Freedom—Liberty—How sweet the sound! From the beginning of time, humanity has been "yearning to breathe free."
The greatest freedoms are spiritual, but physical, civil and economic freedoms are also important. They often overlap.
Freedom is a major theme in the Bible. In fact, the Bible has inspired people down through the ages to seek freedom for
themselves and others.
However, many people tend to take their freedoms for granted and undervalue them. They don't understand how much God wants us to cherish and protect them.
Many hold misunderstandings about the Bible. Wasn't the God of the Old Testament a severely controlling dictator? Weren't His laws a "yoke of bondage"? Weren't the Israelites poor nomads who had no personal property?
To those questions, the answer is no. God's way is that of liberty, including free exchange of goods and services, within law.
Are human beings born free?
"God created man in His own image" (Genesis 1:27). This made man vastly superior to all the other creatures!
God said mankind was to "be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion [rule or stewardship]" over all the other creatures (verse 28). And God told Adam "to tend and keep" the Garden of Eden, implying that his descendants should tend and keep the planet (Genesis 2:15).
Notice what God did not say: He did not specify innumerable details about how they should do it (although He clearly holds us accountable to obey His laws that are to govern our actions).
This immediately shows God's confidence in the abilities of human beings in general to learn—from their own experience and the experience of others—how to manage their occupations without rigid control by some central government.
Human beings are born free because we have been given amazing minds with which to think, learn, speak, imagine, make decisions, set goals, develop tools, invent, be entrepreneurs, be creative and artistic, develop personality, love and worship. (Other physical creatures, however, are not born free—they are ruled mainly by their instincts.)
Human government can restrict your freedom, but it can't give you freedoms because you already have them.
Freedom of choice is clearly taught in the Bible. God defines good and evil and announces rewards and punishments according to our behavior. But God leaves people free to choose between the options (Deuteronomy 30:19).
Do laws provide freedom or deprive people of freedom?
When man's laws are overly complex, overly restrictive and excessive in number, they largely deprive people of precious freedom. However, God's laws, which are perfect and few in number, provide for maximum liberty overall.
God, of course, does not grant absolute freedom, which would mean anarchy and license to do evil! Laws are needed to constrain people from intruding on the freedoms of others.
So the Ten Commandments are the opposite of a "yoke of bondage"! James calls them the perfect "law of liberty" (James 1:25; 2:12, emphasis added throughout).
The Ten Commandments have been criticized for sounding negative—most saying, "You shall not . . ." But that kind of law is exactly what a nation needs—laws that restrain evil and harm to others but don't restrict free enterprise and honest business!
Free enterprise is also called private enterprise. Here's a brief dictionary definition: "Business activities unregulated by state ownership or control." It is the opposite of socialism. Today, many nations have "mixed" economies—partly free enterprise and partly socialistic.
Perhaps the most famous exponent in the 20th century of free-market economics was the Austrian-American genius Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973), author of a monumental work titled Human Action: A Treatise on Economics.
Probably the best recently published book about the science of economics is by Dr. Shawn Ritenour, an adjunct professor with the Ludwig von Mises Institute. In his 545-page book Foundations of Economics: A Christian View (2010), he explains how the many laws of economics are based on the teachings of the Bible. Two excellent shorter books are Biblical Economics by R.C. Sproul, Jr. (2008) and Money, Greed, and God by Jay Richards (2009).
Scripture teaches the importance of private property
God, of course, owns the world (Psalm 50:12). But Psalm 115:16 tells us, "The earth He has given to the children of men." This implies God's desire for each family to "own" a piece of property—essentially a long-term lease of God's property.
The protection of the Eighth Commandment—"You shall not steal"—shows the importance God places on private property. The Tenth Commandment—"You shall not covet"—tells us to not even think about stealing (Exodus 20:15, 17).
Stealing, of course, takes many forms. God's Word mandates that all measurements and standards remain accurate, consistent and unchanging to prevent the cheating of customers (Leviticus 19:35-36). It forbids cheating or defrauding others (verse 13). It prohibits moving markers that define the boundaries of one's land and lying in any matter of law (Deuteronomy 19:14-20).
All of these, and many other laws, were designed to protect the people and their property.
