A Classic Study:
The Danger of Prosperity
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A Classic Study by William Bates (1635–1699)
[Here we continue a study by the eminent English Puritan William Bates, concerning the danger of prosperity. Mr. Bates is setting forth reasons that prosperity is dangerous to the believer. ]—Ed.
The Danger of Prosperity, pt. 7
The prosperity of fools shall destroy them. (Prov. 1:32, AV).
3. Prosperity renders men averse from suffering for the sake of Christ, when they are called to testimony to His truth, and support His cause. Self-denial, with respect to the present life, and all the ornaments, comforts, and endearments of it, is absolutely necessary by the law of Christianity, when the preserving of it is contrary to the glory of Christ. “Then said Jesus to his disciples, ‘If any man will come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me’” (Matt. 16:24). The cross implies all kinds and degrees of suffering, from the least afflicting evil, to death with ignominy and torment. And how just is it, if we expect to be glorified by His sufferings that we should willingly suffer for His Glory. At the first preaching of the gospel, many were “offended at the cross of Christ”: they esteemed it folly to expect eternal life from one that was put to death, and that He should bring them to the highest glory, who suffered in the lowest weakness. Our Savior was concealed from their carnal eyes by the overshadowing train of His afflictions. And the cross of Christ, which is to be voluntarily and obediently taken up by His disciples, is a greater offence to the World, than that to which He was nailed. It is a harder lesson that we must obtain glory by our own sufferings, that of ours: In the first, it only encounters with false prejudices, and vain shadows that darken that mighty mystery; but in the second, it must overcome the natural love of this life, and the pleasures of it, which is so predominant in men. The alliance to the body, and the allurements of the world, are the causes of forsaking religion, when the owning of it will cost us dear. And those who enjoy prosperity, are most easily terrified from their duty to Christ; the account of which is open to reason, both from some general considerations, and from special, that respect sufferings for religion. The general considerations are two:
a. The living in pleasures and soft delicacy, enervates the masculine vigor of the Spirit, and damps resolution, that it presently faints when assaulted with difficulties. The spirit of a man, encouraged by just and wise and generous reasons, will stand firmly under heavy troubles: But fear breaks the native strength of mind, and like a sudden secret palsy, that slackens the nerves, and loosens the joints, causes a trembling and incapacity of bearing evils. The least glimpse of danger, makes the fearful retire: like some, who are apprehensive of the rising winds, will not venture any further in a boat than that one oar may be on the shore, while the other strikes in the water. The timorous, when afflictions attend the faithful profession of the gospel, usually are treacherous to God, to their souls, and to the truth. They are treacherous to God (whose servants they are by the dearest titles) by contradicting their duty, which is to suffer cheerfully for His Gospel and His glory when called forth. They are treacherous to their souls, by preferring the interest of the perishing flesh, before the happiness of the immortal part. They betray the truth, by exposing it to a suspicion of falsehood: for as the confirming religion by sufferings does most effectually recommend it to the belief and affections of others; so the denial of it, or the withdrawing our testimony in times of danger, will incline others to judge that it is not the truth, or at least of no great moment, since the professors of it do not think it worth their suffering. How many faint-hearted persons have thus betrayed the son of God again, and their consciences, and their religion? Their faith that sparkled in prosperous times, when troubles come is a quenched coal, raked up in the pale ashes of distrustful fears, without any divine light or heat.
b. Prosperity makes men unthoughtful and careless of evils that may happen. “I said in my prosperity, ‘I shall never be moved’” (Ps. 30:6). Carnal joy (the affliction of prosperity) and folly are nearly allied, and flatter men as if their ease and calm would never be disturbed: and by supine negligence, they are unprovided for the encountering with evils. According to our circumspection in prosperity, such is our courage in adversity; and by how much the less affliction is expected, so much the more are we perplexed when it seizes upon us. The last day that shall strangely surprise the world in its deep security, is compared to lightning for its suddenness and terror. Our Savior therefore plainly has foretold, that the cross is the appendix of the gospel, that it is the property of error to persecute, and the lot of truth to be persecuted: He counsels His disciples to imitate a wise builder, that computes the expense before he begins the fabric, lest having laid the foundation, and not being able to finish it, he be exposed to the just censure of folly. So Christians are to forecast the injuries and troubles they are likely to suffer for religion, lest when the tempest threatens, they shamefully desert it. And how heavy will their doom be? “The fearful”, that are not storm-proof and the liars, that openly renounce what they believe, and process what they do not believe “shall be with infidels, idolaters, and murderers, cast into the lake that burns with fire and brimstone” (Rev. 21:8).
