Would You Give Up the Means of Grace for 500 Million Dollars?

The recent Powerball lottery pay-off was 588 million dollars. This prompted the hosts of a Lincoln (Neb) sports-talk show, following Dan Patrick, to ask the following question: would you give up watching sports forever for $500,000,000? The guest to whom they asked the question groaned and hesitated. He was struggling. As he wrestled with the question I re-framed it in my mind while I waited for him to answer: would I give up the means of grace (the preaching of the gospel, the sacraments, and prayer) for 500 million bucks? I hope not. I trust not. I think that I understand that the free, gracious, salvation from judgment and wrath, earned for me by grace and freely given to me and received through resting, trusting in Christ (which resting itself is God’s free gift) is worth more than all the Powerball jackpots that could ever be. In 2Corinthians 8:9 Paul wrote,

For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.

The riches of which Paul wrote are not material. They are spiritual. Contrary to what the Word-Faith hucksters say, they are not temporal, they are eternal. They begin with free acceptance with God and they include Spirit-wrought union with the risen Christ through faith. They include the presence of Christ with us by his Spirit through the ministry of Word and sacrament. Framed in terms of heaven and hell, the decision between Christ and wealth would seem to be obvious but all we children of Adam are fallen. Here’s another way to put wealth into perspective. The rich and the poor all die. They may get to the grave differently and they may have better or worse markers but when they die their wealth (or poverty) will be of no value whatever. Their bones will rest in nice caskets or cheap but both will be dead and under the ground and both will appear before the Lord. Indeed, contrary to expectations, however advantage the wealthy have materially they have real disadvantages spiritually. Not for nothing did our Lord say,

Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God (Matt 19:23–24; ESV)

The truly wealthy carry unexpected burdens. For one thing it’s very difficult to tell who is a genuine friend and who simply wants something. It’s difficult enough in this life to tell true friends from phonies but add money to the mix and it’s exponentially more difficult. We don’t always know or understand our own motives, so how can we tell if someone else is genuine? Great wealth creates a certain wariness among the wealthy. Great wealth also causes one to think more about this world and is a significant distraction from the age to come. To be sure, grinding poverty also causes one to think about this world, about daily survival—I am not suggesting that poverty is romantic but assuming that one has just enough it is true that people will tend to ask less of you. Wealth is a symbol of what a culture values. Because this is so it is almost impossible to put away wealth and leave it alone because others (governments, worthy organizations, the needy) always want it. Thus, it demands attention and attention takes time and that is a finite commodity. The history of lottery winners suggests that immense wealth suddenly gained isn’t all we imagine. It is truly a life-changing event for which few are a prepared. Just as great power bought with it great responsibility to Peter Parker, so immense wealth can be a genuine burden. That seems counter-intuitive, especially to those who are struggling to get by, but history says that wealth doesn’t solve as many problems as one might imagine and it brings with it unanticipated problems. For example, a significant percentage of the fellows who play in the NFL, who sign large contracts but who tend to play for only a few years before injuries end their careers, are bankrupt and millions of dollars in debt just a few years after they leave the game. Some professional athletes support dozens of other people (their entourage) so they become nouveaux riche American nobility. They now have serfs for which they must care and more money is going out than is coming in. A few expensive cars and houses and a bad investment or two and poof! It’s all gone. So it has been with lottery winners. I remember a discussion I had with one of my elders, in Kansas City, in the late 80s or early 90s. We were talking about the morality of playing the lottery and whether it would be right for the church to accept a gift from a lottery winner. My response was no, because it was ill-gotten gain. My more experienced elder looked at me sideways. I was young, full of enthusiasm, poor, and had no idea of the allure or potential of great wealth. He knew that there are always ways to justify what we want to do. He knew that my snap answer wouldn’t be so easy if the money were right before us. Now I understand my elder a little better. Would I try to justify taking the money? The question of what to do with “tainted money” isn’t new. Though the expression, “The Devil’s had that money long enough” is often attributed to Billy Sunday but was probably said by the evangelist D. L. Moody (1837–99). The problem of “tainted money” is quite real. Craigslist generates a great deal of income from advertising illicit activities and they intended (in 2010 at least) to donate some of those proceeds to non-profit organizations. That potential created a crisis for some non-profits. Is lottery money really tainted? Some have argued to me that gambling is a matter of Christian liberty and that investing in the stock market (which most of us do via our retirement funds) is nothing more than gambling. If that isn’t wrong, they argue, then it is too scrupulous to worry about gambling. Nevertheless, the old Reformed view was stoutly against gambling. It used to be grounds for suspension from the Lord’s Table. The Westminster Larger Catechism says:

