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. ]—Ed.
The Danger of Prosperity, pt. 9
The prosperity of fools shall destroy them. (Prov. 1:32, AV).
We are to consider the justice, that is, the certainty and the heaviness of the destruction that shall seize on foolish sinners that abuse prosperity.
To illustrate the Justice of God in their destruction, I shall only insist on that reason that is so admirably amplified in this chapter for their convection: that is, their destruction is the fruit of their own choice. The divine wisdom allures and invites them, by all the most tender and powerful persuasives, to forsake their ruinous course, so that the Spirit of Grace should be poured upon them, which is the earnest of glory; but they would not be convinced and reformed. They hated knowledge, Godliness, though recommended by the assurance of a blessed eternal reward: therefore their destruction is resolved into their own choice. Indeed no man can directly and absolutely choose misery, or reject happiness, but virtually and by real consequence the most do. A prodigal that wastes his estate, does not intentionally and deliberately choose poverty, but thus he thinks, “This expense is for my honor, this for my pleasure…”, and proceeding to innumerable expenses, he at last becomes poor, and his poverty is voluntary, because it is the issue of his voluntary exorbitant profuseness. The evil of sin, though it be destructive, yet it is pleasing to his corrupt nature: and the depraved will is so allured by the present pleasure, that it anticipates the reflections of the mind, and chooses to gratify the propensions of nature, with a brutish disregard of the terrible consequences of sin. And the present inconvenience of serious piety to the carnal heart, causes an averseness from it, notwithstanding the heavenly felicity that is promised to it. Men prefer carnal sweets before communion with God; and though not ignorant of the issue, continue in their sins. And it is the exactness of justice, to deprive sinners of that blessedness which they obstinately refused, and to bring on them the misery they perversely choose. And when at the last day the son of God shall charge upon sinners their neglect of His compassionate and repeated calls, that He often knocked at the door to get an entrance into their hearts, but all in vain, the world was there, and barred it against Him. The guilty graceless souls will be struck with a defenseless silence, not able to make a request for pardon, but with despairing tears must submit to their righteous condemnation. The equity of God’s ways, and the iniquity of men, will at the last be clear to every eye. Then all the blessings they received will rise up in judgment against them, as proofs of their wickedness, which makes them more guilty, and deservedly miserable. The conscience, which is not stupefied by sensuality, will make furious reflections upon the folly of their choice, and be more tormenting than the infernal fiends. When Craesus, the rich king of Lydia, was bound to the stake, and the fire kindled for his burning, he lamentable cried out, “Solon, Solon, Solon”; and being asked the reason of it, declared, that in the height of his prosperity, that wise Greek had advised him to prepare for a revolution from his glory and greatness into a miserable state, and his neglect of that counsel was more tormenting than the loss of his kingdom. How piercing will the remembrance be to lost souls of their despising the instructions, warnings, and gracious methods of the divine wisdom, to have prevented their ruin! That mercy was so often and so rebelliously resisted! This will be the hell of hell.
