When the Home of Alpha, the Prosperity Gospel and Rome Meet –
Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves (Matthew 7:15).
This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come. For men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, without natural affection, trucebreakers, false accusers, incontinent, fierce, despisers of those that are good, traitors, heady, highminded, lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God; having a form of godliness, but denying its power : from such turn away – 2 Timothy 3:1-5
I attended Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB) for the first ten years of my Christian life. I believe it is where the Lord intended me to be but I realise now that it was in spite of the doctrinal errors that had crept in even then. For example while I was there I met a couple who taught me about the reality and eternity of hell and from others I learned the importance of abiding in Christ.
I must also acknowledge that when I became a Christian at Durham University it was Nicky Lee, then a theological student and now the associate minister at HTB, who was instrumental in helping me take my first faltering steps as a Christian. Indeed, had Nicky not stood behind me when I responded to a call to come to the front of the mission meeting I attended on 14th February 1984, I may never have started out on the Christian life at all. The time and trouble he and his wife Sila took over me is something I will not forget although I fear for them now.
When I became a Christian, HTB was presented as the church where God was really at work and I couldn’t wait to get there to find out for myself. What set HTB apart from the other evangelical churches I knew, was that the gifts of the Holy Spirit were openly taught and acknowledged. I attended my first Alpha Course in, I think 1988, and after that about 4 more. It was in 1989 that I made HTB my home church which I attended whenever I was in England; although there were frequent breaks since up until 1993 I was frequently stationed abroad with the Army. However, three aspects of the Alpha Course troubled me; the absence of any emphasis on repentance; the lack of teaching about hell: I recall on one occasion being invited to see Nicky Gumbel at his home to discuss his views on hell. He sought to persuade me that hell was a place of annihilation following judgment and not a place of eternal conscious torment. I could not agree with him. Finally Nicky failed to distinguish between the gospel that was taught on the Alpha Course from the gospel taught by Rome, claiming that what we had in common (the creed) was far greater than what separated us (that the Bible is our final authority and salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone as opposed to salvation through works).
These weaknesses almost certainly stemmed from Nicky Gumbel’s aim (that was well known at HTB at the time) to repackage the gospel to make it more appealing to today’s generation. Within Anglicanism there was undoubtedly an element of empty formality that needed challenging but not by changing the goal posts of fundamental gospel truth.
In July 1994 I left a prayer meeting at HTB thinking to myself that I could never imagine being at another church because I was so happy there. However, the wind that was to sweep me from HTB had already started blowing in May of that year with the visit of Ellie Mumford to HTB to bring the so-called ‘Toronto Blessing.’ I was not at that service but instead at the earlier communion service where I found myself weeping although I could not explain why. Events, I believe, were to reveal the reason. After the next service the Toronto experience dominated everything that was done for months to come and I regret to say that I was caught up in the whirlwind. By August I was beginning to have my doubts about Toronto. One of my friends had gone out to Toronto and hadn’t stopped shaking since her return, to such an extent, that six weeks later she suffered a tear in the bowel which she put down to her shaking. Another friend who was helping with the children’s work had to be restrained from exhibiting extravagant gesticulations in front of the children and one of the conference speakers, who had been in the military, had developed involuntary muscular twitches which he exhibited as he spoke. I did not want to go the same way myself. As a result of the counsel of a friend, now with the Lord, and further teaching at a prayer and Bible week at the end of August, I became convinced that the Toronto experience was not biblical but instead came from another spirit just as Paul warned in 2 Corinthians 11:1-4. Returning to HTB I felt like a complete stranger and knew I could no longer continue there.
The following weekend I attended a day of prayer for the nation held at Stroud Green Christian Assembly in Finsbury Park. I discovered that the pastor’s son in law was a lecturer at the Inns of Court School of Law which I was about to attend and I was keen to meet him. It was arranged that I would go to the service and meet him for lunch. As soon as I arrived at the service I knew I had come home spiritually. The worship was simple and heartfelt and the sermon contained insights from God’s Word that greatly inspired me.