The special reasons why prosperity makes men so disposed to quit the truth in times of danger are because it weakens the principles from whence Christian magnanimity springs; and those are unfeigned faith and divine love. As in natural things, the formative virtue determines the matter to such a being and disposes to such operations in proportion to the principles from which it results: So in moral things, the soul is disposed and regulated in its actings correspondingly to its principles, and is either carnal or spiritual. The universal principle of carnal persons is to be happy here: their eyes are ever engaged upon, and their desires ever thirsting after sensual satisfaction: “Who will show us any good?” (Ps. 4:6). And by consequence their main care is to obtain and secure temporal things, the materials of their happiness. The supernatural principle of a saint is to please God, and enjoy His favor. As men believe they love, and as they love they live.
Unfeigned faith of the rewards of the gospel, is necessary to keep a Christian steady in his course, through all the storms and tides of this mutable world. “It is a faithful saying, ‘If we die with Him, we shall also live with Him. If we suffer with Him, we shall reign with Him’” (II Tim. 2:12). The apostle usually prefaces with that strong assurance, “It is a faithful saying”, when the truth is of eminent importance, and contrary to the sentiments of carnal nature, “If we die with Him, we shall also live with Him”. Our Savior dedicated martyrdom in His own person: His death was a ransom for us to God, and a sealing testimony of the gospel to men: “He witnessed before Pontius Pilate a good confession” (I Tim. 6:13). The terror of the Roman tribunal, nor the rage of the Jews, could not make Him retract the divine truth which He had so often declared, that He was the Son of God, come from heaven to save the world: and when the cross with its infamy and horror was in His view, He avowed His heavenly kingdom. And all those “who suffer with Him”, for His truth, and in conformity to His pattern, with His meekness and patience, His charity and constancy, shall reign with Him. And what is more powerful for the consolation and establishment of Christians, than that their sufferings for Christ shall end in glory. “This is the victory that overcomes the world, even our faith” (I John 5:4).
The heathens despised the hopes of Christians as wretched illusions, and with impious scorn upbraided them for their constancy under persecutions. Unbelief is blind and cannot see beyond this world to the eternal state. But faith is the blessed redeemer, opens a prospect into the world to come, so full of glory, that no person that has an understanding and will to discourse and choose, if he steadfastly believes it, but must despise all the evils that the wit and strength of persecutors can inflict in comparison of it. “I reckon”, says the Apostle, “that the sufferings of the present life”, in all their kinds and degrees, “are not to be compared with the glory that shall be revealed” (Rom. 8:18). Enlightened Christians esteemed their sufferings for the cause of God, not arguments of His weakness, but His wisdom, to exercise and try their loyalty and cordial obedience before He rewarded them; and had reason to admire His providence, not to suspect His power and love. They knew that the power of tyrants could only reach the body, the vile, frail, and mortal part of man; but the precious soul was entirely exempted from their rage; and faith assured them of a glorious resurrection after death. The body of a martyr shall be revived as a phoenix out of its ashes; when the body of a persecutor shall be quickened, as a serpent out of a dunghill, the one to be glorified, the other tormented forever. The belief of this made them extremely valiant in the face of all their threatening cruel enemies. But “the evil heart of unbelief, causes a departure from the living God” (Heb. 3:12). He that suspects God’s fidelity in His promises, will suspend his own: nature will shrink at the first sight of imminent dangers. An infidel, that lives as if he were all body, and no immortal soul, judges the loss of the present life, and the comforts of it, as his utter undoing and total perishing. He has an appearance of reason to secure his present possessions, whatever becomes of religion; for he expects no future good that will infinitely more than countervail his present loss: and that prosperity inclines men to atheism and infidelity, has been proved before.
