Christianity and Economics, Part 8: Regulation and Doing the Right Thing

To read other parts in the Christianity and Economics series, click here.

In a free market economy, scarce resources are continually directed towards the ends most valued by consumers (See Part 4). There are times, however, when people who are not happy with a particular market outcome will turn to governing authorities to enact some sort of regulation of the market. Many seem to think that the free market is generally very good and efficient at allocating resources, but if allowed to operate too freely, it will enable the greedy and dishonest to take advantage of others. It is argued that the government should occasionally use their power to steer the market back toward the public good.

Those who advocate for the government’s regulation of the economy are often well intended, and it’s easy to sympathize with their concerns. Who wants to worry about giving their children unsafe medicine? Who likes the idea of people being asked to work long hours in unsafe working conditions? Who wants to be mislead by a dishonest salesman into buying a poor quality product? What can be done to protect consumers against greedy and dishonest business practices?

Most people think the obvious answer is to have the government pass laws to regulate against harmful business practices. However, as we consider regulatory practices, we must consider both the economic and ethical implications. The truth is that government intervention in the economy is unhelpful in improving market outcomes, and it is an unethical means of doing so.

The Economics of Interventionism

The free-market economy lowers prices and increases the quality of goods and services by means of competition. As was explained in Part 6, voluntary exchange will only occur when both parties believe the transaction is beneficial. If one party views an exchange as harmful, they can simply refuse the transaction to pursue a better alternative.

When government intervenes in the production and exchange of goods, it does so by passing regulations in the name of “protecting” the public. But the problem with economic regulation is that it enables some parties to benefit, but only at the expense of other parties who do not benefit. For this reason, those who wish to benefit in a interventionist economy will have economic incentives to serve the politicians and bureaucrats who pass those regulations, rather than the consumers who buy their products. To explain why this is the case, consider the following example.

Imagine you open a small business as a shoe maker. Your top priority is returning customers. To this end, you choose your materials, your styles, your production methods, your product placement, your prices, and your delivery methods based off of what your consumer wants. If consumers value the shoes you produce, you earn profits. If consumers does not value it, you suffer losses (Part 4). Since there are plenty of other shoe makers in the market, you must continually strive to produce superior value for your consumers, or else they will choose to buy their shoes from somewhere else. The presence of competition, along with the importance of maintaining a good reputation with your customers, ensures that businesses remain committed to serving their customers in the best way possible. Although there is no guarantee that there will be no “bad” shoe makers out there, it does mean that “bad” shoe makers will be forced to either improve their product to satisfy their customer’s desires, or else lose potential profits as customers chose to pursue other options.

Now imagine the government decided to take action to protect consumers from “bad” shoe makers by regulating the shoe industry. Rather than allowing entrepreneurs to decide the full process of shoe production, critical decisions about the quality of the material, the production methods, and even how you can advertise your shoes are now made by bureaucrats. To enforce these regulations, the government now requires licenses and compulsory inspections. As a producer of shoes, you must now spend time and resources, not only in producing the kind of product your customer wants, but also in catering to political regulations.

Although this intervention in the shoe market was motivated by the noble goal of protecting consumers from “bad” shoe makers, the new regulations create compliance costs. These increased costs create barriers to potential shoe makers who may wish to enter the market. This reduces competition, which in turn helps the “big” shoe companies, who have more resources available to absorb these new costs. In this way, regulation restricts competition, reduces the supply of shoes, and increases prices, to the detriment of consumers. It would come as no surprise to learn that the “big” shoe companies actually lobbied for those regulations which help them, hurt their rivals, and reduce competition.

This example illustrates an important point. The free market succeeds precisely because competition holds businesses accountable to consumers. Regulation doesn’t work because it incentivizes political favoritism, reduces competition, and ultimately leaves the consumer with less choices. Less competition means less consumer choices, which means that consumers will have to settle for less quality and higher priced goods.

When people engage in voluntary exchange, they do so because they believe they will be better off as a result of the trade (Part 6). In this way, the free market tends to maximize the satisfaction of everyone. Government intervention in the market hinders this process and invites conflict as one party benefits only at the expense of another.

The Ethics of Intervention

The Bible clearly teaches that greed is a sin. Jesus warned that we should “be on your guard against all covetousness” (Lk. 12:15). Paul wrote that covetousness “is idolatry” (Col. 3:5) and warned that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils” (1 Tim. 6:10).

The Bible also teaches that fraud is sin. God commands his people to use honest weights and measures in their business dealings (Lev. 19:35-36; Deut. 25:15). Jesus includes “do not defraud” in his answer to the rich man’s question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mk. 10:19).

Greed and fraud are serious problems, but the question remains: What should we, as Christians, do about it?

One principle that Christians must remember is that we must not do evil that good may come (Rom. 3:8). It is wrong to forcibly remove a person’s right to manage their own property as they think is best (Part 5). For this reason, economic regulation violates the Biblical commands against theft.

As Christians, we do have a responsibility to overcome evil. But as Paul makes it clear, we must not do this by doing evil. We overcome evil by doing good.

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Romans 12:21

A few verses earlier, Paul commands:

Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”

Romans 12:19

God does not charge the church with the responsibility of using governing authorities as their military wing to punish evildoers for their sins. To the contrary, Christians are commanded to maintain an attitude of submission to whatever authorities God appoints. (Rom. 13:1-2).

As mere humans, we cannot always know precisely what is in the heart of another person. Suppose a seller sharply raises the prices of his product. Since we have no way of reading minds, we have no ways of knowing for sure if the seller has raised his prices in an attempt to feed his family, or if he is merely greedy. That’s one reason why it is best to leave judgment to God.

This is not to say that Christians should simply accept that evil business practices will go unchecked. Rather because we are confident that each person will give an account before God (Rom. 14:4, 12), and because we are confident that God will repay wrongdoers (Rom. 12:19), we are freed from the responsibility of punishing them for their sins. Since we are confidence that evil will not go unchecked, we can focus on doing good (Rom. 12:21).

On a more practical point, in a free market, even the greediest of sellers can only earn a profit in the long run by giving his customers what they want.  If they try to sell their product for too high of a price, or if they dishonestly mislead their customers, they will eventually earn themselves a poor reputation, and their customers will stop doing business with them. This doesn’t make their greed acceptable. It simply means that in a free market, long term success can only be found by serving others, because without others benefiting from the exchange, there would be no voluntary exchange.

This is not the case in an interventionist economy, where greed can be put into practice by seizing political power to enforce regulations which allow the greedy person to profit at other’s expense, against their will. This seems to have been a major problem in Israel in Micah’s day.

Woe to those who devise wickedness and work evil on their beds!
When the morning dawns, they perform it,
because it is in the power of their hand.
They covet fields and seize them,
and houses, and take them away;
they oppress a man and his house,
a man and his inheritance.

Micah 2:2

When Christians worry that a free market will result in unbridled greed, they do so because they have not learned to think economically. In a free market, no one can “covet fields and seize them” or “oppress a man and his house”. This can only happen when men are granted the power to do so. To receive a profit in a free market, where no one is given the power to rule over another person’s property by the force of law, entrepreneurs must offer something of value to their customers.

It is important to remember that the free market is far from unregulated. Although the free market may be unregulated by the state, it is strictly and continually regulated by consumer preferences.

