Session Three: The Gospel & Work (Part One)

In the first two sessions, we unpacked the truth that your work—your labor within God’s world in various vocations—matters to God. And we saw that your work is not only important in God’s economy of all things, it is necessary. To dignify work in this way, which we have argued the Bible does, it requires that we intentionally deconstruct the argument of dualism. The division of the world into things secular and spiritual has done enormous harm to the church’s understanding of and approach to work. As we have seen, without even noticing, the church has relegated our work in the world to a position of subordination beneath our life and work “in the church.” While this unintentional subordination of work in the world may not be explicitly stated, it certainly is implicitly stated and implied more than we care to admit. We “send out” missionaries but not mechanical engineers. We eagerly get on a plane and “go over there” but begrudgingly get in the car and go to work right here. The point here is not to diminish missionary zeal but to reinforce that your work is missional—it can participate with Christ in the power of His Spirit in making all things new. Your work matters to God because the Creator God is so intimately concerned with His good creation that He does not will to leave it to the corruption of sin but designed to renew and redeem every square inch of it—including your work—in and through King Jesus.

In the final two sessions, we will unpack the truth that God matters to your work. At some level, your work will be different because of the good news that Jesus is King over everything—not just your heart but your work, your family, your time, your talents, your desires. All the Christian is or hopes to be, has or hopes to have, must be surrendered and placed into service of Christ and His Kingdom. Therefore, your work will be changed, it will be different, it will be at some level distinctly Christian. You will work in a way and for reasons that non-Christians do not and cannot. We will unpack this idea during session three by investigating how the truth of God’s gospel reshapes the why? (genesis) and what for? (telos) of our work. Session four will continue the conversation with the where? (locus), how? (ethos) and when? (chronos) of our work.

To give a quick example of how we will flesh these concepts out, consider the example of a carpenter. Is there a distinctly Christian way that he takes his hammer to the nail? Is there a distinctly Christian hammer he uses or a distinctly Christian nail? Most likely not. Will the Christian carpenter perform the task of hitting the nail with a hammer any more efficiently or effectively because he is a Christian? Maybe not, but we certainly want to aim for excellence in our work. But the point in all of this is that the distinctively Christian aspects of your work may not be blatantly apparent. And that’s okay. Because there will still be, and there must still be, aspects of your work that are distinctively Christian. The carpenter may not hit a nail with a hammer any differently because he is a Christian, but the subject of his work will be swayed by his belonging to Christ. He will not knowingly participate in the construction of an abortion clinic or a strip club. He will aim His work at loving God and the flourishing of his neighbor. Further, the underlying motivation to work in the first place will be marked by Christ’s lordship. He will not work to adorn himself with accolades and commendation. He will work simply and gladly because Christ, his Lord, has called him to work and declared that his work as a carpenter is valuable and necessary in God’s Kingdom economy, especially as it the means by which God provisions His world. The carpenter will have a distinctively Christian ethic in his interaction with his co-workers, clients, and supervisors. He will not use people to gain advantage for himself but be willing to disadvantage himself for the benefit of others. We will tease this out more as we go along, but hopefully you begin to see that the gospel—the  good news that Jesus is King over everything—has massive implications for your work in God’s world.

INTRODUCING QUESTIONS NEEDING ANSWERS

We mentioned in session one that we would revisit three questions that can aide in understanding how we should be at work in a distinctively Christian way, in a way that has been transformed and is informed by the gospel of the kingdom of God: what is the creational aim of your occupation?; how has sin corrupted your occupation?; and how has Christ through His Spirit equipped you to renew/restore your occupation? It is sometimes hard to answer these questions at a high, theoretical level, so we will introduce five categories (two in session three and three in session four) to help give some framework to these questions and bring them to bear on the particulars of your work.

THE GENESIS OF CHRISTIAN WORK

First we will look at the genesis, or the why? of Christian work. What motivates the Christian to work in a way that is distinct from others? Though there are others, we will focus on three truths out which arise a distinctly Christian motivation to work. In other words, Christian work begins with these three truths.