The love of God inspires believers with a heavenly fortitude, to endure the worse evils that may befall them for His sake. “Perfect love casts out fear” (I John 4:18), keeps its supremacy inviolate in the midst of the greatest dangers. Love is an active invincible affection, “as strong as death” (Song of Solomon 8:6), that none can vanquish. The love of God is a never-dying flame in the hearts of the saints, because it depends upon the unchangeable love of God to them. “We love Him, because He first loved us” (I John 4:19). Love esteems God as the greatest reward. A saint does not so much love God for heaven (though a place of inconceivable glory) as heaven for God, because He there reveals His perfections to His people. This holy love makes the Christians faithful and obsequious to Christ, and to prefer His honor incomparably before the present world. The martyrs of the divine courage were animated by this holy affection: they “loved not their lives unto the death” (Rev. 12:11), but cheerfully offered them as a sacrifice to His praise. Love kindled in them a sacred vehemence, in despising all the glittering temptations of the world. Love inspired them with a victorious patience, to blunt the edge of cruelty. They never repented the choice of His religion, but rejoiced when His glory was set forth by their ignominy, and when their love to Christ appeared in its radiancy and vigor through their sufferings. Live is the principle of constancy, by which religion reigns on earth, and is crowned in heaven.
On the contrary, when riches, honors, and pleasures, are the idols of men’s heads and hearts, the chief objects of their esteem and affections, they will sacrifice their souls rather than lose the world, their dear felicity. Therefore, John earnestly dehorts Christians, “Love not the World, neither the things that are in the world. If any man loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (I John 2:15): they are utterly inconsistent; partly because the heart cannot be entirely set upon contrary objects, and partly because love to the one requires what is directly contrary to love to the other. From hence James vehemently upbraids carnal professors, “Ye adulterers and adulteresses, know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? Whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God” (James 4:4). The Lord is the powerful star, whose aspect he regards, and though with the dishonor and displeasure of God, he will by irreligious compliance secure his temporal interests. The pure refined truth of the Gospel that has passed the fiery trial, he will corrupt and debase by carnal temperaments. The precious truth so dearly bought by the blood of martyrs, he will vilely sell for the things of this world. He will by degrees turn persecutor of those who steadfastly own the truth. The love of the world so strangely enchants and infects the mind, that a false religion which a man did abhor from, yet when recommended by secular advantages, will appear tolerable, then eligible, then necessary; and consequently the divine truth must be suppressed that contradicts it.
There are such frequent examples of this in every age, that to insist upon many particular instances, were to tell great numbers of the dead to prove that men are mortal. The young man that so earnestly addressed himself to Christ for his direction how to obtain eternal life, when commanded to “give all his estate to the poor, and to follow Christ” (see Matt. 19:21): He would not gain at so dear a rate celestial treasures, but went away sorrowful. Whereupon our Savior declared with solemnity to His disciples, “Verily I say unto you, that a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven” (see Matt. 19:23). We read of two tribes of the Israelites, that chose their inheritance of this side of Jordan, and would not have a share in the land of Canaan: thus the earthly-minded prefer the present world, the object of their choice and love, before the heavenly Canaan. The ecclesiastical historian relates, that in the time of persecution by Decius, the rich men among the Christians, were most easily and miserably soiled: the love of the world was a dangerous earnest in their hearts, of their revolting back to pagan idolatry, and the bondage of Satan. And in the time of the Aryan persecution, how many who by their titles of office were specially obliged to be valiant for the truth and to contend earnestly for the faith; yet did accommodate their prefession to their aspiring ambition and greedy avarice? The standard of their religion was the pitch of the state: they had a political faith, and appeared either orthodox or Aryan, as the public favor shined upon truth or heresy. They robbed our Savior of the honor of His deity rather than part with their believed dignities and riches.
