God or Mammon: A Biblical View of Finances

Based on talk delivered at the ERCS Reformation Conference on 9 Nov 2002

I am not an expert in the matter of financial management, nor do I have much to manage. In fact, my wife is the financial manager of God’s gracious providence to our family. I receive my pocket money from her! So I am in no position to share about financial management, nor would I have agreed to address this subject if that was what I thought was required of me. But the indirect reference to Matthew 6:24 in the assigned title assures me otherwise. For, while I cannot share any practice advice on wealth management, nor think it fit for a gathering of Christian people to spend time on such a subject, I believe there are some things that the Holy Spirit intends us to learn concerning our finances. The Word of God, after all, has much to teach us in regard to the way in which we should view our wealth; or in other words, what our attitude with regard to money and finances should be.

We can, in particular, derive at least seven biblical principles, which more or less describe the teaching in God’s Word on how we should view and deal with the wealth that God has given us.

Principle #1: 
Everything in the World Belong to God

This is the most basic principle, which we must bear in mind whenever we begin to think about our wealth or finances. God is our Creator and the Creator of the universe, therefore everything in this world belongs ultimately to Him. The Scripture affirms this doctrine in numerous places.

For examples:

  • Psalm 24:1—"The earth is the LORD’s, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein."
  • Psalm 50:10-11—"For every beast of the forest is mine, and the cattle upon a thousand hills [says the LORD]. I know all the fowls of the mountains: and the wild beasts of the field are mine."

If we, and all the things in the world belong to God, then all our wealth or monetary resources belong to God. That is to say that God is Lord even over our wealth. Therefore our attitude towards our wealth and the manner in which we should manage our wealth is not a matter of indifference—seeing that what we have, do not ultimately belong to us. There is therefore such a thing as right or wrong in our attitude and management of our wealth.

But how do we determine what is right and what is wrong? Well, this must be determined from the Scriptures. This is why we are drawing principles from the Word of God on this matter!

Principle #2: 
Private Ownership or rather Stewardship
 
is Legitimate & Appointed by God

The first principle that we had stated that all things in the world belongs to God, has,—in the history of the Church,—led to two errors.

The first is the glorification of material poverty. This was the error of the monastic movement, which taught that piety involves giving away all that one possesses. Since all things rightly belong to God, it would surely be better to give away all that we have, rather than keep them and be tempted to rely upon them rather than on God. This doctrine appears to be reinforced by what the Lord Jesus told the rich young man: "sell all that thou hast, and distribute unto the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, follow me" (Lk 18:22).

The second error, which is related to the first, is the renunciation of private ownership of material wealth. Many of the Anabaptists during the days of the Reformation fell into this error. Like the first error, this doctrine seem to have its support in the Scriptures, especially in the description of the early church in Acts 2:44-45 that "All that believed were together, and had all things common; And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need."

What do we say to these two propositions? Well, in response, we must insist that the two passages neither forbid private ownership nor place spiritual value on poverty. They teach us rather about our attitude towards our wealth,—such as whether we are ready to part with them out of love for Christ and His Church, whenever there is a need. It is no sin for a Christian not give to away all that he possesses. Ananias and Sapphira were not punished for keeping back a portion of what they sold. They were punished for lying to the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:4).

Elsewhere in the Scriptures we are taught that it is proper for Christians to own private property or wealth. The 8th commandment "Thou shalt not steal" (Ex 20:15), immediately assumes the legitimacy of private ownership. How can anyone steal if nothing belongs to anyone in any sense?

Conversely, the Scripture speaks of wealth as being the blessing of God according to His providential apportionment: "The blessing of the LORD, it maketh rich, and he addeth no sorrow with it" (Prov 10:22). So Abraham is positively described as being "very rich in cattle, in silver, and in gold" (Gen 13:2). Job was a man of great wealth because God had blessed the work of his hand (Job 1:1-3, 10). Likewise, Solomon was granted by the Lord, riches and honour unparalleled among the kings of his day (1 Kgs 3:13).

Having said thus, however, we must remember that Scriptural ownership is not absolute ownership. We are really stewards of God’s wealth. In fact, we ourselves belong to God! One day we will have to give an account of how we made use of the wealth that God has assigned to us. This is the principle taught in the Lord’s Parable of the Talents (Mt 25:14-30) as well as the Parable of the Unjust Steward (Lk 16:1-15). In the second parable, our Lord teaches: "He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much… If therefore ye have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches?" (Lk 16:10-11).

Principle #3: 
It is Required that we should Lawfully Procure and Further our Wealth
 
and Outward Estate.

