What’s Right About the Faith Movement – Jon Ruthven

By Jon Ruthven

Faith teachers have taken a multitude of hits in the last decade, but they’ve also blessed the church in some important ways. Let’s not discard the message just because of some excesses.

When Kenneth and Gloria Copeland visited our campus chapel at Regent University, I sat in the third row near the center aisle. When Kenneth was finished preaching, I was pumped up and motivated to confront my passive Christian life and begin aggressively seeking God’s face and moving out into the ministry I knew God had for me. I felt the contagious, joyful power of God infusing into me. I was ready to whip the world, the flesh and the devil.

“Isn’t this what it’s all about?” I mused to one of my colleagues as we were leaving. He agreed.
I don’t know what it is about theologians. Ask any one of them about faith teaching or the Word-Faith movement, and they immediately recite a laundry list of everything that’s wrong with it. They can’t see much, if anything, that’s positive.

Well, I’m a theologian–at least Regent University pays me to theologize–and I happen to believe there’s a lot of truth in faith teaching. If we can get past the imprecise and even reckless statements of some faith teachers and examine their words for what is intended rather than for what is said, then I believe there’s a lot we can learn from these people.

What Is Faith Teaching?

Modern faith teaching, sometimes called “positive confession” or, more crudely, the “name-it-and-claim-it” movement, has several key figures. On a scale moving from fairly mild to fairly strong, some representatives of the faith teaching movement are: Oral Roberts, Kenneth Copeland, Kenneth Hagin Sr., Fred Price and Creflo Dollar.

The key features of this movement could be outlined as follows:

* The importance of faith and its crucial role in the Christian life. “Without faith it is impossible to please [God]” (Heb. 11:6, NKJV). Faith is a way of participating in God’s very nature. Believers are in some sense “little gods,” having been “made in His image and likeness,” and therefore expressing God’s presence and purposes on earth. We are “clothed” in the Spirit and have, by faith, become the very “righteousness of God in Christ” (see Gen. 1:26; 2 Cor. 5:21).

**The scope or purpose of faith. This not only includes salvation, but also applies to all of one’s needs, as well as to one’s God-directed ministries. God wants us to not only be faithful, obedient and heaven-bound, but also healthy and financially prosperous.

**The establishment of faith. Faith develops in relation to God’s Word and in two stages: (1) the “logos” word (certain promises of Scripture), when properly “confessed” and affirmed with one’s mouth, is then (2) confirmed by God’s “rhema” word (inner witness of the Holy Spirit).

Faith involves “revelation knowledge” that is God-given and moves beyond “sense knowledge” of what we know from experience. So then, faith can be the confirmation and assurance that a specific biblical promise is to be actualized or fulfilled in a specific case, such as a healing or miracle.

**The strong act of willpower involved in faith. It is not a passive acceptance or hoping for something. Rather, faith involves taking the initiative toward aggressive, zealous, personal action. That is, stepping out in faith and in confidence that whatever is prayed for is going to happen. One early faith teacher said, “Don’t ever pray, ‘Thy will be done,’ since it destroys faith. It’s always God’s will to heal.”

Obviously this last statement is impossible to agree with. But what is behind that statement? What is this man’s experience with some people praying, “Thy will be done”? We need to examine what certain words and phrases mean to the speaker, but at the same time we need to understand how they impact us.

What Do We Make

Of All This?

If we find ourselves outside the faith teaching movement, we may need to first understand our own upbringing and why we react the way we do. If we were raised Protestant or Catholic, we were probably immersed in certain tenets that should be re-examined in light of the New Testament.

Second, we may be uncomfortable with the bold claims of faith teachers when we subconsciously hold on to some traditional, and somewhat biblically unbalanced, religious ideas. We may need to closely examine our feelings toward traditional formulations, such as:

**God and Jesus are exalted far above us. We must be extremely reverent, even somewhat fearful, before God when we pray or come into His presence. Because we are sinful, it is blasphemy to compare ourselves with God in any way. Accordingly, we are uncomfortable with entering “boldly” into God’s presence or accepting the radical implications of God’s grace.

**Salvation from sin is the only real focus of the Christian gospel. Miracles of healing are only “signs” that merely point to the truth of God’s Word. We must never base our faith on miracles, but on Scripture. Even if we believe the gifts of the Spirit continue today, they are still a marginal and dispensable part of the Christian experience.

