Review: “American Gospel”

After months of anticipation from the confessional Christian community, the documentary “American Gospel: Christ Alone” was finally released last Friday  (October 19, 2018). My wife and I had the pleasure of streaming it for our  Friday “date night”–complete with popcorn, comfy sweat pants, living room couch, and all. The editing was sharp (though in unfair competition with 2017’s “Calvinist”). But what was most important and beneficial was not the aesthetics, but the content.

Running at 2.5 hours, this documentary begins with what is essentially a long but necessary intro. “Long”, because they spend the first 40-or-so minutes carefully explaining what the gospel is. “Necessary”, because most Americans (including Christians) cannot articulate the full gospel, which informs the premise of this ambitious project. It is after this that the cameras set their eyes on the real target: the so-called “prosperity gospel” that’s found its way into churches across the world.

The task of the film is simple: to compare and contrast what is often literally being sold as “gospel” in bookstores across the nation to the true, apostolic Gospel that was once delivered unto the saints.

 

A Primer on “Health and Wealth”

The film unabashedly drops the names of figures that are involved in this movement–people like Joel Osteen, Benny Hinn, Kenneth Copeland, Creflo Dollar, Todd White, and even popular charismatic preacher Bill Johnson. Some of these figures–such as Osteen and Copeland–focus their preaching on monetary and economic prosperity. Others such as White and Johnson concentrate more on physical health. Still others (e.g. Benny Hinn) dip their hands in both. But no matter what, they all have one thing in common: they believe that prosperity (whether bodily or economically) is a biblical mandate from God for believers, and that those that do not experience this prosperity have simply not tapped into the blessings of God due to unbelief, sin, or ignorance. And because of this, they are unapologetic of their own wealth, which often includes private jets, multiple million-dollar homes, and nights spent in the world’s most expensive hotels.

It is this view that often gives these teachings the name “health and wealth” theology. For them, God is a cosmic dispenser of gifts. One clip even featured someone comparing God to the genie from Aladdin. People are encouraged to “name it and claim it” in the name of Jesus. And many of them often claim that the more money you give or donate to their cause, the more that God will bless and prosper you (alas, for poor Job!). This teaching has gripped some portions of the Charismatic movement such as the “Word of Faith”, which stresses the utmost importance of “signs and wonders”. After all, if you do not experience healing or prosperity, is God really with you?

Of additional interest is their attempt at theology proper. Though they are by no means monolithic in their doctrine, you’ll find among them teachings such as the belief that there are nine persons in the trinity, belief that humans are actually divine beings (of the same substance in spirit as God), and belief that Jesus was just a man that was really in tune with the Spirit. Had their followers known their church history, they would have recognized them as heresies that the church had dismissed a millennium and a half ago (three cheers for confessionalism–more on that later). Instead, they find themselves entranced by the same old siren songs.

 

A Counter Narrative

To say that the documentary is a critique of prosperity theology is a gross understatement. The film features countless interviews from pastors, theologians, layman, and every day churchgoers, as well as media clips of various Christian personalities that offer a realistic and critical analysis of it. Among these are interviews from people that were once involved in prosperity circles before finding their way out of it. The testimonies of such people have a tone eerily similar to those that have escaped a cult.

One face in particular that sticks out is that of Costi Hinn (Benny Hinn’s nephew), who has long defected from the “Word of Faith” movement of his family of origin, and disavowed their prosperity theology. He has since become a full-time pastor and preacher of the true, apostolic gospel. Particularly touching is the testimony of Russell and Katherine Berger, whose story of God’s faithfulness despite continuing sickness and illness flies in the face of prosperity types who would have you believe suffering comes to those that “don’t have enough faith” (Russell, who was once an atheist, is now studying to become a pastor at Reformed Theological Seminary).

“American Gospel” offers a much needed look in the mirror for American evangelicals that claim the name of Christ.

 

Why This Matters: A Confessing Millennial’s Perspective

501 years ago this October, Martin Luther nailed his “95 theses” on the door at the church at Wittenberg, Germany–a hammering that reverberated throughout Western Europe. As I’ve stated before, I realize that I have Catholic and Orthodox readers that do not share my Protestant convictions (some of whom are good friends of mine), and I respect that. But even the most devout modern day Catholic scholars will readily acknowledge that the medieval church in Luther’s time was in desperate need of some kind of reform (even if they wish Luther hadn’t gone as far as he had).

