Work: A Necessary Evil or a God-Given Good?

by Derek Brown

Work is a vital component to Christian discipleship. And it’s easy to see the truth of this assertion. Most people in America work about 40-50 hours a week. Allowing for eight hours of sleep per night (a hopelessly unrealistic ideal for many, I’m sure), our time at work comprises between 35%-47% of our waking hours. If we harbor suspicions that God does not care much for our daily work and that he would be far more pleased if we were vocational ministers or full-time evangelists, we may have trouble seeing the value of our work and, as a result, not enjoy it much. If God is indifferent or even slightly irritated about the way I spend nearly 50% of my time each week, I will find myself in a perpetual state of cognitive dissonance: I must work, but God would rather have me do something more “spiritual.” What should I do?

A Mere Means to an End?
As I’ve engaged in ministry at a part-time and full-time level the last twenty years, I’ve found this cognitive dissonance to be the portion of many otherwise solid Christian believers: men and women who have a passion for the gospel and see the value of Christian ministry, but who also possess a lopsided and sub-biblical view of work. Yes, some Christian folks fail to locate their identify in Christ and devote too much time to their work, hoping to find peace for their restless souls in productivity, earning power, and business accomplishment. But in my experience, I’ve found many people who, out of a desire to guard against potential idolatry, think of their work as a mere means to a greater, more God-pleasing end. These more God-pleasing activities are usually found in the church or in evangelistic ventures. Sharing the gospel, teaching a Bible study, serving in a soup-kitchen, giving three-weeks to a short-term missions trip—this is the stuff of true piety. Work? That just pays the bills so I can get busy with the real things of life.

But my concern that Christians may be imbibing a substandard view of work is not derived only from personal conversations with church members. I see false ideas perpetuated in popular Christian literature as well. In his book on parenting, Apparent Privilege, Steve Wright tells dads who make excuses for not pouring more energy and time into their wife and children that their “career” is not really their job. Rather, your career “puts food on the table and keeps the lights on so that we can do our real job. Our real job is laid out clearly in the Word” (146). He then proceeds to tell dads that their job is to (1) love God; (2) love and lead their wives; (3) love and teach their children.

Wright offers a needed course correction for men who tend to overwork and neglect their families, and there is certainly nothing wrong with exhorting men to love God and love their families better. And yes: there are Christian men who need to recalibrate their priorities and pour more time and energy into their wife and children. But I am afraid that Wright’s corrective is simply an example of running from one error headlong into another. The problem is that Wright challenges his readers with a biblical exhortation—align your schedules with Christ-centered priorities—by offering them an unbiblical view of work. By arguing that one’s career is merely the means to put food on the table and keep the lights on so that the dad can focus on the real business of life, Wright constructs a sacred/secular divide that Scripture does not support.

With this secular/sacred divide in place, Wright has now—unwittingly, I believe—created two classes of people: married people and single people. The husband and dad have immediate access to the works that please God: loving and leading his wife and children. The single man only has access to the lesser task of working and earning a living. His work doesn’t even serve as a means to a greater end.

Granted, Wright reminds dads that they must teach their children a strong work ethic (page 40). But I’m afraid that what he gives with one hand he takes with the other: even a strong work ethic only really matters if you are married and can use your career to fuel your real work at home.   

I don’t believe Wright intends to create a false dichotomy between a Christian man’s work and a man’s responsibilities toward his family. But the way he talks about work and devotion to God seems to build on a medieval foundation more than a biblical one. And when we erect a sacred/secular divide, we are doing more than giving men a paltry view of work; we are actually undermining the gospel.

Work and the Reformers
As Martin Luther grappled with the Roman Catholic Church over the meaning of the gospel, he finally landed on the truth that our right standing with God is based solely on the righteousness of Christ alone (solus Christus), received by faith alone (sola fide). This justification is given purely as a gift of God’s grace alone (sola gratia) and is designed to redound to God’s glory alone (sole deo gloria). Happily, God has deposited all the truth necessary for salvation and spiritual growth is the Scriptures alone (sola Scriptura). All of these theological affirmations were the fruit of careful attention to biblical teaching (e.g, Eph 2:8-10; Rom 4:5; 2 Tim 3:16-17).