In this way, Christians can regulate the economy. Although Christians are not permitted to use the government sword to overcome evil, they can work to change people’s preferences. They do this by making disciples, instructing others to follow all the commands of Jesus (Mt. 28:19-20). When people follow Jesus, they will be more loving and kind and honest with their neighbors. This will positively impact their business practices far more than any government enforced regulation. If Christians really want better market outcomes, they should remain faithful to the One who has the ability to transform the hearts and minds of his followers.

Better Bible Study Tip #69: Don’t Judge a Book’s Author by It’s Title

My “Better Bible Study Tip #68” was to try to determine the setting of the book. In short, it can be really helpful to try to determine who wrote the book, historical details about the situation in which it was written, and what the author’s purpose was for writing the book. But one particular challenge in doing this is that most of the books of the Bible are anonymous.

This is particularly true with much of the Old Testament. For instance, we don’t have a clue who wrote books like Judges, 1-2 Kings, and 1-2 Chronicles. Even several of the books that are named for a person are actually anonymous, such as Joshua, Ruth, and 1-2 Samuel. There’s even some uncertainty about some of the books that are attributed to someone. For example, several of the Psalms contain a superscription which reads “A Psalm of David.” The problem is, there’s a good bit of debate about whether these superscriptions were part of the original inspired text, or if they were added later. Even if they are original, the phrase “Of David” could possibly mean “by David” or “for David” or “about David.”

The New Testament is less anonymous. Most of the books include the name of the author. But even in the New Testament, there’s still a good deal of uncertainty. For example, we don’t know who wrote Hebrews. The gospel of John has a very old tradition linking it to the disciple John, but is technically anonymous. All we know from the text itself is that is was written by “the disciple whom Jesus loved(John 21:20, 24). Since there are multiple people named “James” and “John” who are named among Jesus’s followers, we’re not 100% certain who wrote the books that contain their names either.

Yes, it is important to try to determine the setting in which a book was written. But at the same time, we must remain humble, and admit what we don’t know. Be careful not to base your interpretation of a book based upon a presumption about the book’s authorship. Guessing at a book’s author, and then basing your interpretation based on that guess, is very shaky ground upon which to base your conclusions.

The good news is, we can still learn a good deal about a book’s setting, even when we’re not certain who wrote the book. If you pay close attention to the content of the book, you can often find several clues to help you understand it’s historical setting and the author’s objective, even without knowing who the author is. But be careful not to judge a book’s authorship based on the title alone.

Speaking in Tongues as a Sign of the Spirit

There are three, and possibly four instances of speaking in tongues recorded in the book of Acts. In each instance, the ability to speak in tongues served to signify the presence of the Holy Spirit. Recall from part 1 the close connection between “Spirit” and “breath” and “words.” When people were given the ability to speak words in unfamiliar languages, this could only mean that it was not the speaker’s own spirit giving utterance to the words. The ability to speak in tongues convinced both the receiver and others in attendance that the Holy Spirit had been poured out.

Speaking in Tongues on Pentecost

In Acts 2:1-3 we read about the mighty rushing wind that filled the house where Jesus’s apostles were sitting, and tongues of fire rested over each one of them. It is here that we find the first instance of speaking in tongues:

And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.

Acts 2:4

This shocking and observable event naturally prompted many questions (2:12-13), leading to Peter’s Pentecost sermon (2:14-36). At the conclusion of this sermon, Peter challenged his Jewish audience to respond in repentance and baptism.

And Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.

Acts 2:38-39


  • The ability to speak in tongues was directly connected to their being filled with the Holy Spirit. It was the Holy Spirit that gave them the ability to utter foreign words.
  • This event was in the context of a large Jewish assembly in Jerusalem (2:5-12).
  • Peter says the promised Holy Spirit was not limited only to the apostles who were given the ability to speak in tongues, but would be given to those who would repent and be baptized

The gift of the Holy Spirit to be received in baptism was not offered until after the Holy Spirit was poured out in astonishing fashion upon the apostles. Because of the mighty rushing wind, the tongues of fire, and the ability to speak in tongues, Peter thus concluded that the promised Holy Spirit was available not only to the Jews and to their children, but to “all who are far off.”

Speaking in Tongues in Caesarea

In Acts 10 we read of another occurrence of speaking in tongues. What makes Acts 10 unique from Acts 2 is that the individuals involved were Gentiles (Cornelius and his household) who believed in Jesus.

While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles. For they were hearing them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter declared, “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to remain some days.

Acts 10:44-48


  • Peter knew the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles because he heard them speaking on tongues as observable proof.
  • Once again, we see a close connection between the miraculous outpouring of the Spirit and baptism. Here Peter saw that the Spirit was poured out on the Gentiles and responded by commanding the Gentiles to be baptized, just as he had commanded the Jews on Pentecost.

Speaking in Tongues that Occurred in Ephesus

Just as in Acts 2 and Acts 10, we read of another occurrence of the ability to speak in tongues in Acts 19. Acts 19 is unique in that the Holy Spirit was poured out specifically upon disciples who had only been baptized with John’s baptism, and were previously unaware of the Holy Spirit.

And it happened that while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul passed through the inland country and came to Ephesus. There he found some disciples. And he said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” And they said, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They said, “Into John’s baptism.” And Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking on tongues and prophesying.”

Acts 19:1-6


  • Just as on Pentecost and in Caesarea, when the Holy Spirit came on them, they began to speak in tongues.
  • Just as on Pentecost and in Caesarea, the presence of the Holy Spirit is once again closely connected with baptism. Here they were baptized, then Paul laid his hands on them, then they were given the ability to speak in tongues.
  • Unlike Acts 2 and Acts 10, where the outpouring of the Holy Spirit resulted in the command to be baptized, here we see the reverse order. They were baptized, but did not receive the ability to speak in tongues from baptism itself, but when Paul laid his hands on them giving them the ability to speak in tongues and prophesy.

Speaking in Tongues that (Probably) Occurred in Samaria

There is one other instance in the book of Acts, where the ability to speak in tongues is not explicitly mentioned, but is likely implied. In Acts 8 we read about Philip preaching the gospel to the Samaritans, who responded in baptism. But here, Luke finds it noteworthy to mention that even though they were baptized, they had not yet received the Holy Spirit.

Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent to them Peter and John, who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, for he had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.

Acts 8:14-16

Notice that by this time, the apostles recognized that baptism that did not result in the reception of the Holy Spirit was an abnormality. They recognized the absence of the Holy Spirit following the Samaritan’s baptisms as a problem in need of a resolution. Up to this point, the Holy Spirit was given to all those who obeyed him in baptism (Acts 5:32; cf. Acts 2:38-39).

And so we read happened:

Then they laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit. Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, saying, “Give me this power also, so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.”

Acts 8:17-18

When the apostles laid their hands on the Samaritans they were given the Holy Spirit. Simon recognized this because he saw the Spirit’s power in some observable way. Since speaking in tongues was the outward sign in other recorded instances where the Holy Spirit was poured out on people, it is very likely that speaking in tongues occurred here in Samaria as well. Just as in the other passages, it is once again closely connected to baptism, though not received through the act of baptism itself. As in Acts 19, the ability to speak in tongues was given through the laying the apostle’s hands.

