This excerpt is adapted from Business for the Glory of God. Copyright © 2003. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL 60187, http://www.crossway.org.
What is earning a profit? Fundamentally, it is selling a product for more than the cost of producing it. If I have a bakery and bake 100 loaves of bread at a cost of $100, but sell them for a total of $200, I have made $100 profit. But if people are willing to pay $2 for each of my loaves of bread, it means that they think what I have produced is valuable—the bread that cost me $1 is worth $2 to them. This shows that my work has added some value to the materials I used. Profit thus indicates that I have made something useful for others, and in that way it can show that I am doing good for others in the goods and services that I sell.
In addition, profit can indicate that I have used resources more efficiently than others, because when my costs are lower, my profit is higher. If another baker wasted some flour and some yeast and spent $125 to make 100 loaves, then his profit was less than mine. But using resources more efficiently (not wasting them) is also something good, since there are more and cheaper resources that remain for others to use as well. Therefore profit indicates that I am making good and efficient use of the earth’s resources, thus obeying God’s original “creation mandate” to “subdue” the earth: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Gen. 1:28).
In the parable of the minas (or pounds), Jesus tells of a nobleman calling ten of his servants and giving them one mina each (about three months’ wages), and telling them, “Engage in business until I come” (Luke 19:13). The servant who earned 1,000 percent profit was rewarded greatly, for when he says, “Lord, your mina has made ten minas more,” the nobleman responds, “Well done, good servant! Because you have been faithful in a very little, you shall have authority over ten cities” (v. 17). The servant who made five more minas receives authority over five cities, and the one who made no profit is rebuked for not at least putting the mina in the bank to earn interest (v. 23).
The nobleman represents Jesus himself, who went to a far country to receive a kingdom and then returned to reward his servants. The parable has obvious applications to stewardship of spiritual gifts and ministries that Jesus entrusts to us, but in order for the parable to make sense, it has to assume that good stewardship, in God’s eyes, includes expanding and multiplying whatever resources or stewardship God has entrusted to you. Surely we cannot exclude money and material possessions from the application of the parable, for they are part of what God entrusts to each of us, and our money and possessions can and should be used to glorify God. Seeking profit, therefore, or seeking to multiply our resources, is seen as fundamentally good. Not to do so is condemned by the master when he returns.
The parable of the talents (Matt. 25:14-30) has a similar point, but the amounts are larger, for a talent was worth about 20 years’ wages for a laborer, and different amounts are given at the outset. A similar assumption is behind the approval given to the ideal wife in Proverbs 31: “She perceives that her merchandise is profitable” (v. 18). The word translated “merchandise” refers to profit-producing commercial transactions. This “excellent wife” is commended for selling goods for a profit.
Some people will object that earning a profit is “exploiting” other people. Why should I charge you $2 for a loaf of bread if it only cost me $1 to produce? One reason is that you are paying not only for my raw materials but also for my work as an “entrepreneur”—my time in baking the bread, my baking skill that I learned at the cost of more of my time, my skill in finding and organizing the materials and equipment to bake bread, and (significantly) for the risks I take in baking 100 loaves of bread each day before any buyers have even entered my shop.
In any society, some people are too cautious by nature to assume the risks involved in starting and running a business, but others are willing to take that risk, and it is right to give them some profit as a reward for taking those risks that benefit the rest of us. It is the hope of such reward that motivates people to start businesses and assume such risks. If profit were not allowed in a society, then people would not take such risks, and we would have few goods available to buy. Allowing profit, therefore, is a good thing that brings benefits to everybody in the society.
Of course, there can be wrongful profit. For example, if there is a great disparity in power or knowledge between you and me and I take advantage of that and cheat you, I would not be obeying Jesus’ command: “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 7:12).
Or if I am in charge of a monopoly on a necessary good, so that people can only buy bread or water or gasoline from me and no other suppliers can enter the market, and if I then charge an exorbitant price that depletes people’s wealth, of course that kind of profit is excessive and wrong. That is where earning a profit provides temptations to sin.
Multiplying Our Resources
But the distortions of something good must not cause us to think that the thing itself is evil. If profit is made in a system of voluntary exchange not distorted by monopoly power or dishonesty or greatly unequal knowledge, then when I earn a profit, I also help you. You are better off because you have a loaf of bread that you wanted, and I am better off because I earned $1 profit, and that keeps me in business and makes me want to make more bread to sell. Everybody wins, and nobody is exploited. Through this process, as my business profits and grows, I continue to glorify God by enlarging the possessions over which I am “sovereign” and over which I can exercise wise stewardship.
The ability to earn a profit thus results in multiplying our resources while helping other people. It is a wonderful ability that God gave us, and it is not evil or morally neutral, but is fundamentally good. Through it we can reflect many of God’s attributes, such as love for others, wisdom, sovereignty, and planning for the future.