The first truth is that work is innately good. We come to this conclusion because, as we have seen in session one, God is set to reveal himself as a worker. The biblical revelation begins with God at work creating the world. Genesis 1.1 declares, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” The eternally unchanging, infinitely perfect God works. And according to John 5.17, God is still at work to this day. Therefore, work must be good if it is intrinsic to the character of God himself. So the Christian does not relate to work as an evil to be avoided. Relating to work like it is an evil to be avoided is far more like the dualism we are trying to deconstruct than the biblical portrait of work. It was the dualistic Greeks that sought to escape work because they thought of labor within the world as belonging to a lower class of humanity. Lest we think this view of work is still in antiquity, consider your motivation to enjoy your weekend hobby—running, tennis, college football watching, whatever it might be. Do we not possess a greater motivation to participate in those activities we view as “not work” than to fully engage in our occupational work? Does this not reveal that we too have diminished work within God’s world to a means to some other end? In contrast, as Christians we must view work as intrinsically good—a good manifestation of the perfect character of God and a good part of God’s good world. This leads to the second truth out of which arises a Christian motivation to work.

We are created and commanded to work. Genesis 1.28, the text labeled the creation or cultural mandate, says, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion…” Similarly, in Genesis 2.15 we read, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.” We have pointed out in the past that the idea in these verses is that God had implanted in His creation the potential for the full array of human culture—arts and agriculture, economics and engineering. Like treasures buried in a sandbox, God commanded Adam to be at work in the world to discover and bring out these treasures of potential and place them in service of his neighbor’s welfare. This is (at least part of) what it means that we are created in the image of God. By God’s design, we are to reflect and extend God’s creative work in the world. But our call to work like God follows our endowment of identity by God. God grants identity to Adam and then calls him to work in a manner consistent with that identity. As God had created Adam out of the dust, God then called Adam, gifted with the divine image, to make something out of that same dust. Adam was called to work out of, not for, an identity in his work. Think of the child whose parents are UGA football fans. They will naturally bestow upon their child the identity of a UGA fan. The child, even if capable, could do nothing to earn or work for that identity—it is given to him. And he will sit with his dad on Saturday afternoons in the fall and behave in a manner that is consistent with that identity. Yet the result of sin is that we forfeited the identity given to us. We gave it up. Now, instead of approaching our work out of our identity, we approach it for an identity. As we saw in session two, Christ’s redemptive work has undone the work of sin so that now we as Christians can again approach work out of our identity in Christ who is the image of God.

The world works for an identity in their work. This pursuit of identity in work manifests itself in a variety of ways—some of which are evident even in the Christian as we struggle to put off the old, sinful man, so it is important we are able to not only recognize but repent of these in our own lives and work. Working for an identity will typically lead to one of two errors. These errors spring up from the same place but manifest as sin in two opposite ways. Working for an identity leads to either arrogance or apathy.

When working for an identity leads to arrogance, work becomes a ruthless pursuit of advancement and commendation. The desire for success is intoxicating and the sting of failure is debilitating. When you are passed up for the promotion you sulk in self-pity so crippling you can’t extend due congratulations to your co-worker. And the disappointment bleeds into home life and church life, and your misery begins sow dissension in relationships. But when you get the promotion, you are puffed up with so much pride that suddenly the world is far more bearable place. When working for an identity leads to arrogance, work has been reduced into a means to intentionally advantage self.

But working for an identity can also lead to apathy. When working for and identity manifests itself in this way, work is marred with laziness. You do the bare minimum to keep your jobs and pay the bills. When given opportunity to take on more responsibility you balk. You are controlled by an avoidance mentality that does not want to enter into proximity with other people at work. And such apathy at work will in short time mark other areas of your life as well. When working for an identity leads to apathy, work has been reduced into a means to intentionally avoid disadvantaging self.

All of these reactions are symptomatic of engaging our work expecting our work to make something of us. But we as Christians relate to work in unique way—not approaching work for an identity but out of an identity given to us by God in Christ. We can avoid the sins of arrogance and apathy. We can accept failure at work as an inescapable reality of a fallen world. But we can work hard as unto the Lord but and not be consumed by the intoxicating pursuit of worldly success.