Q. 142. What are the sins forbidden in the eighth commandment?

A. The sins forbidden in the eighth commandment, besides the neglect of the duties required, are, theft, robbery, man-stealing, and receiving anything that is stolen; fraudulent dealing, false weights and measures, removing landmarks, injustice and unfaithfulness in contracts between man and man, or in matters of trust; oppression, extortion, usury, bribery, vexatious lawsuits, unjust enclosures and depredation; engrossing commodities to enhance the price; unlawful callings, and all other unjust or sinful ways of taking or withholding from our neighbor what belongs to him, or of enriching ourselves; covetousness; inordinate prizing and affecting worldly goods; distrustful and distracting cares and studies in getting, keeping, and using them; envying at the prosperity of others; as likewise idleness, prodigality, wasteful gaming; and all other ways whereby we do unduly prejudice our own outward estate, and defrauding ourselves of the due use and comfort of that estate which God hath given us.

Has anything really changed or have we just gone soft? Is gambling an example of where we’ve become inured to sin? Is it so much a part of our culture that we can’t see it as sin any more because it would put us at odds with virtually everyone? Perhaps, however, because it is so much a part of our culture we should think about whether it is sinful, whether it is destructive, and how we should relate to it?

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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25 comments

  1. When I think back on the early days of my marriage – with a wife, child, and going to college, I don’t remember it as economic deprivation but more of a sense of freedom and relative simplicity. Maybe Janis Joplin wasn’t too far off with “when you’ve got nothing, you’ve got nothing to lose.”

    I’ve never played the lottery and hated my one trip to Las Vegas, in which I didn’t spend a penny on gambling. Still, I’m not sure I can call it sin. What do you see in the WLC? Is it “gaming”? If so, I notice a qualifier “wasteful” that wouldn’t seem to be necessary if gaming was sinful per se. Would low-stakes poker among friends be sin? One guy loses $10 to his buddies while another spends $40 taking his family to the movies – looks like simply a choice in recreation to me.

    IMO there’s a better case to be made that magistrates sin in promoting what tends to take money out of the hands of desperate people whose families can be torn apart and left destitute by gambling. Of course, those people who are truly wasteful in their gambling would be sinning as well.

  2. “Some have argued to me that gambling is a matter of Christian liberty and that investing in the stock market (which most of us do via our retirement funds) is nothing more than gambling. If that isn’t wrong, they argue, then it is too scrupulous to worry about gambling”

    I can’t imagine that investing in the stock market is gambling in the same sense as rolling dice or die (I can’t ever get that one straight) on account that the probability can be somewhat predicted in knowing what is going on with the company (set aside inside trading issues). Gaming is limited to the variety of the things to be known (e.g.1-6 on a six sider, 2-12 on a pair) and is a limited raw unpredictable guess (unless you are using loaded dice or stacking the deck or card counting). Investing in stocks has elements of history in it, card playing/ dice throwing does not.

    On the side of the assertion that oft the dollar that’s quickly won is just as quickly lost, there certainly no training involved in the money making side of gambling. There is a Biblical proverb that deals with that very thing.

    There is that issue of the ecology of wealth. Being constantly on guard against people trying to “touch me for a fiver” would weary me almost to the point of wanting to seclude myself from everyone.

    I know that as far as it comes to what I am dealing with ecclesiastically, I don’t think it would be proper for me to ignore our liturgical forms and tell the session to stick it up their noses by going to buy a Powerball ticket. I am a part of a confessing body of believers and I intend on sticking to what we confess corporately, though I will still be asking questions when I don’t understand.

    I don’t know if you received the letter concerning gambling I wrote or not, Dr. Clark but thank you for writing the piece on gambling. It seems that there are many biblical principles that are involved in gambling and it almost seems a compounding of compound sins (i.e. there’s a lot to it).

  3. Oops, that quote was from Dylan. Joplin said “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” Forget ’em both – you know what I’m getting at.

    Durell, you said “I intend on sticking to what we confess corporately…” Can you specify what you confess that is on point?

    • I think the older view assumed a difference between recreation and waste. I guess they would be unhappy about what we consider recreation so they wouldn’t be much moved by the argument, “If x is okay, then y (which is similar) is also okay.” They wouldn’t accept that x is okay.

      Still, there is a material difference between spending money and wasting it. According to the WLC “gaming” is a waste of resources with which we’ve been entrusted by Providence.

