A Theology of Work

July 4, 2012 at 11:48 am 1 comment

“The doctrine of vocation amounts to a comprehensive doctrine of the Christian life, having to do with faith and sanctification, grace and good works. It is a key to Christian ethics. It shows how Christians can influence culture. It transfigures ordinary, everyday life with the presence of God…The priesthood of all believers did not make everyone into church workers; rather it turner every kind of work into a sacred calling.”[1]

Introduction

For most people work is a major part of their existence. More often than not, the second question one will receive after exchanging names in initial conversation is “so, what do you do?” In ancient societies one would derive their primary meaning in life from family, namely in fulfilling a subscribed social role as father, mother, brother, etc. Work was only a means to provide life’s necessities. But in our culture we define ourselves by what we do, where we work, and where we are on the corporate ladder. Because of this there is more psychological and emotional pressure tied to our work than ever before. In a society where productivity and utilitarian values reign, work is seen as one of the most important functions of our lives. Christians are no exception. With the increase of connectivity to work through mobile devices “…vocations occupy a great deal of most Christians’ lives and tends to define their existence in ways that transcend the workplace.”[2] Unlike the agricultural economies of the past, where work ceased when the sun went down, work in modern society continues day and night. Even in our leisurely hobbies many of us are drawn to activities that involve some kind of work.  It seems that having a biblical foundation to understand the role and purpose of work is of increasing importance. Yet John Hammett observes:

“…churches rarely give their members teaching on how to integrate their vocational life as part of their Christian life. As a result, most Christians think about their work as a separate compartment, something outside of their Christian life. But since we are called to be full time Christians, then our work must be part of our service to God.”[3]

Fortunately the bible is not silent about work and vocation. The biblical narrative overflows with work. From the opening lines of Genesis to the last word in Revelation work and vocation are a fixture in creation order. While work should not be the meaning of one’s life, there is a sense in which one cannot have a meaningful life without some form of productive work. So, what is the proper place of work?

Developing a Theology of Work

Human beings were created and placed in paradise and given work to do. We read in Genesis 2:15 that “The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and keep it.” Notice that the call to work occurs before the fall of man and is included within the description that all God had made was “very good”. Hammett rightly describes work not as a necessary evil but, as God intended, part of our created nature and good.[4] In other words, work is not a curse; it is something we were designed to do. There are several theological implications that flow from the doctrine of creation that impact our work and vocation. As a foundational point, “productive work is ordained by God and inherently dignified”.[5]

  1. Work reflects the image of God in us: From creation to new creation God works. We see God’s work not only in creation but also in sustaining and providentially governing all of creation order.[6] Moreover, we look ahead to God’s recreation of the entire cosmos.[7] Therefore, in a certain sense, man reflects God in his creativity, energy, and authority in exercising dominion over and cultivating the earth.[8] Probably every one of us has tasted at some time a deep satisfaction of a job well done. In those times we can look at the work of our hands and proclaim that ‘it is good’.
  2. Work is tied to our calling in creation: Beyond the initial call to work and keep the garden, Adam and Eve were told to be fruitful and multiply.[9] The vocation of parenthood is added on to the care of creation[10] as work given to humanity. All of these activities could be categorized under the calling of humans to propagate life and develop culture. Furthermore, we are to exercise great care over what we have been given.

Again, it is important to note that work is part of God’s good will for humanity.[11] This is why Paul writes in Colossians “whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord”[12]. Obviously, one must take into account the fall of humanity when discussing any particular aspect of humanity from a theological perspective. In Genesis 3:17-19 we find that immediately after the fall a curse is laid upon humanity which affects work.[13] As Richard Phillips notes, “the introduction of sin into the garden changed the nature of work.”[14] Several observations can be made on this point.[15]