The next morning, as I pondered my situation, my daily Bible reading was from Ezekiel 12 about Ezekiel being told to separate himself from the rebellious house of Israel as a sign to them. It suddenly came to me that this was what I should do in relation to HTB. I therefore wrote to the minister, Sandy Millar, and later went to see him. At the end of our conversation he asked me to pray for the church and straight into my mind came the words, “Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today and forever” - Hebrews 13:8. Therefore I prayed that HTB would be faithful to that same Jesus. When I returned home I looked up the verse and was amazed to read the verse that followed from this great statement of the unchanging nature of the Lord Jesus: “Be not carried about with divers and strange doctrines” - Hebrews 13:9.
HTB has changed a lot since I left in 1994 and the Alpha Course has taken off worldwide. Sadly the problems of the early 1990s have never been rectified and the fruit of the Toronto Experience has been an increasing lack of discernment and willingness to accept false teachers.
Raniero Cantalamessa - The Pope’s Preacher
This year at the church’s annual week away at an event called Focus, the line-up of speakers includes Raniero Cantalamessa, Papal preacher at the Vatican, who, in 2007 actually preached salvation through baptism from the pulpit at HTB. I refer back to the Article I wrote in CETF 42 where I drew attention to this extract of his first sermon:
“He found us in sin – lost. Through Christ, His Death and resurrection he saved us. Through the baptism he inserted us into salvation.”
We should not be surprised that this is what Raniero Cantalemessa teaches because this is classic Roman Catholic dogma contained in the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church at paragraph 1212:
“Through Baptism we are freed from sin and reborn as sons of God; we become members of Christ, are incorporated into the Church and made sharers in her mission: Baptism is the sacrament of regeneration through water and in the word."
However, this is not the Gospel. The irony is this: when Nicky Lee explained the Gospel to me on 14th February 1984 it was the following verses that opened my eyes:
For by grace are you saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast. - Ephesians 2:8-9
It was the first time that I understood that salvation was not earned but is a gift. However, if salvation only starts at baptism, then salvation is not through grace, it is through the work of being baptised and my faith in Christ’s death becomes but one aspect of salvation and not the whole. Paul warns us about such a doctrine of works in Galatians where, instead of making baptism a requirement for salvation like Roman Catholicism, the Judaisers had made circumcision a requirement instead but the effect is the same: it becomes another Gospel which is no Gospel at all. We are told to, “Beware false prophets” – Matthew 7:15. We cannot join in evangelism with them, let alone allow them to preach to the Lord’s sheep which he has “purchased with His own blood.” – Acts 20:28.
Brian Houston – Senior Pastor of Hillsong, Sydney
Given HTB’s failure to emphasise repentance and its desire to appear relevant to the young, it is not surprising that they should team up with Brian Houston of Hillsong, who is a guest speaker at Focus in 2012. As a fellow Pentecostal it is a great sadness to me that I am unable to support this man’s ministry. It has had an almost viral impact upon congregations in Australia, New Zealand, the UK, France, Ukraine, the US and South Africa. Hillsong’s attraction is to the young professional and its message is a false message of prosperity in this life and heaven in the next.
Brian Houston, has also capitulated to the pressure to welcome Roman Catholicism with open arms. As National President of Assemblies of God in Australia, Brian Houston issued a press release which included the following misleading statement about Rome:
We pray too that this papacy, like those before it, is marked by a commitment to seeing the Christian message continue to go forward and people changed by the power and truth of the Gospel. Obviously, as Protestants, our views are considerably different to the Pope’s on a number of issues however, we share a common desire to exalt Christ and serve our community to the best of our ability.
Brian Houston fails to point out that the Gospel of Roman Catholicism is not The Gospel of Jesus Christ. Rome believes in a gospel of works and not the gospel of grace alone, through faith alone, and in Christ alone. This has been Rome’s historic position which resulted in fearful persecution against those who resisted its false message of salvation down through the centuries.
