Yesterday, I wrote about how Romans 8:28 points us to a particular good to which all things are working for those who love Christ. These are not general goods, or wish-dreams that we have imagined, but the greatest good of being conformed to the likeness of Jesus. God has ordered everything in the universe with the specific intention of making his people like his Son.
As part of that, I said we often imagine goodness in a lesser form. We tend to think in terms of the goodness of health, wealth and happiness. Yesterday, I pushed away from that towards the truth of Romans 8:29 which insists the goodness of becoming like Jesus is a greater good than such things.
But it is hard to get away from the reality that health, wealth and happiness are good things. Again, even a cursory glance at the Old Testament shows you how such things are often built into the promises of God to his people. There is a reason why some assumed King Solomon was the one that God was going to send. His reign marked the high point of Israel’s history. They were wealthy, happy and enjoyed peace on their borders. These were part and parcel of what God promised his people.
Reformed people can get a bit funny about this stuff. It is a point Dale Ralph Davis makes so helpfully and graphically that I previously highlighted it here (and frequently think on it). He says:
We can say that 1 Kings 10 speaks a word of testimony, namely, that the prosperity of the people of God is always a gift of Yahweh’s goodness, which (I think) demands of us both gratitude (lest we idolize the gifts in place of God) and joy (lest we despise God’s gifts as though they were sinful). Some have difficulty with the latter response in 1 Kings 10. In spite of the positive tone of the writer commentators seem convinced that all that gold can’t be good and so feel impelled to emphasize the clouds on the horizon for Solomon’s kingdom. It reminds me of what missionary Don McClure once told about the Nuer people in the Sudan: ‘the Nuer believes that milk is a beverage for women and children, but he likes it so well that he cannot bear to see it all go to the women, so he makes a cocktail with a bite by adding cow urine, which makes it a man’s drink.’ That is, he can’t enjoy it unless he ruins it first. I wonder if we don’t do that with 1 Kings 10 – feel obligated to moan over ‘materialism’ and all that could possibly go wrong with such bounty rather than acknowledging that it is the blessing of the Lord that makes rich (cf. Prov 10:22) and being content to enjoy that should he give it. Must we, to stretch illustration into analogy, pour cow urine over the text in our panic to stay out of bed with the whore we call the health-and-wealth gospel?Dale Ralph Davis, 1 Kings: The Wisdom & the Folly, Christian Focus, 2002, p. 104-5
Anything that smacks of the prosperity gospel – even if scripture expressly says it itself – must be shot down. We don’t want anyone thinking God might want them to actually be healthy, wealthy or happy do we? Well, that sort of thinking can end up making us deny what the Bible plainly says. Solomon’s reign being one such example.
What does that have to do with Romans 8:28-29? Because clearly that text does say that the good to which God works all things is conformity to the image of his son, Jesus Christ. It is right to say that good is higher than any other we might imagine. So, in what way might we do what Dr Davis tells us we ought not to do with this text?
I suspect because we are so scared of anything that smells of prosperity thinking, we almost deny the goodness of material things altogether. It is, ironically, quite gnostic. Conformity to the image of Jesus in character and holiness is very spiritual and good; enjoying health, wealth and happiness is a little worldly and, therefore, bad. The same impulse that drives us to pour cow urine over 1 Kings 10 is the same one that pushes us to focus solely on the spiritual conformity to Christ in Romans 8:28-29.
Yet, I hear you cry, that’s not fair because in the latter example that is what the text specifically says. Which, of course, it does. But it isn’t the only text about God’s good purposes towards those in Jesus, is it? Indeed, even a few verses prior to Romans 8:28-29 we read in Romans 8:16-17:
16 The Spirit himself testifies together with our spirit that we are God’s children, 17 and if children, also heirs—heirs of God and coheirs with Christ—if indeed we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.
If we are God’s children, we are heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ. Which implies we stand to inherit all that Jesus stands to inherit from the Father. Which leads us to ask what belongs to the Father? Psalm 24:1: ‘The earth and everything in it, the world and all its inhabitants, belong to the Lord.’ And how much of that will eventually belong to Jesus? Ephesians 1:22-23 says, ‘God placed all things under his [Jesus’] feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.’ In Romans 8:32 Pauls says, ‘He did not even spare his own Son but gave him up for us all. How will he not also with him grant us everything?’ All that belongs to Jesus will belong to his people.
Lest we want to spiritualise and gnosticise this away, scripture is clear there will be a new heavens and new earth. This is not only a coded, prophetic image that we can insist exists only in Revelation. In 2 Peter 3:12-13, Peter speaks about the Day of the Lord in which he is clear that the existing heavens and elements (or, skies and earth) will be destroyed but that believers need not fear because we await a new heavens and earth. This is not talking about the place where God dwells, but most definitely where we dwell. God’s throne room is not going to be destroyed, it is where we live that will be destroyed and re-created. Not to dismiss Revelation, its vision of the end times is remarkably earthly. Which means, if ‘the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof’, and all things are going to be set under Jesus’ feet, and all that he stands to inherit will be shared by those found in him, united to him by his Spirit, we have a hard time not reckoning such things to also be a material part of our inheritance.
If all that is true, what are we to say? The good to which God works all things for those that love Christ is conforming us to the image of his son. But those of us who are conformed to the image of his Son, stand to share in the entirety to the Son’s inheritance. If the Son stands to gain all things, then – as Paul says in Romans 8 – ‘How will he not also with him grant us everything?’ If the vision is of a new earth where God’s people will dwell, everything must include (though isn’t limited to) good material things as well.
That is to say, the prosperity gospel is entirely right that these things will belong to God’s people. The problem with the prosperity gospel isn’t that it says all these things will come to those who love Jesus; it is that it believes all those things will come to us now and come partly as a result of what we inevitably do for the Lord. But God has something far better in store for his people. All things – including the hard and difficult circumstances of life that believers will inevitably face until glory – are designed to conform us to the image of Jesus Christ. And when we are perfectly like him, we will share in all that belongs to him – material and spiritual – one day without our having to do anything at all to receive it. We are saved by grace, through faith, and not of works lest anyone should boast. We are progressively made more like Jesus throughout our lifetime – all things working to that end of conforming us to his image – so that in glory we will be perfectly like him and able to share in all that belongs to him; health, wealth, happiness and all.
In that sense, I firmly believe in a prosperity gospel. I believe God will prosper his people in Christ. I believe all things will work to our good. I believe throughout our lifetime that good is not necessarily material, but to form us into the likeness of Jesus. But I also believe that when he has finished doing so, he will share with us every good thing that belongs to him. We will lack nothing in him and we will prosper in every meaning and sense of that word in a perfect new creation with him. I don’t think we need to be scared of health and wealth. We don’t need to think prosperity is a dirty word. We just need to understand when and where God actually promises to fully and finally prosper his people.