**Faith is understanding and accepting as true the essential points of the gospel. The Holy Spirit convicts us of our sin, clarifies the gospel message, and makes it real to us, but any further revelation than this is out of bounds for Christians, since this would involve adding to Scripture.

We must keep these half-hidden anxieties in mind when we ask the next question.

What’s Right About

Faith Teaching?

1. Faith teaching more fully grasps the radical biblical insights concerning our position as believers. Through Christ, we can enter boldly into the holy of holies (see Heb. 10:19)–an idea that was absolutely blasphemous to most religious people when this was first written. Jesus called God “Abba” or “Daddy,” something that chokes in our throat at the irreverent over familiarity. Yet the “Daddy” response is the primal witness of the Spirit in our Christian experience (see Rom. 8:15; Gal 4:6).

An oft-quoted verse demonstrates the radical nature of our salvation: “You are the righteousness of God in Christ” (see 2 Cor. 5:21). The idea of standing before God claiming to be as good as Christ makes us squeamish. But if we are not as totally righteous as Jesus Christ in God’s sight, then we cannot stand before God at all. It’s all or nothing. The death, atonement, and resurrection of Jesus gave us the “all.”

When faith teachers talk about believers being “little gods,” it makes theologians shudder. This phrase may be explosive, and can even go over the line. But these preachers are pounding home a valid insight. It’s based on the creation story that emphasizes mankind being made in the image of God, who breathed His very own breath into Adam.

Moreover, Jesus creates a new race of people when He replicates God’s act by breathing on them the life-giving Spirit (see John 20:22).

2. Faith teaching challenges us to believe God to “supply all your need according to His riches in glory by Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:19). For years, it has been easier to say, “Your sins are forgiven,” rather than “Rise up and walk.”

Accordingly, the church’s theology shifted focus from what the disciples were commanded to do–“‘Heal the sick there, and say to them, “The kingdom of God has come near to you”‘” (Luke 10:9)–to a dispensing forgiveness by a hierarchy of clerics. This is a historical case of the church’s basing theology on experience–or lack of it–rather than on the Word of God.

In the last 50 years the biblical theology movement, and increasingly evangelical scholars, have begun to understand that the gospel Jesus presented came “not in word but in power” (1 Cor. 4:20). Miracles and spiritual gifts do not simply “prove” the gospel, they express it.

What did Jesus actually spend time doing in His public ministry? Here’s the percentage of space devoted in the Gospels to His miracles: 44 percent in Matthew; 65 percent in Mark; 29 percent in Luke; and more than 30 percent in John. The disciples continued this emphasis: 27 percent of the book of Acts–not just their public ministry–is miracle accounts. That’s more space than the sermons in Acts! In today’s traditional scholarship, it seems we have a religion about Jesus, but not from Jesus.

Traditional theology downplays the “power encounter” message of the Gospels and Acts in favor of Protestant themes in the epistles, which in turn have been largely sanitized of their charismatic expressions.

For example, in his “Preface to the New Testament” of 1522, Martin Luther distinguishes the “true and noblest books”–that is, the epistles of Paul and 1 Peter–from others in the New Testament. Luther’s sole criterion for selecting “the heart and core of all the books” is that “these do not describe many works and miracles of Christ, but rather masterfully show how faith in Christ overcomes sin, death and hell, and gives life, righteousness, and blessedness.”

The discerning Christian prefers the Gospel of John over the synoptics simply because, according to Luther, it contains the fewest miracles. Calvin never developed such a “canon-within-a-canon,” but his bias against miracles and spiritual gifts is clear.

Scholarship is moving away from classic Protestantism’s narrow focus. For example, Gordon Fee’s massive new book, God’s Empowering Presence: The Holy Spirit in the Letters of Paul, shows that the emphasis in the Gospels and in Acts on God’s charismatic power continues in the epistles.

What is the bottom line? By simply reading God’s Word and being faithful to the experiences of divine power through which God has led them, faith teachers have come to the same essential conclusion as mainstream biblical scholarship: The God of the New Testament is a God of charismatic power, who will in fact “supply all our needs according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus.”

But these blessings in our lives are realized through faith–a personal act that requires cultivation and diligence.

3. Faith teaching establishes or builds faith. Here we need to sort out what is right and what is wrong with faith teaching. Faith teaching is right in that it has discerned what is perhaps the most important emphasis in the Bible: Faith is absolutely central to our relationship with God. Beyond that, faith teaching’s emphasis on developing and having faith is commendable.

The problem is how faith develops one’s faith. Some early faith teachers stressed that faith amounted to applying a promise of Scripture to a problem and by sheer force of will, believing it until the promise was visibly realized. Any evidence to the contrary was denied as “lying symptoms” of the devil.

A later development of this theme was a similar move: applying a biblical promise to a need, then “confessing” that promise until the confession reached the “spirit man” at which time the inner confirmation or assurance came. At this point the “manifestation” or fulfillment of the promise would be visible.

Later, Francis MacNutt and John Wimber emphasized the need for “listening” prayer for healing–to try to tune in to what God is revealing while praying and then responding appropriately to God’s leading.

I believe this latter approach is the core of how to develop faith. Believers perceive what God wants to do and then “pray through” to the assurance that He will do it. To pray properly, then, “Thy will be done” certainly does not destroy faith. Instead, it’s absolutely crucial to developing faith, discerning God’s plan, and following up in prayer and action. Unless we find out what God wants, we certainly won’t get His assurance (faith) that it will come to pass.

What’s Wrong And Right With The ‘Faith Formula’?

There’s a good reason why we can’t apply a promise of Scripture to anything we believe is appropriate: God may not think it’s appropriate, despite general promises about healing and deliverance in the Bible.

To develop a comprehensive understanding of faith in the New Testament we need some grasp of the complexity of the issue. The most common word for “faith/believe” is the pistis family of words–some 436 references. But understanding faith cannot be limited to a single word family. There are dozens of others in the larger so-called “semantic field” with varying relationships to the Greek pistis–that is, trust, confidence, hope, knowledge, seeing, courage, boldness.

Beyond this, many narratives describing faith appear in the Gospels and Acts and have much to teach us about the nature and acquisition of faith. Moreover, some broader New Testament concepts, such as, “Holy Spirit,” “kingdom of God,” and “righteousness” have much in common with “faith,” and indeed may even be alternate ways of talking about it.

Having said all this, however, it appears that the most crucial accounts for understanding faith are the two temptation stories: one for Adam and one for the second Adam (see Gen. 3, Matt. 4; and Luke 4). The temptation narratives bear a complex and extensive relationship with each other, but one common idea is that they appear at the point of “maturity” in the lives of Adam and Christ. The issue in the two temptations is identical: Do I gain power by “a hearing of faith” or by following my own (and satanic) “principle”? Satan’s temptation to Jesus was powerfully seductive–an attempt to turn the “word” of Scripture against the immediate “Word” of God (logos vs. rhema).

Essentially Satan was asking Jesus to pre-apply or misapply scriptural promises to His life and ministry. Satan first tempts Jesus to follow the tradition of Israel in the wilderness for 40 years (days). “If you are the Son of God,” he taunts, “why don’t You have miraculous bread like that provided in the past?” Jesus’ answer is true for the other temptations as well: A person lives “by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” That is to say, I don’t simply apply a promise to my situation–I wait to hear from the Father directly.

Next, Satan is more direct: “Jesus, step out in faith upon the holy, authoritative Word of God. Doesn’t the Word promise: ‘He will command His angels about You, and they will lift You up in their hands, so that You will not strike Your foot against a stone’? Can’t You say, ‘God said it! I believe it! That settles it!’?” Jesus interpreted this as trying to arrogantly bully God into action by misapplying the promises of His Word.

Finally, Satan took Jesus to a “very high mountain” with the perfectly scriptural proposal that all nations should be His, as was scripturally due Him as Messiah. But this was to pre-apply a Scripture–Jesus must first be obedient and endure rejection and the cross. Misapplying or pre-applying Scripture, then, is the equivalent of falling down and worshipping Satan, as was Adam’s act of seeking knowledge apart from God.

This great test for Jesus was also intended as a test for every Christian. By independently “claiming the promises” do we sometimes ignore God? Do we manipulate God? Or even abandon God to follow the tempter?

Faith teaching is right in that it strongly encourages Christians to stretch their faith, but wrong if it succumbs to the temptation to misapply Scripture. True faith happens only when we have the assurance of where God wants the promises to apply.

This is the bottom line: If you want to build your faith, seek God in prayer to find out what God wants in that situation. When you receive the assurance of faith, and you have received it accurately, God will fulfill His Word.

What’s Right With Faith Teaching?

So what’s right with the faith message? I believe faith teaching:

* understands the centrality of aggressive, joyous faith for the Christian life.

* has a profoundly biblical grasp of how majestically the believer stands before God, clothed in His righteousness, and how powerfully he or she can confront the world.

* communicates that our faith, like God’s anointing, doesn’t just “happen.” It must be emphatically encouraged and built up if God is going to work in power.

Faith teachers know they cannot get away with merely theologizing about faith; they must powerfully model it to people, even transfuse their own faith into the lives of their hearers. This takes spiritual guts and exhausting effort, but they rightly understand that “the kingdom of heaven experiences violence and the violent take it by force!” *

Jon Ruthven teaches courses on spiritual formation and charismatic theology at Regent University’s School of Divinity in Virginia Beach, Virginia.

11 comments to What’s Right About the Faith Movement – Jon Ruthven

  • Interesting article, I am assuming you already have tenure. The reason I dont pray “if it is your will” is 1 John 5:14, 15 states God only hears us and answers prayers that are according to His will, simple. Also, Jesus is the express image of the Father on earth and Jesus healed ALL who came to Him, in faith, even helping some whos faith was shaky. Face it most people dont want to step out in faith because they dont have faith to step out on to. I am always amazed that the same people who have the faith to believe God created all things and will raise them in a glorified body on the last day for eternal life, dont have the faith to trust Him for this life and the needs present. Kind of makes we wonder how well they know God. Also, the reason Jesus did not fall into Satans trap in the desert was He didnt need signs and wonders to prove He was the Son of God He did signs and Wonders because He knew He was the Son of God as should we. The main problem with the “Word of Faith movement” is the greed and desire for worldly gain, shameless, preaching for profit and they will be judged severely. I admire your courage Professsor now challenge your students to go and do likewise.

  • Rick Jurgensen

    Obviously, you know your teachings on the word, see you later at a church in three weeks. Thank you, God Bless.

  • Mary

    Thank you! I’m encouraged by your writin this!
    I’ve learned to stand in contentment an faith an believe God for incredible things an through many, many difficult times I have been blessed with His Yes an His No.

    In October 2012, my engine broke in my vehicle. God Himself knew that I was disabled and had no means of repairing or replacing it. I simply had to trust God. I prayed an fasted. I stood up in my church an asked for prayers most every Sunday. I asked my friends who are prayer warriors to pray an I called CBN too. I knew God was tellin me to give Him the Glory in my testimony an that He would do it all. So from then on I confessed that an reminded Him an thanked Him an kept on just like normal. Durin that time, I had folks from church come up to me an be mockin me. They’d say, “Well, Mary? Where’s your vehicle?!” an ” You still prayin for a vehicle or have ya finally looked at the paper for one yet?!”. I’d remind em that I don’t have the finances at all an that God already knew that an that He’s provided before, He’ll provide again. I had to go to God an pray for em, cause they just don’t know. Here, if ya don’t get it from the sweat of your brow then it just don’t happen; that’s how they believe here. This is heatbreaking.

    God saw fit for me to use that time well an He gave me a senior neighbor lady (gone on to Glory now) to fuss over. I got to know her an her whole extended family very well an was able to pray for them, serve them an encourage them. It was humbling to ask for rides. (I was afraid of becomin a bother.) He used that time to build special relationships and to mold me good. I would pray, Well Lord, Ya know I gotta get to the bank an the store so thanks in advance for the ride an gettin me back safe. He ALWAYS took care of me. There were times I’d just want a pop an here’d come by someone asked me if I needed to get anythin at the store, I can go with em as they’re headin that way! Wow!!
    I would smile big!! Ha!

    Here come November 2013, I get a young couple visitin my place from Ohio, they’re goin through their own troubles too. I’m up here in West Virginia…way outta their way. The husband starts talkin about his old car an how he’s been for 4-6 months tryin to sell it but nobody’ll pay what he wants. No one wants this car. After awhile he says again about their car an his wife nudged him. He confesses he knew for a long time 6-8 months that God had been layin on him to give away that very car but he said no to God. He confessed he’d been disobedient an he just didn’t wanna lose money on it as they’d done some repairs on it to sell it. She looked at him long an they both looked at me an asked,” Do you want our car?”. I was so shocked an surprised I about fell clean outta my chair! Of course I said yes!

    I’d just heard that term “word of faith” an “name it an claim it” too. (Pastor said somethin last Sunday on it an he has his opinions too, he surely made em known.) So I thought I’d look it up. Looks like there’s alot of folks with strong feelins on it all. I’m a simple woman. I don’t know all what the fightin’s about but I guess if there’s a way to divide us the ol devil’ll find it. Uh huh.

    Like the song goes…That’s my story an I’m stickin to it! Ha!
    I want others to know how good my God is an how He cares for our every moment an He wants to be with us more than we can figure. It takes the faith He gives to believe an more of that same faith to live as He leads. I don’t want it any other way. His way is perfect to me. God Bless!

  • Gary Maxwell

    I do not see this article as “clear balance” but an attempt to mix a little sovereignty of God into the mix where it isn’t involved.

    For instance, the promises are just that: promises. While we CAN wait on God to see if He has a “specific” Word for our situation, He, in reality, has already sovereignly spoken those promises to us. We can act on them boldly and they will work.

    The author seems to buy into the Rhema vs Logos teaching where “Rhema” is a “now” word and “logos” is the general word. This teaching is very inaccurate.

    Both rhema and logos refer to “words” and “that which is spoken.” What we call a “now” word from God we tend to classify as a “rhema”. This is unfortunate because not only does this misunderstanding remove the “now-ness” of all of the promises of God, it puts the believer in a position of inactivity concerning the written promises of God.

    While God CAN bring to mind a specific scripture, we do not necessarily have to wait for one as all of the promises are already alive and more powerful than a two-edged sword.

    Unfortunately, based upon a misunderstood comment made by W.E. Vines in his expository dictionary, we have lifted these two greek words out of their setting and have assigned to them definitions that will not hold up under closer scrutiny.

    God’s promises are active and alive. We can act on them at any moment when we need to. God can and does–from time to time–give us specific directions concerning our case but this is not always the norm. Nor do we have to wait and see whether God wants to apply His promises in a given situation. If that is the case, then we have no basis for faith because we would always have to see if a promise already made was a promise God wanted to fulfill–as if He had an option of fulfilling something He has already gone on record as having given to us. Very, very problematic.

    Think of God’s Word as his standing orders–orders that are always in effect. For those times where you need more specific direction, He will provide it. But to say that a rhema is a now word and logos the written word is inaccurate when compared to the greek text.

    The reason that Jesus rebuked the devil was because he was tempting Him. Though the scriptures said what the devil quoted, he took them out of context–it was not because Jesus had to wait for the Father to tell Him it was OK to act on them.

  • David

    We So easily slide down our “slippery slopes” into “the Ditches”. Thank you for putting this “back in the road”. Jesus is not in The Ditches. If can truly love as He does, we will “keep it in the road” as we simply follow Him.

  • Elias Flores

    Clear balance. I would like to see something on the manner of collecting money.

  • Elizabeth Psencik

    Thank you for this excellent picture of both groups. I especially gleaned from your insight concerning the temptations of Jesus. I will put this knowledge to good use.

  • reggie patrick

    Jon, what a great job presenting a clear balance, in both appreciating the raw courage of the faith movement in challenging the denominational traditionalist to grow beyond the low expectation of weak faith and yet you made the most sober warning against independently claiming promises apart from the will of God. Word of faith teaching also magnifies the severe importance of our lips, tongue, and words being acceptable unto the Lord.

    For decades one could be an accepted brother with all manner of negative, fearful, frustrated words flowing out of our lips. You may get a gentle smile or shake of the head, in an aw-shucks disapproval, but no real emphasis of that error being corrected from the word. This is a huge help that the faith movement has brought to the table. However it is obvious that many have overdosed the money thing into a drunken orgy of self- indulgence. Thank you for a great work! agape Reggie Patrick

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