Kim asked, “The Word is filled with God’s Promises, but how do we know which ones are ours to ‘claim’ and which ones are given directly and solely to a specific person? For instance, promising a barren Sarai that she would bear a child in her 90’s. Or that Mary would have a virgin birth, etc. I have heard the ‘Name it and Claim it’ but to be honest, I don’t believe EVERY promise is ours to claim, except the promise of his love, faithfulness, and presence. Some may think that is a lack of faith, but I believe God to be just as good if he says no to the promises I want over my life to be yes’s.”
(My reply): This is a great question, Kim! There is a lot of teaching that falls into the category of “name it and claim it,” and much of it is wrong. You’re wise to be skeptical; it’s not a lack of faith at all. To answer your question, I’m going to use this outline:
1. What is “name it and claim it?”
2. Modern misinterpretation of “promise.”
3. Specific and universal promises.
4. The character of God.
5. What God wants.
1. WHAT IS “NAME IT AND CLAIM IT?”
“Name it and claim it” is a phrase of fairly modern origin. It’s used most often by the “prosperity preachers” and those who listen to them. It shows up in some prayers, and sounds similar to this:
[Sample Prayer # 1]
“Father, in your word you have promised that those who believe in you and are faithful to you will never be put to shame. You have promised to pour out your blessings on your beloved servants. And now, Father, I’ve started my new business called Cookies By Carl, and I claim your promises. I ask you to keep your word to me and bless my business. Help it to grow in order that it might bring glory to your name. When people see that your faithful servant Carl has a prosperous business and gives you the credit, they’ll be moved to faith and will all get saved! Thank you! Amen.”
Sample Prayer # 1 sounds a bit sarcastic, I know. Do you think I’m being overly critical? Consider this passage: “Jesus answered, ‘If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.'” (Matthew 19:21)
Have you ever heard someone apply the “name it and claim it” concept to Jesus’ promise in Matthew 19:21? Let’s see how it sounds:
[Sample Prayer # 2]
“Father, in your word you have promised that those who sell all their possessions and give to the poor will have treasure in heaven. And now, Father, I’ve sold everything and used the money to help the poor. I ask you to keep your word to me and give me treasure in heaven. Thank you! Amen.”
Sample Prayer # 2 is real. But it’s not commonly taught.
I rest my case. The “name it and claim it” preachers in modern America are distorting the gospel beyond all recognition. Their hypocrisy is obvious to unbelievers; that’s why unbelievers don’t like them. But their hypocrisy is totally lost on gullible believers looking for a fast way to economic security, easy romance, and painless child-rearing. We’re going to look at the promises in the Bible in an entirely different way.
2. MODERN MISINTERPRETATION OF “PROMISE”
When my wife Penney and I had small children, we used to have a green plastic box on the dinner table. It had a snap lid and gold lettering on it that said, “Precious Promises.” Inside the box were a bunch of little cards with Bible verses on them. Every day at dinner-time we would take the little card from the front of the stack, read the Bible verse out loud to the kids, and then move that promise to the back of the stack. I don’t particularly regret this, but I want you to understand that, by itself, this act provides a distorted view of the nature of God.
We have been lulled into thinking that “promise” means “blessing.” In fact, some of God’s promises are clearly threats. There are many examples: the plagues promised to the Egyptians in Genesis, the Blessing and the Curse in Deuteronomy, Jesus’ teaching about the end times in Matthew, and the seven trumpets and seven bowls in the Revelation to John.
Okay, so now we understand that God’s promises may or may not be blessings. The initial question remains. How do we know which promises in the Bible were intended for everyone, which promises were intended for specific groups, and which promises were intended for specific individuals?
3. SPECIFIC AND UNIVERSAL PROMISES.
The answer is simpler than you might expect. If the promise was made to one person, it applies to that one person. If the promise was made to a group, it applies to that group. If a promise was made to the church at Smyrna, it applies to the church at Smyrna (for example, see Revelation 2:10). If the promise was made to God’s people, it applies to God’s people. If the promise was made to everyone, it applies to everyone.
