1 – Stones Into Bread: Power Religion

Chapter from "Priorities and Dominion" by Gary North.

Then was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil. And when he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he was afterward an hungred. And when the tempter came to him, he said, If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread. But he answered and said, It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God (Matt. 4:1-4).

The theocentric principle of this law is the centrality of the word of God in man's life. The issue was this: Whose word should man use to help him set his priorities? Was the priority of immediate gratification worth the act of transforming stones into bread? Or was there a higher priority?

The Wilderness Experience

The story of the wilderness temptation appears in two of the four gospels: Matthew and Luke. This event was a recapitulation of the temptation in the garden. But there were differences. First, Jesus was not in the midst of plenty. Second, He was suffering from hunger. Adam had labored under neither of these burdens. There was a third important difference: there was no intermediary tempter. This time, Satan did not use a serpent as his covenantal agent, nor was there a woman involved. He approached Jesus directly. In short, Jesus was tempted under especially difficult circumstances.

In this first temptation, the devil did not ask Jesus to do anything inherently wrong. Jesus subsequently used His supernatural power to turn a few loaves of bread and a few fishes into a meal that fed thousands (Matt. 14:21). Then He did it again (Matt. 15:38). Why did the devil use this temptation to begin the series?

It was a matter of historical context. The question before Jesus was the question of causation. Which is more fundamental, power or obedience? Jesus made it plain: obedience. The word of God is superior to autonomous power. It is also superior to a man's temporary desires. By appealing to the Bible, Jesus made it plain that He would not sacrifice law to expediency.

The context of Jesus' scriptural citation was the wilderness experience of the Israelites. Moses recounted to the conquest generation the miracles of God in sustaining the people in the wilderness for four decades. "And he humbled thee, and suffered thee to hunger, and fed thee with manna, which thou knewest not, neither did thy fathers know; that he might make thee know that man doth not live by bread only, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of the LORD doth man live" (Deut. 8:3). That is, God had granted them a miracle — manna — which they made into bread. The manna had demonstrated both God's power over history and His grace to His people. They could trust Him to sustain them. In the future, they would need bread, but they had needed it in the wilderness, too, and God had supplied it supernaturally.

God had made it plain to them: He is sovereign over history. He had given them His law at Sinai. His law is sovereign over history. To gain the blessings of God in history, men must obey His law (Deut. 28:1-14). What sustains man in history is God's specially revealed word, which includes His specially revealed law.

The heart of the wilderness experience was not the manna or the clothes that did not wear out. The heart of that experience was the self-discipline of having faith in God. The transfer of authority from the exodus generation to the conquest generation came through the latter's experience of a daily miracle. They had grown up in the context of miracles. But upon entering the Promised Land, submitting to circumcision, and eating Passover, the Israelites were immediately cut off from the miracle of manna (Josh. 5:12). They would henceforth eat the fruit of the land. To remain in the land, they were required to obey God's revealed law (Deut. 8:19-20).

Jesus reminded the devil of the requirement for maintaining the kingdom grant: obedience. Prosperity is not a matter of power; it is a matter of covenantal obedience. His power over the stones was unquestioned. The devil did not suggest otherwise. In fact, the temptation rested on the presupposition that Jesus possessed such power. The nature of this temptation was an appeal to power. This was one more example of the power religion vs. the dominion religion.1 Jesus refused to invoke power rather than ethics.

Miracles as Welfare2

The exodus from Egypt to Canaan is a model of the move from slavery to freedom. The model of a free society is not Israel's miraculous wilderness experience, where God gave them manna and removed many burdens of entropy.3 The predictable miracles of the wilderness era were designed to humble the people before God: subordination. The wilderness experience was not marked by economic growth but by economic stagnation and total dependence. They were not allowed to save extra portions of manna, which rotted (Ex. 16:20). On the move continually, they could not dig wells, plant crops, or build houses. At best, they may have been able to increase their herds, as nomads do (Num. 3:45; 20:4; 32:1). The wilderness experience was a means of teaching them that God acts in history to sustain His people. The wilderness economy with its regular miracles was not to become an ideal toward which covenant-keepers should strive. Israel longed for escape from the wilderness. It was God's curse on the exodus generation that they would die in the wilderness with full stomachs and like-new clothes.

