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Dare to Test the Spirits! - Kim Sønder

by Kim Sonder


This article is the first in a series of three critical articles about the doctrines and practices of the faith-prosperity movement in the United States and worldwide. This first article presents and evaluates its theological doctrines by the test criteria of the Holy Scriptures of the Bible. The second article, which is published under the title: 'Don't Fear a false Prophet', traces the occult source of the faith-prosperity teaching. The third article by the title 'Yoga and Identification' rejects the faith-prosperity Gospel as a spiritual ground for missions in Asia The reason is that its spiritual substance hardly can be distinguished from the various Eastasian religions. It could be critisized that these articles rest so heavily upon one source, namely D. R. McConnells book "A different Gospel". But McConnell have had all the sources for thorough research available, and everything that he claims can easily be verified. I personally recommend his work based upon my own insight into the whereabouts of faith-prosperity movement. I also recognize that without his research, there would not be enough evidence to support this documentation.

The Apostle John warns us not to believe every spirit, but to courageously test the spirits if they are from God (1 John 4:1-6). For many false prophets have gone out into the world. But by what criterion should we test the spirits? The Evangelical tradition obviously teaches us to test the spirits by the Holy Scriptures. This is probably the same suggestion given by the Apostle John, who says: "We are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us; but whoever is not from God does not listen to us" (1 John 4:6). Some might think that John by "we" refers to any disciple. But how could any individual believer make himself personally a measurer of the truth? Impossible! Believers are not born with perfect doctrines. Every new believer naturally begins with various heresies due to his own background. So with "we" John surely refers to himself, Peter and the Apostles. Therefore, this test criteria certainly points to harmony with the Teaching of the Apostles and what is that but the canonical Scriptures of the Bible, particularly the New Testament.

But if we seek deeper into the Teaching of the Apostle John concerning testing the spirits, we find another matter presented as primary. The most important matter in spiritual testing is what is said about Christ (1 John 4:3). First we therefore have to realize that John in his whole first letter identifies Christ as the Son of God. What does that imply? The anointed king for one reason has always been termed the Son of God. But spiritually the title rather refers to the divinity of Christ. So according to John you can recognize the Spirit of God in the acknowledgement that Christ has come in the flesh. It is, therefore, important to recognize harmony with the orthodox doctrine of Christ. In short the mystery that Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man, undivided and unconfused and without sin should be confirmed.

It is of course necessary to confess the name of Jesus to be saved, but it is not enough to determine the truthfulness of a spirit by the confession of faith alone. What is stated about Jesus Christ in the confession is crucial. Notice that confessing Jesus of Nazareth as Lord implies the same understanding as the orthodox doctrinal position. The name Jesus refers to his manhood and the title Lord to his divinity. For the Greek word KYRIOS (= LORD) does not only make him Master, it refers clearly to God himself (At least in the Septuagint). In most cases this criterion is fairly easy to use to discern whether a certain spiritual teaching is from God. Only sometimes it gets difficult, as we shall see below concerning spiritual testing of the faith-prosperity teaching. But at this point let us conclude that the testing criteria of the spirits according to the Apostle John is two-fold: (1) What is taught about the person of Jesus Christ? (2) Is it in harmony with the Holy Scriptures of the Bible?


Spiritual Atonement

Since the Church thus has been prompted to test the spirits by apostolic command, let us apply these criteria of the apostle John in an actual case: The teaching of the faith-prosperity movement. The Charismatic movement started out as a search for renewal of the power of the Holy Spirit. It promoted great unity among God's people. But in this quest for spirituality and mutual good-will and openness towards one another, the faith-prosperity movement also slowly found its way in to the body of Christ with its particular teaching on faith and prosperity. However, this movement soon proved itself to be far more controversial than the quest for a Charismatic experience. And the controversy is due to a quite different reason than the issue of the power of the Holy Spirit. For the faith-prosperity teaching profess a special variety of the atonement of Christ, which historically is a new theological development (D. R. McConnell, A Different Gospel, Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1993, pp.116-30). We are here dealing with a spiritual movement, which is not functioning within the Orthodox doctrines of the Church, which naturally have been taken for granted by the renewed Charismatics. The faith-prosperity movement teaches that the physical death of Jesus Christ not is the real issue of the atonement. The real atonement is of spiritual nature. The physical nature of the atonement is particularly denied by Kenneth Copeland, who even asserts: "When his blood poured out it did not atone" (McConnell 1993, 120). But the Holy Scriptures clearly teaches that we have been atoned by his blood (Ephesians 1:7). The Apostle Peter also affirms that Christ himself bore our sins in his body on the tree (1 Peter 2:24). The spiritual aspect should only concern the application of the physical work of Christ, which is his substitutionary death on the cross and his resurrection. The work of Christ should not be spiritualized, but it should be applied spiritually for our salvation (Romans 3:25).