The certainty of their destruction is next to be considered. It is unchangeably established by the divine ordination that the pleasures of sin shall end in the misery of obstinate sinners. This is declared in the word of God, “Íf you live according to the flesh, you shall die” (Romans 8:13). And as it is founded in distributive justice, so it shall be executed from His truth. Our Savior tells us, “Heaven and earth shall pass away, but one jot or tittle of the laws shall not be unfulfilled.” (Matthew 5). All the threatenings of it, in their fearful extent, shall be accomplished upon impenitent sinners, the proper objects of vengeance. God cannot deny Himself in ceasing to be holy and true, and His power seconds His word, to inflict that they might repent: for mercy is not only over all the works of God, but paramount to all His attributes, it suspends His power from acts of vengeance, it delays and mitigates His justice, we may appeal from justice to mercy in the court of heaven: but when God’s mercy has been affronted and exasperated, by the continual abuse of His benefits, when it is renounced and forfeited by sinners, their destruction is irreversible. For it is mercy alone atones His righteous anger; and this being so fearfully provoked, there is no advocate in his bosom to plead for them. Did He not expel from heaven the rebellious angels, spirits of a higher order, and more excellent endowments than men, and in their number perhaps exceeding the whole progeny of man? Now as the apostle, considering that the Israelites, the chosen people of God, and dear to Him above all other; yet when they became unfruitful, were broken off from the true olive tree and Gentiles were grafted into it, leaves this caution in eternal memory, “Be not high-minded, but fear. For if he spared not the natural branches, take heed lest he spare not thee” (Rom. 11:20-21:). We may strongly infer, if God “spared not the angels that sinned, in their first act of disobedience, but cast them down into hell, and delivered them in to chains of darkness, to be reserved unto judgment” (II Pet. 2:4), certainly He will not spare sinful men that hate to be reformed, and continue in the voluptuous course of sin to the last. They who now sleep out all denunciations of the law, will find at last, they have tangle with a powerful, inexorable God: “Because I have called, and you refused, I have stretched out my hand, and no man regarded. But you have set at naught all my counsel, and would have none of my reproof: I also will laugh at your calamity, and mock when your fear comes: When your fear comes as desolation, and your destruction comes as a whirlwind; when distress and anguish come upon you. Then shall they call upon me, but I will not answer; they shall seek me early, but they shall not find me. For that they hated knowledge, and did not choose the fear of the Lord” (Proverbs 1:24-29). This dreadful threatening is pointed against foolish sinners who abuse prosperity: When those who shut their eyes against danger, shall be constrained to open them, and see the fearful face of death attended with judgment, and judgment with an eternal hell: when diseases in the body, and anguish in the soul, shall assail them at once, like two clouds that by collision break forth in thunder, and they mournfully cry for mercy, their prayers will be rejected with scorn, and their ruin be remediless.
The carnal conceit that God will graciously receive sinners when the world has left them, that when by calamitous constraint they are at last brought to confess their wickedness, and are only sorrowful for the evil consequences of it, the conceit that they shall find mercy, is atheism of as blasphemous a nature as the denial of a God. For to ascribe such a mercy to God, is inconsistent with His wisdom, holiness, justice, and truth, and is to deprive Him of His purest perfections, and in effect to ungod Him.
In the rebellions of their lives, they expressed open enmity against God; and their devotion at their death, is secret flattery in His account. For thus it is said by the Psalmist of such sinners; “When he slew them, then they sought Him: and they returned and enquired early after God. Nevertheless, they did flatter Him with their mouth, and lied to Him with their tongues. For their heart was not right with Him, and they were not steadfast in His covenant” (Psalms 78:34, 36, 37).
It is true, God is rich in mercy, and most willing to pardon returning sinners, when their contrition is sincere, and when they are truly sorrowful that sin has made them unholy as well as unhappy, that they have abused the mercies of God, our gracious Creator and Preserver, compassionate Redeemer, and blessed Comforter, as well as provoked His anger. But those who defer their repenting while God defers punishing, and like the unjust steward, never think of making provision for their souls until they are cited to give an account of their unrighteous and ungrateful abuse of his blessings; those who renounce their sins when unable to commit them, and resolve to live well when they can live well when they can live no longer, have great reason to suspect their own hearts, and to be fearful of their future state. If a minister be called to assist such in their dying hours, there is infinite reason he should be cautious of assuring them of pardon and salvation, lest natural sorrow be mistaken for godly sorrow, and repentance declared by them, would be retracted upon new temptations: it is safe to imitate a discreet physician, that is unwilling to declare what he fears will be the issue of the disease, but modestly insinuates the danger to those that are about the sick person: “The good God can do all things, He can revive the almost spent and expiring, O pray for him.” It is advice given by a skillful herbalist, that particular care is necessary in planting the seed of the Carduus, for if they are not set upright, they degenerate and produce a wild herb. The Gospel is compared to seed, and if the conditional promises of pardon and salvation are not received in the heart aright, if the comfort of them be not applied according to the qualifications that are requisite to give us an interest in them, they produce a vain presumption, a false hope, a delusive peace, instead of an unfeigned faith, a purifying hope, a solid peace. God declares it with the most sacred solemnity, “As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked” (Ezek. 33:11); if the carnal heart (like the devil who abused scripture, by leaving out part of it) shall not consider what follows, but that the wicked turn from his way and live, but shall harden and fortify itself in sin, with hopes of impunity, God will rejoice in their just destruction. He tells us that a converted sinner shall be forgiven, but that conversion must be uniform and lasting; “If the wicked turn from all his sins that he has committed, and keep all my statues, and do that which is lawful and right, he shall surely live and not die” (Ezekiel 18:21).