The wilderness economy was a welfare economy. The Israelites were supplied with basic necessities even though the people did not work. But they lacked variety. People without the ability to feed themselves were fed by God: same old diet. People without the ability to clothe themselves were clothed by God: same old fashions. Israel wandered aimlessly because the nation had refused to march into war against Canaan (Num. 14). They were not fit to lead; so, they had to follow. They were welfare clients; they had no authority over the conditions of their existence. They took what was handed out to them. And like welfare clients generally, they constantly complained that their lifestyle just wasn't good enough (Num. 11). They had been unwilling to pay the price of freedom: conquest. God therefore cursed them to endure four decades of welfare economics. The only good thing about the wilderness welfare program was that it did not use the State as the agency of positive blessings. No one was coerced into paying for anyone else's lifestyle. God used a continuous series of miracles to sustain them all. There was no coercive program of wealth redistribution. Israel in the wilderness was a welfare society, not a welfare State.

The lure of the welfare State remains with responsibility-avoiding men in every era. It was this lure which attracted the crowds to Jesus. "Jesus answered them and said, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Ye seek me, not because ye saw the miracles, but because ye did eat of the loaves, and were filled" (John 6:26). They wanted a king who would feed them. They viewed Jesus as a potential candidate for king because He could multiply bread. They associated free food with political authority, which was the same presumption that the urban proletariat in Rome was making. If accommodated, this outlook would end in political tyranny and national bankruptcy. Jesus knew this, so He departed from them (John 6:11-15).

Men in their rebellion against God want to believe in a State that can heal them. They believe in salvation by law — civil law. They prefer to live under the authority of a messianic State, meaning a healer State, rather than under freedom. They want to escape the burdens of personal and family responsibility in this world of cursed scarcity. They want to live as children live, as recipients of bounty without a price tag. They are willing to sacrifice their liberty and the liberty of others in order to attain this goal.

One mark of spiritual immaturity is the quest for economic miracles: stones into bread. The price of this alchemical wealth is always the same: the acceptance of magic. Modern welfare economics teaches that the State can provide such miracles through positive economic policy, i.e., by taking wealth from some and transferring it to others, either directly or through monetary inflation. This belief is the presupposition of the Keynesian revolution, which dominated twentieth-century economic thought, 1936-1990. The self-taught economist (B.A. in mathematics) John Maynard Keynes actually described credit expansion — the heart of his economic system — as the "miracle . . . of turning a stone into bread." 4

When Israel crossed into the Promised Land, the identifying marks of their wilderness subordination were removed by God: the manna and their permanent clothing. This annulment of the welfare economy was necessary for their spiritual maturation and their liberation. The marks of their subordination to God would henceforth be primarily confessional and ethical. The only food miracle that would remain in Israel would be the triple crop two years prior to a jubilee (Lev. 25:21). God promised to substitute a new means of Israel's preservation: economic growth. No longer would they be confined to manna and the same old clothing. Now they would be able to multiply their wealth. The zero-growth world of the welfare society would be replaced by the pro-growth world of covenantal remembrance.

Something for Nothing

The devil offered Jesus a familiar temptation: something for nothing. Jesus could easily have taken something common and without economic value and converted it into something valuable. A stone was a common item in the wilderness. It commanded no price. There were more stones available at zero price than there was demand for them. Not so with bread. Bread commanded a price. For a hungry man with money to spend, bread commands a high price if there is only one seller. In this case, Jesus was hungry. He presumably would have paid for bread, but either there was no nearby seller or He had no money. How would He relieve His hunger?

The answer was obvious to the supreme master of the power religion: convert stones into bread. Say the word, and it would be done, Satan told Jesus. Just say the word. Invoke power. But under these circumstances, this would not be power from above; it would be power from below.5 Why? Because of the context of the temptation. This was a recapitulation of the setting of the Fall of man. Adam had the power to eat the forbidden fruit, but he lacked the lawful authority to do so. Jesus had the power to turn stones into bread; like Adam, He also lacked the lawful authority to do so. Why? Was He not God? Yes, but He was also man. He was under authority. This authority was judicial. He was under the word of God, the authority over man.

