deprived? Depraved? Delivered!:
Confronting the Health, Wealth and Social Gospel
Dr. Kevin Shrum
The gospel of Jesus Christ has always been under siege. From the earliest days of the church and the Galatian problem (Gal. 1:6-10) to the Palegian, Docetic, Ebionite, adoptionistic (Arian), Marcionite and Gnostic heresies concerning the person and work of Jesus Christ to the modern errors of the ‘word of faith’ movement and the salacious claims of the Jesus Seminar, open theism and the emergent church, the gospel of Jesus has always been in the cross-hairs of those who would substantively and subtlety alter or blatantly challenge the claims of Jesus Christ and, therefore, the core of the gospel message (1 Cor. 15:1-11).
In recent decades the particular claims of what may be called the health, wealth and social gospel have been devastating to the church by presenting a truncated gospel, stunting the spiritual maturation of the church and the mission enterprise of the kingdom of God. The health and wealth dimensions of the gospel find their roots in such misinterpreted and misapplied passages such as 3 John 2, “Beloved, I pray that all may go well with you and that you may be in good (perfect in KJV) health, as it goes well with your soul.” The gospel of health teaches that it is a sin to be sick, that physical sickness may indicate that a person is out of the will of God and that the sick person is being plagued by demon spirits. Conversely, it also teaches that persons who are sick are disobedient because they have yet to claim the perfect health that is rightly theirs in Jesus’ name.
The gospel of wealth teaches that it is God’s will for every believer to be materially rich as a sign of God’s blessing. Further, it teaches a ‘dominion theology’ that takes Genesis 1:26 to the extreme – “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion…” – arguing that believers are to take back the earth and all of its riches, a possession that Satan stole after creation and that Jesus Christ has reclaimed so that every believer can be wealthy. Conversely, it also teaches that those who live in poverty are out of the will of God and have yet to claim their rightful degree of material possessions as a sign that God is blessing them.
The social gospel teaches that the gospel of Jesus Christ deals mainly with the situational and circumstantial conditions of humanity. The social gospel, which is closely related to liberation theology, teaches that the greatest need of man is positive and productive living conditions, excellent educational opportunities and freedom from the tyranny of any kind of authority. The root of this kind of teaching is that once educated and free, man can become self-actualized. The nature of sin is not personal, it is socially systemic.
The Gospel Rooted in Deprivation?
Let me recap where we are in this discussion. The gospel of wealth does for material issues what the gospel of health does for the body. The gospel of wealth takes every ‘prosperity’ passage (for example, Ps. 1:3; 10:5; Isa. 53:10) in Scripture and translates it into the notion that it is God’s will for every believer to be wealthy. Conversely, poverty may be an indication that a particular believer is out of the will of God and has yet to claim his/her rightful inheritance in Jesus Christ, inheritance being narrowly defined here only in terms of material possessions rather than spiritual reward.
What many do not connect with the health and wealth gospel is the classic social gospel that emphasizes the circumstantial nature of sin and the sinner. That is, the social gospel addresses the conditions in which the sinner lives with the view that increasing educational standards, promoting physical health, setting basic standards for clean living conditions and promoting the general welfare of humanity is enough when it comes to the gospel enterprise. Stated in simple terms, the social gospel is the good deeds of the gospel without the life-changing gospel itself. The social gospel provides form with no content as if the sinner will be converted by conditional osmosis.
Before addressing these three issues from a biblical perspective, it may be appropriate to add a few practical words concerning the health, wealth and social dimensions of the Christian life. For those of us who do not buy into the gospel of health/wealth or the social gospel we are often chastised with critical statements such, ‘So, you want people to be sick, live in poverty and be satisfied with inadequate living conditions?’
This silly question is nonsensical and over the top. Of course those who believe the gospel do not desire for people to live in ill-health, in poverty or in unclean or unsafe life settings. The antecedents of the gospel call for good bodily care, good health and prayer for the healing of the sick when needed. If you smoke you will probably contract emphysema or cancer. If you overeat and do not exercise you will more than likely contract one of a number of possible maladies. The body is the temple of the Lord and calls for great care and stewardship. And while Scripture does teach that bodily exercise profits very little, it does not teach that bodily exercise profits nothing. Those who believe the gospel of Jesus Christ, however, do not make the locus of the gospel the health of the believer.
Likewise, when it comes to the wealth of the believer the person who believes the gospel is not advocating the necessity of poverty. Nor should the person who lives a simple life argue that accumulated wealth alone means that a person is an unbeliever or, at the very least, is a shallow materialistic Christian. Poverty is no more a sign of righteous than is wealth. Wealth gives no indication of the blessing of God any more than poverty is a sign of the curse of God. Scripture speaks of material goods more in terms of stewardship than it does the size of one’s savings account.
And what about the social setting of the sinner that forms the matrix of the social gospel? Who among us would argue that the Christian believes clean living conditions do not matter to the individual? Who would not make the case that drilling wells in the impoverished places of the world is not a worthy cause? Who would argue against finding a cure for AIDS or for finding a cure for similarly deadly diseases? And, who would argue against bringing quality education to the masses? Of course the social settings of humanity matters. Having said this, we should not make the mistake of preparing people to live in this life with a level of quality while failing to prepare them for eternity. Fighting for justice in secular society is incomplete if it falls short of addressing the justice we receive from God through Jesus Christ.
