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John Flavel On Prosperity

By Iain Clements, 21 Aug 2018

A while ago a fellow Pastor in Yorkshire bought me a very generous gift - the “Complete Works Of John Flavel”. All 6 volumes of them! While they look very impressive sat on my shelf, I felt it was important that I read them - after all they were a present! So over the last year I’ve been working my way through them, a few pages a day. And I haven’t regretted it. 

John Flavel was a Puritan minister who lived in the 17th century, and pastored a church in Dartmouth. His works contain a mixture of his published sermons, books and letters. Although he wrote a long time ago, he is still readable (although not quite as readable as Thomas Watson - which I’d recommend as a starting point if you’ve never read the Puritans before). He was a skilled pastor. He combines the ability to be both deeply challenging and also wonderfully comforting as he applies the challenge of God’s word and the reality of Christ’s work to his readers hearts. 

At the moment I am reading Volume 5, and in a section entitled “The Touchstone of Sincerity : The Signs of Grace and Symptoms Of Hypocrisy.” His aim is to show what the real Christian life looks like, in contrast to just a pretence of being a Christian. It is hard to read as it is not a topic that we consider much today - but Flavel shows that there can barely be a more important topic for the Christian to think about, and that it is a topic the New Testament spends a lot of time dealing with. 

In particular, I have been very struck by a section where he writes about prosperity. Most of us are what John Flavel would define as prosperous, even if we wouldn’t think so. We know where our next meal is coming from. Many of us own our houses. We have money for entertainment and the future. But he warns us (from Scripture) of the dangers of prosperity. In quaint 17th century wording he says “Prosperity discovers many sad symptoms of a naughty heart……….In the fattest earth we find the most slippery footing.” 

Why is that the case? Flavel gives three main reasons. First, prosperity can lead us to become oblivious of God, and can lead us to lay aside all our duties before God. Because it can lead us to think that life is relatively easy, we can stop trusting the Lord for all we have. 

Second, if we have prosperity, it can lead us to fix all our attention on what we have, and we can begin to “love the world”. Living in pleasure on the earth, as James warns in his letter. 

Third, Flavel says that prosperity can lead us to become “senseless about the calamities of God’s people”. That is, because our lives are great, we pay no attention to those who are suffering, and in particular those who are suffering for being Christians around the world. There in the danger of becoming like those described by Amos who lived at ease in Zion while there was injustice and suffering around them. 

Of course, Flavel does not write this to encourage us into poverty. What we have is a gift from God. But he sounds the Biblical warning that prosperity is just as much a spiritual trial as poverty is. I was very challenged about whether I have ever given that the degree of thought and prayer it deserves. 

How do we make sure this trial draws us closer to the Lord rather than revealing us to be hypocrites? Flavel gives four applications. 

First, If we are prosperous, do we work hard to suppress pride in our hearts? “Still the more grace there is, the more humility there will be.” 

Second, do we make sure our prosperity draws us to love and delight in God rather than what we have? “They are sanctified instruments to inflame love to God; they boil up a wicked man’s lusts, but they melt a gracious man’s soul.”

Third, do we see prosperity as a God given caution against sin? “This is the natural inference of a gracious soul from them: hath God pleased me, then hath he obliged me to take more care to please him; O let me not grieve him, that hath comforted me!” 

Fourth, Flavel concludes by saying “A truly gracious soul will not be satisfied with all the prosperity and comforts in the world for his portion: Not thine, Lord, but thee, is the voice of grace.”