Let me give you an example of how this simple principle of interpretation is often ignored. Paul wrote these words to the church at Philippi: “And my God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:19)
Sometimes this verse is interpreted as being a promise to all churches and all Christians. Well, if that’s the case, why do some churches go broke and shut down? Why do Christians in some countries face terrible persecution and death? Why did the Apostle Paul suffer? Why was the Apostle Peter crucified? There are two possible “remedies” to this dilemma. One is to say, “Oh, it means that in the end, when we go to heaven, we’ll have all our needs met.” But this interpretation ignores the context; read the fourth chapter of Philippians and you’ll see that Paul was specifically writing that God would reward the Philippians for their sacrificial generosity in sending money and assistance to him. The prosperity preachers are quick to jump on this: “If you give generously to our mission like the Philippians gave to Paul, you’ll be blessed enormously! Your new business, Cookies By Carl, will certainly be profitable!”
Foolishness! God has called you to a life of sacrifice and service, like Jesus – God has not dedicated himself to making your business go cash-flow positive in the second quarter.
The other “remedy” is to say that some churches fail, and some Christians suffer, because they don’t have enough faith. If they had faith like Paul was writing about in the church at Philippi, then they would be blessed like the Philippians. But don’t you see a problem here? Mother Teresa lived in poverty; is it because she lacked the faith to be appropriately blessed? Stephen was martyred at the end of Acts chapter 7. James the brother of John was killed by order of the king in Acts chapter 12. Did these really lack faith?
So what are we left with? How shall we interpret Philippians 4:19? With the simple, most straightforward, logical interpretation: Paul made the promise to the church at Philippi, and it applies to the church at Philippi. Specific promises are specific, and universal promises are universal. Read it as it’s written.
4. THE CHARACTER OF GOD.
In section 3 above, I de-bunked the notion that specific promises in the Bible can be taken to have universal application. In this section, I’m going to reverse myself, and show how some specific promises actually do have universal application. And – here’s the good part – I’m going to teach you how you can tell when a specific promise may be universally applied!
To do this, we need an example. Let’s use a very well-known promise from the New Testament: In Matthew 28:20 Jesus said, “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” In context, Jesus is talking specifically to the eleven disciples (Judas is no longer with them). So, applying the principle that I taught you in section 3, the promise of Jesus’ permanent presence only applies to them…
But we know better! This promise made by Jesus really does apply to everyone who comes to him. He really will be with you – always – forever. So what made the difference? How did we know that this promise applies not just to the eleven disciples, but to all disciples?
The answer is found in the character of God.
Throughout the Bible it is clearly taught that God is with his people. God is with you. No matter where you are, no matter what you’re going through – no matter how deep the valley, no matter how long the suffering – God is with you. You never face it alone.
So Jesus’ promise in Matthew 28:20 is a specific application of a universal promise. God’s presence is part of the character of God. But on that one day, a group of eleven men very desperately needed to hear reassurance of the promise spoken aloud to them by Jesus.
What I wrote in section 3 is still true. A specific promise in the Bible should be interpreted as applying to the specific person or group to whom the promise was made. But if that promise is consistent with the character of God, then it also applies to all people, everywhere, at all times.
Do you see? By reading the entire Bible, and not just bits and pieces, we can understand when a promise reflects the character of God, or when the promise is more narrowly focused. To use one of the examples you mentioned in your question, only Sarai was promised that she would have a baby when she was 90 years old. There is nothing in the rest of the Bible to indicate that God, by his character, intends for all 90 year-old women to have babies. I’m sensing a collective sigh of relief…
5. WHAT GOD WANTS.
God has, indeed, promised many good things to those who serve him. He has not promised you freedom from suffering, or wealth, or unbroken bliss. That would really be silly, since God himself suffers every day. But God has promised to give your life meaning and significance. God has promised to make you able to live a beautiful life in spite of what’s broken – what’s missing – what’s wrong – what’s been done – what’s been left undone. You can live a beautiful life in the midst of the pain – the poverty – the betrayal – the abandonment. You are not a slave to the lie, or the liar. You are not bound by the sin, the habit, the present, or the past.
Here is what God wants. God wants to go through your life with you. He wants to be with you and share every minute of every day. He longs to be there in the darkness, the loneliness, the despair… through the worst of your sin, the most painful of your circumstances, the pit of your failure, and the peak of your rebellion.
And that is why God promises you this: he will offer you his compassion, his love, his forgiveness, and his presence. Take hold of his promise! Take it!
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