July 6th marked the 601st anniversary of the martyrdom of Jan Hus, the Czech reformer who was condemned by the Council of Constance and burned at the stake as a heretic on July 6, 1415. One of the charges against Hus involved his vehement condemnation of the sale of indulgences by emissaries of the antipope John XXIII (who should not be confused with the 20th century pope of the same name) as a means of fundraising to finance John’s struggle against his rivals. Hus argued that the Czech people were being exploited for John’s private benefit.
The complex theology supporting the issuance of indulgences had been developed in the 11th and early 12th centuries as the concept of Purgatory became more popular throughout Western European Christianity. At first indulgences were granted by the pope, or less often by archbishops and other church leaders, to those who had expressed contrition for their sins and done some act of penitence. The belief was that the indulgence would lessen the time that a soul spent in Purgatory, hastening the attainment of eternal salvation.
But very soon the good works of penitence had been monetized, leading the way to increasing abuse of the system. Indulgences were issued in return for contributions to various church enterprises. While some projects – the building of a hospital, for example – were in keeping with Jesus’ teaching, others strayed far from the Gospel message. Pope Innocent III, for example, encouraged the purchase of indulgences as a means of funding his military crusades to the Holy Lands.
In his treatise against indulgences Hus wrote, “The Saviour taught Peter and in him his vicars and pontiffs in their necessities to flee to God in prayer and not to money or physical battle." He argued that Christ alone was the head of the church, and that God’s grace and forgiveness were not for sale. In this he was echoed by Martin Luther a century later.
As I study Jan Hus’s writings, I have begun to see some similarities between the sale of indulgences and the teaching that is known as the Prosperity Gospel. David W. Jones, Professor of Christian ethics at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, describes it thus: “Simply put, this ‘prosperity gospel’ teaches that God wants believers to be physically healthy, materially wealthy, and personally happy. … Teachers of the prosperity gospel encourage their followers to pray for and even demand material flourishing from God.”
Jones continues in his article for The Gospel Coalition.org with a statement and analysis of five serious theological errors that he identifies in prosperity gospel teaching. One of those errors is what prosperity preachers call the “Law of Compensation.” This holds that Christians should give generously to others because doing so causes God to give them more wealth in return. This is a concept that directly contradicts Jesus’ teaching to give with no expectation of return, as illustrated in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37).
This teaching unfortunately leads to the harmful belief that one’s material wealth or lack of it indicates one’s status in God’s favor. The poor are thus doubly condemned, both by life circumstances and by being regarded as lacking in God’s favor and grace. This is a gross distortion of the Bible message. Successful “prosperity gospel” preachers live in luxury amid great wealth, much of it provided by the tithes and gifts of the faithful who are convinced that they are contributing to worthy charities. It is no wonder that some observers from outside the faith have concluded that Christianity is a scam.
We worship a loving God. Scripture assures us that God wills good for creation so that all may thrive. This means having enough to maintain health and well-being – enough good food, clean water, shelter, clothing. It also can mean things which are less tangible, such as the love and support of family and friends, access to education, a place to live that protects one from oppression, torture, and threat of bodily harm. It does NOT include accumulating private jets and multi-million dollar mansions, all paid for by the donations of the faithful. To claim, by word or action, that it does distorts the gospel out of all recognition.
Jesus was quite clear when he instructed his followers that, “you cannot serve God and wealth.” (Matthew 6:24) He also taught, regarding those who are blessed with abundance, “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.” (Luke 12:48) Wealth used in the service of others is appropriate; wealth accumulated to support an extravagant personal lifestyle and to maintain power over others is to be rejected. This should be the standard by which Christians live.
Instead, worship of wealth permeates both popular culture and parts of the church. It is preached by entertainment figures, by politicians, and by some who call themselves ministers of the Word. There are numerous warnings against false teachers in the letters of early church leaders referred to collectively as the Epistles. Fortunately, Jesus provides a simple test for distinguishing truth tellers from false prophets: “You will know them by their fruits.” (Matthew 7:16a)
As we move through the coming months of intense political activity, it will be good to keep this test in mind. We can ask ourselves, What are the fruits of this candidate, of this campaign? Do I see hatred, strife, and discord; or do I see kindness, gentleness, and self-control? How is wealth being accumulated, and how is it being used? Is there an effort here to convince supporters that God’s grace and goodness can be purchased, or is wealth being directed in God’s service to heal the sick, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and comfort the afflicted?
Jan Hus remained faithful to what he had learned through study of scripture, speaking truth to power and denouncing the corruption of the gospel message. He knew that God’s grace was not for sale, and that those who claimed otherwise were false teachers. May we strive to do the same.