The Significance of Speaking in Tongues

It is helpful to notice that Luke highlights the ability to speak in tongue at critical moments in the early church’s history. Recall that Luke opened the book of Acts with two of Jesus’s promises about the Holy Spirit. First, Jesus reminded his disciples of the difference between his baptism and John’s baptism.

“John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

Acts 1:5

Then Jesus told his disciples how when they receive the Holy Spirit, they would be his witnesses, first in Jerusalem, then in Judea and Samaria, and finally to the end of the earth.

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”

Acts 1:8

The key moments in the book of Acts where the outpouring of the Holy Spirit resulted in the ability to speak in tongues, corresponds precisely with these introductory verses. First, we see the ability to speak in tongues when the gospel was first preached among the Jews in Jerusalem and Judea (Acts 2). Then, we read about the Holy Spirit being given in a powerful manner in when the gospel was first preached in Samaria (Acts 8). We read about the ability to speak in tongues in Caesarea, when the gospel was first preached to the Gentiles (Acts 10), which opens the door to Paul’s mission to carry the gospel “to the ends of the earth”. The final occurrence circles back to highlight the contrast between John’s baptism and Jesus’ baptism with the Spirit (Acts 19), showing that John’s promise had in fact been fulfilled.

In each instance, the miraculous ability to speak in tongues served as undeniable proof that God’s Spirit had been poured out. First we see the Spirit’s presence with the Jews, then the Samaritans, then the Gentiles, then among John’s disciples. In each instance, the outpouring of the Spirit severed either to prove that baptism was now needed, or to demonstrate the Spirit’s approval of baptisms which had just occurred.

How exactly does the outpouring of the Spirit lead to the necessity of baptism? How is baptism connected to those times when the Spirit was poured out in such an amazing way? What role does the Spirit play in baptism today? These questions will be the focus of the next part of this study.

The Fulfillment of the Promise of the Spirit

This is part 10 of an ongoing series on the Holy Spirit. To read the other parts of this series, click here.

The Promise of The Father

The Old Testament prophets frequently spoke of the coming kingdom of God. This new age would be initiated when the Holy Spirit is poured out on his people (Part 5). For instance, Ezekiel said:

I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.

Ezekiel 36:27


I will not hide my face anymore from them, when I pour out my Spirit upon the house of Israel, declares the Lord GOD.

Ezekiel 39:29

And in Joel it written:

And it shall come to pass afterward,
that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.
Even on my male and female servants
in those days I will pour out my Spirit.

Joel 2:28-29

In similar fashion, John the Baptist said that the coming Messiah would baptize with the Holy Spirit (Part 9).

I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.

Matthew 3:11 (cf. Mk. 1:8; Lk. 3:16; Jn. 1:33)

Jesus himself spoke of a future day when he would send the Holy Spirit (Parts 6 and 7).

On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.

John 7:37-39

According to Jesus, the Spirit would be given to those who believed in him, but this would not happen until after he was glorified. Later, on the night of his betrayal, Jesus told his disciples that they would not see him anymore, but that the Holy Spirit would come and teach them all things (Jn. 14:16-26).

Jesus’s teachings, along with those of John the Baptist, were consistent with the Old Testament prophets, in that they all spoke of a coming day when the Spirit would be poured out. This brings us to what Jesus said about the Holy Spirit following his resurrection, but prior to his ascension.

And while staying with them he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.

Acts 1:4-5


  • Jesus told his disciples that they would be baptized with the Holy Spirit “not many days from now.”
  • Jesus connects this event with the “promise of the Father.”
  • In doing so, Jesus seems to connect the Old Testament prophesies regarding the coming Spirit with John’s statement about baptism with the Holy Spirit

With this “baptism with the Spirit” and the “promise of the Father” in the front of his mind, Luke then tells his readers about the amazing events which happened on Pentecost.

The Spirit on Pentecost

When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.

Acts 2:1-4


  • The close connection between the mighty rushing “wind” and the “Spirit.” Recall that the words “wind” and “Spirit” are the same (see Part 1). This passage could be translated that the apostles heard a sound of a mighty rushing “Breath” or “Spirit,” they were filled with the Holy “Breath”, and began to speak in tongues as the “Breath” gave them utterance.
  • It was the “Spirit”/”Wind”/”Breath” that gave them their words. This makes sense when we recall how God filled various people in the Old Testament, giving them the ability to speak words from God (Part 3). The apostles, filled with the Spirit, were speaking words that originated with God’s Spirit.
  • In the context of Jesus’s statement quoted above (Acts 1:4-5), we can observe that Luke sees this event as closely connected to the baptism with the Spirit and the promise of the Father.

Next, notice how Peter explains these events by referring to the prophecy from Joel 2:28-32 (cf. Part 5).

But Peter, standing with the eleven, lifted up his voice and addressed them: “Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and give ear to my words. For these people are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day. But this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel:

And in the last days it shall be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams;
even on my male servants and female servants
in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.

Acts 2:14-18

According to Peter, this prophesy was being fulfilled in the events of Pentecost.

Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing.

Acts 2:33

Baptism With the Spirit in Acts

Later in the book of Acts, Luke records of another time when the Spirit was poured out, this time upon the Gentiles in Cornelius’s household (Acts 10:44-48). As Peter recalls the event, he makes the following statement:

As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”

Acts 11:15-16


  • Peter said that the outpouring of the Spirit on the Gentiles in Cornelius’ household was essentially a repeat of what happened to the Jews on Pentecost
  • Peter identified each of these events as a fulfillment of Jesus’s prediction about baptism with the Holy Spirit

If it wasn’t already clear from Acts 1-2, Peter’s statement here explicitly identifies “baptism with the Holy Spirit” with the events that occurred in both Acts 2 on Pentecost and in Acts 10 with Cornelius’s household. In other parts of the book of Acts similar events are recorded (Acts 8:14-19 and Acts 19:6) which very likely could also be described as “baptism with the Holy Spirit.” These will be discussed in more detail in the next part of this study.

What Paul Said About The Promised Spirit

Since Luke in the book of Acts explicitly identifies the amazing events of Acts 2 and Acts 10 as baptism with the Holy Spirit, we might think it logical to conclude that baptism with the Spirit does not occur where amazing signs and wonders (such as speaking in tongues) are absent. It would be a mistake, however, to draw a conclusion that does not account for the writings of the apostle Paul. For instance, in his letter to the Galatians, Paul wrote:

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us – for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree” – so that in Christ Jesus the blessing on Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.

Galatians 3:13-14

When Paul speaks of the blessings of Abraham being experienced by “us” so that “we” might receive the promised Spirit through faith, he seems to be referring to all Christians, or “those of faith” (Gal. 3:7). Notice that Paul says that “we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.” While Luke in Acts speaks of the promise of the Holy Spirit being fulfilled in the observable events of Acts 2 and Acts 10, Paul speaks of the promised Spirit being received by all Christians through faith.

Paul also wrote the following in his letter to the Ephesians:

In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.

Ephesians 1:13-14

According to Paul, all Christians are “sealed with the promised Holy Spirit.” The “promised Holy Spirit” is what we now have as a down payment of our future inheritance.

