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. 5
The prosperity of fools shall destroy them. (Prov. 1:32, AV).
4. The prosperity of sinners usually renders the means of grace (which should reclaim and reform them) ineffectual, and consequently their destruction is remediless. The means of grace are internal or external: internal, in the motions of the Holy Spirit, and the convictions and excitations of conscience; external, in the ministry of the word, and the counsels of faithful friends; all of which are usually made frustrate and inefficacious by the vices and lusts of the prosperous. This occurs in the following ways:
a. Prosperity makes sinners more incapable of receiving the heavenly impressions of the Spirit, and obstinate in resisting his gracious working. The flesh and the Spirit are contrary (see Gal. 5:17), and accordingly as the carnal appetite has dominion and overrules in men, such is their opposition to his restraints from evil, or his motions to what is whole and good. The sensual have not the Spirit (see Jude 19). They willfully refuse to give admission to Him, when by inward impulses He solicits them; and they have a stubborn and active contrariety to His attributes and gracious operations.
He is styled “The Spirit of power, and love, and a sound mind” (II Tim. 1:7). He communicates a sacred sovereign virtue to the soul, whereby the irregular passions are reduced to the obedience of the sanctified mind, and the reigning power of sin is dissolved. He is a free spirit, and restores the soul to true and perfect liberty, by enlarging the will, and making it commensurate with the divine will: and from hence it is the inseparable character of a converted person, he is willing to do what God will have him do, and to be what God will have him be. But sensual persons, by the pleasant infusions of fervidity from the tempter, and carnal objects, have lost their power and desire of spiritual liberty, and resist the Holy Spirit when He offers to break the bands of their lusts. The Spirit in converting the soul, inspires it with heavenly love to God for the ever-satisfying beauty of His perfections; and from love proceeds intellectual delight in communion with Him, in affectionate ascents to Him, and His gracious descents to the soul. But the sensual are fastened in the mire of their sordid pleasures, and can take no heavenly flight, and relish no divine comforts. The Spirit produces a sound mind, to judge sincerely of things as they are. And from hence the corrupting vanities of the world lose their attractive charms, and eternal things appear in their reality and excellency, and are chosen and sought with persevering diligence. But the sensual heart is a perpetual furnace, whose smoke darkens the mind, that it cannot discover sublime and heavenly excellencies; and whose impure heart fires the will, that it is earnest in the pursuit of fleshly pleasures.
Briefly, nothing does more quench the Spirit in His illuminating, quickening, and attractive operations, than sensuality: and nothing more heightens sensuality, and increases the averseness of carnal men to the holy Law of God, and makes their conversion more difficult than prosperity. Indeed, the Spirit of God can by effectual grace convert the most unprepared habituate sinner, the most obstinate enemy of holiness. He can melt the most rocky stubborn heart, into a holy softness and compliance with its duty, for creating power is of infallible efficacy. There are some objects and miracles of divine grace that are the everlasting monuments of its glorious power in subduing the most fierce violence of reactive to the extent of their power. The winds blow with all their force, and the sun enlightens the air with all its luster.
However, the Holy Spirit is an intelligent and voluntary agent, whose power in working is regulated by His will, and directed by His wisdom. There are some things repugnant to the divine attributes, that it is impossible God should do them: the apostle saith, that God cannot lie, for it is contrary to his truth, one of His essential perfections. And it is impossible that He should do anything unbecoming His wisdom. He threatened the sensual world, “My Spirit shall not always strive with Man, for he is flesh” (Gen. 6:3); that is, corrupt and indulgent to his fleshly appetites, and always opposing and controlling the pure motions of the Spirit. We read that our Savior “could do no mighty works in his own country because of their unbelief” (Mark 6:5): Not as if their infidelity abated His divine power, but they were unprepared to receive benefit by them, his miracles would have been cast away upon such unconvincable persons. Who will sow the barren sands, or water dead plants, or give a rich cordial to a furious patient that will spill it on the ground? And it is an act of justice to deprive sinners of those inspirations which they have so long resisted. Those who are tender and tractable, and unfeignedly resign up themselves to His conduct in the ways of life, shall receive more powerful influences to perfect the blessed work begun in them: “He will give more grace to the humble” (I Peter 5:5). But those who are so far from valuing His graces and comforts, that should be received with the highest respect, that they ungratefully despise them, and rebel against His motions and counsels, He righteously deserts. Stephen in his charge against the Jews to complete the aggravation of their sins, reproaches them; “You stiff-necked, and uncircumcised in heart, and ears, you always resisted the Holy Spirit” (Acts 7:51). The obstinate sinner rebels against His authority, and condemns His mercy. The tempter with his charms is presently entertained, as the devils easily entered into the swine; but the Holy Spirit with His gracious offers is rejected. Wretched indignity! Rather to obey a slave and an enemy, than the lawful sovereign.