  1. We encounter resistance, rather than cooperation, in our work: There is an objective change in our bodies and in physical creation as a result of human sin, therefore all work, though rewarding, is also mixed with frustration, difficulty, monotony, and sometimes requires enduring pain.[16] Underlying much of this difficulty is a deep sense in each of us that work is supposed to be meaningful and enjoyable. But, Meredith Kline notes that even with the “…curse of man it is presupposed that man’s dominion over the earth would be continued and that here too divine blessing would be granted on man’s labor to such a degree that human life would be sustained and cultural satisfactions realized.”[17]
  2. While work was created to be a blessing, post fall it becomes an occasion of temptation: Consider humanities capacity towards injustice and oppression.[18] We have all seen or experienced someone using their work for worldly glory or self-power. Furthermore, there is also the temptation of laziness in our work.[19] The Apostle Paul addresses this in 2 Thessalonians 3:10 when he writes, “…If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat”.
  3. We naturally tend to make work an idol: Work often provides us with a sense of worth and self-esteem and thus temporarily satisfies needs within our own soul.[20] “Because God is good and has chosen to be glorified through our labor, we are able to enjoy work and find a significant part of our identity in it.”[21] But work becomes an idol when one is devoted to it in an unhealthy way, not allowing any rest (Sabbath) in the quest for satisfaction or making a name for oneself. Work always fails to satisfy completely.[22] It needs to be established that our work is not salvific, nor is it the most important aspect of our lives.

Though the fall has affected our work in a significant way, the presence of sin does not change our calling to be workers. Therefore, we need some sort of salvation for our work, to put it another way, our work needs to be transformed by the gospel.

  1. We work as a means to honor Christ: Any job that is undertaken should be aimed at blessing others and glorifying God.[23] Since work is an inherent part of our human nature as created in God’s image, we should work as to glorify God.
  2. We work as a testimony to others: The reality of God’s dominion over us, and Christ’s love in us should be on display in the quality of our work. If the goal of our work is to glorify God then we are enabled to value all honorable types of work, regardless of their monetary value and cultural utilitarian purposes.
  3. We work to provide for our own needs as well as the needs of others: We are not only called to provide for our families (thus our own needs)[24] but also to be generous in sharing with others and providing for those in genuine need.[25] Our work should benefit others to the glory of God. God does not need our work, but man does. Gene Edward Veith Jr. notes that “when God blesses us, He almost always does it through other people”[26].

In all of these things, we as Christians keep in mind that we await the new heavens and new earth where there will be rest from work in this fallen world[27], and work will be as it was before the fall.[28] In other words, heaven will not be an eternal vacation, but all good aspects of human culture will be continued in a pure state. It seems that Scripture teaches us that part of our reward for faithfulness in this life is a capacity for increased work alongside of Jesus in the new heavens and new earth.[29] Though for now, as we wait for that day, let us work hard to the glory of God.

Principles for Working to the Glory of God

While the New Testament provides general characteristics regarding the conduct of Christians in the world, we also find general admonitions to heed in the work environment.

  1. Christians should work hard and not be idle.[30]
  2. Christians should work hard and mind their own business.[31]
  3. Christians should respect authority structures in the workplace.[32]

In essence, the Christians work should reflect their faith in Christ and be dedicated to his glory. This dedication helps us avoid idleness, meddling in issues that are not ours, and upholding the common grace structures that God has provided in this fallen world. “In a world where sin pervades the workplace, basic things like maintaining ones integrity, using sound speech, and not stealing provide testimony to the reality of God’s grace and power of the gospel.”[33] As Tim Keller has written, “…the Bible tells us that Jesus has to be the Lord of every area of life…The gospel shapes and affects the motives, manner, and methods with which we carry out every task in life, including our vocation.”[34] Richard Phillips provides 6 questions that are helpful in sifting through our own philosophy of work and personal vocation.[35]

  1. Does my work glorify God?
  2. Does my work benefit man?
  3. Do I consider myself “right’ for this job, or can I at least do it well and find enjoyment in that?
  4. Does my work provide for material needs?
  5. Does my work permit me to lead a godly and balanced life?

Finally Ben Witherington suggests, “…we are all called to be workers and that is an essential part of our purpose and mission on earth, all the more so since we now have God’s salvation in Christ to proclaim to the world. We all have limited time on earth, whether short or long, and we all have a God-given purpose on earth, regardless of whether we realize it.”[36]

Final Theological Considerations

In Christian theology work is implicitly tied to Sabbath rest. Sabbath is patterned after God resting on the seventh day of creation.[37] It’s not that God was tired, but that God was finished. When God is finished with each work of creation he proclaims that ‘it is good.’ In essence God was declaring that he was utterly satisfied with what had been done. Sabbath means to cease from, and to enjoy the results of, your work. I believe this principle can be applied to our own work in a certain sense. To rest means that we are satisfied with what’s been done. Is this not the only way we can walk away for our work? Two implications of Sabbath rest are tied to this principle.[38]