Satan was suggesting a shortcut to satisfaction: no work, no payment of money, no delayed gratification. All it would cost was . . . what? A return to the welfare society of the wilderness. The Israelites had been sustained miraculously, but they had no other way to survive. The wilderness could not sustain them. Miracles could. To gain wealth in the Promised Land, they were required to work (Deut. 8:10). The miracle of the manna had ceased. The mature way to wealth is through sacrifice of present consumption for the sake of future income: thrift. The devil was offering Jesus miracles in the wilderness as a way of life. This meant leaving the devil in control of society through his disciples: the power religion. There would be no righteous conquest through covenant-keeping. All Jesus had to do was formalize the power religion to satisfy his hunger. He refused.

What is the basis of life? God's grace. It is an unmerited gift.6 Grace precedes law. But law always follows grace. Man maintains his grant from God through obedience to God.7 This ability to obey is also a form of grace. The basis of the church's extension of God's kingdom in history is the grace of God through the predictability of His sanctions. Obedience to the word of God is the basis of wealth. Anything that detracts from this social cause-and-effect relationship should not be trusted.

God's grace is unearned by its recipients. They gain something for nothing. Jesus paid something; men receive it for nothing. Because all life rests on grace, the concept of something for nothing is inherent in creation. The sun, moon, and stars were made for man (Gen. 1:14-17).8 But ever since the Fall of man, there has always been a price required by God for every benefit enjoyed by any creature: the death of an acceptable sacrifice. God has a doctrine of something for nothing: grace grounded in a substitutionary atonement. The devil was asking Jesus to substitute his version of something for nothing in place of God's version. Yet Satan's offer was and is an illusion: a price must be paid for whatever men receive from him. Satan is no less a recipient of God's common grace than man. He does not deserve life, power, or time, but God grants these gifts to him. He owns nothing on his own; God supplies him with everything. 9 So, the person who believes in Satan's version of something for nothing — the invocation of supernatural power to achieve man's autonomous ends — has become his servant. His servants will pay the price in eternity.

Living by God's Word

The devil asked Jesus to substitute power religion for dominion religion. Just say the word, he suggested. But the word that counts most is God's word, not man's word, Jesus replied. As a creature dependent on the creation, man lives by bread, but not by bread alone. He lives by God's word. This is a denial of the twin doctrines of common grace and natural law as stand-alone principles of social order. Man lives by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.

Modern man wants to find laws that operate autonomously from God's word. Modern economics is a self-conscious attempt to reason about social cause and effect without any appeal to morality or the supernatural. But such an attempt is an illusion; it always imports values through the back door. Specifically, in order to justify public policies by means of an appeal to economic science, economists pretend that political representatives can make scientifically valid interpersonal comparisons of other individuals' subjective utility, as if there were a common value scale across independent, autonomous people. But no such value scale exists. 10

Similarly, in political theory, some men still appeal to Stoic principles of natural law and natural morality. The State is supposedly not to invoke God's word as the basis of legislation and judicial decision-making. The natural law theorist insists that man can, in fact, live apart from every word that proceeds from God's special revelation. Not only can man do so, he must do so. Any appeal to the Bible as a standard above the common reason of all mankind is said to be an illegitimate appeal. 11

To invoke a hypothetical common moral reasoning process, let alone agreed-upon logical conclusions, of covenant-breaking man is comparable to commanding stones into bread. Modern man believes in stones into bread on this basis: a world not under God's Bible-revealed law. He wants his daily bread on these terms. Jesus announced that man does not live by bread alone. This means that man cannot live by his own word. Any appeal to man and man's wisdom as the source of bread is an illegitimate appeal. Eventually, it will produce hunger in history and terror in eternity.


