A major feature of the Word of Faith movement, and/or the Health and Wealth Gospel, is the emphasis on positive confession. It is a kind of mind-over-matter approach which says that one can command sickness, poverty or almost any other hardship to be gone. The message is this: health, wealth and prosperity are there for the taking, and it is only our lack of belief or negative confession that prevents us from enjoying the blessings. “What I confess, I possess” is a popular catchword often heard.
There are a number of biblical and theological problems with such teachings which I have discussed elsewhere. See for example:
In addition to theological issues, one can also make a sociological
assessment of positive confession. That is, how much of the positive
confession message is really just a reflection of the “American dream”,
of the desire to better oneself and one’s condition? While there is
nothing necessarily wrong with wanting to improve one’s lot, much of
this gospel can be a masquerade for greed and selfishness.
Such is the cultural climate that we live in that many Westerners
want only to hear positive, uplifting and encouraging words. Gloom and
doom messages don’t go down well in such a climate. As Quentin Schultze
puts it, “America has strongly triumphalistic sensibilities, and
televangelists are no exception. Hopeful, joyful, and optimistically
prophetic words sell far better than depressing or despairing ones. Even
when reporting a moral crisis or social calamity, televangelists offer a
solution. Successful TV ministries testify to the American Dream and
enjoin viewers to follow and believe it also.”
And at least one former successful televangelist has admitted as
much. Former Praise The Lord Club leader Jimmy Bakker remarks several
times in his autobiography I Was Wrong about how he would only
invite guests to appear on his television show who shared positive and
upbeat testimonies. Stories of victory and overcoming were staple fare,
while negative and depressing stories were excluded: “I went so far as
to refuse to have guests on our PTL television programs whose problems
did not have a happy ending. Our programming took on a ‘Pollyanna’ tone,
leaving people with the unrealistic impression that Christians did not
have to struggle, or at least they lived ‘happily ever after’ if they
did encounter troubles”
He goes on to say that “much of what I had been teaching at PTL had
given the impression that unless Christians were extremely successful,
they were living a second-class spiritual life. It crushed me as I
realized that millions of people might be feeling that God does not love
them because they have not been able to attain a happy-go-lucky,
David Wells notes that this attitude characterises much of modern
evangelicalism. “The wisdom common to many of our marketers is that, if
it wants to attract customers, the Church should stick to a positive and
uplifting message. It should avoid speaking of negative matters like
Or as Douglas Webster says “I wonder whether our quest for relevance
needs to be in greater tension with faithfulness. Perhaps our preaching
of the gospel has become too smooth, too predictable. We have tried so
hard to package it for easy consumption that it no longer sounds like
Jesus. We have become so practical that we no longer have anything to
And as Schultze points out, there is good reason for putting on such a
positive face. The success of a televangelism ministry especially
depends on funds raised by the audience. What better way to keep the
funds rolling in than to give the audience what they want to hear?
Televangelists “are ultimately dependent on their audiences,
particularly their financial supporters, for their own future. They
cannot simply preach what people ought to hear, but must preach what
people desire to hear. Superstitious and largely ignorant of the faith,
millions of Americans are easily persuaded to believe many things that
they want to believe and to hope for things that are obviously
Or as Bakker has said elsewhere: “By and large, most of the church in
the United States does not want to hear an apocalyptic message. It
wants a message of health and wealth, hope, healing, and financial
prosperity mixed with a measure of blathering psychobabble focused on
getting our needs met. Rarely does anyone talk about sacrifice,
repentance of sin, or our failure to be what God has called us to be.
When, for example, was the last time you heard a message on the cost of
discipleship? When was the last time you heard someone preach on the
judgment of God or the horrors of hell? How often have you heard a
message encouraging Christians to bear one another’s burdens? No, we
simply want to be happy Christians. Seeds of the prosperity gospel I
planted years ago have now borne fruit … and the fruit is poisonous”.
The psychology of all this is straight-forward enough: everyone wants
to be popular. We all want to be liked and well-received. No one wants
to be the bearer of bad news. Going around all day bearing bad tidings
is not the way to win friends and influence people. Indeed, given how
much of the message of the prophets involved warnings of impending doom,
of coming judgment, no wonder that the only popular prophets in the Old
Testament were the false prophets.
In the light of this, one has to ask if some of the positive
confessionists do not display some of the hallmarks of a false prophet.
By telling people what they want to hear instead of telling people what
they need to hear, some of these teachers are at best giving us only
part of the gospel message.
Now it is good to be encouraging, uplifting and edifying. We are told
in many places in Scripture to be and do just that. However, one is
reminded of Paul’s words to the elders of Ephesus: “For I have not
hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God” (Acts 20:27). Or as
the KJV has it, “For I have not shunned to declare unto you all the
counsel of God”. Is the whole counsel of God being proclaimed if we only
give good news, upbeat testimonies and words of encouragement?
What about Paul’s instructions found in 2 Tim 4:2: “Preach the Word;
be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage –
with great patience and careful instruction”? We should certainly
encourage when encouragement is due. We should always build up when
necessary. But we should also rebuke, reprove, warn, challenge, and
judge when needed as well. In the attempt to stress positive confession,
and banish negative confession from the lips of believers, it is
possible we are not hearing the whole counsel of God.
Positive confession may well be an expression of a healthy faith. It
may well offer needed correctives to a defeatist and faithless church.
However, it may also incorporate somewhat less spiritual motivations. It
may also involve baser elements of the human personality.
The truth is, a life of health, wealth and happiness is nowhere
guaranteed in Scripture for believers. Those who promise such a life are
mistaken. Again, Jesus is our prime example. As the suffering servant,
He is our model. We too should expect a life of hardship, difficulty and
suffering. The servant is not above his master. No matter how much
faith we have and no matter how spirit-filled we might be, suffering
will be our lot.
As MacArthur puts it, “Our Lord Jesus Christ, in His own suffering
and death, is an unequalled example of the reality that one can be
completely in the will of God, supremely gifted and used by God in
ministry, and perfectly righteous and obedient toward God, and still
undergo tremendous suffering.”
Moreover, one needs to guard against confusing faith with making
claims on God. One man’s faith is another man’s presumption. God is not
to be told what to do, but is to be submitted to in fear and reverence.
Yes, faith pleases God and opens doors. But in the end, what matters is
not our great faith, but our faith in a great God. Ultimately, we have
to say it is not our faith that heals us or saves us or prospers us. It
is God’s sovereign and unmerited love and grace that is responsible for