Just think: If a person has at least a small piece of land that is debt-free and tax-free, he can at least put up a tent, plant a garden and get by with relatively little income. It may also provide an opportunity for a profitable farm or cottage industry.
A beautiful prophecy about life on earth after Christ returns is that "everyone shall sit under his vine and under his fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid" (Micah 4:4). When it's "his vine" and "his fig tree," that means they are on his land!
Material wealth and Jesus' promotion of investment
The Bible does not say that "money is the root of all evil," as some assume. It says, "The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil" (1 Timothy 6:10). We must love God and spiritual riches far more than physical riches.
The Bible warns against the two opposite evils of materialism and asceticism. The apostle Paul wrote that God "gives us richly all things to enjoy" (1 Timothy 6:17).
We are certainly to focus on helping others. But earning money and building wealth for ourselves puts us in a position to be of help to others—rather than burdening others with our need (though some must rely on others' generosity of course). A number of godly men in the Bible were wealthy (such as Abraham, Job and David), but they put God ahead of their wealth.
Many of Jesus' parables were stories about money and business transactions. Although His main point was always spiritual, He would not have been using financial transactions as illustrations if they were inherently evil.
For example, in the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30) and in the parable of the minas (Luke 19:12-27), the master expected his servants to use his money to generate a profit without telling them how or where to invest it (except that, at the end, he said that those who produced no profit should have at least deposited his money in the bank to earn interest). The servants who invested and produced a profit are praised and rewarded by the master.
The Bible praises initiative, diligence and the work ethic as wise efforts to "bear fruit" and prosper (Proverbs 10:4; 12:24; 13:4; 18:9; 21:5; 22:29; 24:27). And if our faith is in God rather than in ourselves, God will make sure our needs are provided (Matthew 6:33).
A bum rap for capitalism
But haven't we heard bad things about "capitalism"? Capitalism, which is largely synonymous with free enterprise and free exchange, has been unfairly criticized. "Capital" refers to money, property, tools and other assets. And capitalism simply means the use of capital to produce goods or services that are "in demand," meaning things that are needed or desired by others. The scriptures cited above clearly support the idea of capitalism.
Many of the problems associated with so-called capitalist economies are not due to free enterprise but to criminal activity and government interference in markets (so that they are not truly free markets). Backroom dealing between certain corporations and government regulators is such an example.
Historically and generally, the fruit of free enterprise has been prosperity while the fruit of socialism (and communism) has been poverty and misery. Nevertheless, there continue to be dreamers (often with good intentions) who naively think their new variations of socialism will work wonderfully.
Yet socialism is based on the false premise that there is a fixed amount of wealth that must be redistributed for everyone to get an equitable share or "piece of the pie." This redistribution requires coerced taking from those with a bigger piece, which is in fact theft. Capitalism, on the other hand, provides a godly solution. Rather than redividing the pie, we can make more pies!
Indeed, free enterprise is the only system that allows more wealth to be generated rather than just moving around what people presently possess.
And free enterprise promotes liberty, being largely based on the principle of laissez-faire, French for "Let (people) do (as they choose)." Laizzez-faire, sometimes paraphrased as "hands off," was first clearly explained and advocated by the Scottish economist Adam Smith (1723-1790) in his great work The Wealth of Nations, published in 1776.
He described how free societies run smoothly without government controls as if an "invisible hand" is guiding them. This is the most efficient economic model for meeting people's wants and needs. Smith is considered "the prophet of free enterprise," but the main principles he encouraged have been in the Bible all along. (Regarding a common misconception, see "The Early Church Was Not Communist—and Neither Was Jesus".)
What is the proper role for civil governments?
Paul wrote that God has ordained civil government to prevent and punish "evil" (Romans 13:1-4). Peter wrote that civil "governors . . . are sent by [God] for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good" (1 Peter 2:14).
The powers of federal, state and local governments should largely be limited to protecting the three great natural rights—life, liberty and property—from threats from within (crime) and from threats from without (invasion). In addition, it should protect the people from the government itself.
The word "republic" implies not only a representative form of government, but one that deals with public affairs as opposed to manipulating and micromanaging private affairs. It should not be the business of government to involve itself in private business unless that business is causing harm to others.
Consider the freedoms enjoyed in God's nation of Israel
For a long while after its establishment, the new nation of Israel was a theocracy with God as its King (compare 1 Samuel 12:12). In the Promised Land the people enjoyed the most personal liberties of any nation in the history of the world.
