Review of John Wesley’s “On Riches” (1788)

If you think Wesley was scathingly critical in “The Danger of Riches” (1780), then you will also find him so in this one. When he refers to the “rich” and their “riches,” know that he is referring to millionaires and millions of dollars: people in the upper class. He makes this clear here, just as he did eight years ago, in actual quantifiable amounts. Previously he had referred to £5,000 and £50,000, which are worth about $1.2 million and $12.5 million today. He refers to these same amounts again, but also uses the amount of £100,000, or $21 million in today’s money, to prove another point. When you pull the figures of $1.2 million, $12.5 million, and $21 million together, it becomes very clear, that his sermons about the danger of riches, are aimed at people who possess this kind of net worth. These sermons are mainly ethical warnings for millionaires; and not really for people in the middle class, who are still acquainted with financial struggle and faith in providence, although in a lesser degree than those in the lower class.

Matthew 19:24: “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” This was one of his favorite economic warning verses. It might as well have been translated by him as, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a millionaire to enter the kingdom of God.” He refers again to the Rich Young Ruler, who was likely viewed as a millionaire unwilling to part with his millions, and give to the poor and follow Jesus. This man went away sad. Wesley’s impulse for Franciscan simplicity was very strong. Romans 5:3-5: “We also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.” Although this passage is not quoted in this sermon, it might as well have. Wesley’s theology of Christian suffering seems to exist in the backdrop. Millionaires are free from the thousands of difficulties that the poor have to suffer from, but God has put suffering in the world as a disciplinary measure for the sinful nature of man (Gen. 3:17-19). Clinging to millions of dollars obscures this; and makes it harder for millionaires to see why God allows for so much suffering to exist in the world. This is why there are so many deists, liberal Christians, and atheists in the upper class. They have removed themselves from the common everyday sufferings of the working man; and are often living a hedonistic, carefree life of pleasure. Economic suffering is God’s most immediate tool of mortification in the lives of Christians, but millionaires by their hoarding, are implying that such self-denial is unnecessary, and that they need no such discipline from God. So some of the more introspective millionaires will create a variety of secular philosophies to appease their consciences in these matters. Voltaire comes to mind as an example. He became rich by teaming up with a mathematician to get big wins from the French lottery. Afterwards, he renounced Christianity in his writings; and lived an Epicurean lifestyle. Today, at least in America, I would point to the Republican form of capitalist ideology as the prevailing worldly philosophy. Such men often base their marriages on such ideologies. Such men teach and “catechize” their children anti-Biblical values like necessary greed, self-interest, competition, deception, and cruelty. They are the ideological children of Adam Smith, Bernard Mandeville, and Machiavelli. Such men cling to and trust in their riches. They have too much gold and silver, too many savings and investments, too much land, too many superfluities and luxury items—far exceeding what is reasonable. All of these extra things are no good: “those who trust in their riches will fall, but the righteous will thrive like a green leaf” (Prov. 11:28). These kinds of millionaires usually refuse to give to the church, the poor, the widow, and the orphan; and some even come to hate poor people. Even if they give some money to charity, it’s usually not enough money to effect any faith in God or sanctification in their hearts. Their faith continues to be in Mammon; and their hearts continue to be filled with carnality.

Since salvation is by faith (Eph. 2:8), it stands to reason that there are very few millionaires who have enough genuine faith to be saved by the Gospel, and so escape from the flames of Hell. So few in fact, that they could be compared to camels that squeeze themselves through the eye of a needle. William Wilberforce and David Wilkerson might have been examples of such men, but these are freak accidents; and are by no means a normal pattern for every Christian. It is true that there are men of God in the Bible who might be classified as millionaires, such as Abraham, David, Solomon, Jehoshaphat, Jotham, Hezekiah, Josiah, and maybe Job. Five of these men were righteous kings; and of those five, Solomon abandoned the faith and died an apostate. Most of the Biblical kings were Baal worshiping pagans. Then you have Abraham and Job. Technically Abraham was a ruler, but not as well established as the kings of Judah. He was mainly a livestock trader. Then there was Job; but look at all of the suffering these men had to go through! Most of these righteous millionaires were living on inherited government money. They were surrounded with enemies and wars they had to worry about. They were surrounded with spies that followed the Baal religion.

Job, and maybe Jacob, are the only other men I can think of, who might have amassed millions of dollars by trading livestock alone, but these men clearly earned their stripes. Job nearly died; and probably suffered more than anyone in the Bible. Jacob’s life was also threatened several times; and he was often taken advantage of by his Machiavellian father-in-law and employer, Laban. If anything, the immense suffering that these holy millionaires endured, might be considered the “eye of the needle” that squeezed them into such narrow and dire straits, that they were forced to live by faith in God on a daily basis, even though they happened to have millions of dollars. Their minds were so consumed with these cares that pushed them to rely on God, that they probably only sometimes must have thought, “Oh yeah, I have millions of dollars at my disposal.” That was likely a side thought in a life of worries, trials, tribulations, and preoccupations. William Wilberforce was constantly sickly; and lived in suffering as he frequently fought in the English parliament to abolish the Slave Trade: see the film Amazing Grace. David Wilkerson, whose net worth was apparently $5 million by the time he died, risked his life so many times in his ministry to drug addicts, that his faith in God for daily survival likely served as his mortification: see the film The Cross and the Switchblade. Joseph of Arimathea had a lot of money, but he joined the persecuted Christians of the early church. All of these rich men of God had so much mortification in their lives, that it enabled them to live by faith in God, and disenabled them to be pleasure-loving Epicureans—with Solomon as the only exception.

