Joseph Prince is a charismatic pastor of a very large church in Singapore. He has written a number of popular books, but it is his emphasis on what is called ‘hypergrace’ that is raising quite a deal of discussion in Asia. His key book is entitled Destined to Reign: The secret to effortless success, wholeness and victorious living (Singapore: Joseph Prince Resources, 2007). This review seeks to engage with his theology of hypergrace (though the term is not used in that book).
Strengths: Grace and Jesus
Without a doubt, the emphasis of Prince on grace is healthy. The gospel of Jesus, the heart of Christianity, is one of grace: we are saved totally by grace—a free gift of God in the death of his Son on the cross for our redemption. It is God who has qualified us for the inheritance of the saints in light (Colossians 1:13). It is by grace you are saved through faith, and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God (Ephesians 2:8).
Many Christians do not grasp grace properly. Humanity’s default position is to try to merit something by our works or piety. And Prince is right to stress the way the gospel of grace sets us free from these attempts to please God by our own effort.
Weaknesses and Dangers
However there are several serious theological weaknesses in this book that make it dangerous.
Old Testament and Law
Prince does not understand the Old Testament. While he accepts some typologies in the Old Testament as pointers to Christ, at other points he strays into allegory: at one point he suggests the tree of the knowledge of good evil in Eden is a symbol of the law; elsewhere he treats the Old Testament as a kind of code for finding Christ.
The most serious and troubling weakness of his view of the Old Testament is his handling of the law. For him the law as a bad thing, an enslaving thing, because it is synonymous with legalism. The law is a path to salvation through good works that can never succeed. He comments that the law is all about YOU (p38f) and ‘the law is all about looking at yourself’ (p196)
Yet the law begins with a statement of grace, namely that Yahweh is the God who brought Israel out from Egypt: the law is a response to that grace, not a means of winning it. Further, several laws are expressions of imitations of Yahweh (eg treat slaves and aliens well because God rescued you from slavery and you were aliens in Egypt; judge impartially because God judges impartially). Many laws reflect the perfect character of God: love your neighbour; serve the Lord; love God. The law is not simply about YOU at all!
Prince also fails to see the nuances of understanding the law in the Bible. The Old Testament itself declares the law to be good, delighting the soul (Ps 19:7). The law includes the sacrificial and ritual systems which provide a way to be in relationship with God through faith—and not trusting in one’s own obedience.
The Old Testament—like the New Testament—knows that the law does not empower law-keeping. It looks forward to a circumcision of the heart (Deuteronomy 30:1-6).
By exposing our sin, it shows us our need of Jesus, and his sacrifice to provide forgiveness.
Yet Prince (wrongly) claims we must not preach the Ten Commandments because they kill (p121), and will lead believers to sickness and depression! Really? When Moses preached them in Deuteronomy, the next we hear of Israel is their faithful obedience to conquer the land! Prince sounds like the second century heretic Marcion, who disdained the Old Testament—and never more than when he turns 2 Timothy 2:15 (‘rightly dividing the word of truth’) into a call to separate (divide) the old and new covenant (p51). This is appalling exegesis.
Effort and Obedience
The subtitle of Prince’s book suggests that the Christian life is to be ‘effortless’. That idea may be appealing to hard-working Singaporeans, but it is far from biblical. Prince turns a blind eye to the frequent New Testament encouragements to striving, struggling, completing the race, straining to the finish line, and so on. When he discusses 2 Peter 1 (God has given us everything necessary for godliness) he deliberately omits the part where Peter tells Christians to ‘make every effort’ (p102). For Prince, effort is a contradiction of grace. But this is simplistic and selective.
Prince claims that if you are under grace, then you do not live in sin (he does not quite claim Christians are sinless, but he never explores this issue). He refers selectively to Romans 6, but fails to see that Paul thinks believers might continue in paths and lives of sin, and so need to be warned: ‘let not sin reign in your mortal body’ (v 12).
