For those who want a change from the Gospel
Trinity 4 – Deuteronomy 30:9-14 (Related)
Let’s get one thing out of the way before we look more deeply at today’s text – the ‘Prosperity Gospel’. Some high profile teachers, mostly from the USA, have taught that those who are Christians are promised lives of health, wealth and happiness as a reward for living in obedience to God, and often for financial generosity to the ministry in question. Such leaders may drive around in ostentatiously large cars, strut the stage in sharp designer suits, and expound the Bible to demonstrate that God’s will is for his people to prosper. The Prosperity Gospel has not caught on big time in the UK – we have a cynical streak which seems to be absent from many Americans – but it is still a significant player in the Christian Church today in some circles.
So does the Bible teach prosperity as a result for obedience? Yes, it does, and today’s passage is one of many which says exactly that. In which case, why do we usually regard prosperity teaching as a dangerous distortion of the gospel of Jesus Christ? The answer, I reckon, lies in the word ‘you’. ‘The Lord God will make you most prosperous …’ and so on throughout the passage. Our problem lies in the fact that when we hear ‘you’ in the Bible we automatically think singular – ‘you’ as opposed to the American ‘y’all’ or the Irish ‘youse’. But most often in passages like this the verb is plural. Prosperity is not promised to devout individuals, but rather to godly communities. It is perhaps summed up in the phrase in Proverbs 14:34: ‘Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin condemns any people.’ Understand that, and I think we have solved the problem of Prosperity Gospel theology.
So how does a nation or community live in a way which will bring them prosperity? The latter chapters of Deuteronomy are a roller coaster ride between blessings and curses, used liturgically at a covenant renewal ceremony designed to keep before the people’s eyes both the grace of God and their own tendency to live wickedly. A set of very specific curses is laid out, but is balanced by promises of renewal, restoration and blessing. But this text makes two points.
The first is that God’s blessing is conditional on our behaviour. Throughout the OT God’s people are called to live with righteousness and justice, so reflecting his own character. I have said many times before that there is no such thing in the Bible as God’s ‘unconditional love’, and this passage is a further reminder that we will be blessed as long as we keep his commands and decrees (v.10). Protestant Christians have a problem with this idea, believing as we do in salvation by grace alone, but God both expects righteous behaviour, and has provided in Jesus a remedy for when we get it wrong.
The second principle is that, to paraphrase v.11-14, it isn’t rocket science. This is not some escape room game that requires extraordinary efforts to get free from sin. God has not set up some elaborate puzzle in order to help us fail, nor a Squid Game-type execution process. As Micah realised (6:8) ‘He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.’ That’s it – it’s as simple as that. Christians know that God has put his Spirit within us to sharpen up our consciences, to strengthen us to resist temptation, and gradually to grow his fruit of goodness within us. And above all he has given us his Son as the remedy for sin.
Of course we will fail. But we ought to be failing less, and repenting quickly when we do. One American pastor told his congregation ‘You’re not sinless, but you are sinning less.’ That’s a good aim in life!