God gave His nation a marvelous start! Moses told them that God had promised "to give you large and beautiful cities which you did not build, houses full of all good things, which you did not fill, hewn-out wells which you did not dig, vineyards and olive trees which you did not plant" (Deuteronomy 6:10-11). Essentially, they received an inheritance that was all debt-free and tax-free!
As long as the people of Israel looked to God as their King, the laws didn't change. But when Samuel was the prophet and judge in Israel, the people began to insist on a human ruler "to judge us like the [other] nations" (1 Samuel 8:5).
Eventually God let them learn some lessons the hard way. He told Samuel to "heed their voice," but also to "solemnly forewarn them, and show them the behavior of the king who will reign over them" (1 Samuel 8:9). So Samuel forewarned them that they would see their young men and women drafted into military and government service and that they would see government confiscation of property, high taxes and other losses of their liberties (verses 10-18).
What God prophesied came to pass—over and over. As God warned, "You will cry out in that day because of your king whom you have chosen for yourselves, and the Lord will not hear you in that day" (verse 18). What an appropriate description of our day as well!
A surprising key to the American success story
Henry Grady Weaver wrote a fascinating history and analysis of freedom and its benefits titled The Mainspring of Human Progress (1947).
Weaver described the greatest "revolution against pagan fatalism, the revolution for human freedom"—the birth of the United States. For nearly 6,000 years, progress in science and people's standard of living proceeded very slowly. Then once the American colonies became the "land of the free," there was an immediate outburst of human energy and innovation followed by prosperity.
The success of the American experiment has inspired many other nations to learn and apply valuable lessons.
What did the motley colonists have in common that unified and energized them?
It was not formal education. It was the fact that a large percentage of them were readers, and they mostly were reading the same books, including books about history and economics!
Some of the popular books were by English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704), French scholar Baron Charles de Montesquieu (1689-1755), French writer Voltaire (1694-1778), Geneva-born writer Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), and English judge and professor Sir William Blackstone. Most of these Enlightenment thinkers were strong proponents of the Christian religion.
However, the most popular book by far was the Bible. In fact, the main reason they were highly motivated to learn to read and to teach their children to read was so they could read the Good Book!
The widespread self-education in noble books with great ideas, especially the Bible, explains why most of the colonists were people of principle and high moral character. They knew that, to a great extent, you become what you read.
The American colonists were in many respects a powerful illustration of Jesus' statement, "You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free" (John 8:32).
The Bible makes it clear that God deserves all the credit for making America "a great nation" (Genesis 12:2). But some of the ideas and ideologies that God inspired in the American colonists contributed to the achievement of that greatness.
True economic freedom is yet to come
Of course, for all its greatness, the United States has periodically suffered economic woes—and matters have grown far worse as the government has grown in power. Much of what is represented as free enterprise really isn't.
Governments frequently offer financial favors, but with strings attached. With every government handout (money from taxes, or the cruel and hidden tax of monetary inflation) comes more regulations and restrictions of civil liberties.
Democracies usually eventually destroy themselves because voters are seduced by promises of short-range benefits paid for by someone else. They sacrifice liberties for perks and promises of security. They vote for the political candidates who promise them the most, with the result that government spending and taxes increase, sapping the productivity of the economy and weakening the nation until it falls to forces without or collapses from decay within.
Sadly, we read in the headlines of this erosion of economic vitality and liberty taking place now in the United States and other democratic nations.
As we've seen, the Bible indeed teaches free enterprise. But the fact is that the world has never seen free enterprise at its very best. That will happen only after Jesus Christ returns! He will give the world ideal economics combined with godly ethics. The results will be spectacular—liberty, peace and prosperity throughout the world!
The people and their children and all their descendants will enjoy every kind of wonderful blessing—as indicated in the following passage:
"They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for as the days of a tree [many days!], so shall be the days of My people, and My elect shall long enjoy the work of their hands. They shall not labor in vain, nor bring forth children for trouble; for they shall be the descendants of the blessed of the Lord, and their offspring with them" (Isaiah 65:21-23).
The Bible makes it clear that free enterprise is the best economic system. When people combine free enterprise with faith in God and obedience to His spiritual laws, they not only survive, they thrive.