The third truth out of which a distinctly Christian motivation to work arises is that God is redeeming all things. We’ve laid a lot of the foundation for this already, so it should suffice to reinforce that God is concerned with every square inch of His creation, and the re-creation that is coming will be filled with a redeemed people at work. Therefore, if work will exist when all things are made new, we can participate in that future even now as we are at work in God’s world to offer a foretaste of the renewed world to come to those around us. Thus the apostle Paul can commend to the Corinthians and to us, “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”

There is still a lot we could and will flesh out there. For now we will move on to the telos, or what for? of Christian work.

THE TELOS OF CHRISTIAN WORK

The stated purpose of the FaithWork Initiative is to affirm the innate goodness of work and to aide in directing the telos of work to join in God’s cosmic program of redemption. In other words, what we want to accomplish by our gathering together under the banner of the FaithWork Initiative is affirm that work is good and that work for the Christian should be have a distinct purpose—joining with God in making all things new. As we saw in session one, God’s work of redemption, the missio Dei, is to fill the earth with a people who love Him and love one another. And we also saw that our work is necessary and essential for this mission, especially as our work is the means through which God provisions His world and carries out His mission. So then, we can say that Christian work ought to have as its end purpose loving God and loving neighbor. That sounds really abstract, and again, we have designed time later this morning to ask and prayerfully begin to answer how your specific work can love God and love neighbor.

WORK AIMED AT LOVING NEIGHBOR

It may seem strange to you that we say Christian work is distinctly aimed at loving and benefiting one’s neighbor. Doesn’t the work of the agnostic dairy farmer benefit the world? It is here we need to differentiate between loving neighbor as the ultimate telos of work and loving God as the ultimate telos. To do so we need to introduce the concept theologians call common grace. Common grace is God’s sovereign prevention of the full effects of sin’s destructive power and His promotion of the flourishing of His world even through those people who oppose Him. This is what Jesus means when he says in Matthew 5.45, “For [God] makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” For the sake of carrying to completion His mission to fill the earth with a people who love Him and love one another, God blankets His world with common grace. All those who bear God’s image possess God-given gifts and talents that God, in His sovereignty, can put into service of His mission. Sometimes, the gifts and talents of non-Christians are more prominent or “praiseworthy” than those of the Christian. Isaiah 28 makes the remarkable claim that, “When a farmer plows for planting… His God instructs him… Grain must be ground to make bread… all this comes from the Lord Almighty.” Therefore, there is a sense in which all people can be at work to benefit neighbor. But we must understand that this is so not because people possess this ability in themselves but because of God’s common grace. This means we can appreciate the work of non-Christians that benefit neighbor—that provision the world with food, that fights for social justice, that builds infrastructure to support cities, and that equips students with knowledge. Yet understanding this keeps us from falling into the trap of accepting the work of non-Christians as ultimately good.

WORK AIMED AT LOVING GOD

The unapologetic claim of Scripture is there are none who are neutral toward God. Each person is either operating out of true view of reality—that Jesus is Lord—or out of a false view. Each person either possesses faith that pleases God or stands against Him. Therefore, the only work that is ultimately good is not the work aimed simply at loving neighbor but work aimed at loving God. And as work is aimed at loving God, work will love neighbor. The converse is not true. Work that is aimed at loving neighbor, will not necessarily, distinctly love God. This is the point of divergence between work that is distinctly Christian and work that is not—Christian work will love God and neighbor.

But what does it look like to aim work at loving God? It may look no different than the work of non-Christians. But there will be a fundamental and essential difference, though it may not be seen. The non-Christian can advocate for social justice in response to a twisted sense of guilt, invent technology that connects people all over the globe in pursuit of personal fame, open a farm-to-table, organic restaurant out of prideful snobbery. But work aimed at loving God is compelled only by love for God. Aiming our work at God means offering the fruit of work first to God that He might accomplish His work in His world. It means trusting God to provision us with our needs as we provision others with theirs. It means being at work in accordance with God’s design and expectation for work and not the culture’s.