These are glorious truths and provide Christians with a solid hope of heavenly joys. What some do not realize is that this rediscovery of justification by faith alone led directly to a reformulation of the medieval doctrine of work and vocation.

Due to its syncretistic view of salvation, rooted as it was in the sacraments and the doctrine of infused grace, the Roman Catholic Church had advanced a strong separation between the sacred and the secular when it came to earthly employments. In the medieval scheme, salvation was secured by attending to activities which served as divine conduits for infused grace. The Roman Catholic Church itself was God’s ordained minister of this infused grace through the sacraments. The more church-related activity, the more engagement with the sacraments, the more infused grace, the greater chance the worshipper had of securing enough holiness to justify him at the end of his life. At the very least, attention to the sacraments could help decrease the amount of time spent in purgatory prior to one’s final entrance into heaven.

The priest, nun, and the monk therefore—given their proximity to the sacraments and their devotion to the church—were in a strategic position to obtain salvation. The cobbler, blacksmith, and farmer, however, were at a disadvantage when it came to eliciting God’s eternal favor. Their work was mere labor to feed oneself and one’s family. Such work didn’t have the potential to please God and become a channel for grace like the vocational ministry of the priest, nun, and monk.

Indeed, the word “vocation” at this time was used only with reference to church work. But with his newfound understanding of the gospel, Martin Luther saw that there were no unique spheres of God-pleasing activity when it came to one’s earthly employment. Because justification was received immediately upon saving faith rather than after a lifetime of service to God, the Christian no longer needed to worry about securing his salvation through diligent attendance to the sacraments.

Thus, Martin Luther redefined “vocation” to have reference to any legitimate calling a Christian might fulfill. Whether a believer was a baker, public servant, or physician, they could serve God and neighbor in their work because they no longer needed to labor for their justification. The location for good works, therefore, was no longer confined to the church. Rather, by attending diligently to one’s daily work, a Christian could be rich in good works by serving his neighbor. The gospel brought freedom to one’s soul and freedom to one’s daily life.

Work’s Intrinsic Value
Luther also believed that work had intrinsic value and dignity because it was the primary means by which God provided for his human creatures (see Gen 1:26-31). God had created his image-bearers with a mutual interdependence where one person’s work supplied the needs for other image-bearers. Having one’s needs met enabled that person to conduct business through which he would supply goods and services to another person or group of people, and so on it went. To illustrate this in Luther’s context: the cobbler repairs shoes for the blacksmith who makes swords for the soldier who guards the city so that the cobbler and blacksmith can work without fear of attack or theft. Far from being a second-class activity, work outside the church was the way by which God fed, clothed, and equipped society to function well.

Calvin followed Luther in his application of the gospel to work and argued for its inherent worth. He even viewed our callings as the primary way that God hems us in and keeps us from aimless wandering, sloth, and folly. A Christian’s work must be excellent (Col 3:23), for only excellent work is worthy of our great King and Lord, and only excellent work blesses one’s neighbor (Matt 22:39).

Under God and within the context of the gospel, all legitimate work is an opportunity to serve our Creator, worship the Savior, and love one’s neighbor.

These applications, however, are derived from the gospel and can only thrive when the gospel is kept clear, and no fracture is allowed to form between so-called secular and sacred employments. Under God and within the context of the gospel, all legitimate work is an opportunity to serve our Creator, worship the Savior, and love one’s neighbor.

What Luther and Calvin rediscovered with regard to work, however, was not the fruit of fanciful theological formulations. No, their convictions about the dignity of work were derived directly from a careful exegesis of Scripture. Once the blinding false dichotomy between the sacred and secular is dismantled, we can begin to see all that Scripture says about work, its value, and the pleasure that humans were made to find in it.

In the next several articles, we will explore what Scripture teaches about work while applying it to our daily life. But we will also make a foray into how a biblical view of work must shape our public life as well. 

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