The saints grieve the Spirit of God by a willful neglect of His assisting grace, and fall into presumptuous sins. And as grief, when it is oppressing, causes the spirits to retire to the heart, and nature is as it were shut up in its springs, and obstructs them from communicating agility and vivacity in the ordinary operations of the senses: thus the Holy Spirit when grieved withdraws, and there follows a disconsolate eclipse and interruption of His reviving quickening presence. But the indulgent, habituate sinners, provoke Him finally to leave them to their own lusts. It is true, His deserting them is usually gradual, as in a consumptive person the stomach, the color, the strength decline by degrees, till nature sinks irrecoverably under the disease; so the motions of the Spirit in those who have often repelled them, are not so frequent and vigorous as before; His aftercalls are weaker, wasting, and dying every day, till His total withdrawing from them. How fearful and hopeless is the state of such a sinner? This spiritual judgment always proceeds from inexorable severity, and ends in the eternal ruin of sinners. For without the Spirit’s supernatural working, they can never be renewed to repentance, never reconciled to God. They may for a time live in a voluptuous course, or follow the business of the world; and a little breath may separate between them and hell, but they shall at last die in their sins, in an unpardonable state forever. It is said of the Jews, “They rebelled and vexed His Holy Spirit, therefore He turned to be their enemy, and fought against them” (Isa. 63:10).
b. The convictions and excitations of conscience are prevented, or made ineffectual by the prosperity of sinners. Conscience is the applicative mind that respects practice; it directs in our duty, both by inhibitions from what is evil, and by instigations to what is good; and by comparing our actions with rule, testifies our innocence or guilt, and approves or condemns us.
This intellectual ray was planted in us by the wise God in our creation, and extended to the divine law, the object and end of it, to keep us to our duty. And since our revolt, it is sanctified as the vital principle of conversion to God, the powerful means of rescuing the lapsed soul from its prostitution to the flesh, and recovering it to a temper of purity becoming its original excellence, and the relation to the Father of spirits. It is true, the law of God is the primary rule of our duty, and the Holy Spirit is the efficient of our renovation; but the enlightened conscience is the immediate rule, and the immediate mover of us to return to our duty. And if conscience, which is the eye of the soul, be covered with a film of ignorance, if it be blurred with the false glitterings of the world, if it totally neglects its office, or makes but a cold application of saving terrors that may control the licentious appetites, if it be disregarded, when it suggests and excites to our duty, the sinner is hardened and settled in his lost state. Now, prosperity ferments the sensual afflictions, that obscure the light of conscience, that corrupt its judgment, that smother and suppress its dictates, or despise and slight them, so that it is powerless, though constituted God’s deputy to order our lives.
Affected ignorance is the usual concomitant of sensual lusts: for the enlightened conscience will convince, and condemn men for their pollutions, and force them here to feel the beginning of sorrows, and thereby make them apprehensive what the issues and consummation will be hereafter, and this will cast an aspersion of bitterness upon their sweet sins, and lessen the full pleasure of them. From hence our Savior tell us, “Everyone that loves to do evil hates the light, neither comes to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved” (John 3:20); that is, by the instructed and awakened conscience. Men love darkness to cover their nakedness and foul deformity. They are averse from knowing their duty, and will not search, lest they should discover such terrible truths that cross their sensual humor. The apostle foretells (in 2 Peter 3:5) that, “scoffers should come in the last days, who are willingly ignorant” of the beginning and end of the world, as if there were no Divine Maker of all things, who has the power to destroy them, and consequently no judge to whom men must be accountable for their disobedience to His laws: The assent to the most evident absurdity, that all things were and shall continue in the same tenor: and the cause of their willing ignorance is insinuated in the character that describes them, that they might walk after their own lusts, more securely, freely, and joyfully.
Sensual lusts do not only hinder men’s search after knowledge, but obscure the light of conscience, and corrupt his judgment. There is such an intimate communion between the soul and body, that interchangeably they corrupt one another: the sins of the flesh sink into the spirit, and corrupt the moral principals, from whence the sensible conscience springs of good and evil. And the sins of the spirit, infidelity, incogitancy, error, security, break out in the deeds of the body, and make the flesh more outrageous in its desires. Paul declares that “unto the defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure; but even their mind and conscience is defiled” (Titus 1:15). A purged heart is requisite for a clear mind; but where lust dwells, it taints and perverts the practical judgment, from whence so many disorders follow in life. The natural conscience in many cases, in its simple judgment of things, sincerely declares what is to be done, and what to be avoided; but when compounded and stained with a tincture of sensuality, it judges according to the desires. The rebellious Israelites in the wilderness are described, “It is a people that do err in their hearts” (Psalms 57:10): The heart was the erroneous fountain of all their miscarriages, and forty years instruction could do them no good. Those who are given up to carnal delights, and are in a confederacy with the gross senses, even their directive and judging faculty is carnal in its apprehensions. A reprobate mind, and vile affections, are naturally and judicially the cause and effect of one another. Even natural truths that are plain and bright are strangely darkened through the perverseness and crookedness of men’s hearts, as is the essential distinction between moral good and evil, between virtue and vice, and the belief of a judgment to come (that is inseparably connected with it). Men wish according to their carnal interest; and what they wish, they would fain believe; and as when there was “no king in Israel, everyone did what was good in his own eyes” (Judges 17:6), so if there were no after-reckoning, men would without the check of conscience, follow the wills of the flesh. Therefore they are atheists in desire, and if not seared by the pangs of a throbbing conscience, will be so in their thoughts.
