“Old doubts and fears about games of chance are falling by the wayside as states, churches and other organizations cater to people’s growing desire to bet.” So ran the subtitle to an article on gambling in an issue of U.S. News last spring. In the last couple of years many Americans have felt the effects of a harsh economy. One business at least has experienced no slowdown, the gambling business. Business is brisk, in fact it has never been better. The piles of money being gambled away in every part of the U.S. continue to get bigger every year, recession or no recession. Never before have so many people used so many ways to bet so much. 

Some statistics. Studies by federal researchers have found that more than 60% of the adult population engage in some form of gambling, and 80% of the people surveyed in a 1982 Gallup Poll approved of legalized gambling. A flood of recently approved laws permitting lotteries, racetrack betting, and bingo has left only four states—Mississippi, Indiana, Utah, and Hawaii—that still prohibit all forms of gambling. It’s difficult to place an accurate figure on the amount of money won and lost in social gambling among friends, at church bingos, raffles, and sporting events. And it’s even more difficult to say for sure the total amount lost in illegal professional gambling. But according to statistics cited in the November 25, 1983, editorial ofChristianity Today, researchers calculate that professional gambling interests net $50 billion every year. Estimates of the total amount wagered range from $500 billion up to $1 trillion per year. Statistics indicate that there are from 7 to 10 million compulsive gamblers in the U.S.—more than the number of alcoholics. 

Last year 17 states, including the District of Columbia, sold $4 billion in lottery tickets. Twenty-four additional states are in the process of joining those who operate government lotteries. Even though lotteries return less than half of the money they take in, low in comparison to the 75% to 88% payouts of racetracks and casinos, public response to them has been overwhelming. 

The last couple of years has also witnessed a comeback of racetrack betting. In May of last year the Iowa Legislature passed a law allowing parimutuel betting on horse races. Voters in Oklahoma and Minnesota had already voted by more than a 2 to 1 margin to add their states to the 31 that already permit racetrack betting. Legal betting on Thoroughbreds, harness horses, quarter horses, and greyhounds netted more than $22 billion in 1982. 

Especially on the increase is sports betting. This is due largely to the boom in televised athletics. Sports betting was estimated at between $65 and $75 billion last year. This moved sports betting into second place in the nation’s race for the most costly illegal pastime, with illicit drugs, estimated at $79 billion a year, still in first place.

Technological advances have opened up new frontiers to the nation’s gamblers. Coin-operated lottery machines, cable-television hookups, and telephone banks providing instant transmission of wagers all over the country are just some of the latest inventions to promote the gambling enterprise. 

The result of it all is that, everywhere we turn, we are encouraged to gamble: football and basketball pools, magazine sweepstakes, lottery tickets at the checkout lanes in the grocery stores, raffles and bingo games by charitable organizations, private bingo and card parties, as well as the horse and dog races. The number of compulsive gamblers rises drastically every year. These people become so obsessed with gambling that this sin takes over their entire life, to the ruin of their families and the loss of their jobs, as well as every penny that they own. 

The two organizations most responsible for the re-introduction of gambling in the U.S. are the government and the churches. Rather than speak out clearly and forcefully against the sin of gambling, the churches have taken the lead in promoting gambling. Bingo games and raffles have become big business for the churches, a new and better way to raise money at a time when contributions were down. 

The government too has legalized gambling with its own interests largely in view. Faced with financial woes, many state governments have been forced to seek new sources of revenue. Gambling seemed to have at least two advantages. First, many lawmakers thought that by legalizing gambling the effect would be to discourage illegal gambling associated with big crime. This expectation, for various reasons, has not been realized. In fact the illegal gambling racketeers have used the legalizing of gambling to their own advantage. Second, lawmakers thought legal gambling to be a rather painless alternative to increasing taxes in order to raise needed money. 

