Acton Institute Powerblog

Toward Sustainable Wealth and Profit

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Today’s NYT has an op-ed by David Brooks that’s been getting good cyber-circulation, “The Gospel of Wealth.” Brooks highlights in particular Southern Baptist pastor David Platt, who is touted as the youngest mega-church leader in the country. Rebelling in many ways from the new traditions associated with mega-churches, Brooks says Platt inhabits the nexus between “between good and plenty, God and mammon,” spirituality and materiality, and that Platt “is in the tradition of those who don’t believe these two spheres can be reconciled.”

Here’s what Brooks concludes: “Americans will not renounce the moral materialism at the core of their national identity. But the country is clearly redefining what sort of lifestyle is socially and morally acceptable and what is not. People like Platt are central to that process.”

It’s true that the call to follow Jesus is a radical call. But it is false to juxtapose that radicalism with a demarcation between those areas of life in which one can be faithful to him and not.

What we can really hope for is that each of us will be obedient to Christ in our own callings, whether in plenty or in want, in abundance or scarcity. In the realm of economics, for most people that will mean that they act responsibly with their money, avoiding the temptation to live in the midst of crippling debt and seeking meaning in buying and identity with what we purchase and consume. This is what I’ve called the “fourth” pillar of the new economy, “Spend all you can.”

But as Brooks points out, the pursuit of sustainable wealth and profit in the midst of responsible giving and saving isn’t at all a new idea. It’s only the excessive spending and unsustainable consumption of recent decades that make it seem new.

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • Roger McKinney

    Brooks: “Americans will not renounce the moral materialism at the core of their national identity.”

    I don’t see it at all. Americans are the most generous people in the entire world in giving of their own money to the poor, as opposed to having the state take other people’s money and give it, as the Europeans do.

    “It’s only the excessive spending and unsustainable consumption of recent decades that make it seem new.”

    That’s not new either. Read Washington Irving’s account of the Mississippi Bubble in his Crayon Papers. Monetary pumping causes it then, and it causes the same today.

  • Roger, I think by “moral materialism” Brooks doesn’t mean anything all that different from Weber’s “worldly asceticism,” and thus is not intending to rule out the significant material generosity of Americans.

    And as a historian, I’m happy to embrace the lack of novelty in my own ideas. Out with the new and in with the old, as they say.

  • I’m not very familiar with Platt, but many of his beliefs that are quoted/paraphrased in the Brooks piece seem a bit fishy.

    For example:

    “‘The American dream radically differs from the call of Jesus and the essence of the Gospel,’ [Platt] argues. The American dream emphasizes self-development and personal growth. Our own abilities are our greatest assets. But the Gospel rejects the focus on self: ‘God actually delights in exalting our inability.'”

    This is a truly narrow view of the “essence of the Gospel.” I have always understood the essence of the Gospel to be about saving and redeeming us as individual sinners. Such redemption REQUIRES self-development and personal growth. Material wealth may intrude and successfully elevate itself as our god throughout our development, but that doesn’t mean we are to *necessarily* exalt in [presumably material?] “inability.”

  • Roger McKinney

    Joseph, I agree. Platt seems to be joining the crowd to kick Americans when they’re down. We’re reeling from a serious crisis and all Platt can say is you brought it on yourselves with your greed! Of course, if he knew a tiny bit of economics he would know that we were bamboozled by a profligate Fed. Greed had very little to do with it. I’m really getting tired of the ignorant arrogance of some pastors.

  • Roger McKinney

    Jordan, I didn’t get that from his piece. If I’m correct, Weber meant that accumulating wealth is a moral thing and a sign of God’s blessing for following his principles. It seems that Weber emphasized the Puritan ethic of saving, not conspicuous consumption. Brooks complains about conspicuous consumption, the opposite of what Weber attributed to Protestants. It seems that Brooks equates “moral materialism” with spending beyond your means, which is also the prosperity gospel popular today.

  • H Kirk Rainer

    As to my understanding (of Radical); the theme seems to be a a continuation on the mission of the believer/church — that is separate from the “American Dream” or a lifestyle so discouraged (as in John Piper’s “Don’t Waste Your Life”).

    Much could added to this posting (beyond my thought on the theme); but in closing, I am reminded of Acts 4 where the hearts and minds of the early church were “in one accord”…and no one was without.

  • I have added more of my thoughts on Platt’s perspective to my blog for those who are interested:

    Here’s a snippet:

    “What I disagree with is the notion that God cannot (or does not want to) use the American dream or the megachurch for his glory. If each individual’s heart is in the right place, God knows how best to use them, and it doesn’t necessarily mean giving all your extra money to the poor and living on $50,000 a year. Charity is not the only way to contribute to humanity, and a mission trip to Africa isn’t the only way to gain a genuine devotion to God.”

  • R. H. Woodman

    Joseph, I disagree with your comment.

    First, I have attended megachurches and small churches. Although the megachurches have more activities, more programs, more, well, everything, than the small churches, with a couple of notable exceptions, they have proven to be generally less friendly, less welcoming, and less loving than any of the small churches I have attended, including the one I attend now. I add to that my observation that most of the megachurches I have attended seem to be built around the cult of personality of the founding pastor and not around Jesus Christ (even if HE does get frequent mention).

    Second, I remind you of Jesus’ comments about how hard it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” If my treasure is in my 4,400 square foot house, my three cars (and only one driver), and my retirement portfolio, then my heart is not heavenly minded, except in the most theoretical sense.

  • David Brandts

    A rich man is one who thinks what he has is his own. Luke 12:13-21 includes a parable of a wealthy farmer that viewed all that he had as being his own. He did not see himself as a steward of what God had given him. As a result, he saw all that he had as a means to please himself, not God.

    Two stewards, however, that have the same amount of wealth coming to them may use it very differently and yet both may be very faithful to the Master.

    Greed, at its core,is men elevating wealth to being the satisfier of the soul instead of Jesus Christ and it is believing that the wealth that comes to you is your own, not a stewardship entrusted to you to be used for the glory of Jesus Christ (I Tim. 6:17-19).

    Wealth is not, in itself, evil, but setting our hearts on it is (I Timothy 6:8-10). Wealth is given to one man to be used as a blessing to others for the glory of Christ. There are many ways that wealth can be used for Christ’s glory and man’s good.

    We must be careful to not view wealth as inately evil while at the same time we must realize how easily wealth can lead to a deceived and hardened heart toward God if it is not used for Christ’s glory and viewed as belonging to God (Mark 4:18-19). Additionally, we must be careful not to come to premature conclusions about the motives of those who claim Christ and are also wealthy (I Cor. 4:1-5).