What is then the reason why the faith-prosperity teachers spiritualize the physical aspect of the atonement of Christ? This is because of the assumption of the faith-prosperity movement that sin and sickness are spiritually caused (This false assumption, which parallels the teaching of the metaphysical cults, will be treated in a later article). It is stated that a material act not can bring spiritual results. But the Scriptural truth is that it is by the sacrifice of the life of the perfect sacrificial lamb, which is Christ, that we are atoned. Still the faith-prosperity movement denies the physical death of Christ as sufficient for our atonement from sin and upholds the necessity of an additional spiritual atonement.


Jesus Tormented in Hell

Therefore, the faith-prosperity movement teaches that Jesus, after he died, ended up in the hands of the Devil and demons to be tortured in Hell. This happened for our spiritual atonement. It was Jesus' suffering in Hell for three horrible days and nights that paid the penalty of man's sin. The death on the cross only fulfilled the demand of obedience to the Father. The understanding of the righteous nature of Jesus' sacrifice is in fact so weak, that Fred Price asserts that if the physical death really mattered "the two thieves could have paid your price" (McConnell 1993, 120). But after the torture in Hell God declared that justice had been done, and the Devil and the demons had to let Jesus go. This story might sound interesting, but it is not Scriptural. For the Devil is in no the way the lord of Hell and death. He primarily rules over people in this world by accusations (Revelation 12:10b) and the fear of death (Hebrews 2:15), but he is not the master of the realm of the dead (Hades). In his teaching Jesus pictured Abraham as God's representative in control in the place of the dead (Luke 16:19-31). Before Jesus died he also affirmed to the repenting criminal, who died beside him, that today he would be with him in Paradise (Luke 23:43). In fact the prosperity-faith teaching is a dualistic worldview, which assumes that God is the Lord of Heaven and the Devil the lord of Hell. It is totally foreign to the Holy Scriptures, which presents God as the sovereign Lord of all things. God is the Lord of life and death. As the last thing before Jesus died, he committed his spirit into the hands of God (Luke 23:46). Should Jesus have been mistaken about who is in control in death? So the story of Jesus Christ in the hands of the Devil and the demons in Hell is simply without Scriptural ground. It is in fact a dangerous falsification, because it contradicts the teaching of the Holy Scriptures.


Ransom Payment to the Devil

In general the Devil's power and position is greatly misrepresented in the faith-prosperity teaching. The movement teaches that when the first man disobeyed God, he handed over the legal right to govern the creation to the Devil. Since the Devil thus owns man by legal right, the spiritual sacrifice of Christ to redeem mankind had to be given to the Devil as a ransom (McConnell 1993, 119). It is almost as if we in the faith-prosperity teaching thus find a reflection of animistic sacrifices offered to appease evil spirits. The truth of the Holy Scriptures is to the contrary that the sacrifice of Christ was to God (Ephesians 5:2). It is of course true that the Devil is called the god of this world (2 Corinthians 4:4), but there is nothing legal over his reign. He rules it through deception and lies (2 Corinthians 4:4 & Revelation 12:9) and by enslaving people in sin (2 Timothy 2:26). God owes nothing to the Devil except for eternal punishment (McConnell 1993, 126). The denial of God's universal right to rule is also absurd. Dominion was only handed down to man as God's representative (Genesis 1:26), and God cannot be treated as if the authority and the power could be taken out of his hand by his own creation.


Jesus Died spiritually

Let us finally analyze the deeper spiritual explanation of Jesus' supposed torment in Hell. That Jesus died spiritually to provide full atonement for man is called the doctrine of identification. It is so essential to the movement that for instance Kenneth Copeland actually has pronounced serious threats against critics (McConnell 1993, 117). However, again we find a strange doctrine behind the facade. The faith-prosperity movement teaches that Adam like God was a spirit in God's class. Man had the divine nature of God, but when he fell into sin, he got the nature of the Devil (McConnell 1993, 118). The meaning of the doctrine of identification is that to fully identify with man, Jesus like Adam had to become sin and get the nature of the Devil. The supposed incident is explained by the text that at the ninth hour just before he died, Jesus cried out "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" The faith-prosperity movement teaches that Jesus at that moment died spiritually and asserts that he became sin and that his spirit got separated from God (McConnell 1993, 120). We might here find the reason, why some of the faith-prosperity teachers sometimes enter into demoniac conditions, which they explain as atoning experiences in identification with Christ.