Confession of Sins
One of Prince’s striking claims is his call not to confess our sins (eg p 7). Here is a mixture of truth and error. On the one hand it is true that the blood of Jesus covers all our sins, past, present and future. On the other hand, the Bible calls God’s people to repent, to turn from sin, to confess them even. The Bible does not suggest that we are forgiven because of our own work of confession—we don’t have to remember every sin, or live in fear of unforgiveness if we forget one (despite Prince’s caricature)—yet Scripture does encourage us to respond to God’s forgiveness with confession and repentance (see, for example, Revelation 2-3). Confession remains a good and humbling practice for those who know they have been forgiven by Jesus’ death. As we receive grace through faith, we desire to do good works, keep God’s laws, obey and we make effort to do so.
Use of the Bible
Prince often boasts that he reads the Bible in its context, but when it suits him, he ignores the context, as in 2 Peter 1 above. Generally he highlights Paul’s comments on grace, but not the good works and morality that are to follow. While he is right to say that if we appropriate grace correctly, it will not lead us into sin, he fails to see that commands and laws help guide us away from sin. If Prince were right that we make no effort and need no law, then several chapters and sections in the epistles would be irrelevant.
Prince’s attempts to evade such passages sometimes causes him to adopt some very dubious interpretations—some of which are offered without any evidence; others are just flat-out wrong. For example:
- To get around 1 John 1, which speaks of confessing sins, he claims this chapter is written to Gnostics—but the rest of 1 John is written to Christians (p106).
- He says that some of Jesus’ words in the gospels fall under the old covenant and others are in the era of the new covenant (p92).
- He asserts that Romans 10:17 (‘faith comes from hearing’) only applies to the New Testament (a few references, including p271), though Paul makes no distinction between testaments or covenants—and clearly believes that the Old Testament can make us wise for salvation (2 Timothy 3:15).
- He insists that God never punishes a believer for his sins in the new covenant—a difficult case to defend in the light of what we find in Acts 5:1-11; 1Corinthians 11:30 or Hebrews 12:4-11. When Prince deals with the last example, he advances the bizarre theory that the word refers to child discipline only (p65ff).
- When interpreting Paul’s thorn in the flesh he denies it is a sickness but rather a personality that troubles us, using fanciful word association (‘pain in the neck’) to make his case (p70).
- He claims that God must have supernaturally enlivened the bodies of Cleopas and his companion to walk to Emmaus and then back, a total of fourteen miles.
- He comments that the bronze serpent in the wilderness signifies judgment because bronze is the metal and colour of judgment (p202). A few pages later he says wood is a symbol of humanity (p208).
- He describes at length David’s great efforts to bring the ark of the covenant back to Jerusalem—even though the ark, up to that point, had never been in Jerusalem.
- He wrongly states that Moses’ first miracle was turning the Nile to blood.
- He produces a completely new and fanciful idea that the command to the Laodiceans to be neither hot or cold but not lukewarm in Revelation 3 is about not mixing old and new covenants.
The style of Prince’s book is also concerning. From time to time he parades what he claims is revelation from God to him for understanding the Bible. Yet he systematically ignores passages that do not fit his understanding. Perhaps God has spoken to him, but this verges on arrogance or pride. He is not shy of claiming he is no fool; or reminding us of times God has used him to great effect; or telling us about his worldwide ministry. His illustrations mostly commend himself in some way. His book cover is a portrait of himself. While Prince’s theology claims to be God-focussed, it is hard to avoid the concern that the book centres a bit too much on Prince himself.
Prince’s general worldview is that Christians will be successful. That is clear in his subtitle and opening chapter. ‘If you are a businessman, God wants you to have a prosperous business’ (p1). Such a prosperity gospel framework (pp21, 23 also) is itself far from biblical [TGCA: See Paul Barker’s series on blessing here]. Where is the call to suffer and be persecuted for the gospel’s sake? Where is the call to imitate the giving up of life like Jesus did? Such an insidious worldview is popular, because it plays on human greed but is far from biblical. It is part of the deception of this book.
Prince strays towards what Bonhoeffer called ‘cheap grace’: grace that comes without a genuine call to discipleship. Although he rejects that charge, and says that anyone embracing grace properly will not desire to sin (a fair comment), his lack of interest in, or comment on, the New Testament’s ethical demands speaks otherwise.
Prince sets himself up as an astute interpreter of the Bible, but he is far from it. He is simplistic, selective, deceptive and shows ignorance of nuance, balance and complexity. His argument rightly directs us to grace and Jesus but wrongly interprets it, and thus endangers his readers.
(This article was written in 2016 for the Journal of the Anglican Church of Myanmar)