If you were to poll conservative evangelicals, you’d find most (if not all) consider the prosperity gospel to be an unbiblical teaching offered by religious hucksters. But there’s a subtle way in which a similar message creeps into our theologically sound churches—a back-door heresy that may be even more damaging than the promise of a bigger house or fatter bank account.
This is the prosperity gospel of instant life change. It comes in an appealing, faith-wrapped package. I heard a version of this during testimony time in the otherwise fundamentalist church where I grew up. A former alcoholic would stand up and say something like, “I was hung over on Saturday, and by Monday I had taken my last drink.”
I have to admit testimonies like this still move me emotionally. I’m stirred because I really do believe in the power of the gospel to regenerate a person’s life. Christ is in the business of changing us, but what’s insidious about this gospel is that we sometimes inadvertently send the message that sanctification can happen instantaneously for everyone who truly believes.
The problem with this is that it’s not only untrue for most of the people we see in our churches, but it’s also not a promise Jesus gave. Instead, what He said was, we’d have to take up our cross of suffering and yield to the Spirit’s work of sanctification on a daily basis. The apostle Paul, who was certainly no hedonist, admitted his own death struggle with sin (Romans 7:7-25). And what of the admonition by the writer of Hebrews, who compares the Christian life to a marathon, a daily putting off of the “sin which so easily entangles us” (Hebrews 12:1)?
The gospel is the power to radically alter lives. Some of this change may be apparent immediately after conversion. But more often, it occurs slowly over time. The greatest life change is the result of a long, hard, slow slog of sanctification—the work of the Spirit through the Word and other means of grace, such as the church, the sacraments, and prayer.
We should celebrate change, but we should also prepare ourselves—and those we disciple—for a lifetime of struggle against sin. What’s more, we must embed in hearts the theology of an already-but-not-yet eschatological view. What this means is, even as we experience Christ’s renewing and sanctifying power in the present, we understand that most things will not be made new until He returns to consummate His kingdom. The apostle John expressed the idea this way: “Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we will be. We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is” (1 John 3:2). Even our “best life now” as a Christian in a fallen world is light-years away from the perfected self we’ll see in glory.
At first glance, this seems hopeless because in this life, we’ll never fully experience the change we want to see. And yet this expectation of future glory is powerfully hopeful, because it releases us from an impossible standard and keeps us from offering the false promise of a flawless life. Instead, we can fix our gaze on Jesus, who is working to craft us into the people we will eventually be by His grace.
Imagine how this perspective might revolutionize our discipleship models. No longer would people be “projects” for us to mold and shape, if only they’d follow our Bible-based growth plan. Instead, we would see people as they are—caught in the knotty, entangled effects of the fall, even as they cooperate with the Holy Spirit to grow into Christ’s likeness. We would know that in due time, all of this will be reversed, and so we’d have greater patience for the process. We might encourage one another with this hope: Christ is renewing us daily, and a time is coming when that process will be complete. That is our ultimate deliverance.
So, for instance, the alcoholic won’t be offered a temptation-free life but, rather, a “way of escape” each day from the sin that so easily besets. The pornography-addicted teenager won’t be told just to “get saved and all your troubles will go away,” but will instead hear it is possible to “repent and rest on Jesus, and you’ll find in Him the strength to fight for sanctification.” And rather than trying to have a reformed kid by Friday, parents will begin praying regularly—every day until Jesus comes—for the Spirit to renew and regenerate their child.
We must reject the quick-fix gospel that makes promises in our fallen world that are possible only in a perfected one. What the Bible offers is not a five-step method or a plan for life change, but the good news of God’s salvation. For this reason, we can live in the present, trusting that God is forming us—slowly, methodically, permanently—into His new kingdom people.
Illustration by Mike Lemanski