Darlene Zschech, then worship pastor at Hills Christian Life Centre in Sydney, together with her Hillsong worship team, performed for the Roman Catholic World Youth Day in Sydney on 18th July 2008. Pope Benedict XVI was present and conducted papal mass on the last day of the extravaganza. Roman Catholic doctrine teaches that the mass is a continuation of Christ’s sacrifice. The consecrated host is alleged to become Christ himself and is therefore worshipped when placed in the monstrance and then in its own little tabernacle. Hillsong, led by Zschech, performed after the Stations of the Cross. The 14 Stations allegedly depict Christ’s trial and crucifixion. Aside from the fact that this is not faith but sight and the pictures of Jesus are fictional and are forbidden by Scripture, several of the Stations are purely legendary. Jesus supposedly fell down three times, met Mary on the way to the cross, had His face wiped by a woman named Veronica, and was taken down from the cross and laid in Mary’s arms. None of this is supported by Scripture. The Pope promised a plenary indulgence to anyone who participated in World Youth Day. This is the forgiveness of the temporal penalty (referring to a penalty owed either on earth or in purgatory) due for certain sins and re-emphasises the works based gospel that Rome teaches. Hillsong’s compromise represents a betrayal of the Faith “once delivered to the saints.” – Jude 3
Brian Houston and His False Prosperity Gospel
Brian Houston is the author of “You need more Money: Discovering God’s Amazing Financial Plan for Your Life”. In that book he writes: “Prosperity is definitely a result of applying God’s Word to your life. Why would He promise prosperity and success if He preferred us to remain poor?”. In section two of the book he adds: “It’s God’s will for you to prosper”. In the second in a series of messages called “Prosperity on Purpose” he said that if he was writing the book again he would change the title but give the same message.
At least this title leaves you in no doubt about the message and it is unashamedly a message that encourages people to pursue financial prosperity. The distinguishing factor from the world’s pursuit of prosperity is that, according to Brian Houston, pursuing prosperity for God is different and apparently legitimate.
However, this is not what the Bible teaches. The Lord Jesus tells us that we cannot serve both God and money but that we are to seek first the Kingdom of God, we will be given what we need - (Matthew 6:24,33), and that where our treasure is, there our hearts will be also - (Matthew 6:21). The effect of Brian Houston’s teaching is for the believer to expect to prosper financially as a reward of faithfulness, and for them to love this world. The purpose of that prosperity is that God’s Kingdom will advance. This is a half-truth. God does bless His people but there is to be no expectation of material prosperity. One of the obvious places to see this is in the account of the Rich Man and Lazarus.
Lazarus spent his life as a beggar with nothing, yet he had saving faith and went to heaven where he received his reward (see Luke 16). The Rich Man had everything in this life but used his wealth to indulge himself.
The great heroes of the faith are set out by the writer to the Hebrews in chapter 11 as an example and encouragement to us. A summary of their sufferings is contained in verses 35-38 which includes “being destitute” – (Hebrews 11: 35-38).
A mark of biblical faithfulness is often poverty. John Cook was just such a man. He prosecuted Charles I and rose, under the Commonwealth, to be Chief Justice in Ireland where he brought justice and mercy to many poor tenants who were oppressed by their wealthy landlords. He made many enemies as a result of his just judgments. Just prior to the restoration of the monarchy this faithful Christian was betrayed, imprisoned executed and his lands forfeited. This has been the lot of many Christians. We only have to look at the circumstances of Christians in countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Iran, Laos and Nigeria to mention but a few where destitution and death is are commonplace for Christians. Poverty may seem a long way off for Christians living in the West but even here Christian faithfulness often comes at the expense of financial prosperity.
According to an article in the Sydney Morning Herald published on 30th January 2003, Brian Houston lives well beyond the means of most church pastors: “He owns an enormous house overlooking a bush valley, in a suburb of other enormous houses, at Glenhaven. He also owns a picturesque spread on the Hawkesbury River, near Windsor, just west of Sydney, gets paid handsomely to speak overseas and is a property developer.”