3. The heaviness of the destruction will be according to the aggravation of their sin, who abuse prosperity.
A. It is a sin most contrary to the acknowledged duty of man, and unbecoming the reasonable nature. It is a universal concession that springs from the purest light of reason, that we “should return good for good” (Matthew 5:46). The heathens even agree in it. To be defective in observance, and thankful respects, to a benefactor is unnatural, but to requite evil for good is so direct a violation of the ingenuous principles of humanity, that one is prodigiously wicked in doing it: He ceases to be a man, and becomes a devil. Now this black guilt cleaves to those who abuse prosperity. The blessings of God are strong and sweet obligations to love Him, yet their perverse hearts are thereby alienated from Him. His mercies engage and enable them to serve and glorify Him, but are used to gratify their lusts, and to make them more capable and presumptuous to offend Him. Prosperity makes them luxurious and secure; riches make them sin at a higher rate; the patient providence of God, that waits for their repentance (such is their desperate corruption) fortifies them in their rebellion against Him. This was the reason of that stinging reproach of Moses to Israel, “Do you thus requite the Lord, O foolish people and unwise?” (Deut. 32:6).
B. The abuse of prosperity is most injurious and provoking to God. To sin against His law, is an high affront to His majesty; but to sin against His love and benefits is more contumelious to Him. The apostle calls it, a “despising of God’s goodness” (Romans 2). What is more contumelious than to employ His benefits for the pleasing of our dishonorable vile affections? As the gift of a friend is slighted that is put to a base use; or as one that will not be reconciled by the presents of a friend, despises his gifts: Thus when the favors of God do not melt the heart into kindly resentments, and endear Him to us, they are despised.
If a favorite, who was raised by a prince to highest honor and trust, should betray his magazines, both arms and treasures to his enemy, could there be a fouler wickedness? And of this heinous nature is their wickedness, who abuse the mercies of God in the service of sin, and implicitly betray them into the devil’s hands, who maliciously wars against God. What a contumelious indignity heightened with the basest ingratitude was Jeroboam guilty of, who changed the glory of the incorruptible God, into an image like a corruptible beast. God advanced him to the throne, and he depressed the deity to the rank of stupid calves. What a hateful abuse of his bounty was it, that the Israelites turned the jewels of gold wherewith he enriched them by the Egyptians, into a detestable idol: Of such wickedness are men deeply guilty, when the precious blessings that God bestows upon them, are made the idols of their heads and hearts, and rob Him of the honor and love that is communicably due to Him.
What can more provoke the jealous God? Mercy is His dearest glory, in which He peculiarly delights; it is to stab Him to the heart.
From hence we may justly infer, the punishment of such sinners will be most heavy, in exact proportion to their most odious ingratitude. Damnation is the recompense of every impenitent sinner, and is the most fearful effect of God’s wrath. Temporal judgment are “but the smoke of his anger” (see Deut. 29:20), the flaming coals are in hell. But there are degrees of torment in hell, according to the number and quality of men’s sins. Those who despise the goodness of God, treasure up wrath against the day of wrath. As they continually abuse His bounty and patience, they increase His vengeance, which will be as terrible as His patience was admirable. The judgment of Babylon was a strict proportion to her luxury: “How much she has glorified herself, and live deliciously, so much torment and sorrow give her” (Revelation 18:7). Justice will exact all the arrears of abused mercies: The lovers of this world shall pass from their good things, to the flames that live by the breath of God’s revenging wrath. Doleful exchange! An hour’s feeling of that fire is more tormenting than an age’s enjoyment of this world in all its abundance is pleasing. But though the word of God has discovered the swift and thick coming sorrows that shall seize upon the wicked, yet so foolish and obstinate are sinners in prosperity, they will not be persuaded to fly from the wrath to come! The light of reason, and illumination of faith, is too weak to make them sensible of their danger: they will not be convinced till shut up in the darkness of hell.