There is no shortage of confusion among Christians about basic biblical economics. The fact that many conservative Christians do not blink when Trump and run of the mill Republicans pass yet another trillion dollar budget and meanwhile, flaming red conservative states are passing socialized medicine bills, pouring millions into socialized government education, and robbing their citizens in taxes to pay for it all tells you that we’re in a mess. The fact that these “conservative” Republicans have the audacity to print “fiscal conservative” on their brochures and tout it in their campaign speeches and be elected and re-elected by Christians tells you we’re in bad shape. Either someone is lying or someone is stupid and probably both. And the fact that some Christians might even consider Breadline Bernie a reasonable option tells us that things are really on fire.
“And let our people also learn to maintain good works, to meet urgent needs, that they may not be unfruitful” (Tit. 3:14).
Four Important Words
A big part of our problem is that we don’t read our Bibles. The most essential economic principle found in the Bible is found in four of the most ignored words of Scripture: thou shalt not steal. This is the foundation of the notion of private property. But what many Christians have forgotten is that private property is foundational to personal freedom. To own something is to be free to use it as you see fit, whenever you please. And, just to connect the dots here carefully, when something is stolen, you are no longer free to use it. There’s a great deal here that needs careful thought and study, but suffice it for now merely to point out that the most precious possession that belongs to a man is his own body, his own life, strength, energy, intelligence, creativity, and time – ordinarily involving a man’s labor and whatever goods or services are produced by that labor. And most modern forms of taxation are claims to some percentage of ownership of a man’s labor and its fruit. And that, to put it bluntly, is evil. And it is not any less evil by a majority of your neighbors voting to steal from you. It is not any less evil for you to have joined in with your neighbors to vote to rob one another. If there is a threat of violence on the other end of the request for money that is not contractually owed for products or services rendered, we call that robbery, or at least we used to.
Maintaining Good Works
But the point I want to make here is from the very end of Paul’s letter to Titus. First, notice that Paul says that Christians must learn how to maintain good works. Paul is not talking about Good Samaritan good works. Those are important and necessary for Christians to be ready to meet – the unexpected emergencies. But those are not good works that you can maintain by their very nature. Paul is talking here about the sort of good works that need maintaining. They are to be continuous, regular, and routine. What might those be? Paul tells us: meeting urgent needs. Christians are to look for needs around them and seek to meet some of them by their labors. What are some of those needs? Usually, communities begin with the most urgent and work their way outward: food, clothing, shelter, medicine, safety, etc. This would include farming, raising and butchering animals, logging, carpentry, textiles, bricklaying, fuel, weapons, firearms and related industries. The most urgent needs would begin with evangelism, worship, and education, since that’s the center of the Great Commission, and that would include the labors of evangelists, pastors, and teachers. But all of these good works require education and learning in order to maintain them, in order to improve them, grow them, and make them fruitful. So Paul’s exhortation presupposes schools, colleges, and universities, mentorships, internships, and vocational training of every sort. Maintaining good works is something that requires learning.
Only By Grace
Ok, one more point. Notice then that part of a pastor’s job is to exhort his people to learn how to work hard, how to maintain good works to meet the needs around them, in order to be fruitful in every way. Notice that he is not required to teach the math classes or repair classes, he is to exhort the people to go learn, to go find the appropriate teaches. A pastor does this first of all by modeling it – by being a learner, a student, a disciple, as well as an industrious and fruitful man, given to good works. But then his mission and calling is discipling Christians, teaching them to obey all of God’s word, including the Ten Commandments, including the one about not stealing, and while we’re at it don’t forget the one about not coveting. But of course parents are also included in that teaching/learning process, and notice that it is not the government’s job to provide education. Closely related would be the fact that it is not the civil government’s job to create jobs. The civil government’s job is to punish evil doers and protect citizens from harm to their persons or property, and otherwise stay out of the way. This is true freedom.
The point of underlining who does the teaching about good works and productivity and fruitfulness is to emphasize the fact that true fruitfulness grows in the soil of grace. The Great Commission of the Church is a fundamentally gracious ministry, and when people come into that grace it begins transforming families. But civil government exercises its power by the sword. It is an inherently coercive power concerned with the administration of justice, which is why it must be limited by God’s word. Of course church and family authorities can abuse their power and become coercive and manipulative in their own ways and therefore they are also limited by God’s word, but their power is primarily exercised through teaching, instruction, and discipleship, not threat of violence.
But to our point: good works – truly good works – can only be done as a grateful response to the grace of God. While the threat of punishment may be a prod to what appear to be good works, good works done under compulsion, or fear of punishment are not really good works. All attempts at good works apart from the grace of God in Christ are inherently manipulative and coercive – even if they are attempting to avoid consequences or fines. Ultimately, the do-gooder who is trying to earn points with God is trying to trick blessing out of God or at the very least avoid God’s judgment, trying to manipulate and coerce God into blessing him. But you cannot live like that before God and not end up doing the same thing whether you are a butcher, a baker, or a candlestick maker. You cannot view the world as essentially stingy and then magically become generous in your day to day dealings.
Better to Give
In other words, the unconverted heart is fundamentally trying to get something, and this is covetousness and theft. And when you are trying to get the government to get you something, it is still covetousness and theft. But the converted heart has been transformed in such a way as to receive a gift of such inestimable valued (forgiveness, eternal life) that now it has truly become better to give than receive. To have Christ living inside of you is for His joy to be your joy, and His joy is found in giving. And so the point is that the good works of farming and agriculture and medicine and textiles and technology and building and construction and education – and all the others, are at their highest and best when they are done in response to the grace of God as gifts, offered to the glory of God and for the good of our neighbor. And they can only be true gifts if they are given without compulsion, without coercion or manipulation or threat of injury or punishment. And when they are given like that, they are given like grace, and by God’s blessing, they become the kind of gifts that make the recipients of them want to offer something in return. This is what we call a free market.
It’s a free market because it is driven by the free grace of God. It is free because it is not coerced. And it’s free because it consists of two (or more) men given what truly belongs to them to someone else. They used their time, energy, creativity to produce something of value to someone else, something they needed, perhaps urgently needed, and in return, something of comparable value is tendered out of gratitude. This is the free exchange of good works. What makes the whole thing such a blessing is that what is received on either end of the transaction is of more value to the recipient. It truly is more blessed to give than to receive, but precisely because that is the case, when you have given like that, the blessing is at least in part the unexpected gift of the “payment.”
There’s a great deal we need to learn and re-learn about biblical and Christian economics, but the good news is that the Bible is completely open and wonderfully free. But the Bible is open like Narnia is open, like Heaven is open. It really is open. It really is free. But we must be made open in order to truly enter the Word. We must be set free so that the Word may run free in us. And this means that men must be converted to God. They must be given completely new hearts. When that happens, that grace inevitably spills out in good works, like free and wild vines, families and businesses and schools and cities.