As far as Luther was concerned, he was confronting a heresy that had found its way into the heart of Rome. The teaching in question was the selling of indulgences, championed by the likes of Johann Tetzel, who claimed that for a certain amount of offering you could buy your dead relatives years off of purgatory–all to fund building the precious St. Peter’s Basilica (beautiful building as it is). Even the most devout present-day Catholics gag at the notion and would have cried “foul!” had they been transported to 16th century Europe.

And yet, it is a similar heresy that we face with the prosperity gospel–the idea that you can “buy” God’s favor and blessing, whether it is because of your money or your piety or your “works”. Only this time, it has found its way not into the Vatican, but in those that self-identify as “evangelical”. Why?

Prosperity theology has found an easy target in American Evangelicalism, for starters because of our built-in consumerism and our Americanesque desire to work our way up, even with God. But also worth noting is that when the 500th anniversary of the Reformation came around last year, I was disappointed to learn that many token evangelical churches were giving it little heed. We have forgotten our heritage–what truly makes us “evangelical”. We are an un-grounded people that have little time for church confessions or history. It’s no wonder why many have fallen prey to the implicit and explicit heresies that the “health and wealth” gospel promises. More than forgetting our confessional heritage, we have forgotten the true gospel.

 

A Theology of the Cross

The main reason it is important to address is the picture of God that it paints. Is God a genie in a bottle, as some would have you believe? When Luther started on his path at Wittenberg, he would eventually develop what he would later call a “theology of the cross” (theologia crucis), as opposed to a “theology of glory”. When many of his contemporaries were obsessed with a “theology of glory” and the Beatific vision, his mind and his heart was taken to the foot of Calvary–and it captivated him. God was revealed ultimately in Jesus not by His Beatific Vision, but by His death on the cross.

Such a thought should be repulsive to anyone believing in prosperity theology, because it runs counter to everything that they believe in. It certainly was that way for the apostles. When Jesus told them of His purpose to die on the cross for the sins of man, they automatically objected. They thought that the Messiah had come to conquer Rome. They believed in a theology of glory. Yet Jesus repeatedly told them that that was why He came. In the documentary, Paul Washer correctly quotes Galatians 3:13–that Christ “became a curse for us”, something alien to prosperity types.

Prosperity preachers too believe in a theology of glory. They have little time for a crucified Savior. At the very least, it has little space in their preaching. And if our preaching does not point to Jesus Christ as He is revealed in the Bible, then are we really preaching the Gospel?

John Piper didn’t mince words when he said, “I don’t know what you feel about the ‘prosperity gospel’…but I’ll tell you what I feel: HATRED.” I’m convinced that God does too. As Paul once leveled in Romans 2:24, “God’s name is blasphemed among the nations because of you!” Just this past week, my wife informed me that her co-worker’s impression of Christians is based on the likes of Joel Osteen, someone that makes him pin his nose between his fingers. God’s name is still being blasphemed among the nations. And John Piper is one who is willing to call the prosperity gospel out for what it truly is: idolatry. You’re not in it for God. You’re in it for his “money”.

1 John 4 encourages followers to “test the spirits” to see if their claims are from God by seeing if they confess that Jesus Christ came in the flesh. The Gospel accounts speak of this flesh being broken for us, and like the ancient Gnostics that the apostle John was warning about, that claim should send shivers down prosperity preachers’ spines. Though these people claim to operate in the name of Jesus, their preaching is devoid of the gospel of 1 Corinthians 15. It’s easy to say “in Jesus’ name”, but what type of Jesus are you pointing others to? To confess the Jesus Christ of Romans 10:9 is part of what it means to be a “confessing millennial” over and against these counterfeit Jesuses.

Confessing millennial Christians, let us point our generation to Jesus Christ as our Savior. Let us point to Him on the cross and in the grave. Only then can we complete the story with Him in glory–ascended and sitting at the right hand of God the Father in heaven.

Solus Christus. Soli Deo Gloria.

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