Most successful televangelists preach what is called "the Prosperity Gospel." Using select Scriptures, they teach that if one gives his life to Jesus, and if he follows certain biblical principles, God is obligated to fulfill His promises of wealth, health, and well-being. In the end, God becomes little more than a genie-in-a-bottle, granting wishes out of sheer compulsion. To these preachers, this is the abundant life God promises, and hundreds of thousands of people agree with them.
It is true that the Bible is full of promises. It is also true that Jesus tells us several times in John 14-16, "If you ask anything in My name, I will do it" (John 14:14; see also 14:13; 15:7, 16; 16:23-24, 26). Psalm 37:4 pledges, "Delight yourself also in the LORD, and He shall give you the desires of your heart." These sound like absolute promises, and if God is to be true to His Word, He must fulfill them, right?
This is what the televangelists have concluded, but in the end, it is a facile conclusion. Very few of God's promises in the Bible are absolute in nature; they are, instead, conditional promises, governed not only by our responses to God, fulfilling certain requirements, but also by the perfect judgment of God. As James 1:17 says, He gives only good and perfect gifts; He will never give one of His children a "blessing" that would ultimately derail His purpose for him or that would be too much for him to handle.
It works similarly among mere mortals. A human parent would not send his son to vocational school if he really wanted him to be a doctor, even though tuition to the vocational school would be a "good thing." Likewise, the same parent would not entrust his child with thousands of dollars in cash at Toys 'R Us, despite the fact that such sums of money would be considered a wonderful gift. If human parents have enough wisdom to give goal- and maturity-dependent gifts to their children, how much more does God (Romans 11:33)?
The faithful Abraham and Sarah are good examples of this aspect of God's promises. In Genesis 12:2, God tells Abraham, age 75 at the time (verse 4), that He would make of him "a great nation," implying that he would have children. God makes this promise again in verse 7: "The LORD appeared to Abram and said, 'To your descendants I will give this land.'" Yet, He does not give Abraham the promised child when he is 76 or 78 or 80!
After his rescue of Lot from the confederation of kings, Abraham pleads with God in Genesis 15:2-3—he is now 80 years old—for an heir. God repeats the promise, and Abraham believes Him (verses 4-6), yet Sarah does not become pregnant any time soon. Later, after Ishmael is born of Hagar when Abraham is 86 years old (Genesis 16:16), the patriarch wonders if this is the promised seed, but when the boy is thirteen—Abraham is now 99!—God reiterates, "No, Sarah your wife shall bear you a son" (Genesis 17:19).
. . . the LORD visited Sarah as He had said, and the LORD did for Sarah as He had spoken. For Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the set time of which God had spoken to him. . . . Now Abraham was one hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. (Genesis 21:1-2, 5)
Evidently, a great deal had to happen in the lives of Abraham and Sarah—predominantly in terms of spiritual maturity—before God felt the right time had come to give them their promised baby boy. Twenty-five years passed before God fulfilled His promise. Notice that Scripture itself informs us that God performed the miracle to allow Sarah to conceive "at the set time." There was one perfect time for this promise to be fulfilled, and God fulfilled it when all the conditions were right.
And we can thank Him profusely for doing the same for us (II Corinthians 4:15).
Richard T. Ritenbaugh
Are You Living the Abundant Life?
It is important to understand He gives gifts "[o]f His own will." Are these gifts only things to sustain and enhance physical life? No, because in verse 18, "the word of truth" ties this to the previous context, which is about resisting the temptation to sin. He is talking about spiritual gifts to resist temptation and to overcome. Every good and perfect gift comes from God above, and in this case, His gift is the ability to overcome the challenges of temptation, this world, and sin. It is given for the purpose of enabling us to do God's will.
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Holy Spirit and the Trinity (Part Six)
No one would want to pray to a God who is like a chameleon! We would have no desire to talk to a God who is of one mind one day and an entirely different one the next. The unchangeableness of God's purpose, character, and will are the source of one of our greatest motivations to pray.
