How Shall the Godly Respond to Passing on Affluence?
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How Shall the Godly Respond to Passing on Affluence?

I love those who love me, and those who seek me find me. With me are riches and honor, enduring wealth and prosperity. My fruit is better than fine gold; what I yield surpasses choice silver. I walk in the way of righteousness, along the paths of justice, bestowing a rich inheritance on those who love me and making their treasuries full.

Proverbs 8:17-21

The biblical wisdom literature makes it abundantly plain, as does the rest of the entire Bible, that it is God alone who grants both wealth and blessing. There are numerous ways to get wealth but the way of godly gain is by seeking God, and the way of his righteousness, alone. And those who are given wealth by God will usually have an inheritance to give at the end of their lives. This is summed up quite well in these words: “But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your ancestors as it is today” (Deuteronomy 8:18).

I have been thinking a great about the theology of wealth over the past two or three years. I have also been immersed in a discussion of the subject, with about twenty Christian businessmen and women, for the past two days at the Kuyper Business Summit in San Diego, sponsored by the Center for Cultural Leadership. I have become convinced that the Church has little or no balanced understanding, in the pulpit or the pew, about this subject. We either feel that seeking wealth is inherently wrong, and then deal with the attendant guilt feelings that come with generating wealth, or we promote a “health and wealth” theology that stresses great wealth as the personal promise of God for every Christian who knows how to ask and receive by faith. Both are failed ideas theologically and thus badly distorted when applied to daily living.

Wealth is the blessing of God! He alone gives it. To some he grants the ability to gain wealth for his glory. This, in itself, means much more than merely attaining wealth so you can support your family and then give large sums to charity. (These are both good goals but not the whole picture!) Some are clearly called to make wealth as a divine calling. Indeed, I am convinced that many businessmen and women are so called by God to produce wealth but the Church has been of little or no help in creating the right context and support for this to actually happen in the right way. An alternative theology to these two extremes is to be found in the work of the Dutch Calvinist Abraham Kuyper, thus the name of the very event I am attending. Serious readers should explore Kuyper’s thought on this matter. John Schneider’s outstanding book, The Good of Affluence (Eerdmans), should also be a must read for serious consideration of this important subject. (Schneider is a professor at Calvin and presents, by far and away, the best short volume on this subject in our time.)

Two of the wealthiest Americans who ever lived represent a very different approach to affluence. One, Andrew Carnegie, viewed society as the source of wealth and thus considered it a moral obligation to give back to society from his wealth. He once said, “He who dies rich, dies disgraced.” This view is quite close to the view of most Christian pietists I know. John Wesley taught that we should make all we can, save all we can, and give away all we can. This is a partial truth and plainly does not have the whole of the biblical and wisdom tradition to support it. I have a friend who teaches "downward mobility" as a Christian principle. (Besides the fact there is no biblical support for the concept or the terminology it works with people who feel guilty about having too much! Besides that it sounds right to many people who have never followed it out to its conclusions.)

Warren Buffet, a contemporary wealth producer, holds another view. He suggests that society is responsible for what he has earned but concludes that “maintaining high taxes on large estates is morally imperative.” (It is more than ironic that Warren Buffet wants to see the government redistribute wealth via high taxes but he has also found ways to avoid many taxes, like so many who write this way. If these folks believed this mantra they could simply designate all their wealth freely to the government to redistribute it.)

So if wealth is given by God, and not society or good fortune, what about giving it away and more specifically, “What about inheritance?” That was our discussion last evening at the Kuyper Summit. The Scripture is anything but silent about inheritance. Consider Proverbs 13: 22, which says: “Good people leave an inheritance for their children’s children, but a sinner’s wealth is stored for the righteous.”

Buffet suggests, contrary to the biblical covenantalism that submits to Christ’s Lordship in all of life, that it is obscene to pass on too much wealth to anyone else except for what is needed to maintain a “modest existence.” What is often missed in this discussion of wealth and inheritance, by well-meaning Christians, is the requirement to handle the transfer of wealth with “strings attached.” The Bible does not teach that we should give all of our possessions to our children without clear biblical responsibility attached to the inheritance. Some children should not be given wealth just because they are our children. Wealth has massive pitfalls connected with it and if a child has not been properly taught, and has not responded correctly to the covenant promises, then they are not “entitled” to any wealth simply because of their DNA.

In our modern society Christians have bought into the notion of everyone deserving their shot at being wealthy. This is wrong. All of us are to “seek first the kingdom of God” and its is God’s hidden design to “add things” to us as he pleases (Matthew 6:33). Wealth is never to be divorced from virtue biblically. A covenantal view of wealth and inheritance will seek to train one’s children to understand the righteousness of God, in every personal and practical way possible, and then will take a long-range view of inheritance and wealth making. There is both power and responsibility in wealth. This is easily missed by children who are not correctly taught, which right now appears to be the majority of children from Christian homes. (I heard a survey last night about the “worldview” of children in Christian schools, not public schools, and it was shocking. The majority of “Christian” kids do not hold a Christian view of the world and thus do not understand how the world works morally.)

So making, and even inheriting, wealth is desirable. But it is also dangerous. Jesus said, “It is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:23). This danger does not mean wealth is never to be pursued or a great deal of Scripture has misled us. No, the answer is not found in pitting these kinds of verses against each other, into an either/or understanding, but rather, it is to seen in reading these statements as both/and promises. Not all of us will be extravagantly wealthy. Some Christians will be and they have extravagant responsibility as well as great opportunity. The Church has done almost nothing to help such people, except for seeking some of their money.

Many of us have more wealth, relatively speaking, than any generation who ever lived on this planet. I do not see this as bad, not at all. I see it as both good and dangerous. What we do with this wealth, and how teach the rising generation about it, is crucial. This subject desperately needs to be put on the table in our churches but few pastors are able to handle the subject since they have never been taught well in this area.

I am working on a plan whereby ACT 3 can help pastors (in particular) teach these biblical both/and promises more faithfully. Pray for me in this regard. We need both faithful wealthy Christians and able, biblically balanced pastors, to make this work in a balanced way. We cannot escape our present wealth as Americans unless we literally flee. (Some think this is the solution!) I believe we can learn to handle wealth in ways that honor God and preserve true piety at the same time. (The whole Old Testament stands as a witness to this fact!) The New Testament does not overturn this, but underscores it in new and more trans-cultural ways. Seeking this balance is my vision.

John H. Armstrong is founder and director of ACT 3, a ministry aimed at "encouraging the church, through its leadership, to pursue doctrinal and ethical reformation and to foster spiritual awakening." His home blog is located here.

John Armstrong

John H. Armstrong is founder and director of ACT 3, a ministry aimed at "encouraging the church, through its leadership, to pursue doctrinal and ethical reformation and to foster spiritual awakening."