A Question to Consider

Since the book of Acts explicitly identifies the miraculous events described in Acts 2 and Acts 10 as the fulfillment of the prophetic promises regarding the Spirit, and as the fulfillment of Jesus and John’s statements about baptism with the Holy Spirit, why does Paul conclude that all Christians receive the promised Holy Spirit?

To answer this question, we must first:

  1. Pay close attention to Luke’s reason for highlighting the miraculous signs and wonders (such as the ability to speak in tongues) at very special and critical moments in the book of Acts, and…
  2. Pay close attention to how both Luke and Paul connect those miraculous outpourings of the Spirit with what happens in the baptism of every Christian

This will be the objective of the next two parts of this study.

Better Bible Study Tip #68: Try To Determine the Setting of the Book

When I say “try to determine the setting of the book”, I mean try to determine it’s author, the approximate time when it was written, the situation, and the author’s purpose.

It is important to remember that the Bible was written by humans. Don’t misunderstand me. The Bible is absolutely 100% God’s divinely inspired word. It is 100% true. It is 100% authoritative. It is not simply a human book. But at the same time, God used humans to write the Bible (see Bible study Tip #30: The Bible is 100% Divine and 100% Human).

It would be a mistake to imagine the process of inspiration as if a person simply falls into a mindless trance while the Spirit of God overtakes the muscles in their hand to fill a scroll with God’s words. I have no problem believing that God could have given us scripture that way if that’s what he had wanted to do, but that’s just not how the Bible describes itself. Yes, the inspired writers were carried along by the Holy Spirit as they wrote (2 Peter 1:20-21), but this does not mean that the writers were separated from their own purpose and agenda for writing. There are several places in the Bible that make this really clear.

These are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

John 20:31

I do not write these things to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children.

1 Corinthians 4:14

For this reason I write these things while I am away from you, that when I come I may not have to be severe in my use of the authority that the Lord has given me for building up and not for tearing down.

2 Corinthians 13:10

Even when God directly commanded something to be written down, the Bible doesn’t describe the person as losing control of their mind as they wrote (Ex. 17:14; Num. 5:23; Deut. 31:19, 30). This doesn’t mean the Bible is any less reliable. If we take the Bible as the Bible describes itself, we must conclude that God is powerful enough that he doesn’t have to separate a person from their own natural purpose and agenda in order to supernaturally produce the precise words that he wants them to write. He’s powerful enough to do this, even without using mind-control! (I don’t know about you, but I think that’s every bit as impressive, if not more impressive than the “mindless trance” idea).

Understanding this has important implications for good Bible study. Since God used humans to write Scripture, the more we understand what those humans were trying to communicate, the more we will understand what God was trying to communicate through them. That’s why understanding the historical setting of a book is important.

Of course many books of the Bible were written anonymously, and that’s okay. And some books are easier to situate in a particular moment in history than others (it helps to be familiar with biblical chronology, see Tip #67). That’s okay too. We can also recognize that God had the ability to communicate divine truths that go beyond what even the prophets themselves could comprehend (1 Peter 1:10-12). But the more we understand about who the author was, the historical situation in which they were writing, and their purpose for writing, the better grasp we will have of why the author writes the things he does, what he is trying to communicate, and why those things are important.

Christianity and Economics, Part 7: The Benefits of Voluntary Exchange

Click here for other parts in the Christianity and Economics series

The possibility of voluntary exchange opens up numerous benefits for mankind. First, it leads to the specialization and division of labor, which in turn leads to increased productivity, wealth, and standard of living for each person. Secondly, voluntary exchange encourages peaceful relationships and moral behavior.

Imagine what life would be like if no one was permitted to exchange goods or services with others. Immediately, every business would cease to operate. Not only could no one go to work (an exchange of services), but no goods could be sold. If you wanted clothes, you would have to raise the sheep, spin the wool, and sew them yourself. If you wanted to eat, you would have to raise your own animals, grow your own garden, and fix every meal from scratch. If you needed to clear your land to begin farming, you would have to do that yourself. If you wanted a tractor to help you, you would have to make your own metal, make you own tools, shape your own parts, refine your own oil, etc. It doesn’t take long to imagine how difficult such a lifestyle would be. Without exchange, it would be nearly impossible to fulfill God’s charge for us to “fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen. 1:28).

The possibility of exchange means we can produce for others instead of producing only for ourselves, and we can benefit from the knowledge, resources, and services of others instead of relying solely on our own abilities. This in turn opens up the possibility for the specialization and division of labor.

The Division of Labor

The phrase “division of labor” refers to different people specializing in the production of different goods and services. Some people are farmers, some are teachers, some are artists, some repair cars, some are doctors, some are professional basketball players. People can only specialize in a particular field of labor because of the possibility of exchange.

When God created the world, he filled it with variety. Some places were created with more precious metals than others (cf. Gen. 2:11-12). Some places were created with more timber than others (cf. 1 Kings 5:6). People were also created with variety. When God created a helper for Adam, he did not clone an exact replica of Adam, but rather he created Eve, who’s uniqueness made her a helper fit for him (Gen. 2:20-25). Every person has their own unique strengths and weaknesses. Some are more skilled at keeping sheep, and some are more skilled at gardening (cf. Gen. 4:2-3). Some are skilled at raising livestock, some are skilled at playing musical instruments, and some are skilled at metalworking (cf. Gen. 4:20-22). On multiple occasions Paul refers to the uniqueness of different people’s strengths as an important asset for the work of the church (cf. Rom. 12:4-8; 1 Cor. 12; Eph. 4:11-12).

Because people are created with a variety of skills and interests and with access to different natural resources, some people will be more suited to certain lines of work than others. This variety means people will tend to specialize in those trades where they are more productive than others.

Increased Production

At this point it is critical to make a few important observations. First of all, observe that the existence and development of the division of labor is directly tied to increased productivity. People can produce more when they can develop their skills in those areas that uniquely align with their God-given skills and with the resources that they have access to. Or to state the same truth in the opposite manner, everyone would produce less if they all had to be generalists and were unable to focus their efforts in those areas where they are more naturally skilled.

Secondly, it is important to notice that this increased productivity from the division of labor can only exist when people are free to trade for the things they want, but cannot produce as effectively. For example, it makes sense for a farmer to focus on raising produce, only because he can trade with a manufacturer for the tractor he wants. It makes sense for the manufacturer to focus his labor on making tractors, only because he can trade for the food his family needs to eat. If the opportunity for voluntary exchange were not there, both individuals would have to spend time raising food for their families, and spend time making their own tools.

It is the possibility of exchange that leads to the development of the division of labor. The division of labor enables everyone to be more productive and consume more than they could if they tried to produce everything for themselves.

Peaceful Relationships and Moral Behavior

The freedom to exchange goods does not guarantee that no one will ever steal or threaten another person. It does not guarantee that everyone will act ethically. Nor does it guarantee that everyone will make good and wise decisions. But when people see benefit that results from voluntary trade with others, they have an incentive to maintain those voluntary relationships which are necessary for voluntary exchange to take place.

A shrewd businessman may be tempted to increase his profits by using unethical or unwise means. But unethical behavior seldom pays off in the long run. When people choose to take actions that harm their relationships with others, they limit their opportunities for voluntary exchange. This in turn limits their opportunity enjoy the benefit that results from those exchanges. People are more likely to engage in a trade when they trust that the other person is acting with integrity, because trustworthiness lowers the risk of making an unprofitable trade due to deception.