  1. Rest from work is an act of liberation[39]: Sabbath was designed to show you that there is more to you than your work. If you cannot rest from work you are a slave to your work. Many of us are over committed and are always busy. Rest enables us to remind ourselves that our work does not define who we are.
  2. Rest from work is an act of trust: You will not take time off unless you truly believe that you are not God. Things will not fall apart if we take a time to rest. In his sovereignty God providentially holds all things together. “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.”[40]

Ultimately Sabbath rest is found in Christ and in Christ alone. The deeper work of the soul is satisfied in Christ’s call from the cross that “it is finished”[41]. Through Jesus and only Jesus can you get the deep rest of the soul that enables vocational rest. Remember his words, “come to me all who are heavy laden, and I will give you rest…take my yoke…you will find rest for your souls.”[42] When you are in Christ God looks at you and says, ‘it is good’. The only set of eyes in the world that you have to prove yourself to has already declared, because of your union with Christ, “…you are my beloved Child in whom I am well pleased”[43]. As Tim Keller has said, “…external rest of the body, however, is impossible without inner rest from anxiety and strain. It takes the deep rest in Christ’s finished work for your salvation[44] to avoid over-work. Only then will you be able to regularly walk away and rest from your vocational work.”[45]


  1. [1] Gene Edward Veith Jr., God at Work, 17, 19.
  2. [2] David VanDrunen, Living in God’s Two Kingdoms, 187.
  3. [3] John S. Hammett, A Theology for the Church, Edited by Daniel Akin, 362.
  4. [4] Hammett, 362.
  5. [5] VanDrunen, 187.
  6. [6] John 5:17; 9:3-4.
  7. [7] Revelation 21:5.
  8. [8] Perhaps Ephesians 2:10 speaks to this in some sense.
  9. [9] Genesis 1:28.
  10. [10] Genesis 1:26, 28, 2:15.
  11. [11] Ecclesiastes 2:24-25, 3:13, 22, 5:18-20.
  12. [12] Colossians 3:23.
  13. [13] Genesis 3:16-19.
  14. [14] Richard Phillips, The Masculine Mandate, 18.
  15. [15] Much of this language is borrowed from Hammett.
  16. [16] Genesis 3:17.
  17. [17] Meredith Kline, Kingdom Prologue, 154.
  18. [18] James 5:4; Amos 2:7, 5:11-12, 8:4-7; Isaiah 58:3,6-7.
  19. [19] Proverbs 6:6-11; 2 Thessalonians 3:6, 11-12; Titus 3:14.
  20. [20] Luke 14:18-19; Proverbs 23:4-5, 30:7-9.
  21. [21] Phillips, 18.
  22. [22] Ecclesiastes 1:2-3, 6:7.
  23. [23] Paul applies this principle to slavery in Ephesians 6:6-7; Colossians 3:32-24.
  24. [24] Ephesians 4:28; 2 Thessalonians 3:10-12; Titus 3:14.
  25. [25] James 1:27; 2:14-17.
  26. [26] Gene Edward Veith Jr., God at Work, 14.
  27. [27] Revelation 14:13.
  28. [28] Revelation 22:3.
  29. [29] Matthew 19:28; Romans 8:19-23.
  30. [30] 2 Thessalonians 3:6-12; Proverbs 6:6-11, 13:4, 19:15, 21:25.
  31. [31] 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12.
  32. [32] Colossians 3:22-24.
  33. [33] VanDrunen, 191-192. See Titus 2:4-10.
  34. [34] Tim Keller, Gospel Christianity, 198.
  35. [35] See Masculine Mandate, 21.
  36. [36] Ben Witherington, Work, 9.
  37. [37] Exodus 20:8-11.
  38. [38] I am indebted to Tim Keller for these observations.
  39. [39] Deuteronomy 5:12-15.
  40. [40] Matthew 10:29-31.
  41. [41] John 19:30.
  42. [42] Matthew 11:28-30.
  43. [43] 2 Peter 1:17.
  44. [44] Hebrews 4:1-10.
  45. [45] Keller, 196.

Entry filed under: Biblical Theology, Calvary Baptist Church, Christian Theology, Christianity, Faith, Philosophy, Religion, The Great Commission Resurgence, The Southern Baptist Convention, Theology.

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Freddy  |  August 10, 2012 at 11:18 pm

    Great work, Matt! Teaching on a similar topic Sunday. This is very helpful.

    Reply

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