It might seem churlish to judge a person merely by the size of their house although one might question the example such exhibition of wealth sets his flock. However there have been many fine Christians through the years with great wealth that they have used for God’s Kingdom. The real problem is that, according to the same article, "the vast majority" of Brian Houston’s money comes from overseas speaking engagements at other charismatic churches as well as royalties from the "Christian resources" set out at the front of the church, accumulating vast wealth from royalties and other dividends. This strongly suggests that Brian Houston has used his position of Christian leadership for huge personal gain. 2 Peter 2:3 specifically warns us about false prophets who will exploit the people of God for their own ends.
Paul instructed Timothy to withdraw from those who teach that gain is godliness, and to “flee these things” - (1 Timothy 6:11) and instead exhorts us to be content with godliness which is truly great gain. It is true that, in his series, “Prosperity on Purpose”, Brian Houston acknowledges the dangers of being rich and that it is possible to be poor and happy (as in the case of the Macedonian church in 2 Corinthians 8:2). However, he does not seem to acknowledge the obvious contradiction of these positions and one may be forgiven for thinking that he only mentions the scriptures that contradict his philosophy that God wants to make his people rich because he has no choice, but not in order to change his overall message which is that God intends His people to prosper financially in this life. The fact is that finding the pearl of great price demands that we give up everything to possess it (Matthew 13:46).
I would be surprised if Nicky Gumbel bought into the prosperity gospel that Brian Houston promotes but I suspect he may have been dazzled by the apparent success of Hillsong within the Western World. By inviting Brian Houston to speak at Focus 2012 Nicky Gumbel is inviting a false teacher.
It is very sad that Nicky Gumbel has been deceived and, as a result, he continues to deceive others, just as Paul warns , “But evil men and imposters shall wax worse and worse, deceiving, and being deceived” – 2 Timothy 3:13. It is a profoundly sobering lesson that charming and obviously well-meaning men like Nicky Gumbel should be condemned as evil by introducing false teaching into the church. However there are strong warnings in scripture against changing the terms of the Gospel. Consider Revelation 22:18-19: “If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book: And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book.”
Nicky Gumbel has allowed teachers into his church who, according to Roman Catholic doctrine, defined the means of salvation as including reliance upon good works (including baptism, confession and the mass), so adding to the word of God. He has also, along with John Stott and others, redefined hell as a place of annihilation and not of eternal conscious torment and so subtracted from the Word of God. I fear very for much for him. At the same time there is a great need to reach today’s youth and HTB and Hillsong are to be commended for their concern for the young, the prisoners, the third world and all the others that they are trying to reach.
The concern with HTB is not the intention of reaching the lost for Christ which is admirable and Godly. Nicky Gumbel's endeavours to present the message in a contemporary way are commendable provided the message itself remains unchanged. However the reality is that the message that they are bringing is a corrupted gospel which is counterproductive, because without true repentance from our dead works there is no salvation. Let us not forget that the angels in heaven rejoice over one sinner who REPENTS - (Luke 15:4-10). Along with repentance comes a realisation that it is only by dying to the Old Nature and putting on Christ that we can live godly lives and this is a daily sacrifice which is why we become strangers and pilgrims in this world looking for a better City to come.
The message to those planning to go to Focus 2012 must be to think again about the direction of their Christian lives and to return to the pure milk of God’s Word by joining fellowship with those who preach the truth and contend earnestly for the faith once delivered to the Saints - (Jude 3). 2 Corinthians 6:14-16 are important verses in this context for they instruct true believers to separate themselves from those who have compromised the faith. We must remember to pray earnestly for Nicky Gumbel, Brian Houston, Raniero Cantalamessa and for the many that have been deceived by their false messages.
Finally we should pray for each other that, in making our stand, we neither overlook a beam in our own eye, or fall just when we thought we were standing.
About The Author
Mark Mullins is a practising barrister at the Bar of England and Wales, who is occasionally called upon by the BBC and others to represent the Christian position in debate and discussion in the media. He is also an elder at Stroud Green Christian Assembly (a traditional Pentecostal church started out of a Smith Wigglesworth crusade in the 1920s). The Assembly has had links with CWM since CWM was formed