      Durell, I agree that there is a material difference between a calculated, carefully made investment and throwing the dice. Still, even as a firmly convinced free-market capitalist I find it difficult to know, however, what I should know in order not to invest blindly. In that sense I wonder if someone who studied the horses carefully and bet (investors use “betting” language frequently) isn’t as prudent as I when I invest in a mutual fund about which I know little except that it has a good reputation.

    • I was speaking of liturgical forms, viz. those which are found in the Psalter Hymnal that are used in the URCNA.
      “Wherefore we also according to the command of Christ and of the apostle Paul, admonish all who know themselves to be defiled with the following gross sins to abstain from the table of the Lord, and declare to them that they have no part in the kingdom of Christ: such as, …gamblers, etc. All these, while they continue in such sins, shall abstain from this food, which Christ has appointed only for His believers, lest their judgment and condemnation be made the heavier.” Psalter Hymnal 1959

    • “According to the WLC “gaming” is a waste of resources with which we’ve been entrusted by Providence. ”

      When the WLC forbids “vexatious lawsuits” it doesn’t forbid all lawsuits. When it forbids “unlawful callings” it doesn’t forbid callings. Similarly, the WLC forbids “wasteful gaming” not simply “gaming.” The could have simply said “gaming,” but in this consensus document they chose not to do so.

        • Here is what Perkins says,

          III. Gaming for money and gaine. For thou mayest not inrich thy self by impoverishing thy brother. This gaming is worse far then usury, and in a short while will more inrich a man (Golden Chaine, 63-64.

          Note that the context is illuminated by the next brief section:

          IV. To get money by unlawful artes: such are Magic, Judicial Astrology, Stage-playes, and such like. Eph. 4. 28. Let him that hath stollen, steale no more, but rather let him labour, working with his own hands the thing that is good, that he may give unto him that hath neede. Deut. 18. 11. Eph. 5. 3. 1. Thess. 5. 22. Abstaine from all appearance of evil.

          He didn’t distinguish between “gaming” and “wasteful gaming.” He treated gaming as intrinsically wasteful. I’m just working at trying to determine original intent. I understand that doesn’t preclude the church from receiving a document in somewhat different sense.

          In his Exposition of the Apostles’ Creed, under the heading “God the Father almighty,” he wrote:

          First, whereas God the Father is said to be Almightie, we are taught true humiliation: Humble your selves under the mightie hand of God, saith Peter: where he giveth an exhortation to humilitie, and allegeth the cause, because God is Almightie. To make this more plaine. Every one of us was borne in sin, and by nature we are most wretched in our selves: now what an one is God? Surely he is able to doe whatsoever he will, yea and more then he will, and is able to destroy such as rebell against him every moment. Therefore our dutie is to cast downe our selves for our sins in his presence. This true humiliation was that which our Saviour Christ wold have brought the young man in the Gospel unto, when he bad him go sell all that he had and give to the poore. Therefore whosoever thou art, take heede thou must: for if thou runne on in thy wickednesse, and stil rebell against God, it is a thousand to one at length he wil destroy thee. For he is an Almightie God, and able to doe whatsoever he will. his hand is mightie, it boots not a man to strive with him: for he was never yet overmastered, and for this cause we must needes cast downe our selves under his hand. It is a fearefull thing (saith the holy Ghost) to fall into the hands of the living God: therefore if we would escape his heavie and terrible displeasure, the best way for us is, to abase our selves, and be ashamed to follow our sins. Christ biddeth us not to feare him that [note] is able to kill the bodie, and can go no further: but we must feare him that is able to cast both bodie and soule into hell fire. Example of this we have in David, who when he was persecuted by his owne soune Absolon, he said unto the Lord, If he thus say, I have no delight in thee, behold here I am, let him doe to me as seemeth good in his eyes. But some will say, I will live a little longer in my sins, in lying, pride, Sabbathbreaking, in swearing, dicing, gaming, & wantonnes: for God is mercifull, & in my old age I will repent. Answ. Well; sooth not thy selfe: but marke, usually when God holds back his hand for a season, he doth as it were fetch a more mightie blow, for the greater confusion of a rebellious sinner; therefore humble, submit, [note] and cast downe thy selfe before God, and doe not strive against him: his hand is mightie, and will overthrow thee. Though thou hadst all learning, wisedome, might, riches, &c. yet (as Christ said to the young man) one thing is wanting, that thou sholdest be humbled; and untill thou be humbled, nothing is to be looked for but Gods judgement for sin.

          There are two other virtually identical places in the Exposition of the Apostles’ Creed in two different places.