It’s not as though there has been no opposition to the legalizing of gambling. There have been those who, for various reasons, have spoken out against this modern trend. Some critics have pointed out that those who gamble are those who can least afford it, people with low incomes and even those on state welfare. A study conducted in Michigan showed that people with less money spent a larger percentage of their incomes on the state lottery. The expectation, of course, is to win big so that all one’s financial worries will be over. Other criticism concerns the crime and cheating that are inevitably associated with gambling’s promise of easy money. Since gambling has been legalized in the state of New Jersey, per capita crime in Atlantic City, which is fast becoming the gambling capital of the nation, has tripled. The legalizing of gambling has taken its toll. Still today, God punishes sin with more sin. 

The legalizing of gambling has swelled the ranks of compulsive gamblers. There is even an organization for “addicted” gamblers, Gamblers Anonymous. (What next, pray tell!) This organization currently operates over 500 chapters throughout the U.S. 

“But, what’s really so bad about gambling? At least if one doesn’t get too carried away? It’s really rather harmless and great fun. And everyone is doing it.” These are remarks that I’ve heard, and I’m sure you have heard similar remarks. 

I believe that there are several Biblical principles which prohibit gambling and which condemn the practice of gambling by Christians. 

1. Gambling is a denial of the God of providence. Rather than put his trust in God, the gambler replaces God with a world governed by pure chance and places his trust in blind luck. This is a denial of providence. Lord’s Day 10 and 11 of the Heidelberg Catechism teach us that it is God Who “upholds and governs” all things by His eternal counsel, that we are to rely upon God entirely, and not to doubt that “He will provide me with all things necessary for soul and body.” Because of the truth of God’s providence, the Christian knows that “all things come, not by chance, but by His fatherly hand.” You might also look up the statement of the Belgic Confession, article 13, on the doctrine of providence. Some Scripture passages that have bearing on this point are: Acts 17:27Matt. 10:29, 30Heb. 1:3Ps. 55:22Matt. 6:19 ff. 

2. Gambling violates the Biblical principle of work. The truth of providence teaches us that God provides for us. Ordinarily, the way in which God does this is through our working. The believer is to obtain his daily bread and his earthly possessions by means of working. “For even when we were with you, this we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat” (II Thes. 3:10). See also Rom. 12:11 and Eph. 4:28.

3. If, in spite of our working or because of our inability to work, we become poor, we must not turn to gambling to solve our financial problems, but we must turn to the church, first to our relatives and then to the deacons. This is the teaching of Acts 6:1-8 and I Tim. 5

4. Gambling risks our possessions, and therefore is bad stewardship. God has entrusted even our earthly possessions to us, and one day we will have to render account to Him as regards our use or abuse of those possessions. “Moreover it is required in stewards, that a man be found faithful” (I Cor. 4:2). See also Eccl. 12:14I Pet. 4:10Luke 12:42-48Luke 16:1-12

5. Gambling leads to covetousness and arises out of covetousness. Often this is the desire to be rich, to have money and what that money will buy. The lure of high stakes and a big jackpot tempt many into the sin of gambling. For others, it’s not even the desire for money itself. Rather it’s the desire to have the reputation of beating the odds, of making it big, of being known as a big winner. No matter, in either case it’s a matter of covetousness. And no covetous man or woman shall have a place in the kingdom of heaven. See Ps. 10:3I Cor. 5:9-11I Cor. 6:9, 10Eph. 5:5II Pet. 2:14

As Christians it’s clear to us what our position ought to be in regard to gambling. Of this sin, too, the word of the Apostle applies in Ephesians 5:3: “. . . let it not be once named among you, as becometh saints.” Let us flee the temptation ourselves to gamble. Let us be a witness to the Word of God against this sin to those around us, especially our friends and neighbors, who gamble or who approve of gambling. And let us exert ourselves that this sin does not become approved by the church. Let each of us labor faithfully to provide for ourselves and our families in that particular station in life in which God has set us. And let us above all look to our heavenly Father for all that we need, both for the body and the soul.