The core criticism of the health, wealth and social gospels is that all three are rooted in the concept of deprivation. That is, the greatest need of humanity is not rooted in sin but is due to the fact that we have been deprived of health, wealth and quality living conditions, or maybe all three. And even when sin is mentioned it is only mentioned in a conditional sense, in such a way that sin is defined as being deprived of our health, of being deprived of wealth and of being deprived of quality living conditions. In other words, sin is deprivation, rather than a matter of a corrupt nature.
In this case, the gospel becomes an effort to gain health, wealth and a desired degree of circumstantial conditions that have been stolen from us as a result of sin. Sin is not the fracturing of our nature and of our relationship with God; sin is the barrier that keeps us from what should be rightfully ours: health, wealth and prosperous living conditions.
The Gospel as a Response to Depravity
Instead of a gospel rooted in overcoming any sense of deprivation we may experience, the gospel is actually a response to the nature and scope of sin and the sinners’ relationship to God because of sin. Humans are sinners by nature and by choice. By nature I mean that since the fall of humanity into sin our very nature has been corrupted to the extent that we do not have to be taught to sin – sin comes naturally (Rom. 5:12). We have a sin nature (Rom. 6:15-23).
And because we have a sin nature we are, in turn, sinners by choice, as well. That is, our nature as sinners expresses itself in the freedom we have to choose what is reflected in our nature. Humanity is not truly free because our nature is not truly free – it is bound by sin. We are free to choose between one sin and/or another; we are not free to choose not to sin unless our nature is changed. Having a sin nature can be termed as being depraved, corrupt, spiritually dead and alienated from God. We are enemies of God. We are not deprived children; we are depraved sinners.
Again, while the extent of the gospel must eventually reach our material concerns, our physical trials and our social environment, the gospel of Jesus Christ first and foremost addresses the corruption of our depraved nature, our sin. The gospel of Jesus Christ takes seriously the nature and scope of our sin and does not treat it as an incidental condition brought on by the deprivation we may experience materially, physically or socially. Jesus Christ did not first and foremost come to make us materially rich, physically healthy or socially comfortable; rather, Jesus Christ came to conquer sin, crush death and redeem a sinful people for Himself so that they might live a life unto the glory of God no matter our resources, health levels or social settings. The Scripture is clear on this matter.
Ø “…for there is no one who does not sin…” 1 Kings 8:46
Ø “Enter not into judgment with your servant, for no one living is righteous before you.” Psalm 143:2
Ø “Who can say, ‘I have made my heart pure; I am clean from my sin?’” Proverbs 20:9
Ø “Surely there is not a righteous man on earthy who does good and never sins.” Ecclesiastes 7:20
Ø “Whoever believes in Him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” John 3:18
Ø “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.” Romans 1:18
Ø “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Romans 3:23
Ø “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.” Romans 5:12
Ø “But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” Romans 14:23
The good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ is that God doesn’t deal with our sin by remedying our deprivation; instead, the gospel of Jesus Christ deals with our sin by providing deliverance from sin. Colossians 1:11-14 addresses the deliverance we experience in Jesus Christ, “May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy, giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” 1 Thessalonians 1:10 states that Jesus “…delivers us from the wrath to come.” These two passages alone provide an answer our greatest need.
First, in Jesus Christ God has “…delivered us from the domain of darkness…” As sinners we are aligned with sin, death, hell, Satan and unrighteousness. Such a statement is not politically correct, yet it is true. We are sinners by nature and by choice, children of wrath and enemies of God (Eph. 2:1-3). Jesus delivers us from the rule of sin.
Second, in Jesus Christ God has “…transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son….” In essence, we are not only delivered, we are transferred by means of new birth (Jn. 3:3). Rather than remaining a part of the company of sinners, we have now become a part of the company of the committed, those who have been radically changed by the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Third, in Jesus Christ we have been delivered from sin and transferred from an old life to a new life because in Jesus Christ “…we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” The basis of our deliverance from sin and our transferal out of the realm of spiritual darkness is the substitutionary, atoning death of Jesus Christ by which the justice of God was appeased and through which we are made just (Rom. 3:21-31).
Fourth, in Jesus Christ we have been delivered “…from the wrath to come.” That is, the gospel is good news because it remedies our sin problem and revokes the judgment that was due us because Jesus bore the wrath of God. If the sinner received what he/she deserved it would not be a life free from physical pain, material deprivation or circumstantial challenge, it would be judgment and eternal punishment.
When we treat the gospel of Jesus Christ as a tool that removes any deprivation we may experience in life the gospel is greatly diminished. In this fashion, the gospel becomes an instrument by which we manipulate God so that we might receive from Him perfect health, expansive wealth and comfortable living conditions. The failure of this kind of gospel is that while living in perfect health, with expansive wealth and in comfortable living the sinner remains under the wrath and condemnation of God.
The deprivations of life do not compare to our depraved position before God. Let us seek to preach/teach the gospel of Jesus Christ so that we might be delivered from sin. From this position of deliverance we seek the betterment of humanity so that they might hear the good news of deliverance and salvation.