The distinct Christian aim of loving God in and through work is far higher, its vision for work much broader than the one espoused by the world. You have been called to seek the flourishing of the whole world—its economic, architectural and social structures—through your work. And the distinctly Christian view of flourishing is not determined by cultural persuasions or preferences but is rooted in the God Man, Jesus.

As such, the temptation to use people to achieve your advantage—whether it is a promotion, recognition or a better office—must be conquered by a desire to benefit others, remembering how Jesus disadvantaged himself for our benefit. If you wield work for personal advantage, it is impossible to love neighbor, let alone God.  Further, the fruit of your work must not be hoarded but offered to others, remembering how Jesus worked to obtain salvation we could not earn and offered it freely to us. If you are unwilling to place the fruit of our labor into the service of others, your work owns you. And you must not be enslaved to the culture’s expectation for your work but conform your work in accordance with the gospel of Jesus’ lordship over all things—even the particulars of your work. If you only consent to the gospel of Jesus’ universal lordship in the abstract and do not bring His lordship to bear on the particulars of your work, you will be unable to participate in extending the flourishing of His kingdom through your work.

However, as you learn what the implications of the gospel of Jesus are for your particular work—your occupational work, your neighborly work, your familial work and your ecclesiastical work—your work will be swept up into the work and mission of God—to fill the earth which He will soon renew with a people who love Him and love one another.

FRAMING THE QUESTIONS NEEDING ANSWERS

To help aide in that learning process, we are now going to break into groups based on similar vocations. We want to bring some of the theory we have talked about for three session now into reality. Prayerfully, the truths we have labored to discuss and unpack will prove a trustworthy foundation to build upon. And we want to build upon it by seeking answers to the “banner” questions we have presented from session one. As a reminder, those “banner” questions are:

What is the creational purpose of your work? Or, what part did God intend your work to play in His economy of all things?

How has sin corrupted your work? Or, what are the idols and lies of your work?

How does the redemption won in Christ bring renewal to your work? Or, how can you co-labor with Christ to bring renewal to the world through your work?

To help answer these questions we will ask some additional ones. The intent in seeking answers to these questions is that we might be more faithfully and more eagerly wield our work for the sake of joining God’s mission in the world. Such end is the underlying goal of the FaithWork Initiative—to equip you to join your work with God’s work, to faithfully do the work of the ministry in and through your work. The questions to which we will now turn are organized under the headings of genesis and locus (and in session four we will add locus, ethos and chronos).

Genesis of Work Questions

For what activity or event during your week are you most motivated (e.g., coming home to kids, Friday night, Monday morning)? Why?

What is the narrative of the world put forward to validate your work (e.g., the world’s happiness depends on this product, education is the key to a better society)?

What place does your work have in God’s economy of all things (e.g., supplying building materials that provide livable/workable space to support families/business, jobs to construction workers)?

What identity does your work promise to offer (e.g., economic status, esteem in the community, respect of faculty)?

Where do you see the errors of arrogance or apathy in your work—in general and personally?

What does it look like to work out of your identity in Christ in your work?

What is the lifecycle or timeline of your work (e.g., five day work week, school calendar that repeats every year, project schedule that has a set end date)?

How might your work endure (in its redeemed state) into the new earth?

Telos of Work Questions

What “fruit” does your work produce (e.g., a certain product for the consumer, a paycheck for you)?

Who benefits from the fruit of your work (e.g., students, clients, family)? How?

Where do you see God’s common grace in your work (e.g., the excellent work of co-workers)?

What is the measure or marker of flourishing in your work (e.g., profit margin, number of new accounts)?

How does your work oppose the flourishing of God’s world (e.g., shady business practices, ignoring the poor/disadvantaged)? And/or how does your work contribute to the flourishing of God’s world (e.g., seeks justice, administers medicine for healing)?

What are the cultural expectations of your work (e.g., prepare students for college, payout a high dividend to shareholders)?

How do the cultural expectations of your work agree or disagree with God’s expectation of your work (e.g., preparing students for college entails equipping students with a knowledge of the world that fits them to be better citizens and neighbors in God’s world)?

Where do God’s expectations exceed the cultural expectations of your work (e.g., Christ is the ultimate reality of the universe, therefore any education most ultimately be anchored in the truth about Him)?