We have seen how God assigns outward wealth for our stewardship. But how does he assign the wealth? Well, sometimes He does it by an immediate bestowal of inheritance or gifts such as when Abimelech gave Abraham sheep and oxen, and menservants and womenservants (Gen 20:14). But in general, God assigns wealth through the sweat of our faces, or in other words, through hard work (Gen 3:19).

So Solomon reminds us: "He becometh poor that dealeth with a slack hand: but the hand of the diligent maketh rich" (Prov 10:4). And conversely Paul commands "if any would not work, neither should he eat" (2 Thes 3:10b), and "Let him that stole steal no more: but rather let him labour, working with his hands the thing which is good" (Eph 4:28a).

It is therefore clear that we should labour to provide daily bread for ourselves and our families. But what about furthering our wealth and outward estate in ways other that our regular calling? Or in other words, is it right for Christians to make investments or to manage any accumulated wealth that we may have so as to increase what we already have?

Well, I believe so. The fact that God approves of our managing our wealth can be seen in many parts of Scripture. In the Lord’s Parable of the Talent, the two and five talent slaves were commended for their using their master’s money wisely so as to make more talents, whereas the one-talent man was condemned for hiding the talent and returning it to his master without any profit. Note carefully the master’s words of condemnation:

Thou wicked and slothful servant,… Thou oughtest… to have put my money to the exchangers, and then at my coming I should have received mine own with usury (Mt 25:26–27).

Of course, this parable is designed to teach concerning spiritual fruitfulness, rather than on the management of funds. However, we may see from the parable, the Lord’s tacit approval for managing well the wealth that God assigns to us.

So too in the book of Proverbs, we see the virtuous woman managing well the extra funds that she has by buying and cultivating a field (Prov 31:16).

It is for these reasons that the Westminster divines actually considered that the 8th Commandment requires "the lawful procuring and furthering the wealth and outward estate of ourselves and others" (WSC 74).

It is therefore no sin for the Christian to invest his savings in some ways, so as to further his outward estate, so that when times are bad, he and his family may have something to fall back on.

Let me put it this way: Investments for the sake of savings and prudential wealth management is legitimate for the Christian. However, the Christian should never engage in any investment out of greed. This then should rule out any speculative, high risks investments, even if there is a possibility of great gains. Christians must never indulge in games of greed and chance.

That said, we must always remember that it is God who assigns us our wealth, whichever legitimate means we may obtain them by: "Thou shalt remember the LORD thy God: for it is he that giveth thee power to get wealth" (Dt 8:18a), says Moses.

We must not put ultimate trust in our wealth. Indeed, the Psalmist warns that God will bring to ultimate destruction "the man who did not make God his stronghold but trusted in his great wealth" (Ps. 52:7).

Principle #4: 
We are Given Wealth so that We May
 
Glorify God

"Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever" (WSC 1). The apostle Paul reminds us of this duty in concrete terms: "Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God" (1 Cor 10:31), he says. It should not surprise us, therefore, to learn that our outward wealth is assigned to us as mean by which we may glorify God.

How do we glorify God with our wealth? We may glorify God chiefly by making prudent use of our wealth so as to accomplish the greatest amount of good. The Lord Jesus in His parable of the Unjust Steward, exhorts us to trade what is material for what is spiritual, or what is temporal for what is eternal.

He says:

"Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness [i.e. worldly wealth]; that, when ye fail, they may receive you into everlasting habitations. He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much" (Lk 16:9-10a).

How may we do so? Solomon suggests a way: "He that hath pity upon the poor lendeth unto the LORD; and that which he hath given will he pay him again" (Prov 19:17). The apostle Paul makes it into a command, especially for those who were guilty of theft: "Let him that stole steal no more: but rather let him labour, working with his hands the thing which is good, that he may have to give to him that needeth" (Eph 4:28).

Another way, of course, is to support the Lord’s work, whether it be to provide for the poor or to provide the finances necessary to promote the work of the Gospel:

He which soweth sparingly shall reap also sparingly; and he which soweth bountifully shall reap also bountifully. Every man according as he purposeth in his heart, so let him give; not grudgingly, or of necessity: for God loveth a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound toward you; that ye, always having all sufficiency in all things, may abound to every good work" (1 Cor 9:7-8)

There are obviously many other ways to do good with our wealth. We forbear to enumerate them. But we agree with the Southern Presbyterian theologian Robert Lewis Dabney, that Christian stewardship requires us to make the most efficient use of our wealth. He writes:

"It is our duty to make the best use of every part of our possession that is possible in our circumstances. If there was any way within our reach in which our money might have produced more good and more honor to God when we spent it in something innocent, but less beneficial to his service, we have come short of our duty. We have sinned" (Discussions of Robert Lewis Dabney [BOT, 1967], 1.4).