This truth is continually illustrated in the book of Proverbs, which teaches that those who act ethically, and look out for the needs of others, will tend to enjoy more material blessings. In describing the benefits of wisdom, the book of Proverbs states:

Long life is in her right hand;
in her left hand are riches and honor.
Her ways are ways of pleasantness,
and all her paths are peace.

Proverbs 3:16-17

Later in the book we read:

Riches and honor are with me [Wisdom]
enduring wealth and righteousness.

Proverbs 8:18

On the other hand, those who act dishonestly will hurt themselves in the long run.

Treasures gained by wickedness do not profit.

Proverbs 10:2a

Whoever is greedy for unjust gain troubles his own household,
but he who hates bribes will live.

Proverbs 15:27

Bread gained my deceit is sweet to a man,
but afterward his mouth will be full of gravel.

Proverbs 20:17

The getting of treasures by a lying tongue
is a fleeting vapor and a snare of death.

Proverbs 21:6

These truths are confirmed as we consider the economic benefit of voluntary exchange, and come to realize the importance of maintaining good relationships and ethical business practices which are necessary to facilitate voluntary interactions.

God’s Law and God’s Blessings

By considering the economics of voluntary exchange, we can draw the following conclusions:

  • God has given us numerous instructions about how to use the earth’s resources. The Bible is full of prohibitions against theft. From these we can conclude that God desires for all exchange of goods to be voluntary in nature (Part 5)
  • Voluntary exchange does not cause one person to “win” at another person’s expense. Voluntary exchange is always expected to be mutually beneficial (Part 6)
  • Voluntary exchange has the ability to create wealth, even with a fixed pool of resources. This is true because people value things differently from one another (part 6)
  • Voluntary exchange opens the door to greater productivity through the division of labor
  • Voluntary exchange allows everyone’s standard of living to increase, because it allows people to specialize in producing those goods and services where they are relatively more productive, and to trade for those goods and services which they are relatively less productive at providing for themselves.
  • The process of wealth creation and the development of a further division of labor will increase as more and more voluntary exchanges take place. On the contrary, wealth will decrease and the division of labor will shrink when goods are not exchanged voluntarily.
  • Voluntary exchange encourages peaceful relationships and ethical behaviors which are necessary to facilitate those exchanges.

Ultimately, through the study of economics we can see God’s wisdom, who has given laws which help us to be more productive, not less. He gave us moral laws which lay the foundations for economic prosperity and the elimination of poverty.

On the other hand, all of this increase in standard of living, development of the division of labor, and encouragement of peaceful relationships and ethical behavior are contingent on exchanges being made voluntarily. These benefits will only be enjoyed if people are free to trade the things they have for things they want more. Although no human institution can guaranty peaceful relationships and ethical behavior, human institutions can certainly discourage peaceful relationships and ethical behavior. They do this when they ignore God’s laws about theft, and seek to control other people’s ability to use and trade their possessions as they choose. When people try to rule over other people’s resources, they turn their back on the economic blessings that would otherwise be enjoyed through submission to God’s wisdom.

A ruler who lacks understanding is a cruel oppressor,
but he who hates unjust gain will prolong his days.

Proverbs 28:16

Better Bible Study Tip #67: Think About Biblical Chronology

The content of the Bible spans from creation to the end of time as we know it. The actual writing of the Bible spanned from the time of Moses in the 1400’s BC until John penned Revelation, possibly close to 100 AD. That’s a period of about 1500 years. How do we get those numbers? What was going on during that time period?

Although there are numerous resources out there, such as chronological Bibles and commentaries, that can help us to make sense of the biblical timeline, the actual text of the Bible doesn’t provide us with “real time” dating of events, at least not as frequently as we might wish, or in terms that make a lot of sense to the average modern person. It doesn’t tell us “this event happened 700 years before Christ” or “I Paul, am writing this letter 31 years after the resurrection.” Rather the Bible usually dates itself in relation to other events – what happened before or after what. The only way scholars can determine “real time” chronology, that is, actual, numerical dates, is by finding events in the Bible that correlate with records kept by other ancient cultures that kept time with detailed astrological records. When something in the Bible corelates with those records, scholars can fix those events with actual numerical dates.

Practically speaking, if an average person wants to know the real time numerical dates of biblical events, the easiest thing to do is consult a commentary (or even google). It’s even more important to become familiar with the big picture story of the Bible (Tip #13). Even if we don’t know the precise date of a biblical event, understanding a general timeline can be helpful.

Here’s a general chronological outline to be familiar with:

1500s BC and before: Genesis
1400s BC: Moses, The Exodus
1300s BC: Joshua, Conquest of Canaan, First of the Judges
1200s BC: Ruth, The Judges, Ehud, Deborah
1100s BC: The Judges, Gideon, Jephthah, Samson
1000s BC: Saul, David
900s BC: Solomon; Israel splits in two, Ephraim and Judah
800s BC: Elijah, Elisha
700s BC: Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Micah; Assyria the superpower; the fall of Ephraim
600s BC: Jeremiah, King Josiah; Babylon the superpower
500s BC: Ezekiel; the fall of Judah; Daniel; Persia the superpower; Jews free to return home
400s BC: Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther
300s BC: Intertestamental period; Greece the superpower; Hellenistic culture spreads
200s BC: Intertestamental period; Syria and Egypt as dueling regional powers pulling Judah one way or another
100s BC: Intertestamental period; Judah’s rebellion against Syrian power and gain of partial independence
000s BC: Intertestamental period; Rome the superpower
000s AD: Jesus; the apostles; the early church; the writing of the New Testament

Understanding how the Bible fits together chronologically is helpful because correctly situating a biblical author in a particular time can help us to understand what the writers say and why. Time important for reading the Bible in context. That’s why it helps to think about biblical chronology.

Christianity and Economics, Part 6: Voluntary Exchange

For other articles in the Christianity and Economics series, click here.

There are numerous indications in Scripture that God intended for people to work together and help one another. After placing man in the garden, and charging him with the task of working it and keeping it, God said, “It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him” (Gen. 2:18). God did not intend for people to function as isolated individuals cut off from human interaction. Man is benefited by working together with someone who will help him in his work. This truth is later affirmed in Ecclesiastes 4:9, “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil.” Much of the New Testament addresses the importance of Christians working together (John 13:33-34; 1 Cor. 1:10-12; 12:12-27; Rom. 12:4-5; Eph. 4:1-6, 11-16; Heb. 10:24-25; 1 John 1:7; 2:9-11).

God designed people to function best through interaction with others. But not all forms of interaction are good. Rather than helping Adam, Eve led him to take the forbidden fruit. One generation later, Cain murdered his brother Able. As mankind failed to work together in mutually beneficial ways, God gave Israel laws to govern their actions.

As the apostle Paul later observed, these laws can be summed up in the commandment to love one another.

Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet”, and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor, therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.

Romans 13:8-10; cf. Mt. 22:37-40

When people interact with one another in love, they do not take what belongs others and they do not threaten violence towards others. Rather than forcing their will on others, they seek to peacefully cooperate with one another.

