Was the Apostle Paul an Advocate of the “Prosperity” Gospel?1
On more than one occasion I have heard contemporary proponents of the so-called “prosperity” gospel appeal to Paul’s use of the principle of sowing and reaping to support their view. By the way, I say “so-called” prosperity gospel because when seen for what it is there is very little if any “good news” or “gospel” in it. That aside, was Paul an intentional or inadvertent advocate of this view?
Twice in his writings Paul appealed to the principle of sowing and reaping when making an appeal for Christian to be generous and sacrificial in the giving of their money to ministry causes. In Galatians 6:6-10 he wrote this:
“Let the one who is taught the word share all good things with the one who teaches. Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Gal. 6:6-10).
In this context the sowing and reaping refers to generosity in giving. This is how Paul used the same imagery again in 2 Corinthians 9. When applied to the realm of how we use our money he has in mind the person who selfishly applies and makes use of his/her wealth for largely personal gain and pleasure:
“The point is this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each one must give as he has decided in his own heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work. . . He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way . . .” (2 Cor. 9:6-8, 10-11a).
This notion of sowing and reaping, observes John Stott, is “a principle of order and consistency which is written into all life, material and moral” (Galatians, 165). It is a principle that God has embedded in reality. If the farmer wants a harvest of wheat he must sow wheat. You can’t sow corn and expect to harvest lima beans. A good seed will produce a good crop and a bad seed a bad one. It is just as true in our spiritual lives. If you sow little you will reap little. If you sow into your “self” you will only reap for your “self”. The principle simply means that our actions have consequences. It is the principle of cause and consequence.
A closer look at 2 Corinthians 9 clearly confirms that the reaping Paul has in mind, not only here but also in Galatians 6, is not for the purpose of building personal wealth for personal use. God will grant a bountiful harvest to the one who sows bountifully so that the Christian “may abound in every good work,” namely, the good work of being even more generous “in every way”!
Advocates of the prosperity gospel who argue that if you give a lot you’ll get a lot and be able finally to afford a significant upgrade in your standard of living cannot appeal to this passage or the one in Galatians 6. God provides abundantly to us so that we in turn can continue to provide abundantly to the work of the ministry of the local church.
The prosperity gospel says that you should give in order to get, and stops there. The biblical gospel says that you should give in order to get so that you might then be able to give even more.
Paul’s language is designed to counteract the fear people experience when it comes to giving. They are terrified that if they give they will end up not having enough to meet their own needs. But God promises to supply abundantly those who give generously. Paul wants the Corinthians to be free from the fear that generous giving will leave them impoverished. His language is effusive and unmistakable: “God is able to make all grace abound to you” . . . God “will supply and multiply your seed” . . . and “you will be enriched in every way”.
So, does that mean the prosperity people were right after all? Well, not exactly. We must ask the question, to what end or for what purpose or with what goal in mind does God cause the generous Christian steward to abound? Simply put, why does God promise financial abundance to those who sow abundantly, that is, to those who cheerfully and freely give to others? Let’s allow Paul to speak for himself:
“And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work” (2 Cor. 9:8).
“He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness” (2 Cor. 9:10).
“You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God” (2 Cor. 9:11).
The point is that God will never stir your heart to give and then fail to supply you with resources to do so. But the idea that we should give so that God will enrich us personally with a view to increasing our comfort and convenience and purchasing power is foreign to Paul's teaching. Personal wealth is here viewed, not as an end in itself, but as a means to a yet higher goal: continued generosity to those in need.
The principle at work in this divine scenario is that if you give generously now you will discover that God not only sustains your desire to give but will greatly increase your resources for yet more joyful and even more glorious giving in the future. So, the answer to the question posed in the title to this article is a resounding No. Paul was not an advocate of the contemporary prosperity gospel.