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Confronting those deceived by a false gospel with grace

"God, Greed, and the (Prosperity) Gospel"

Even as a child, I was fascinated by the Trinity Broadcasting Network. Where I lived, it was the only regular religious programming on television, and on it, I found a tawdry mix of the familiar and the different. It was commonplace in the sense that several of the preachers were preaching end-times sermons with big charts like I had seen in my church but very different in other ways. The personalities looked and dressed differently from the people at my church. I remember a lot of phone numbers being flashed on the screen, allowing people to call in their prayer requests or their credit card numbers. But the most fascinating person on the screen was always Israeli televangelist Toufik Benedictus Hinn, better known to the world as Benny Hinn. 

Benny Hinn is famous for large miracle crusades and collarless suit jackets. For millennials, he gained newfound fame and notoriety for a viral video that combined clips of him “slaying people in the Spirit” with the song “Let the Bodies Hit the Floor” by heavy-metal-band Drowning Pool. Underneath all the pageantry and theatrics was a theology of health-and-wealth—the “prosperity gospel” or Word-Faith movement. In sum, the Word-Faith movement teaches that God wants you to be healthy, wealthy, and blessed and that even God is subordinate to the laws of faith that govern the universe. God cannot bless you until you speak blessings into your life by your words of faith. When you give your “seed of faith” (i.e., your money) to prosperity teachers, you can receive a manifold blessing in return. While this “gospel” of prosperity is attractive to the undiscerning and untutored, it more closely resembles New Age philosophy than the gospel proclaimed by the apostles.

God, Greed, and the (Prosperity) Gospel: How Truth Overwhelms a Life Built on Lies is a close-up, insider’s account of the prosperity gospel movement by Costi Hinn, the nephew of Benny Hinn and the son of Canadian megachurch pastor Henry Hinn. In this autobiographical and theological book, Costi details the luxurious lifestyle he had growing up, moving from crusade to crusade with his father and uncle. Costi was an heir to a multi-million-dollar ministry empire with a lot of perks: private Gulfstream jets, European sports cars, lavish gold-plated hotel rooms, expensive meals, and shopping sprees on Rodeo Drive. Following the lead of his famous family members, Costi had begun his training as a member of the next generation of prosperity preachers. That is, until he realized the prosperity gospel paraded by his family was a false gospel contrary to the one Paul preached (Gal. 1:8).

Like other evangelical books on the subject, Costi does eventually detail the historical roots of Word-Faith in the New Thought movement and traces them to the present through figures like E. W. Kenyon, Kenneth Hagin, and Oral Roberts. Costi offers sound biblical and theological criticism about the “gospel injustice” surrounding the prosperity gospel. He also paints a biblical picture of health and wealth that resorts to neither of the errors of prosperity theology or its mirror, “poverty theology.” But Costi only arrives at these criticisms after describing his journey as someone thoroughly convinced and seemingly “blessed” by adherence to these ideas. With brokenness and humility, he writes about the deceptive doctrines which still keep his famous family from coming to biblical faith and about the great grace he encountered despite losing everything he had to follow the Jesus of orthodoxy.

The remarkable thing is while we who are evangelicals often caricature prosperity televangelists like Benny Hinn as deceitful charlatans, Costi paints them in a much more sympathetic light. He condemns their unbiblical teaching and materialistic practices, but he paints them as men who really and truly believe they are receiving the God-given benefits of their theological system. As Costi became more and more exposed to the money-making mechanisms of the ministry and the effect they had on the underprivileged who followed the ministry, he wrestled with conviction from the Holy Spirit. At first, he attempted to rationalize these prayer-for-money exchanges with proof-texts and the seemingly critic-proof theological architecture he had been taught. Later upon closer study and reflection, he discovered what he initially feared to be true: that this movement was not of God.

Those who lovingly spoke the truth into Costi’s life made a far greater impact than those well-meaning “noisy gongs” or “clanging cymbals” who harassed him because of his family name.

Even as someone who has studied the Word-Faith movement for years, this book gave me some much-needed perspective about ministering to those affected by it. Costi tells horror stories of mistreatment by those who eagerly and ungraciously told him his family members perpetrated a false gospel (something Costi eventually would come to believe himself). There is a place for corrective polemics directed toward erroneous doctrine—and Costi’s book is, in fact, an exercise in that—but many of the tactics of theological shock jocks and social media polemicists would not have won Costi out of heresy. He knew of these things and was repulsed by them. They did nothing to draw him closer to Christ.

Instead, the turning points in Costi’s life came through the personal relationships God brought into his life: a professor who taught him how to read the Bible in its original historical contexts; a baseball coach, who taught him about the sovereignty of God; his future wife, who showed him grace and patience in the midst of family turmoil when she refused to participate in the antics of her new family’s ministry; and a pastor, who pointed him to sound teaching by challenging Hinn to read John MacArthur’s commentary on the Gospel of John.

In that great chapter on love, the apostle Paul said, “If I . . . understand all mysteries and all knowledge . . . but do not have love, I am nothing” (1 Cor. 13:2). Costi’s conversion story brought Paul’s words here to life. Those who lovingly spoke the truth into Costi’s life made a far greater impact than those well-meaning “noisy gongs” or “clanging cymbals” who harassed him because of his family name. Those who were "dogmatic about certain truths" but "flexible and patient with those who were stuck in their ignorance" made the most significant impact, like his pastor friend, Tony.

Costi closes the book with constructive and practical advice on how to reach people who are deceived by false gospels. He does not encourage proud, mean-spirited, and confrontational evangelism centered around winning arguments and making people look foolish. Instead, he talks about gentle, prayerful, humble, and loving conversations that can compel people out of darkness.

I pastor in an area saturated by Word-Faith churches. Many of the members of our church live in the same neighborhood as one of the prominent TBN personalities. Over the years, I have criticized his "ministry" and theology and even made jokes about his luxurious lifestyle and private jets from the pulpit. But reading Costi’s story, I was convicted of my own insensitivity toward people who were caught up in prosperity gospel doctrine. Costi provides a much-needed reminder that the people who live in these movements are not just detached, heretical ideas, but embodied persons loved and valued by God even if they are deceived by sin and falsehood.

This gospel-centered resource will be valuable for both those inside the movement and those outside of it. Costi speaks truthfully about theological error but graciously speaks about loving people out of it. I highly recommend this book.

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