Two Categories of Exchange

As we consider the economics of the interpersonal exchange of goods from a Christian perspective, we start by recognizing that all exchange of goods can fall into one of two categories: forbidden exchange and voluntary exchange.

Forbidden exchange is taking goods for yourself that God has not permitted you to have, that is, taking something that belongs to someone else. If a store has apples, and I want the apples, I could simply take the apples for myself. This of course would be stealing, which is wrong. I could purchase the apples, using counterfeit money. This would be fraud, which is wrong. If the store owner resists, I could choose to carry a weapon into the store and take the apples by force. This would be a threat of murder, which is wrong. Behind all of these actions are attitudes of covetousness and greed, which are wrong. Forbidden exchange is unloving because it harms others.

The other kind of exchange is voluntary. If I want the apples, I could simply choose to buy them. If I don’t have enough money to buy them, I could offer an alternative form of payment. For instance, I might offer to help bag groceries in exchange for the apples. It might even be that the store owner recognizes that I am hungry, and so he voluntarily chooses to give me the apples for free as an act of grace and kindness. In each of these examples, the exchange of the apples is voluntarily agreed upon by both parties.

In either case, I end up with the apples I desire. But unlike forbidden exchange, voluntary exchange benefits both parties involved, and fosters feelings of goodwill, love, and unity.

Voluntary Trade is Always Mutually Beneficial

Many profound and important economic principles can be logically established by reflecting on very simple illustrations. Suppose two boys packed sandwiches for lunch. Opie has a peanut butter and jelly, but prefers ham and cheese. Leon has a ham and cheese, but prefers peanut butter and jelly.

In this situation, we can easily see that both Opie and Leon would be better off by trading sandwiches. Opie could give Leon the peanut butter and jelly in exchange for the ham and cheese. As a result, both boys would enjoy a sandwich they value more than the one they packed.

From this example, a wise economic thinker can observe an important truth. For voluntary exchange to occur, each party must value the end result of the exchange more highly than their original state. If Opie and Leon both preferred their own sandwich over the other’s, they would have no desire to trade.

Similarly, if Opie and Leon both preferred peanut butter and jelly over ham and cheese, no trade would take place. In this situation, Leon would happily trade his ham and cheese for Opie’s peanut butter and jelly, but Opie would not agree to the trade, since he values his own peanut butter and jelly over Leon’s ham and cheese. For voluntary exchange to occur, both parties must view the exchange as an act that will lead to a more preferable situation.

The important implication of this observation is this: voluntary exchange is always expected to be mutually beneficial. Both parties must believe they will benefit from the exchange or they would not agree to the exchange.

If Opie and Leon agree to trade sandwiches, who is better off? As long as they have both voluntarily agreed to the exchange, they are both better off. If either boy believed he would be worse off from the trade, no sandwich exchange would have occurred.

Voluntary Exchange Creates Wealth

 As long as the trade was voluntary, both boys were able to obtain something they value more. We could call this increased value their “profit” (see part 4). Observe that both boys have profited by increasing the value of their lunch, yet without adding a single item of food to the table. The number of sandwiches are the same. The same ingredients are used. And yet, because of the trade, both boys are better off. One boy does not benefit at the expense of another. How can it be that both benefit without adding food to the table? Because both boys value the sandwiches differently.

This illustrates another important principle. Voluntary exchange has the ability to create wealth even with a fixed number of resources. We must not imagine the distribution of wealth as a zero-sum game, where one person gets a bigger slice of a pie only at the expense of leaving the other person with a smaller slice. This is false because wealth is not a fixed sum, but can be increased by voluntary trade. As long as trade is voluntary, there are no “winners” and “losers”, “exploited” and “exploiter”, or “oppressed” and “oppressor.” This is only true, however, when both parties benefit from the trade. Both parties benefit only when it is a trade they would both voluntarily agree to.

It should be noted that the judgments about the benefit of exchange are made before the trade takes place. One or both parties could certainly be in error. Leon may trade for Opie’s peanut butter and jelly, only to later discover that Opie used crunchy peanut butter, and Leon only likes smooth peanut butter. In this situation, Leon was not unjustly taken advantage of by Opie. He was not bullied into trading sandwiches. Leon simply made an error, and suffered a loss of value as a result of the mistake.

As noted in part 4 of this series, losses are important. As a result of the mistake, Leon will learn that he does not in fact prefer Opie’s peanut butter and jelly. Next time Leon sees a friend with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, before he agrees to a trade he will know to first ask “does your mom use crunchy or smooth peanut butter?” As a result of the loss, Leon will become a wiser entrepreneur.

The Fallacy of “Price Gouging”

Sometimes people have a hard time believing that all voluntary trade is mutually beneficial. For instance, during times of extreme shortages, prices can rapidly increase. It is not uncommon for gas prices to almost double after natural disasters. When gas prices increase, it is common to hear gas stations accused of “price gouging.”

Of course a gas station owner may choose to keep their prices low as an act of kindness. In this case, the gas station owner may willingly choose to suffer financial loss so that they will enjoy the profit of knowing they have helped their customers during a time of need. As long as the decision to keep prices low is voluntary, both parties benefit as a result of the exchange.

But suppose the gas station owner chooses to increase prices. In such a situation, is the owner of the gas station profiting at the expense of those who buy the expensive gas? One might be tempted to think so. But before assuming that the gas station owner is acting unjustly or unloving towards their customers, we must think clearly about the nature of the exchange.

We have observed that for a voluntary exchange to occur, both parties must think that the trade will be mutually beneficial. If gas stations are in fact able to sell their gas at double the price, this must mean that there are buyers who think the gas is more valuable to them than the money they exchange for it. Otherwise, they would simply decide not to purchase the gas. At a minimum we must conclude that the gas station owner is not harming their customers since their customers think they are better off as a result of the exchange. The choice to increase prices may not be as selfless as the gas station owner who decided to keep prices artificially low, but it certainly cannot be described as oppression or exploitation.

On the other hand, if the local government were to force the gas stations to sell their gas at a cheaper price, this could be described as oppression or exploitation, since the exchange of gas would benefit the buyers at the expense of the gas station owners. It can also be noted that reducing the profits of the gas providers would only serve to prolong the shortage by removing the incentive for increased gas production (see part 4).

Oppression and exploitation are only features of forbidden exchange, where dishonestly, theft, and violence enable one party to benefit at another’s expense. As long as exchange is voluntary, no one party will benefit at another’s expense. On the contrary, overall wealth will increase as both parties are able to improve their overall satisfaction.

Christianity and Economics, Part 5: Private Property

For other parts of this series on Christianity and Economics, click here.

Strictly speaking, the study of economics does not include questions of what we should or should not do. Questions of right and wrong are ethical questions. But as Christians, we should be concerned with both. It is not enough to understand whether various economic systems are effective in achieving their goals (economic questions). We must first and foremost consider what is right (an ethical question). Before considering the economic implications of different economic systems, we must first consider ethics of private property and the exchange of goods. From a Christian perspective, how should we feel about the ownership of property?