Jesus here denied the validity of power religion in its supernatural form: magic. But, by appealing to the word of God, He also denied power religion in its natural form: autonomy. Man lives by bread, but also by every word that God has uttered. God's word is more fundamental than bread. When man forgets this, he eventually suffers the consequences in history and eternity. It is through God's revealed word that man is to establish his priorities.

The top priority in this passage is a life lived in conformity to the Bible. The passage does not dismiss bread as irrelevant. On the contrary, bread is said to be a source of life. But the word of God is superior to bread as a source of life. It was not bread that had sustained Jesus in the wilderness; it was God's word, which He proved by using it against Satan. This passage places bread in subordination to word. Jesus invoked God's word to defeat Satan, who suggested a way to eat bread without a recipe (planning), grain, or labor: something for nothing. Jesus rejected this religion of magic. He proclaimed a religion of faith and ethics, word and deed. To live biblically means to obey God. This is the basis of wealth.

The top priority here is the substitution of covenantal faithfulness for power. Obedience is primary; positive sanctions in history are secondary. In economic theory, this means the rejection of all explanations of national wealth based on an appeal to the productivity of autonomous, God-ignoring schemes or philosophies. This outlook rejects the humanist ideal of the State as a healer, and also the libertarian ideal of the State as a morally neutral night watchman.

1. Gary North, Moses and Pharaoh: Dominion Religion vs. Power Religion (Tyler, Texas: Institute for Christian Economics, 1985).
2. This section appeared originally in Gary North, Inheritance and Dominion: An Economic Commentary on Deuteronomy (Tyler, Texas: Institute for Christian Economics, 1999), ch. 21.
3. On entropy, an aspect of the second law of thermodynamics, see Gary North, Is the World Running Down? Crisis in the Christian Worldview (Tyler, Texas: Institute for Christian Economics, 1988).
4. Keynes (anonymous), Paper of the British Experts (April 8, 1943), cited in Ludwig von Mises, "Stones into Bread, the Keynesian Miracle," Plain Talk (1948), reprinted in Henry Hazlitt (ed.), The Critics of Keynesian Economics (Princeton, New Jersey: Van Nostrand, 1960), p. 306.
5. R. J. Rushdoony, "Power from Below," Journal of Christian Reconstruction, I (Summer, 1975).
6. The gift is unmerited by fallen man. It is merited by the perfect life of Jesus Christ in history.
7. North, Inheritance and Dominion, ch. 17, section on "Maintaining the Kingdom Grant."
8. No passage is more hostile to Darwinism than this one, for it teaches that something in the creation was made for man's benefit — the ultimate testimony against Darwin's theory of evolution through natural selection. Darwin's theory rests on the mandatory idea that all benefits to any creature that it obtains from another creature were originally for the benefit of the other creature. Nothing exterior to any creature can be said to have been designed for its benefit.
9. Gary North, Dominion and Common Grace: The Biblical Basis of Progress (Tyler, Texas: Institute for Christian Economics, 1987), ch. 2.
10. Gary North, The Dominion Covenant: Genesis (2nd ed.; Tyler, Texas: Institute for Christian Economics, 1987), ch. 4; North, Tools of Dominion: The Case Laws of Exodus (Tyler, Texas: Institute for Christian Economics, 1990), Appendix D.
11. Writes Norman Geisler, a premillennial fundamentalist follower of Thomas Aquinas: "The cry to return to our Christian roots is seriously misguided if it means that government should favor Christian teachings. . . . First, to establish such a Bible-based civil government would be a violation of the First Amendment. Even mandating the Ten Commandments would favor certain religions. . . . Furthermore, the reinstitution of the Old Testament legal system is contrary to New Testament teaching. Paul says clearly that Christians `are not under the law, but under grace' (Rom. 6:14). . . . The Bible may be informative, but it is not normative for civil law." Norman L. Geisler, "Should We Legislate Morality?" Fundamentalist Journal (July/Aug. 1988),p. 17. He continues: "What kind of laws should be used to accomplish this: Christian laws or Humanistic laws? Neither. Rather, they should simply be just laws. Laws should not be either Christian or anti-Christian; they should be merely fair ones." Ibid., p. 64.

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