So powerful are worldly ties in those who mind earthly things. Great force is requisite to pluck up a tree that has its roots spread and deeply fastened in the earth; and it cannot be so entirely separated, but that part of the roots will be broken: thus when the affections are deeply set in the world, and by pleasures and riches fastened to it, how hardy is it rent from it! Every fiber of the heart is broken with sorrow, like Lot’s wife, when by an angel forced out of Sodom, yet cast a lingering affectionate look after it, and was turned into a pillar of salt. The separation is as bitter as the possession is sweet: and none are more unwillingly divorced from the world than those who enjoy the confluence of earthly happiness. Not when secular interest outweighs duty, when apparent danger induces to dent the truth of Christ; how terrible and unavoidable will be the punishment of that disloyalty? Our Savior’s threatening is universal: “Whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I deny before my Father which is in heaven” (Matt. 10:33). A most righteous and dreadful retribution: they denied Him as their Lord, and He denies them as His servants. They usurped the title of Christians, the relation of His disciples, and in the last day He will publicly disown them. When that sad sentence shall come from their judge, “Depart you cursed, I know you not,” what confusion, what anguish will seize upon them! They shall be banished from His glorious kingdom, excommunicated from His blessed society, and tormented with the rebellious angels forever. It is true, this universal and peremptory threatening, must be understood with an exception of those who after their falling away are restored by repentance. Sometimes a Christian that has deliberately and entirely devoted himself to Christ, that has sincerely resolved rather to part with his life, than that for which life is worth the enjoying; yet by strong temptations has been fainthearted and denied the truth: Like one that disannuls in the height of a fever, the will be made in his composed mind: But afterwards such have resumed new courage, and have, by enduring the sharpest sufferings, confirmed the truth, and ascended to heaven in a fiery chariot.
Lastly, the prosperity of sinners is the great temptation to delay repentance till their state is desperate. Nothing fills hell with so many lost souls, as the putting off repentance till hereafter. How many diseases would be cured in time, if they threatened present death? But their malignity being of a slow operation, they are despised as not worth the trouble of a cure until they are desperate. It is in spiritual diseases, as it is in those of the body: For sin that is a sickness unto death, might be prevented by speedy repentance; but many, not apprehending present danger, neglect the present remedy until they are ruined. “Today if you will hear his voice, harden not your hearts” (Heb. 3:15). The command respects the season as well as the duty. As our obedience must be entire without reserve, so it must be present without delay, even in our early age, and continued in the whole tenor of our life. The worm of conscience sometimes nips security, and there is a strange union of contrarieties in the breast of a sinner, that makes him inexcusable and uncurable. He complains of the bondage to his lusts, yet he takes pleasure of it; he is convinced it will be destructive, yet voluntarily continues in that sweet captivity. If conscience be troublesome, he pacifies it with an intention to reform hereafter, and thinks that a future repentance will be sufficient to prepare for a future judgment. And none are so easily and willingly deceived to their everlasting ruin by this pretense, as those who enjoy the present world. Prosperity makes them forgetful of the grave, and human vicissitudes, and hardens them in deep security. It was the divine prayer of Moses, “So teach us to number our days, as to apply our hearts unto wisdom” (Ps. 90:12), implying that the great cause of men’s destructive folly, is from not reflecting upon the shortness and uncertainty of their time here. Death is certain to the old, and life uncertain to the young. There are many back doors to the grave, and men are led surprisingly thither. The time of their residence here is fixed by the divine determination, and concealed from their eyes. How many in their youth and prosperity have presumed upon a long life, yet unexpectedly have returned to their Earth; as a wall covered with ivy, that falls on a sudden with its green ornaments, by its weight and weakness. The hour of death, is the hour of men’s destiny forever. There is no space of repentance in the interval between death and judgment; but the soul immediately after its departure, receives a decisive irrevocable doom, that is in part executed, and shall be public and entirely executed at the last day. Yet men boldly venture to continue in their pleasant sins, upon the forlorn hope of a season to repent hereafter. Astonishing enormous folly! As if they were assured of time, and the divine grace. And thus it is full proved how fatal and destructive prosperity is to the wicked.