Are you a good steward of the wealth that God has assigned to you? Are you glorifying God with your wealth?

Principle #5: 
It is Legitimate to Enjoy the Wealth that
 
God Gives Us

When we consider that we are but stewards of God’s wealth, and that we have the responsibility to make the most efficient use of the wealth assigned to us, it is easy for us fall into asceticism—which is that we should only make use of our wealth for things that are absolutelynecessary.

This may sound very pious, but it is really an error. The psalmist reminds us that God provides "wine that maketh glad the heart of man, and oil to make his face to shine" (Ps 104:15a). These things are obviously not bare necessities, and are in some ways luxuries. Likewise, in the creation accounts, the trees that God made, are said to be not just good for food but "pleasant to the sight" (Gen 2:9). This clearly indicates that God does not intent us to be pure utilitarians. It is right and proper for us to enjoy the things of this world that may not be of absolute necessity to us.

John Calvin, who seemed quite ascetic in his own life put it this way:

"If we are to live, we have also to use those helps necessary for living. And we also cannot avoid those things which seem to serve delight more than necessity" (ICR 3.10.1).

Then he gives us three helpful principles with regards to the enjoyment of God’s wealth that goes beyond necessities:

Firstly, "the use of God’s gifts is not wrongly directed when it is referred to that end to which the Author himself created and destined them for us, since he created them for our good, not for our ruin." That is to say: If something is intended by God for our pleasure, then it is not wrong to derive pleasure from it.

Secondly, "they who have narrow and slender resources should know how to go without these things patiently, lest they be troubled by an immoderate desire for them." That is to say, no one should give priority to acquiring anything that is not a necessity.

And thirdly, "all those things which were so given to us by the kindness of God, and so destined for our benefit, …are as it were, entrusted to us, and we must one day render account of them." That is to say: It is not wrong to enjoy what God has given for our enjoyment, but we must remember that we will one day be called to give an account of our lives. Solomon says essentially the same thing:

"Rejoice, O young man, in thy youth; and let thy heart cheer thee in the days of thy youth, and walk in the ways of thine heart, and in the sight of thine eyes: but know thou, that for all these things God will bring thee into judgment" (Ecc 11:9).

Yes, we must use our wealth responsibly, because we are stewards of God’s wealth. But no, we need not feel guilty to indulge in some luxuries or pleasure with moderation.

Principle #6: 
The love of Money is the Root of all Evil whereas Godliness with Contentment
 
is Great Gain

The apostle Paul says: "For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows" (1 Tim 6:10).

No, money itself is not the root of evil. It is the love, or earnest pursuit if money that give rise to much evils. This love for money is by any other name, covetousness. The apostle Paul teaches us that the "covetous man… is an idolater" (Eph 5:5) and "covetousness… is idolatry:" (Col 3:5). He who pursues after mammon has mammon as his idol. Thus the Lord Jesus warns:

"No servant can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon." (Lk 16:13)

But when does one begin to serve mammon? It is obvious that we need to labour in order to get our daily bread, so it is obvious that labouring to obtain our daily living does not constitute serving mammon. You begin to serve mammon, however, when you begin to pursue mammon for the sake of pursuing wealth, or when you give priority in your life to the pursuit of wealth. Thus, you would clearly be pursuing mammon or demonstrating a love for money if you are willing to compromise your Christian principles in order to obtain the wealth which you desire. Thus you would clearly be serving mammon and not simply labouring for a living if you willingly compromise you Sabbath rest and worship, for the extra income. Likewise, you would be serving mammon if you expend all your energy in the pursuit of wealth so that you have little time or energy to pursue after heavenly treasures, and instead allow the deceitfulness of riches, to choke any Word heard so that you become unfruitful (Mt 13:22).

Rather than pursuing wealth, the Christian must "But seek… first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness" (Mt 6:33a). That is to say he must put priority to the service and worship the Lord and to his Christian witness. When he does so, he can expect that those things that are necessary for his sustenance will be added unto him by the Lord (Mt 6:33b).

While the world pursues after wealth, and then ask God to bless their pursuits, the Christian must pursue after the Lord first, so that even their labours must be "as unto the Lord" (Col 2:23).

Such a Christian will understand what the apostle Paul means by "Godliness with contentment is great gain" (1 Tim 6:6). Such a Christian would also not become unduly anxious, should Providence makes it necessary for him to live on his savings for a time. What is the purpose of savings but so as to provide for the time when we have insufficient to live comfortably (cf. Prov 6:6–8).

