Review of John Wesley’s “On the Danger of Increasing Riches” (1790)

Wesley’s expression “increasing riches” could be also termed as financial growth, economic growth, or economic development; it could also be used in the sense that P. T. Bauer means in Dissent on Development, when he applied his theory of working, saving, and investing in Western business practice—in brief: poverty alleviation through diligent business activity. But Wesley is aiming at a much more specific meaning when he uses the phrase “increasing riches.” If we can recall his former economic sermons, Wesley generally understands the words “rich” and “riches” to mean millionaires and millions of dollars. If we understand this from the beginning, then we will not begin to think that he was unreasonably and uncharitably attacking the middle class also. No, Wesley is warning of the danger of increasing millions of dollars.

John Wesley was a very conservative and Puritanical man. At the same time, his marriage failed after eight years; and he was never a father. Since he combined these two elements together in himself, he was bound to run into extremes when it came to his economic views: and you definitely have financial extremes in Wesley’s sermons. Essentially what this boils down to is preaching against financial sins. From what I know, Jonathan Edwards’ thoughts on money pretty much summed up to preaching against financial sins. At least Wesley had a more developed economic theology than that; there were even times when he inquired into the causes of economic depressions. But whenever I see an extreme in Wesley, it makes me look at my own views and opinions about certain things; and makes me search for the Biblical balance. This is why I find his writings so valuable for so many things in the Christian life.

He begins by referring to Psalm 62:10: if riches increase, set not your heart upon them.” That is, if you are so successful with your business activity that your riches are increasing, then don’t turn them into an idol—in fact, be ready to dispense of them into various useful directions. Do not set your heart on them; do not hoard them up for yourself or spend them on luxuries. This echoes Jesus’ saying as well: “lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth…for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matt. 6:19, 21). Riches and treasures: millions of dollars? Yes definitely. But these verses could also be easily useful to curb any degree of pride in the upwardly mobile, middle-class breadwinner. Any man that goes from earning $35,000 a year, to $70,000 or $100,000 a year, is eventually going to feel a difference in his economic standing. It might not be immediately, but gradually over time the pride may seep in, the idolatry of it may grip his mind and heart, and—although he is not a millionaire—even he may find himself brooding a little too much over his silver and gold coins, his stock portfolio, treasury bonds, and land speculations. Here is God’s word to that man: “if riches increase, set not your heart upon them.” I believe that the upwardly mobile middle-classer is in the process of knocking out his family’s financial problems, addressing financial necessities, establishing a sense of financial security, paying off debts, saving for college funds, planning for retirement, getting a backup car, laying up inheritance funds, and paying off a mortgage on a modest home not very much exceeding $100,000 and three bedrooms. Such a man may feel a sense of pride in his accomplishments and financial success: financial pride. It’s not the pride of wealth per se, but there’s a level of financial pride there. It’s not luxury and millions of dollars, but there’s a spiritual danger there. This is natural, but it’s a danger; and can lead to snobbery and forgetting God (Deut. 8:10-18). Our response to such a proud financial feeling should be to remember that it’s God who gave you the power to get this wealth in the first place (Deut. 8:18). You only made use of the economic gifts that God provided you with. Lose this perspective and you will lose your soul! God is our Father and he gives us job opportunities—often through means outside of our control: especially when we are young and just beginning our careers. Then we make use of these employment gifts he provided for us through his providence: and we may eventually excel at them, improve on our job skills, and get supplementary certifications, and higher wages; and that’s when we can forget the Lord, and imagine that all of our career success was a 100% human effort the entire time. That’s either economic Pelagianism or economic atheism: the idea that God’s power played no role in getting you any interviews over the course of your career; that it was all you and the work of your educational perseverance, your diligent, get up early, and drink coffee every morning work ethic. That’s the moment when, for all intents, you can turn your back on Mount Sinai and start worshiping a golden calf that you made (Exod. 32).