The Bible is full of warnings against greed (Prov. 15:27; 28:25), covetousness (Lk. 12:15), the love of money (Mt. 6:24; 1 Tim. 6:10; Heb. 13:5), and the desire to be rich (1 Tim. 6:9). What’s more, Scripture continually encourages an open-handed approach towards possessions, where we are always ready and willing to give our possessions to others. Paul encouraged the church in Corinth to be generous in their giving by pointing to the example of Christ, who “though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor so that you might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9). In Acts 2:45, we are told that the earliest Christians  “were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.

Possessions can certainly become a stumbling block. It should be noted, however, that nowhere in Scripture is the possession of property ever condemned. In fact, the numerous prohibitions against theft imply at least some notion of private property.

God as the Ultimate Owner

The Christian approach towards possessions begins with the recognition of God as the Creator and the ultimate possessor of all things.

For every beast of the forest is mine,
the cattle on a thousand hills.

Psalm 50:10

The earth is the LORD’s and the fulness thereof,
the world and those who dwell therein.

Psalm 24:1

As the ultimate possessor of all things, God has the right to delegate the use and oversight of his possessions to whomever he desires. For instance, in Genesis 1:29 God said “I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food.” God commanded mankind to subdue the earth, teaching them that by their labor the earth would yield produce which they could enjoy (cf. Gen. 1:28; 3:19).

People are not owners, but stewards who are called to temporarily manage those things which ultimately belong to God. This relationship is illustrated in the parable of the talents (Mt. 25:14-30). God has entrusted the authority over possessions to mankind. In his authority and wisdom, he delegates more possessions to some, and less to others. Regardless of how little or how much he entrusts them with, everyone is called to exercise our management of those possessions under the watchful eye of the Creator.

As the ultimate owner of all things, God maintains the ultimate right to establish the principles he wants mankind to follow in regards to his property. God is the one who can determine how we can morally invest it, trade it, and use it. He can forbid certain uses of it. For instance, in Genesis 3:15-17, God gave Adam and Eve the right to eat of every tree of the garden except one, which he forbade them from eating. When God forbids greed, the love of money, or theft, or when he commands us to be generous with our possessions, he has that right. After all, he is the ultimate owner of all things, so he can determine how they should be used. Ultimately, God will hold mankind accountable for whether or not we have managed his property in accordance with the principles he has established (Mt. 25:21-28).

For this reason, when as we consider private property from a Christian perspective, it is important to always recognize that all things are ultimately possessed by God, and we are only stewards. To echo the words of Deuteronomy 8:17-18, when we are tempted to think “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me” (v. 17), we should remember that it was the LORD our God gave us the ability to produce wealth in the first place (v. 18).

Prohibitions Against Theft

Throughout the whole Bible, the possession of property is recognized as something which must not be violated. The Old Testament is filled with prohibitions against theft. “You shall not steal” was one of the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20:15; Deut. 5:11). This commandment included the prohibition of oppression and fraud (Lev. 19:11-13).

The command is reiterated in the New Testament as well. Not stealing is part of what it means to love your neighbor (Rom. 13:8-10). As Paul encouraged the Corinthians to be charitable, he never called for the compelled extraction of funds, but instead emphasizes the importance of voluntary giving (2 Cor. 9:7). Paul encourages Christians not to steal, but to do honest work so that they may give to those in need (Eph. 4:28).  Peter recognized that choosing what to do with possessions is the responsibility of the one who owns the possession (Acts 5:4).

Besides outright theft and fraud, Jesus tells us that the motivation for theft begins in the heart (Mt. 15:18-20). This echoes the ten commandments, which forbid not only stealing, but also covetousness (Ex. 20:17).

Scripture makes it abundantly clear that we are not to take from others what belongs to them. When God entrusts someone with property, it is their responsibility to manage it.

The Principle of Voluntary Exchange

Since the Bible continually teaches that people’s ownership of property should be respected, there can only be one morally proper way for humans to exchange goods with one another, and that is through voluntary exchange. The prohibition of theft prohibits the forced, or involuntary, exchange of goods.

To illustrate this point, consider how Luke describes the time when Ananias and Sapphira sold a piece of property and told Peter that they were giving all the proceeds to the church, all while holding back some of the possessions for themselves (Acts 5:1-2). Peter confronted Ananias by saying:

While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to man but to God.

Acts 5:4

Peter plainly says that their possessions were theirs to do with as they wanted.

Jesus affirmed this principle in the parable of the laborers in the vineyard (Mt. 20:1-16). Jesus told about a master who hired different laborers to work for different amounts of time for the same amount of money. In response to the complaints of the laborers, the master responded:

Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose to do with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?

Matthew 20:13-15

Although not the main point of the parable, Jesus’s teaching relies on the accepted principle that the owner of property is the one who has the right to choose what to do with it.

Just because God delegates ownership of property to individuals, this does not indicate that a property owner is free to use his possessions however he may desire. God is the ultimate owner. Everyone will be held accountable for how they use the property that God has entrusted to them. It does, however, imply that it is wrong to forcibly remove the management of property away from another person.

The Moral Implications of Private Property Upon Economic Policy

As we consider the strengths and weaknesses of different economic systems or policies we must continually remember that the only moral way to divide up the earth’s possessions is through voluntary exchange. Even if it could be shown that an economic system could be designed which can promise greater prosperity by forcibly restricting or compelling the exchange of goods, we as Christians must ultimately come back to the question of what is morally right. Because of the numerous biblical restrictions against theft, only voluntary exchange is morally right.

It should be noted that the prohibitions against theft not only forbid individuals from taking the possessions of other individuals. God also forbids governing authorities from doing so. Even rulers are commanded to serve the Lord with fear (Ps. 2:10-12). The only way for a ruler to do this is to rule with justice (2 Sam. 23:3). God does not command us not to steal unless we work for the government. For example, consider 1 Kings 21, where King Ahab was held accountable for forcibly taking Naboth’s vineyard. His authority as king did not give him the authority to take what did not belong to him. (For a more thorough discussion of the ethics of taxation, click here).

Jesus calls his disciples not to follow the example of gentiles who seek greatness by lording over others. Instead of seeking to exercise authority over the lives of others, Jesus’s followers are expected to be servants (Mk. 10:42-44).


God has delegated to mankind the possession of the earth. In his wisdom, he also gave us moral laws about how to use those possessions. These laws include the prohibition against theft. For this reason, all exchange of goods should be voluntary in nature.

In future parts of this series we will examine how God’s wisdom regarding the possession of property and voluntary exchange has laid a necessary foundation for the division of labor and the creation of wealth. As the study of economics reveals to us, this enables us to be more productive, provide more benefits for one another, and is necessary to alleviate poverty. God created the world with wisdom, and in his wisdom, he gave us his commands. Economics demonstrates that following the wisdom of God’s teachings is the best way for mankind to thrive in God’s world.

Christianity and Economics, Part 4: What Does It Profit?

For other parts of this series on Christianity and Economics, click here.

For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?

Mark 8:36

The answer to Jesus’s question is obviously nothing. Even if a man were to gain the whole world, if he loses his soul in the process, he has made a terrible trade. In the end there is no profit at all. There is only tremendous loss.

What is “Profit”?

It’s not uncommon to hear “profit” treated like a bad thing. Just think about all the movies where the villain is some evil businessman that chooses “profits over people.” But profit is not a bad thing. The word “profit” simply means “benefit.”