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Sovereignty of God: Part Eight
One might say, "There are so many temptations out there. The whole world is evil. How do we avoid them?" James gives us some ideas, hints, clues, and instruction. First, he tells us that we will face temptation. We cannot avoid it because deception, evil, will come looking for us and especially because we are God's children. Satan is looking to devour us (I Peter 5:8). We will be the targets of his onslaughts of temptation throughout our Christian lives, and we must be ready to face them! But, if we get through them, then we reach our goal—the Kingdom of God, where we have a crown of life waiting for us. We have that assurance and faith in what God has promised us.
Then James says, "God does not tempt us." The apostle says that we are tempted when our desires lure us away. The process can then intensify if we are not strong enough, leading to sin and ultimately to death—the second death, not just physical death. We can be deceived right out of our crown if we are not careful, if we are not strong. (This process of temptation is similar to modern advertising. It works the same way because the same "spirit" is behind it.)
Then James says, in verse 16, "Do not be deceived, my beloved brethren." This is a hint that what he has just said tells us something important about not being deceived. He has just told us that God never entices—tempts—us to accept His way by promising to satisfy our desires. Instead, we are enticed when our desires lead us to sin. God never tempts us to follow our physical desires for self-gratification.
One might argue: "Wait a second. Doesn't He promise us long life? Isn't that a physical desire? Doesn't He promise us health? Doesn't He promise us prosperity? And that our enemies won't overtake us? Doesn't He promise us all of these things?"
But what does He also say when He makes those promises? In almost every occasion, He says, "If you will keep My commandments, then I will. . . ." He always puts a condition on His promises. "If you keep My commandments," then such-and-such will happen. Many of these blessings or fulfillments of His promises—if not all of them—happen because that is how God designed them to happen. Sure, God intervenes to a certain extent in order to work out His purpose, but, like a spiritual law of the universe, if we keep God's commandments, certain things are bound to result.
If we keep God's commandments, we will probably be healthy. If we keep God's commandments, we will live long lives. What does the first commandment with promise say? If we honor our fathers and mothers, then we will live long in the land that the LORD gives us. It is A + B = C. What does the Bible call it? A person will reap what he has sown (Galatians 6:7)! It is cause and effect. So, if we keep the commandments, then there are certain blessings that just automatically accrue to us.
Oftentimes, because God is working with us so closely, He does not fulfill these physical promises to their extremes. He will give them to us as much as we need them or as much as is within His purpose at the time. He is working something greater for us than just satisfying our physical wants or even needs.
What does James say next? The next two verses key us in on the thrust of James' thought. He says, 1) God gives good gifts, and He never changes. So His good gifts are always the same. Next, he says, 2) that He has made us a kind of firstfruits of His creatures. We must put those two ideas together. Why does God give good gifts? To make us His children! This is what He is always thinking about. His purpose is focused on reproducing Himself!
He calls us and converts us by His truth for the purpose of making us His children. All of His gifts are good, and they never change. They are always geared towards His godly ends. All of His gifts are for our ultimate, spiritual good—to make us like Him. Blessings, then, are a byproduct of His way. His good gifts are all leading us toward our entrance into the Kingdom of God and not the satisfying of our physical desires.
How can we apply this? If we understand that God will give us what is good for us, what will advance us towards the Kingdom of God, then what does this say about false teachers? How can we avoid the deception? The clue is that if anyone tries to sell us a belief in which our physical desires are going to be met, then we have a strong reason to believe that the teaching is false.
God will not use that tactic. He will not say, "Follow Me, and you will have a good life. Everything is going to come up roses for you." Instead, He often tells us such things as, "All who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution" (II Timothy 3:12). Does that sound like "the good life"?
How do we get through this life? By lurching from one trial to the next! Is that not how we are refined? By fire! By trial! By going from one problem to the next and overcoming it. That is just how God's way works because He knows that the best way to produce sons of God is the same way the Son of God achieved His glory. Hebrews 2:10 says that Jesus Christ was made "perfect through suffering."
God is not interested in this life except for what it will produce in the next. This life is a training ground. When, say, a soldier trains, he goes through the paces at boot camp. He is made to follow a regimen. He works hard until he hurts. This life is God's boot camp. Right now, we are in training like an athlete. And no athlete worth his salt lounges, plays, and lives the good life while he is in training.
So James gives us good instruction on how to avoid being deceived. When something is "too good to be true," it is probably not true.
Richard T. Ritenbaugh
Other Forerunner Commentary entries containing James 1:17: