'Health & wealth gospel' critiqued
VICKSBURG, Miss. (BP)--When Justin Peters was born in Vicksburg, Miss., in 1973, the doctors knew right away that something was wrong. They decided not to tell Peters' parents, who proudly took their first-born son home. It wasn't long before they, too, noticed something was different about their baby boy. At the age of 1, Peters was formally diagnosed as having cerebral palsy.
"Don't expect much from Justin," the doctor told his parents. When Peters tells that story today, a smile spreads across his face.
"Jesus always has the last word," he says.
Today, Peters has two master's degrees from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and is a staff evangelist at First Baptist Church in Vicksburg the church where he grew up and was saved at the age of 7.
Cerebral palsy typically impacts body movement and muscle coordination, although Peters said it affects different people in different ways. For him, it limits use of his arms, hands and legs. But he lives, travels and ministers needing very few accommodations for his disabilities. He gets nearly everywhere he needs to go either on his motorized wheelchair or on his crutches. He drives his specially equipped van or flies on commercial airlines to get to his speaking engagements and revivals.
"It isn't degenerative," Peters said of his cerebral palsy. "The way I am now is pretty much the way I have always been."
He is unperturbed by his physical limitations. In fact, he is thankful to God for them, and says he likely would not be in full-time ministry if not for the effects of cerebral palsy.
"Sometimes there is something better than physical health," Peters said. "That is, like Paul said, 'God's sufficient grace.'"
But Peters has not always felt that way. When he was 16 years old, a well-intentioned family friend came to him.
"Justin, God has told me He is going to heal you," the friend said, adding that Nora Lam, a word of faith healer from China, was going to be holding a healing service at a nearby Holiday Inn. The friend wanted Peters to go.
To encourage Peters to go to the event, the friend opened the Bible to passages that purported to support the word of faith idea of faith healing.
"The prospect of being healed really resonated with me because, at the time, I could not drive, play football, or do all the things I believed were so important at that age," Peters said.
He went to see Nora Lam as well as other faith healers, but after each encounter he came away in the same physical condition. He left those encounters struggling with his own perceived spiritual deficiencies.
"I was told that physical healing is always God's will and that I would receive that healing if I had enough faith," Peters said. "I not only doubted my faith but for a season I doubted my very salvation."
Truly faithful and supportive parents, good teaching at church, and prayer preserved Peters during those dark spiritual days. He graduated from high school, and then went on to Mississippi State University where he received a bachelor's degree in economics. Along the way, the Lord strengthened Peters' faith and helped him see the error of Nora Lam and her colleagues in the word of faith movement. It was at MSU that Peters felt God calling him into full-time, vocational ministry. So, he headed to Southwestern Seminary, thinking he was going to be a pastor.
By 2000, Peters had obtained a master of divinity degree. During his days of seminary studies, Peters received invitations to preach revival services. This is no surprise given his preference for expository sermons, not to mention his God-gifted, mellifluous speaking voice that is authoritative yet conversational.
In his preaching ministry, Peters devoted a small segment of his sermon series to address the topic of the word of faith movement. Also known as the "health and wealth" movement, the most well-known word of faith preachers are televangelists such as Benny Hinn, Kenneth Copeland, Paul Crouch, Jesse Duplantis, Creflo Dollar and, more recently, Joel Osteen.
"I found the response to that segment of my revival sermons was just overwhelming," Peters said. Soon, what was supposed to be a small segment of his preaching turned into a bigger segment. It wasn't long before people were inviting him to preach just on the subject of the word of faith movement. He felt the Lord leading him to do additional master's studies, this time for the more academically oriented, thesis-based master of theology degree.
As he focused his theological training on the word of faith theology, what he discovered troubled him deeply.
"Health and wealth are among the most universal of human desires," Peters said. "These people play on those desires."
Eventually, Peters narrowed his academic focus to one word of faith preacher: Benny Hinn. Perhaps more than the others, Hinn holds himself out to be a faith healer. Over the years millions of people have flocked to Hinn's live events held in huge auditoriums and stadiums around the world; tens of millions more have tuned in to Hinn's "This Is Your Day" television program, seen in more than 190 countries.
As Peters dug into the theology and history of the word of faith movement, he was more convinced than ever that Christians needed to know the truth about it. He discovered that the movement's origins are not at all Christian; instead its roots can be traced directly to the metaphysical cults of the 19th century, Unitarianism, Christian Science, New Thought and even back to the early-church heresy known as Gnosticism.
"These preachers blur the line between the Creator and the created," Peters said. "They demote God and deify man ... To them, faith is not placed in God; faith is a force you direct at God to make Him do what you want Him to do. It is a very man-centered gospel which makes it a different gospel.... All this has been wrapped in a Christian terminology to make it more palatable."
Peters accumulated literature, video collections and numerous articles about Hinn and other word of faith preachers. He attended several Hinn healing services and has watched myriads of programs on Trinity Broadcasting Network. He even went to Hinn's headquarters twice, seeking an interview. He was denied both times.
"Unfortunately, I had to support many of their ministries by buying their books and DVDs," Peters said, laughing.
The faculty of Southwestern's school of theology accepted his master's thesis titled "An Examination and Critique of the Life, Ministry, and Theology of Healing Evangelist Benny Hinn." In December 2002, Peters was awarded a master of theology degree.
Shortly thereafter, Peters was invited to be a staff evangelist through FBC Vicksburg, and he formed Justin Peters Ministries (www.justinpeters.org.) Through his ministry, he goes to churches, conferences, retreats and other speaking engagements with a three-part seminar he developed called "A Call for Discernment."
During his seminars, he respectfully, deliberately, and carefully leads audiences through an examination of the word of faith movement. The first session, titled "Dangerous Doctrines," examines the metaphysical cultic origins of the movement and the doctrines it espouses, which deviate from orthodox Christianity. The second session, which he calls "Mangled Manifestations," explores the more dramatic elements of the movement such as the abuse of tongues, being 'slain in the Spirit,' and false prophecies. The third session, the one to which he relates to most personally, is "The Hurt of Healing" and deals solely with physical healing.
Using clips from video tapes and DVDs, Peters doesn't just tell Christians what the health and wealth preachers claim: He lets them see and hear for themselves what they are really teaching during their crusades and television programs. Most people who attend his seminars are dumbfounded by the things they see and hear, Peters said.
Peters believes God is allowing this brand of blatant, dangerous heresy to continue for a purpose.
"It's a sign of the End Times," Peters said. "The Scriptures are clear that in the last days false prophets and false christs will rise 'so as to deceive even the elect.' Too many Christians today want teachers who tickle their ears."
Where Hinn's star was at its zenith during the 1990s and early 2000s, Peters said the newest popular Health and Wealth teacher is Joel Osteen.
"[Joel Osteen's] teachings are of a slightly different stripe, but they are just another version of the prosperity gospel," Peters said. "Joel Osteen was on Larry King Live when he admitted that he doesn't use the word 'sinner.' How can you preach the gospel of Jesus Christ if you don't first get people to realize they have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God? I don't doubt that Osteen is sincere, but sincerity is not the issue –- truth is the issue."
Despite the errant nature of the subject matter he deals with, Peters has not lost his joy in the Lord. He is quick to smile, is gracious and polite, and encourages people who attend his seminars to treat the followers of the word of faith movement in a like manner.
"It is my desire that God use this seminar to help equip people to do as Ephesians 4:15 enjoins us: to speak the truth in love," he said.
God has changed lives at his seminars, Peters said. He shared the account of a recent seminar series he led at a church in Alabama. After one session specific session, a woman came up to him told him about her 8-year-old son with muscular dystrophy.
As Justin told it, "With tears streaming down her face she said, 'Justin, I've been told by so many that if I had enough faith my son would be healed. I've been told that if I loved him enough he would be healed. All of these years, I have blamed myself for my son's illness. But for the first time I now realize it's not my fault.'
"Hearing stories like this makes it all worthwhile for me," Justin said. "Next to my salvation, my cerebral palsy is one of the greatest gifts God has ever given me. I have come to know and experience Him in ways I could never have done otherwise. God has used it to keep me dependent upon Him ... One of the tragedies of the prosperity gospel is that it robs believers of experiencing God's sufficient grace and strength made perfect in weakness."