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Why do we do good things? Why do we carry out acts of love and charity? Conversely, why do we make bad decisions, or choose to do evil or harmful things?

The answer may surprise you.

I believe the answer is a concept we’re covering as part of our series on basic economic principles Christians need to know: the importance of incentives.

I believe this answer is also a basic biblical principle, as I’ll explain in a bit. But first, why bother talking about why incentives matter?

Understanding incentives helps us understand human nature. As economists James Gwartney, Richard Stroup, and Dwight Lee explain in Common Sense Economics:

Understanding incentives is an extremely powerful tool for understanding why people do the things they do because the impact of incentives can be seen on almost every level, from simple family decision making to securities markets and international trade…There’s no way to get around the importance of incentives. It’s a part of human nature. 

Lee further expounds on this in an article he wrote for the The Freeman. Discussing the power of incentives, Lee writes,

The surest way to get people to behave in desirable ways is to reward them for doing so – in other words, to provide them with incentives. This is so obvious that you might think it hardly deserves mention. You might say that people shouldn’t have to be rewarded to do desirable things.

Rather than being obvious, I think Christians might push back and argue we should do good because we love Jesus, not because we are being rewarded. We should, but we can’t always do good for the right reasons, all the time. Our fallen human nature prevents this.

The good news is that God perfectly understands our fallen nature. He gets it. Thus, the notion of reward is woven through the Bible.

Incentives are hardwired into human nature. God knows the anthropology of man, and he knows we need incentives to guide our decisions and behavior. Even before the Fall, God gave an incentive to Adam in the Garden of Eden. Genesis 2: 16-17 says,

And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.

The incentive here is that if Adam obeys God’s command, he will live.

Furthermore, J.I. Packer argues that incentives are a part of our covenant relationship with God. He writes in the introduction to his work On Covenant Theology that while God initiates relationship with his people, there are blessings to be received as a reward for faithfulness:

The God-given covenant carries, of course, obligations. The life of faith and repentance, and the obedience to which faith leads, constitute the covenant-keeping through which God’s people receive the fullness of God’s covenant blessing. ‘I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession’ (Ex. 19:4 f.). Covenant faithfulness is the condition and means of receiving covenant benefits, and there is nothing arbitrary in that; for the blessings flow from the relationship, and human rebelliousness and unfaithfulness stop the flow by disrupting the relationship. Israel’s infidelity was constantly doing this throughout the Old Testament story, and the New Testament makes it plain that churches and Christians will lose blessings that would otherwise be theirs, should covenant fidelity be lacking in their lives.

Even the New Testament makes clear that we can’t even love God of our own volition. We are selfish and greedy and sinful. Without Christ, we aren’t fully capable of that pure love that gives without getting (though common grace does provide for exceptions).

1 John 4:19 says,

We love because he first loved us. 

Our love is a response. Jesus, through his life, death, and resurrection, has given us a reason to love him. Our love is the acknowledgement of a very powerful and positive incentive. A relationship with Christ gives us:

1. Hope for today, and for the future.

2. A relationship with our Creator, the King of the universe.

3. A bond of love we could never otherwise conceive.

This is an attempt to look at incentives from a biblical perspective. Tomorrow I will compliment this view with an economic perspective on incentives.

Why do you think incentives matter? Why should Christians care about incentives? Leave your comments here

Dr. Anne Bradley

About Dr. Anne Bradley

Anne Bradley, Ph.D. is Vice President of Economic Initiatives at the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics. Anne received her Ph.D. in Economics from George Mason University. She is a visiting professor at Georgetown University and has previously taught at George Mason University and at Charles University in Prague. Read More...

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  • Francisco

    In the natural world incentive abounds with regard to the law of “sowing and reaping”. You reap what you sow and you always reap MORE than you sow. Often multiples of 10 to 100 times more. Incentive is natural and even supernatural. God was willing to sacrifice one for the redemption of very many.

  • http://www.austinburkhart.com/ Austin Burkhart

    Awesome! John Piper talked at Passion 2013 about incentives and the gospel. He referenced Hebrews 12:1-2 and the Jesus endured the cross “for the joy set before Him” so if that joy was good enough incentive for our Savior it’s good enough for us!

  • The Ministry Mama

    Look at 4 other Bible incentives: heaven vs hell, the hope of hearing “well done thy good and faithful servant” vs “Thou wicked and slothful servant.” Third, our works being tried before God by fire at the end of time and they will either burn up leaving us with nothing or we will be left with gold and other valuable gifts. Our heart’s intentions now will determine whether our rewards will be eternal or temporary. Last, there is a big incentive for people to live a righteous life on earth because we do not know the hour of Christ’s return. We can watch for His return or we can get caught living for the world. God has given some very distinct incentives in His Word to help us choose to live for Him.