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. 6
The prosperity of fools shall destroy them. (Prov. 1:32, AV).
2. The external means for converting sinners, are usually ineffectual upon them while they enjoy prosperity.
“The Gospel is the Power of God to salvation to them that believe” (Rom. 1:16), and the preaching of it is, by divine institution, the ordinary means of conversion. God could, by the immediate illumination of the mind, and influence upon the will and affections, convert sinners from the errors of their ways; but His wisdom and condescending goodness makes use of the ministry of men to convey the word of truth and life to the world. This way is very contagious, both to the compounded nature of man, by the senses to work upon the soul, and to the native freedom of his will: For though the supernatural agent infallibly changes the heart, yet the instrument can only direct and persuade men, as those who are endowed with intellectual and elective faculties; and thus the efficacy of divine grace is insinuated in a way suitable to the reasonable nature. The ministers are styled the light of the world, to discover to men their undone condition by sin, and to point out the way to their everlasting peace. Our blessed Redeemer saves the lost remnant of mankind by the sacred ministry; and where there are no Evangelical preachers sent, or only a doleful succession of blind guides—what Tertullian says of Scythia, a country that by the extremity of the cold is hard and dry, and perpetually barren—the hearts of men are frozen to their sins, there is no melting in the tears of true repentance, no holy heat, only their brutish lusts are ardent and active. But where the ambassadors of Christ are faithful and zealous to induce sinners to break off their sins by repentance, and to be reconciled to God, there are none more incapable of the sanctifying power of the gospel, than sinners in prosperity.
Pride, which is the vice of prosperity, makes them fierce and stubborn against the holy and strict rules of the word. “We will not hearken to Thee, but will certainly do whatsoever goes out of our own mouth” (Isaiah 44:16-17). If a faithful minister points out the inside of their foul souls, their uncomely passions are raised against him. If he recommends the earnest study of holiness, and godliness, they entertain his counsels with derision and disdain. Those to whom the dearest and most affectionate honor is due, being spiritual fathers and physicians, are despised in their persons and office, by fools in their prosperity. They condemn what they do not understand, and affect not to understand what condemns them. They hear sermons to censure, and censure that they may not be troubled by them. What hope is there of reducing haughty scorners to the obedience of the gospel? Even the miracles and ministry of our Savior were without success upon the Pharisees, who “heard and derided Him” (see Luke 16:14). If such are convinced in their minds, and not disarmed of their pride and self-will, they refuse to yield themselves to the Lord. Meekness is a requisite qualification for receiving the Word. We are directed to “lay aside all filthiness, and superfluity of naughtiness; and with meekness to receive the engrafted word, that is able to save our souls” (James 1:21). We are prepared for Divine grace, by a serious sense of our want for it, and earnest desire to obtain it. “He fills the hungry with good things and the rich He sends empty away” (Luke 1:53). None are so insensible of their spiritual wants, and averse from the humble acknowledgement of them, as the prosperous sinner; and none more unlikely to obtain spiritual riches.
Infidelity that is occasioned and confirmed by prosperity in sin, renders the gospel ineffectual to the salvation of men. “The word preached did not profit the Jews, not being mixed with faith in them that heard it” (Heb. 4:12). A steadfast belief of divine revelations is the principle of obedience: without it, motives of the highest strain are ineffectual. Eternal things are not within the prospect of sense, and though set forth with the clearest evidence of reason, and enforced with the greatest earnestness of affection, yet the sons of darkness sleep profoundly in their sins. If heaven with its joys and glory be revealed in the most affecting manner, it has no more efficacy to move them, than charming music to awaken one out of a lethargy: only violent remedies, bleeding, scarifying, and burning, are proper and powerful for recovery. If they are warned, that the everlasting King will shortly open the clouds, and come with terrible majesty to the universal judgment, and require an account for His abused mercies: their hearts are apt to reply, as the priests did to Judas, “What is that to us? See you to it” (Matt. 27:4). The terrors of the Lord no more affect them than thunder does the deaf, or lightning the blind. In short, though charged and adjured by all the threatenings of the law and neglected gospel, though entreated by all the precious promises of mercy, they continue hardened in their voluptuous sins. They despise the eternal rewards of holiness and wickedness, as incredible and impertinent, and ministers as men of vain talk and imaginations. For the infidel senses are not affected with things future, and sinners while prosperous, are under their dominion.