It seems that the primary danger of riches, is that it enables most millionaires to live a soft Epicurean lifestyle, and completely without trials or faith in God. Matthew 7:13-14: “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” It seems that most millionaires sell their souls to Satan in one way or another; and God stops disciplining them as sons (Heb. 12:7). Both the “narrow gate” and the “eye of the needle,” are similar spiritual allegories, in that they imply salvation by faith is a thing which squeezes your life so tight, into dire straits, that it often makes things inflexible and uncomfortable, in order to pass through it into Heaven. Acts 14:22: “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.” Salvation by a life of faith should not be misunderstood, as simply an intellectual agreement, with the doctrinal truthfulness of a church confession. It requires living a life of faith! Totally different things. Faith is not simply agreeing with a doctrine on a church’s statement of faith—that’s a start—but that’s not really faith. The providence of God will see to it, that true saving faith will be put to the test, over the course of your Christian life. In this sense, faith should be understood as a reliance on God, and a trust in the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, for the forgiveness of your sins, as you pass through a difficult life, and strive to be holy and obedient to the Word of God. Can this happen with Christian millionaires? It’s almost like I can hear the Holy Spirit say, “So you want to be saved from Hell and be a millionaire, huh? We’ll see about that.” Yes I think it can be possible with very many divine interventions and very harsh disciplines coming down from Heaven, but I don’t think I would personally like that to be me! Do you want to live like Job? Really ask yourself that. Matthew Henry pointed to him as the only Biblical example of a saved rich man in his commentary on Matthew 19:26. I think that such people are very few in number, and likely forced into such circumstances by God. They don’t attain their net worth by any definite goal setting in their business activities; and if they do, then they have no idea what they are getting themselves into, when it comes to suffering by the hand of God! The millions pour down on them by accident, by an unforeseen blessing, because God rewards them for all of their immense suffering. Job 42:12: “The Lord blessed the latter part of Job’s life more than the former part. He had fourteen thousand sheep, six thousand camels, a thousand yoke of oxen and a thousand donkeys.” This is my view of the rich man who might enter Heaven through the “eye of a needle.” Jesus seems to have allowed for it: “with man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matt. 19:26).

But non-Christian and antinomian millionaires refuse to deny themselves a life of Epicurean pleasures; and they end up despising the poor; or they might not be spendthrifts but misers like Scrooge, and hate poor people just the same. It is hard for a millionaire to be a genuine Biblical Christian: their lifestyles usually conflict too much with the principles of Biblical Christianity. Without faith it is impossible to please God (Heb. 11:6). Wesley said: “The root of all religion is faith, without which it is impossible to please God. Now, whether you take this in its general acceptation, for an ‘evidence of things not seen,’ of the invisible and the eternal world, of God and the things of God, how natural a tendency have riches to darken this evidence, to prevent your attention to God and the things of God, and to things invisible and eternal!…what a deadly, what an almost insuperable, hinderance to this faith are riches!” (1.1). This is why so many millionaires are referred to as materialists, or having materialistic values, because they place more importance on material things than spiritual things. They are earthly-minded and worldly-minded. In philosophy, “materialism,” or as it is sometimes called “physicalism,” is the denial of the existence of spirits, souls, ghosts, angels, demons, Heaven, and Hell—an atheistic denial of the existence of God, the paranormal, and the entire spirit world; so that the only reality they accept is the reality of the physical world. Usually this means they are Darwinian evolutionists. How is it possible not to love the world when surrounded with all of its allurements, he asks. How is it possible to love your neighbor, when you only associate with upper class friends, who encourage your expensive lifestyle? How is it possible to have humility and lowliness of mind, if you’re unreprovable, obstinate, stubborn, and think you’re right by virtue of the fact that you’re a millionaire and 90% of the human race are not? “Usually the rich are proud and obstinate,” Richard Baxter observed. Wesley said, echoing Deuteronomy 8:10-18: “How great is the temptation to atheism which naturally flows from riches; even to an entire forgetfulness of God, as if there was no such being in the universe.” Although some rich people may attend churches on Sunday, they may still be what are termed practical atheists, or Christians who live as if there is no God, for all practical purposes. In other words, they are not truly saved, and are not experiencing saving grace, and divine interventions in their lives.

As has been said before, having riches—or millions of dollars—exposes men to “every species of idolatry” and Epicureanism. You’re almost always surrounded with temptations when you’re rich. The superfluous item-seeking can almost be endless: new things, novelties, luxury homes, luxury furniture, expensive paintings, ornate gardens, infatuations with secular intellectual pursuits like poetry, history, and music. The rich are always throwing parties—entertaining guests—encouraging expensive lifestyles. “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day” (Luke 16:19). They enforce classism, or discrimination against the poor: those who are members of country clubs and those who are not. They are snobs, in a word. This looking down on your social inferiors is contrary to the love of neighbor. Wesley did not really believe a millionaire could be a Christian or that a Christian could be a millionaire. The concepts were mutually exclusive to him; and I tend to lean in his direction myself. It is too spiritually hazardous to try to be among the ranks of the upper class. Generally, there is no hunger for God there. Being rich tends to a kind of atheistic forgetting of God and his claim on our lives. Wesley observed that some of the Methodists became rich millionaires over time; and said that “so few increase in goods, without decreasing in grace!” In other words, their excessive and unrestrained financial growth was a direct cause of them backsliding from God. He said that Christians should seek to find their happiness in God alone, but to many of the rich, he cries: “Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you” (James 5:1-6). Christians should remain content to be in the middle class: “Keep falsehood and lies far from me; give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’ Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of my God” (Prov. 30:8-9). If this isn’t a defense of the middle class, then I don’t know what is. But millionaires are definitely not in the middle class, not to Wesley and the Puritans anyway. In Deuteronomy 8:14 and Proverbs 30:9, having riches is associated with forgetting God, and for all practical purposes, deism, agnosticism, and atheism.

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