But as for the divine nature of Christ, God can neither sin nor die. Since his incarnation on earth Jesus Christ never had any lapses in being fully God or fully man without sin. It is impossible to teach that the spirit of Jesus Christ got separated from God without violating the orthodox doctrine of Christ, which affirms the divine and the human natures of Christ as undivided. And when we here talk about God's nature we do not as the faith-prosperity teachers talk about the original nature of man as if it was the same thing as God's divine nature. The Holy Scriptures teaches that Jesus in the incarnation took a human nature upon himself, which made it possible for him to experience physical death for our atonement. He carried the sufferings of punishment for our sins, but his nature did not have to be changed into a sinner with Devil nature in order to atone for mankind. Just as it was required by the Law that the sacrificial animals were without blemish or defect, Jesus died as a perfectly righteous man without blemish (1. Peter 1:19). And just like the Mosaic sacrifice never made the sacrificial animal unholy - rather it became holy to God and often eaten in celebration - so did Jesus Christ not change into an unholy state of being.


Jesus Born again

When finally the Devil and the demons had to let the demonized Jesus go, he was spiritually born again in Hell to regain the spirit nature of God, before he rose from the dead (McConnell 1993, 121). Thus the spiritual death and rebirth of Christ are emphasized above his physical death and resurrection, and presented as the true atoning wonder of God. The Gnostic preference for the spiritual above the material is obvious, but in the case of Christ the opposite is in fact true. The atonement by his blood and his physical resurrection obviously overshadows all other possible spiritual accomplishments. But Jesus Christ is almost made into a born-again sinner, so that man can easily identify with him and take his place. It should be noticed that the faith-prosperity movement assumes only one nature of the Christ, which is like the one of the original man, shortly interrupted during his time in Hell. The divine and human natures are merged thus violating another orthodox doctrine of no confusion of the two natures in Christ. What the faith-prosperity teachers present as his nature is in fact neither the human nature nor what is normally referred to as the divine nature of Jesus Christ. The faith-prosperity teaching downplays the distinction between man and the divine Christ with the most unfortunate result that the concept of the true human nature of man is lost.

The consequences for the explanation of the spiritual life are radical. All not born-again people are understood as spiritually dead without human spirit, demoniacs with the Devil's nature. In fact it views everyone, who is not born again as possessed by the Devil and only the born-again with spirit. It is a strange dualistic worldview with only God and the Devil as participants and with no space for the human spirit. Here appears the root cause of why spiritual warfare seems to have become the key issue in missions and the concrete understanding of man and his spirit irrelevant to many. Only when a man is born again, will he get the spirit. But what spirit will he get? There is a confusion of the regeneration of the spirit of man and the outpouring upon all flesh of the promised Holy Spirit. To be born again is not the same as receiving the Holy Spirit. And baptism in the Holy Spirit does not mean that man has become a spirit like God. What the faith-prosperity movement teaches is outrageous and it has simply nothing to do with the teaching of the Pentecostals and the true Charismatics.



Since the faith-prosperity teaching begins from an odd teaching on man, it soon gets into severe conflict with the sound orthodox doctrine on the two natures of Christ. The doctrinal problem with the faith-prosperity movement, however, is not isolated to a minor difference concerning one singular doctrinal position. As demonstrated in this article there is a systematic twisting of the interpretation of the Holy Scriptures in almost all the main doctrines of systematic theology: The teaching on man, the power of the Devil, the nature of Christ, the atonement and regeneration, the life in the spirit and the realm of the dead. This discrepancy stands in strong contrast to the traditional Pentecostal movement, which has always faithfully taught its full Gospel doctrines in harmony with the Holy Scriptures. So to disagree with the faith-prosperity movement is not something anti-charismatic. It is a disagreement with a teaching, which can neither stand the test by the orthodox doctrine of the nature of Christ nor by the Holy Scriptures. And this teaching has unfortunately infected most of the body of Christ by abusing the good-will towards one another within the body of Christ, which was initiated by the Charismatic renewal and its emphasis on unity.

The faith-prosperity teaching diminishes the glory and power of Jesus Christ by making him appear as a saved sinner with whom we as human beings easily can identify. At the same time it excessively attributes power to the Devil. It teaches that all fallen men have the nature of the Devil, who legally is the god of this world, and therefore that Christ's sacrifice of atonement had to be offered to him. The Devil is even conferred the rulership of the underworld of Hades. It is hard to see how this theological construction is different from the animistic appeasement of evil spirits. Obviously, attributing power to the Devil in excess does not make man more powerful to overcome evil. It rather allows evil to gain significant territory in man's thoughts and mind. Therefore, the body of Christ should not shy away from testing the spirits in this case, but rather be warned against the radically false doctrines of the faith-prosperity movement.