‘Do Not Work For That Which Is Not Bread’: A Biblical Theology of Work

workGod has given us everything we need for life and godliness, the apostle Peter said (2 Pet 1:3). This means Scripture gives us all we need to know about God, salvation, and good works. It doesn’t mean that Scripture tells us how to teach grammar or solve chemical equations, but it does have much to say about work.

In fact, no matter what you do for a living, what stage of life you are in, or what sort of position you have (or aspire to have), God has much to say to you about your work. In recent days, a number of helpful books on the subject have been written (e.g., The Gospel at Work: How Working for King Jesus Gives Purpose and Meaning to Our Work by Greg Gilbert and Sebastian Traeger, Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work by Tim Keller with Katherine Leary Alsdorf, and What’s Best Next?: How the Gospel Changes the Way You Get Things Done by Matt Perman).

If the intersection of faith and work interests you, or if you are a Christian who has not considered how God relates to your vocation, you should make it a priority to read at least one of these. For now though, let’s glean a few truths from Scripture, which can serve as a biblical foundation for thinking about work.

A Biblical Theology of Work

Starting with creation and moving to new creation, let’s consider seven points about work.

1. God created humans to work.

Made in God’s image (1:26–28), humans are made us to work. In creation, we see God’s creativity, power, artistry, order, and fecundity. Not surprisingly, humanity who sits at the pinnacle of his creation (Psalm 8) is called to reflect and employ such traits to reflect his glory on earth as it radiates in heaven.

God gave us hands, feet, brains, and brawn, all for the purpose of doing work that pleased him. Such a design for us to work was not to supplement a deficiency in himself; nor was it a way for him to rest, while his people worked. Other ancient religions believed that man was inflicted with work; the gods created mankind to do their work so they could rest. Not so the Bible. Work is a good gift that God gave to his image-bearers.

2. Work is not the problem; sin is.

Despite it’s good design, work has been woefully cursed. From Genesis 3 forward mankind suffers the effect of God’s judgment on Adam and Eve’s sin. Deceived by Satan Eve ate of the tree  God told Adam not to eat (Gen 2:17). As a result, humanity was sentenced to death. But death is not just the cessation of life; Adam and Eve didn’t stop breathing when they ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Rather, they began the slow process of dying which culminates in dust returning to dust (3:19).

Part of this living death was the increased difficulty of work. Women were cursed in their child-bearing and child-rearing labors (v. 16). God’s curse on men impacted their relationship with the field (vv. 17–19). Instead of being a joy, work now became a toilsome burden. Men would cultivate food from the ground, but only as their hands were stabbed with thorns and their bodies perspired under the difficult conditions (v. 19). God created work to be a satisfying vocation, whereby men would bless God. But because of sin, work, as Ecclesiastes records, has become a dutiful chore that brings ultimate despair, even as it affords temporary delights.

3. There are right and wrong ways to work.

After Genesis 3 God promised he would continue to uphold the universe (Gen 8:22). In this fallen world, men would have to learn the best ways to work. For instance, they had to learn that crops grow best when planted in the spring and sowing in rows yields better crops than just throwing seed on the ground haphazard. By trial-and-error, men accumulated vocational wisdom. Yet, such wisdom did not originate with men. Isaiah 28 says that it’s greater origin is God himself. God endowed creation with discoverable properties that men might learn by means of common grace.

Therefore, as wisdom developed over time, aphorisms, principles, and proverbs were written down. Many ancient cultures had such principles. In fact, biblical Proverbs and Egyptian proverbs show many common truths and sayings.

In this we see God’s grace distributed to all peoples–those who worshiped Yahweh and those haven’t. In this widespread dissemination of wisdom, good works are not restricted to Christians—The Shepherd’s Guide notwithstanding. Work is a universal reality, and good work is a precious gift that God gives to his people—even to those who don’t know him.

That said, Scripture does equip God’s people to work in ways that are wise. The saint who devotes themselves to Proverbs will grow in righteousness, productivity, and counsel. It is an incredible manual for on-the-job training, one that is under-utilized in its instruction. Still, it’s not enough.