    • If Perkins were to time-travel to the home of a Reformed elder, pastor, or maybe even a seminary prof he would probably be compelled to write a book called “Practical Latitudinarianism of Ecclesiastical Superiors; in which it is Shewn that Precious Hours and Dollars are Spent on Trifles Rather than What is Needful for Advancing the Kingdom of God.” Some of his book might be spot-on, and in other parts he might conflate the religious consensus of his time with the law of God.

      I’m not a lobbyist for the gambling industry so I’m not inclined to do a prolonged Perkins parsing. It’s interesting to know the opinions of our forefathers at different points in history, and I’ll yield to your appraisal. Having said that, it’s not going to change that the Divines agreed to include an adjective in front of “gaming.”

      To be clear, if a person has never gambled or played the lottery my advice would be to not start. I’m just not inclined to wag my finger at a church member who threw a buck into the office lottery pool and I don’t think the WLC definitively dictates that I should.

      • I agree that we have a right, via Scripture, to go back and criticize our elders. As I tell my students, just because some view or practice is ancient doesn’t make it true. At the same time, I have the strong sense that we’ve become so disconnected from our past that we’ve jettisoned their ethos (and part of what we confess) without even wrestling with it. E.g., I’ve had conversations with folks who are attending Reformed congregations who were, at that time—I don’t know what the state of things is now—seeking to make their living via (online) gambling. That seems to be precisely the sort of thing about which Perkins was (rightly, in my view) concerned about. The honorable business of work has been replaced by gaming. Gambling isn’t a vocation, is it? Being a plumber is an honorable vocation. A plumber provides a valuable service but what “service” does a gambler provide? An investment counselor helps people improve their savings and their capital by helping them to make wise investments. That’s a service. There’s a difference between that and day-trading. I’m not saying that the latter is sin but it seems fair to say that it might be an example where technology has outpaced our ability to think about the ethics of a way of making a living (or not depending on what time it is!) through a biblical and confessional grid.

    • “The honorable business of work has been replaced by gaming. Gambling isn’t a vocation, is it? Being a plumber is an honorable vocation. A plumber provides a valuable service but what “service” does a gambler provide? ”

      Yes, and, to add to this, a person making a living has to be making his money by taking it out of the pockets of other people, doesn’t he? Slots are necessarily money-losing over the long run else the casinos wouldn’t be in business. But poker, blackjack, and the like have winners and losers. I suppose someone could be quite good at sports betting, but that would also involve supporting an industry that, by design, creates mostly losers.

      The magistrate – left and right – loves gambling because it increases revenues. But the magistrate thereby preys on the weak in a particularly heinous fom of regressive taxation.

  4. Seventh paragraph from the top, second sentence reads:

    “To be sure, grinding poverty also causes one to think about this world, about daily survival—I am not suggesting …”

    You might just mean ” … daily survival; …” or something more, but I thought I would point out the formatting error.

  5. Dr. Clark,
    I sent a note to you via your contact button on the heidelblog.net site. Perhaps a glitch or something happened. I just “re”sent it through your wscal e-mail.

  6. I have a friend of mine, an elderly episcopal gentleman, who collects and restores old nickel slot machines. He has an interesting take on his own form of gambling:

    According to him, large commercial slot machines (his only form of gambling) have a set payout over a hery large range, so he theorizes that given his particular budget he can sit down and play slots on nickel machines for $20 and it costs him the same amount as dinner and a movie would for about the same amount of time and food.

    From that respect I can see what he is talking about. I personally know that if I were to ever allow myself to do something similar I would get hooked solely on the maths of it so it is best for me to avoid. Of course, I also look at state lotteries and see them as a voluntary tax on people who cannot understand statistics and that seems rather predatory and wrong.

  7. “the old Reformed view was stoutly against gambling”

    Isn’t the Reformed view also stoutly against stage plays (and, later, movies)?

    • No, I was genuinely interested in an exploration of the topic. If “wasteful gaming” means “gaming,” does “lascivious stage plays” mean “stage plays”?

      • Sorry, someone raised this earlier and I forgot to reply. I can think of at least one stage play by one Reformed orthodox figure, Abraham the Sacrificer in 1550. It was performed in England I believe. There were other stage plays performed in the period. This is not an area I’ve researched much but I think there’s reason to think that there was a difference between plays and lascivious plays.

    • “No, I was genuinely interested in an exploration of the topic.”

      My apologies then for the less-than-amiable reply, Scott Roper.

    • Dr. Clark, that is interesting. I did not know that any of the Reformed (as opposed to the Lutherans) looked favorably on any plays.

      Durell, my initial comment was more pointed than it needed to be.

  8. I refuse to bet on bear baiting. The stock market is far less cruel and far more certain.

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