Suppose in preaching the word, a sharp ray of truth darts through the deep and settled darkness of the heart, yet it is soon damped and without saving effect upon sinners in their prosperity. They may be terrified but are not subdued by the armor of Light; for they presently take sanctuary in the world to escape the strokes of it. The carnal passions dare not appear before such objects as awaken the conscience; the senses strongly apply the mind to things that touch them; the fancy is the spring of distraction in the thoughts, and these reign in their full power in prosperous sinners, so that they do not by serious consideration apply things of eternal consequence to themselves. The heart of man with difficulty changes its end; though outward actions may be suspended or overruled for a time, but the love that is natural and predominant in the heart to the present world, cannot be purified and raised to heaven, without the divine efficacy of the word applied by most solemn and frequent thoughts. How plain and convincing are the words of our Savior; “What will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?” (Mark 8:36). But how few in hearing them, have found their souls that were lost in the corrupting vanities of this world? The most seem not to know they have immortal souls, while they live as if they had none. The reason is, they will not consider duly their invaluable worth, and the woeful folly in neglecting them. When the bird often straggles from the nest, the eggs are chilled and unprolific, for want of its warming incubation. Divine truths are without life and vigor, when they only lie in the memory, without serious and frequent revelations on them. Many are enlightened, but not affected; or affected, but not resolved; or resolved, but their resolutions are not prevailing and permanent, because the word does not sink into their minds, by deep consideration.
The other external means of recovering a sinner from the snares of death, is private admonition, either authoritative, or merely charitative, by showing him his sins, and the fearful consequences that attend them. The neglect of this duty, is a sign and effect of the greatest hatred, as the command of it implies, “Thou shall not hate thy brother in thy heart, and suffer sin to lie upon him” (Lev. 19:17). The performance of it, with prudence and meekness, with dear and earnest love, has a special advantage and efficacy, being directly applied to the person whose soul is concerned. The reproofs of a preacher are leveled in common against the sins of men, but not applied in particular to every sinner. It is the office of conscience, to bring home to every man’s bosom, what is proper to his case; and singularly to observe in himself, what is spoken in the general. But in private admonition, the superior of a friend supplies the duty of conscience. And (in this sense) “woe be to him that is alone” (Eccl. 4:10), that lacks a faithful friend to supply the duty of conscience, either to preserve him from falling into sin, or to raise him when down. Now, a prosperous sinner is most unlikely to receive the benefit designed by admonition. If the patient does not assist the cure, by receiving holy counsels with humility, respect, and thankfulness, they prove ineffectual, and much more if they be rejected with averseness and contempt. When a superior (like a father that holds a child over a pit, to make him fear where there is danger) with solemnity admonishes him of his guilt and approaching judgments, he is apt to slight his person as censorious, and his admonition as impertinent. When a friend by faithful reproof endeavors to save his soul from sin and hell, he entertains his reproof with scorn, or with conviction and indignation. Thus the wise observer of men declares the careless wretched disposition of sinners in their prosperity, by their sorrowful reflections in adversity: “Thou shalt mourn at the last, when your flesh and your body are consumed and say, ‘How have I hated instruction, and my heart despised reproof? And have not obeyed the voice of my teachers, nor inclined mine ear to them that instructed me?’” (Proverbs 5:11-13). Instruction to prevent sin, reproof to correct sin, were disregarded with an implicit hatred, or rejected with absolute and express hatred.
To conclude this part of the argument: experience sadly proves that sinners are never reclaimed from their stubborn folly but by sharp afflictions. They will not believe the evil of sin, until by a real and sensible conviction they take a measure of the evil they have done, by the evil they suffer. Affliction tames the stubborn heart, and makes it humble and relenting. Even Pharaoh, who was a bold atheist in his prosperity, and stood upon high terms with Moses saying, “Who is the Lord, that I should obey Him?”, yet later was an humble suppliant in his distress: “And Pharaoh sent, and called for Moses and Aaron, and said to them, ‘I have sinned: the Lord is righteous, and I and my people are wicked. Entreat the Lord that there be no more mighty thunderings, and hail’” (Exodus 9:27-28). This is set forth in a true and lively comparison by the prophet Jeremiah: “As a wild donkey used to the wilderness, that snuffs up the wind at her pleasure: in her occasion, who can turn her away?” (Jeremiah 2:24). When fired with lust, she ranges about swiftly, without a rider to guide, and curb to restrain her. “All they that seek her, will not weary themselves; but in her month they shall find her” (Jer. 2:24): It is in vain to pursue her then, but when she is bagged and heave, they will tame her. Thus when sinners are prosperous, the call of God, and conscience, and of teachers, do not stop them in their voluptuous course, but affliction confines and reduces them to obedience.