4. Right work will not produce righteousness.

For all the instructions, commands, and warnings that the Proverbs and the rest of the Bible give about work, Scripture also teaches that good works are not enough. They are not enough to satisfy: listen to Solomon’s lament in Ecclesiastes. They are not enough to protect from moral collapse: watch David cover up his sin with Bathsheba. Neither are they enough to earn favor before God: just talk to Paul, whose blameless life and righteous works he finally estimated to be no greater than a pile of poo. Skubala!

No, a life of good works only proves that the wages of sin is death. As Paul says in Galatians 2:19, “For if I rebuild what I tore down, I prove myself to be a transgressor.” In other words, if I seek to use my works to pay the debt I owe to God, I only confirm that I am a law-breaker. As a child of Adam, our best deeds are corrupted by wrong motives. And even if our motives are ostensibly blameless (cf. 1 Cor 4:4), we are not set free from judgment. Death will ultimately disable us from finishing every good work. Our race will of necessity end before the finish line. Therefore, right work(s) cannot produce the righteousness we need.

5. Christ’s work redeems us from futility.

We cannot earn God’s favor by our work, but their is another “work” affords a door of hope. Christ’s work on the cross redeems us from the curse of the law and the futility of our sin (1 Pet 1:18). The Christian gospel provides the turning point in our work. By means of Christ’s atoning death and life-giving resurrection, God cleanses us from our impure works (Heb 9:14) and makes us alive in Christ (Eph 2:5), so that by means of his life (Gal 2:20), we can now do good works.

In fact, Paul says this on a number of occasions. In Ephesians 2, after explaining the contours of the gospel (vv. 1–9), he writes, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works,” which incidentally God prepared before the foundation of the world “that we should walk therein” (v. 10).

Likewise, Titus 2:14 says that Christ redeemed us so that we would be zealous to do good works. Those who have been made alive in Christ do not simply eek out good works for God. As Jesus puts it in John 15: every branch that abides in the vine will bear much fruit, but those who do not abide will not bear fruit (vv. 1–5). Explaining this vine metaphor, Jesus says “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this is my Father glorified, that you bear much fruit [i.e., do good works] and so prove to be my disciples” (vv. 7–8). Indeed, the gospel of Jesus Christ is not anti-works—despite how it is often truncated. The gospel of Jesus Christ calls you to repudiate your works (plural) so you can trust in Christ’s work (singular), and then it promises all who have trusted in him will enjoy a life of increasingly good works.

Such is the way Christ begins to restore Eden! But there is more to say.

6. Seek good work.

Alive in Christ, we should vigorously seek good works. While not yet restored to Eden, believers are encouraged to work as unto the Lord (Col 3:17, 23), to do all things for his glory  (1 Cor 10:31), and to prayerfully scheme and passionately sacrifice like Christ in order to bring order out of chaos. Such good works may include missionary endeavors or church service, but it also includes designing websites, drawing blood, and repairing roads.

Good works include evangelism and tithing, but good works can’t be restricted to sharing Christ at the water cooler: it means teaching with passion, trading with integrity, building with good materials, paying your employees fair wages, working all the hours you committed to, serving your customers with joy (and patience), learning how to do your job better, giving God the praise for any success, and resting in him when you fail.

While on this earth, the curse will hamper every endeavor you and I take up. This is equally true whether you are in medical sales or ministry. Nevertheless, instructed by God’s Word and filled with his Spirit, Christians are called to subdue and rule creation, just like in the beginning. The cultural mandate continues to this day, so that in our vocations we can love our neighbors and our neighborhoods through the various callings God has put on our lives.

This is what Jesus means when he says that his people are to be salt and light in the world (Matt 5:13–16). We must preserve, purify, and perspire such that our world benefits from the products and procedures we give to it. Still, such endeavors are not ultimate; they do not build the kingdom of God on earth. They merely give a foretaste of another world that Christ himself is preparing.

7. Hope in the finished work of Christ.

In John 19:30 Jesus exhaled, Tetelestai! “It is finished!” After more than three decades of life, Jesus’s work is completed. While it might look like a life cut short; Christ alone is has said and can say of his work, “It is finished.”