The heathens cancelled the law of nature, and transgressed all the rules of duty and decorum; they securely indulged those lusts that are a derogation and debasement to the reasonable creature, and make men below men. The reason of this prodigious degeneracy was, their manners corrupted their minds. Paul charges the Ephesians, not to “walk as the other gentiles, in the vanity of their minds, having the understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God, through the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart; who being, past feeling, have given themselves over to lasciviousness, to work all uncleanness with greediness” (Ephesians 4:17-19). A dead conscience, and a dissolute life, are inseparable. And how many that are surrounded with the celestial beams of the gospel, are as impure and impenitent, as those in the black night of paganism? They stand at the entrance of the bottomless pit, yet do not smell the brimstone that enrages the fire there: the flames of their lusts, have seared their consciences to a desperate degree of hardness and insensibility. Of such the apostle speaks, “But these, as natural brute beasts, made to be taken and destroyed, speak evil of the things they understand not, and shall utterly perish in their own corruption; and shall receive the reward of unrighteousness, as they that count it pleasure to riot in the day time; spots they are, and blemishes, sporting themselves with their own deceptions, while they feast with you” (2 Peter 2:12-13). They violated all the prescriptions and restraints of the natural reason, they had lost all the ingenuous bashfulness of the humane nature, and pleased themselves in their false licentious principles, whereby they endeavored to justify their actions, and set a superficial gloss upon their foul deformities.
Now, a seduced and seducing mind, make the conversion of a sinner most difficult. While the judgment condemns what the affections approve, men are not so invincibly and irrecoverably lost; the enlightened conscience is an earnest of their return to their duty. But when the Spirit is deceived, the flesh always prevails; and men are most dissolute, corrupt, and desperately wicked. Our Savior says, “If the light that is in us be darkness, how great is that darkness?” (Matt. 6:23). How disorderly and ruinous will the course be? “If the salt has lost its savor, wherewith shall it be salted?” (Matt. 5:13). If the conscience, that should be as salt to preserve the soul from tainting pleasure, be corrupted, wherewith can it be restored?
Fleshly lusts smother and suppress the dictates and testimony of the enlightened conscience, so that they are not influential upon the life. The dictates of conscience are in a direct line, instructing and advising men in their duty: the testimony is by reflection upon their errors from the divine rule, and condemning them for their guilt.
Through prosperity, the dictates of the enlightened conscience are suppressed. It is the observation of the philosopher, concerning sensual persons, that they have reason in the faculty and habit, but not in the use and exercise. The practical understanding declares our duty, that it is absolutely necessary to obey God; and men assent to it in general: but when this principle is to be applied to practice in particulars that are ungrateful to the corrupt will, lust draws a veil over it, that it may not appear to check the sensual inclinations. While the mind, seduced by the senses, is intent upon the pleasing object, it does not actually and strongly consider the divine command; and conscience is brought under the control of the impetuous passions. The light of reason, as well as of divine revelation, discovers that the blessed beginning, and the happy end of man, is to be like God, and to enjoy His love; but when there is a competition between His favor, and the things of the world, the carnal heart suppresses the dictates of the mind, and makes a blindfold choice of things present and sensible, as if man were all earth, and there were no spark of heaven within him.
The heathens are charged by Paul that “they hold the truth in unrighteousness” (Rom. 1:18). The notion of God as the supreme lawgiver, and to be obeyed according to His law impressed upon conscience, was a natural truth, and should have reigned in their hearts and lives; but they would not suffer it to exert its power in ordering their actions.
The testimony of conscience is suppressed and neglected by the prosperous sinner. If conscience be in some degree righteous, and faithful in its office, and “reproves him, and sets his sins in order before his eyes” (Ps. 50:21); he will not regard its earnest warnings. He is as unwilling to hear that sincere witness in his bosom, as Ahab was the inflexible prophet Micaiah; of whom he said, “I hate him, for he does not prophesy good of me, but evil” (I Kings 22:8). Prosperity affords many diversions, whereby the sinner shifts off conversing with the conscience, and remains engaged in his sinful state. “I hearkened, and heard”, said the prophet Jeremiah, “but they spoke not aright; no man repented of his wickedness, saying ‘What have I done?’” (Jer. 8:6). What foul, ignominious acts, how defiling and debasing of my soul, how offensive to the pure eyes of God, who is so glorious in majesty, and dreadful in power? Such a sight of sin would make the conscience boil, and chill the passions, and urge sinners to return to their duty. But while they prosper, they are obstinate in rebellion; “every one turned to his course, as the horse rushes into the battle” (Jer. 8:6). As the horse when enflamed, by the noise and other accidents of war, furiously rushes to his own destruction; thus sinners when they encounter alluring objects that divert the mind from serious consideration, either they do not discern, or will not observe the dangers before them, and with as little consideration, and as much fierceness as the beasts venture upon their own destruction. Conversion is the product of the most serious and sad thoughts, from which a prosperous sinner is most averse.