Wesley refers to Matthew 19:24: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” As mentioned in one of my previous reviews of Wesley’s economic sermons, I believe that this implies two things—we’ll take the rich man Job as an example. If you are a rich man, but you still want to go to Heaven, then two things will have to happen to you: 1. God will have to use dramatic supernatural means and divine interventions in order to get your attention. Your worldly-mindedness has blinded you from certain spiritual realities. God’s gonna have to rattle your cage with some pretty strange goings on. 2. You will suffer immensely, maybe to the point of almost dying; in fact, you may need to suffer in proportion to the amount of wealth you have stored up for yourself. Most likely this will involve losing a large portion, if not all of your money, in order to humble and straighten you out. Also, extreme physical sickness might be sent from God in order to get you to think about living in a better world than this one: Heaven. How does this relate to the camel going through the eye of a needle? Its easy for me to understand it now: to me it means that the camel will have to miraculously shrink itself by the power of God, and uncomfortably, and painfully squeeze itself through the needle’s eye. Then that camel will go to Heaven when it dies—that camel being a saved rich man like Job. If it is hard for the righteous poor to be saved and subdue their carnal natures, then it only stands to reason that the righteous rich will need to suffer astronomically more than them, in order to experience the smallest degree of spiritual salvation from their sin nature. This is why Jesus exclaimed: “It is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of Heaven!” (Matt. 19:23). It is hard for a rich man to be saved from Hell. These are the literal words of the Son of God. This is a Biblical doctrine. Don’t dispute it!

This is why rich people tend to be liberal Christians, agnostics, or atheists. None of those people actually follow the words of Jesus or try to live by every word in the New Testament. They are argumentative against it; mentally and emotionally contrary to its principles. They have to be. It’s the only way they can justify and continue in the lifestyle they are creating for themselves—it is their golden calf. Wikipedia says that the American upper class, if they are religious, almost always fall into the category of mainline Protestant churchgoers. In other words, they are liberal Christians: the most popular upper class churches are the Episcopal Church and the Presbyterian Church (USA). Both of which put secular science above Biblical authority, compromise with a Darwinist view of creation, and ordain homosexual clergy. They don’t believe the Bible is supernaturally originated, but that it was the product of a superstitious age. Its still got some useful ethical teachings in it though, such as the Golden Rule and love your neighbor; and this will encourage them to go about their careers in a very tolerant way. But these people are not true Christians, not born again of the Holy Spirit, not experiencing any lordship salvation. They are not engaged in spiritual warfare with the powers of darkness. They are heretical deists at best; and are not true followers of the Jesus in the New Testament. They will have to change all of these things, and repent from all of their economic vices, and suffer all kinds of hardships related to this, if they want to experience salvation by faith in the blood of Christ. Otherwise, he died for nothing! You can’t totally ignore Jesus’ words and then go and put your faith in the cross. It doesn’t work that way! That too is a golden calf that many liberal Christians worship every day: antinomianism.

Unlike his predecessor Daniel Defoe, who in The Complete English Tradesman, had encouraged businessmen to carefully manage their loans and debts—Wesley looked at all debts and loans as money traps. Outwardly such a man may look wealthy, but he is not truly rich, because he owes so many debts. It’s all a show: he’s living on the bank’s money. Proverbs 13:7: “One person pretends to be rich, yet has nothing; another pretends to be poor, yet has great wealth.” Alright then, I’d rather be the second guy. Better to be debt free with tons of savings and investments, but pretend to be poor by living modestly and restraining expensive living. That is much wiser and much better. What burglar would be tempted to break into your house, if he was under the impression that you’re poor? But few rich people actually follow through with this. Wesley observed: “Most of those who when riches increase set their hearts upon them, do it indirectly in some of the preceding instances. But there are others who do this more directly; being, properly, ‘lovers of money;’ who love it for its own sake; not only for the sake of what it procures. But this vice is very rarely found in children or young persons; but only, or chiefly, in the old, in those that have the least need of money, and the least time to enjoy it. Might not this induce one to think, that in many cases it is a penal evil; that it is a sin-punishing evil; that when a man has, for many years, hid his precious talent in the earth, God delivers him up to Satan, to punish by the inordinate love of it? Then it is that he is more and more tormented by that ‘execrable hunger after gold’ which can never be satisfied. No: it is most true, as the very heathen observes, ‘As money, so the love of money, grows; it increases in the same proportion.’ As in a dropsy, the more you drink, the more you thirst; till that unquenchable thirst plunge you into the fire which never shall be quenched!” (2.14). But will you restrain yourself from this, Wesley implies, enough to give a substantial sum away to the poor, widows, and orphans of the church, in order to deliver your soul from this vice of covetousness? Sufficient philanthropy in Jesus’ name is the only cure for this disease. Wesley wrote this sermon one year before he died; and truly it was the writing of a man who had his eyes on eternity.

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