One of the effects of the fall is that all we ever do will turn to ashes; all we acquire will be handed over to others. Humans will never win enough championships or inject enough Botox to immortalize their glory. Death is the great equalizer and only one man is able to say that he completed his work, such that his death brought life. In this sense, Jesus’ life and death are utterly unique. But more than being one-of-a-kind, his death was undeniably effective.

Three days after his death; his resurrection vindicated his claims and his righteousness (1 Tim 3:16). Fifty days later, his church is born (Acts 2). By the end of the first century, the gospel of Jesus Christ has upset the whole world (Acts 17:6). And twenty centuries later, the church of Jesus Christ is still building and growing; the temple he sought to create with his own blood is moving ever closer to its telos.

Indeed, the whole goal of creation was and is to unify all things in Christ Jesus (Eph 1:10). As the head of the church, he is growing his church daily by sending forth his Spirit and his Bride to call into being new members of his body (Rev 21:17; 1 Cor 12:13). And as the head of creation, he is providentially upholding all things until the day when the trumpet sounds and the “kingdom of the world becomes the kingdom of our Lord and his Christ” (Rev 11:15). Indeed, all that transpires on this day and everyday is the outworking of God’s eternal decree, and more than that it is the effect of Christ’s cross-work.

Anticipating his climactic hour, Jesus said in John 14:2–3, “In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.” In making this statement, he revealed that he knew exactly where he was going and what he would be doing when he got there.

Today, Christ continues to build the house that he rules by means of his death (cf. Heb 3:6). As he promised in Matthew 16:18, he is building his church. And he is putting into place all the things that his cross purchased.

Indeed, this is the hope of the Christian worker. While our works will pass away like our breath on a frost-bitten morning, Christ’s work stands more secure than the earth itself. And every day, his finished work becomes more and more apparent. In fact, on a day very soon, when Christ returns in glory, the cosmic effect of his crucifixion will be visible for all to see.

This reality is the final point we need to consider in our biblical theology. And it is the one that may have the greatest ability to change the way we look at our work. It reminds us that all of our afflicted works are light and momentary, while his work secured an eternal weight of glory. It rearranges the priorities we put on our work, and it reminds us that all that we do ought to be done in light of who Christ is and what he is going to do. Indeed, until he establishes his eternal kingdom, all that we have is on loan from him, and all that we do will one day be surrendered to him as all our works will be tested by his holy fire.

A Final Word

In truth, this dispossession of all our earthly goods—acquired by our feeble efforts—may sound frightening. Perhaps harsh or demanding (see Matt 25:24), but such a hard estimation can only be maintained if you make this world your home and your work your glory. For all who have been redeemed from the futility of this world, our great hope is not what we can acquire or achieve on this earth. Like the unrighteous steward, we invest the filthy lucre of this world in order to make friends in the world to come (Luke 16:1–9). Indeed, this is the counter-intuitive wisdom of the gospel–by being most heavenly-minded, we become the most earthly good.

As with all aspects of life, we need to have our minds renewed when it comes to work. Our natural inclinations and the impressions we have gained from the world will lead us in wrongheaded and dangerous directions. Truly, there is a way that seems right to a man but the end is death (Prov 14:12). And there is a way to work that will only result in emptiness and eternal destruction. Jesus came to redeem us from such deadly works, only by renouncing our works and trusting in his do we find the eternal rest that we all crave. As Jesus conversed about work long ago,

“Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal.” Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”
— John 6:26-29 —

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

5 thoughts on “‘Do Not Work For That Which Is Not Bread’: A Biblical Theology of Work

  1. Providentially found today. Retirement from corporate world is two months away for me. New opportunities and freedoms to apply my kingdom work to redemptive history. Thanks for the stimulus to rethink.

    • Bill, I am glad the Lord directed you to this little article. May Christ bless you in the next season of life.

      ds

  2. Pingback: Answering the Call: Toward a Biblical View of Vocation (1 Corinthians 7:17–24) | Via Emmaus

  3. Pingback: ‘Do Not Work For That Which Is Not Bread’: A Biblical Theology of Work - Servants of Grace

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