Profit can certainly be measured in money if the “benefit” sought is money. If I buy something for $3, and I turn around and sell it for $5, I’ve earned a profit of $2. But in a more general sense, such as the sense in which Jesus used the word, profit simply refers to the reward for making good decisions. Giving away money to a charity can be “profitable” if advances a cause that I’m passionate about.

When discussing economics, however, “profit” often takes on the more precise meaning of monetary profit. When all goods can be traded for money, those goods develop market prices defined in amount of money. For this reason profit and loss can be discussed in terms of money. As long as revenue is greater than expenses, there is a profit. If expenses are greater than revenue, there is a loss.

But we must remember that as soon as we limit “profit” to a monetary value, we are no longer making a statement about an entrepreneur’s overall happiness, spiritual well-being, or subjective satisfaction. We are only talking about profit as it is appraised by other members of society, who ultimately determine monetary value through their demand for certain products in relation to their supply.

It’s easy to see how profit benefits an entrepreneur. But what often goes unrecognized is how profit benefits others. In order to explain how this is so we must first consider the problem of resource allocation.

The Complex Problem of Resource Allocation

God created the world with numerous resources, each of which could be used in any number of ways. For example, iron could be used to make all sorts of things – cars, refrigerators, medical devices, construction buildings, houses, power plants, tools, weapons, spoons, etc. The possibilities are endless. The same could be said for all natural resources.

With endless possibilities, mankind is faced with the complex task of deciding what resources, in what quantities, should be used in what ways. What needs are most important? How can we properly use the earth’s resources to help as many people as possible? Even if we are properly motivated impartial love for everyone, how can we know for certain that we are using the earth’s resources most effectively? How much iron should be used for refrigerators? For medical devices? For houses? For machines?

Even if we correctly prioritize the right needs, we still have a problem.  Perhaps we think housing is most important. Since resources are limited, at what point does our investment in housing begin to take away from the important need for medical devices? Or for tractors, which are used to harvest the food everyone needs? Even if our intentions are pure, it would be impossible to know for sure if we are using resources in the best possible way.

To illustrate the complexity of this problem, imagine a world where this problem is perfectly solved, where we know the optimal use of every resource. To simplify the illustration, imagine there are no changes to anyone’s subjective wants, changes in technology development, changes in the total population, or changes in resource availability. If this were the case, every person would do the same tasks every day. Producers would produce the same products, in the same quantity, every day. The prices of all consumer goods and factors of production would remain constant, as neither supply nor demand ever changed.

Consequently, there would be no uncertainty about the future. There would be no need for someone to risk combining resources in a new way. There would be no reason for a business owner to invest more in one line of production, or less in another, or for anyone to take any risks or seek greater profit. Everything would already be used towards its optimal end.

It’s not difficult to see why this can only be an imaginary scenario. James cautions us against assuming that things will continue in the future as they do today.

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit” – yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring.

James 4:13-14

People’s subjective values change all the time. Technology changes. Population levels change. Resource availability changes. There’s always change going on. Tomorrow will not be like today. The future is uncertain.

For this reason, all entrepreneurs have the task of taking risks. No mater how successful an investment may have been in the past, or may appear today, the future will be different. An entrepreneur has no guarantee of future profitability, because prices are always changing to meet changes in supply and demand.

How Profit and Loss Solves The Problem of Resource Allocation

Since the future is uncertain, entrepreneurs must engage in the task of forecasting future prices for the factors of production and finished products. They must forecast future profitability.

For example, one farmer may forecast that there will be a beef shortage, beef prices will increase, and raising cattle will be profitable. As a result, he may raise more cows, build bigger barns, and dedicate more land towards cattle farming. On the other hand, a competing farmer may forecast that cattle prices will fall, and his time will be better spent growing fresh produce, such as corn, beans, and garden vegetables. Whichever farmer’s forecast proves to be more correct will enjoy a greater profit.

Suppose the first farmer is correct. Due to a beef shortage, prices were high, and he was able to enjoy a good profit. The following year, the other farmer may look to the first farmer’s success as a signal that he should raise cattle as well. Because of the first farmer’s profits, the beef shortage will move quickly towards a solution as more and more farmers move into cattle farming. This will continue until cattle production reaches a level where cattle farming is no longer as profitable as the next best use of the  land. As entrepreneurs seek to invest where there will be the greatest return on their investment, production shifts to meet consumer demand.

Just as important as profit is loss. By suffering a loss, the unsuccessful entrepreneur may be forced to make changes. Suppose the cattle farmer was wrong. Instead of a shortage, there was a surplus of cattle. As a result, he was not able to bring in enough revenue to cover the cost of his investment. If the farmer continues suffer loss, he will eventually have to make a change. Perhaps he will shift away from cattle farming to something more in line with consumer demand. Or perhaps he will sell the farm to another entrepreneur who will use the land more efficiently and more profitably. For instance, if there is a housing shortage, there may be a great demand to develop the land as a new neighborhood.

Profit and loss is a wonderful thing, because it communicates to entrepreneurs the most effective uses of resources allowing them to produce what people want and need. Regardless of whether the farmer is profitable, or suffers a loss, by following profit and loss signals, resources will continually be reallocated to meet consumer demand.

This process plays itself out every day, in every industry, in various ways. All over the world, entrepreneurs continually adapt to changes in people’s preferences, changes in technology, and changes in resource availability. When consumers are free to choose which products, they spend their money on, they are able to influence where entrepreneurs invest, what products are produced, and in what quantities.

Who Benefits from Profit?

Obviously, the entrepreneur who correctly forecasts future economic conditions will enjoy the reward of greater profits. But now we can see how others benefit from profit as well.

Consumers enjoy the benefit of enjoying new and better products. Because of profit, these products will become increasingly available and affordable until the market is saturated to the point where increased production is no longer profitable. As entrepreneurs seek to maximize production of profitable products, they will need to invest in the labors of others.  So not only to consumers benefit, but workers are able to earn a greater living as well. Profit and loss are signals which everyone to a greater standard of living.

A successful entrepreneur is able to earn a profit, not by cheating people, but by meeting the desires of his customers. He does this by anticipating what products they are most willing to spend money on. As they seek to earn a profit, they continually examine whether the resources at their disposal are being used in the most efficient way to meet the needs of the greatest number of people.

Obstacles to Meeting The Needs of Others

This process only works when consumers are free to choose what products they spend money on, and entrepreneurs are free to make whatever changes are necessary to earn a greater profit.

When profits are villainized, so that a portion of profits are taken through taxation, this is bad for everyone. It is bad for entrepreneurs, who receive a decreased return for their investments. As profits decrease, entrepreneurs will decrease investment in production. This hurts workers, who receive less investment for their labors. It is bad for consumers, who get less of the product that they desire.

When people call for the government to bail out industries that aren’t profitable, they prevent those resources from being recombined in more beneficial ways. When politicians protect certain jobs they like, they fail to recognize the more profitable, yet unseen jobs they destroy (see Part 2). Instead of responding to losses by making necessary changes, they will continue to waste scarce resources for products that people don’t want enough to buy.

We have the responsibility to use the limited resources as efficiently as possible to meet the needs of others. Making sure entrepreneurs are free to seek a profit, while also bearing the risk of an uncertain future, is the best way to make sure that the earth’s resources are being used in the best possible way.