Principle #7: 
True wealth is Spiritual, not Material

This final principle is related to the previous point. The Christian must never be tempted to measure wealth by how much a man owns. A man who is poor in the standard of 
the world, may be very rich in God’s sight; whereas one who is very rich by the world’s standard may be miserably poor. The Lord Jesus was stressing on this point when he says "Take heed, and beware of covetousness: for a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth" (Lk 12:15). What He is saying, essentially, is that the worth of a man is not determined by what he owns. Therefore, as the disciples of Christ we should never say "So-and-so is worth so much" when what we mean is that he owns that much worldly wealth.

The rich fool in the parable which the Lord spoke to illustrate the point we just stated, is a typical example of a truly poor man. He thought himself to be rich. He said: "I will say to my soul, Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry" (Lk 12:19). But the next day, his real worth is exposed. He dies. He loses everything—not only all he possessed, but his soul as well. "So is he that layeth up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God" (Lk 12:21).

Conversely, the Christian who seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, may have nothing, and yet possess all things (2 Cor 6:10). For as the apostle Paul says: "For ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that ye through his poverty might be rich" (2 Cor 8:9).

Indeed, Christians who are materially poor, and therefore have no riches to trust in are often spiritually very rich because their trust is in the Lord. So James says:

"Hearken, my beloved brethren, Hath not God chosen the poor of this world rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom which he hath promised to them that love him? " (Jas 2:5)

Are you rich in the world, but poor in the Lord? Then you are still languishing in poverty. Are you poor in the sight of the world, but rich in the Lord? Blessed are you, for yours is the kingdom of heaven (Mt 5:3).

Conclusion

We learned seven biblical principles with regard to personal wealth or finances:

1.     Everything in the world belongs to God

2.     Private ownership or rather stewardship is legitimate & appointed by God

3.     We should lawfully procure and further our wealth and outward estate.

4.     We are given wealth so that we may glorify God

5.     It is legitimate to enjoy the wealth that God gives us.

6.     The love of money is the root of all evil whereas godliness with contentment is great gain

7.     True wealth is spiritual, not material

Martin Luther once taught that three conversions are necessary for the Christian: the conversion of his heart; the conversion of his mind and the conversion of his purse. May the Lord grant us that this short study may be used of Him for the latter two ‘conversions’ for His own glory. Amen.

 JJ Lim

 

WLC 141. What are the duties required in the Eighth Commandment?

A. The duties required in the Eighth Commandment are, truth, faithfulness, and justice in contracts and commerce between man and man;1 rendering to everyone his due;2 restitution of goods unlawfully detained from the right owners thereof;3 giving and lending freely, according to our abilities, and the necessities of others;4 moderation of our judgments, wills, and affections concerning worldly goods;5 a provident care and study to get,6 keep, use, and dispose these things which are necessary and convenient for the sustentation of our nature, and suitable to our condition;7 a lawful calling,8 and diligence in it;9frugality;10 avoiding unnecessary law–suits,11 and suretiship, or other like engagements;12 and an endeavour, by all just and lawful means, to procure, preserve, and further the wealth and outward estate of others, as well as our own.13

1 Ps 15:2, 4; Zech 7:4, 10; 8:16–17. 2 Rom 13:7. 3 Lev 6:2–5; Lk 19:8. 4 Lk 6:30, 38; 1 Jn 3:17; Eph 4:28; Gal 6:10. 5 1 Tim 6:6–9; Gal 6:14. 6 1 Tim 5:8. 7 Prov 27:23–27; Eccl 2:24; 3:12–13; 1 Tim 6:17–18; Isa 38:1; Mt 11:8. 8 1 Cor 7:20; Gen 2:15; 3:19. 9 Eph 4:28; Prov 10:4. 10 Jn 6:12; Prov 21:20. 11 1 Cor 6:1–9. 12 Prov 6:1–6; 11:15. 13Lev 25:35; Deut 22:1–4; Ex 23:4–5; Gen 47:14, 20; Phil 2:4; Mt 22:39.

WLC 147. What are the duties required in the Tenth Commandment?

A. The duties required in the Tenth Commandment are, such a full contentment with our own condition,1 and such a charitable frame of the whole soul toward our neighbour, as that all our inward motions and affections touching him, tend unto, and further all that good which is his.2

1Heb 13:5; 1 Tim 6:6; 2Job 31:29; Rom 12:15; Ps 122:7–9; 1 Tim 1:5; Esth 10:3; 1 Cor 13:4–7.