There’s a tendency, even among faithful teachers, to lapse into what we might call “Nike Christianity.” Despairing over laxity, antinomianism, and a resistance to Scripture’s ethical teachings, we want to shout simple commands divorced from any motivations, “Obey! Pray, worship, witness, be holy because God says so, and I say so. Just do it.”
But we know better. We know to ground imperatives in God’s gracious redemptive work and promises. This truth has vast implications for our callings. Indeed, a fully God-centered theology of work is Trinitarian.
Humanity longs to be creative and to sustain what is good because the Father created us in his image. The Spirit also works in us, recreating us in Jesus’s image (Rom. 8:29). That means we are Christomorphic—formed by Christ as we become more like him.
We can, therefore, consider the work of the Son and ask how we might imitate it—not by atoning for sin, but by working with our hands. Like Jesus, we can long to complete grand tasks and love demanding projects enough to say, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work” (John 4:34). Jesus knew how to stop working so he could do something else (Matt. 14:22), but he also had that passion for his work that makes sense to us, where the goal and fit of our labor meet. Like he did, we can work so hard that we collapse into sleep (Matt. 8:24–25), barely able to take another step (John 4:6). At the end of our work, we may even call out, in a pale-but-genuine echo of Christ, “It is finished” (John 19:30). Thinking of the cross, we realize that a disciple’s work may be cruciform—we embrace suffering if it’s necessary for our service to God and man.
No, we cannot duplicate God’s grand work of redemption, but we can follow in Jesus’s footsteps as we work. It’s both our calling and also our privilege, as men and women recreated in God’s image.
Let’s see how this focus on God’s work can lead us to principles that guide our work. Here are 12.
1. The God of Scripture works and ordains that humans work.
The Lord created heaven and earth and sustains it daily (Gen. 1:1–2:4; Isa. 45:18; Col. 1:16–17). Created in his image, then, we are called to create, sustain, and keep the world. God commanded Adam and Eve to work before the fall, showing that work is intrinsically good (Gen. 1:26; 2:15).
2. The Lord worked six days and rested one, setting both a pattern and limit for work.
“Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath. . . . On it you shall not do any work” (Exod. 20:9–10). The Lord’s pattern prohibits both ceaseless toil and laziness, both workaholics and sluggards. Work is essential, but there is more to humanity than our labor. Like God, we work, rest, and reflect.
3. By working with his hands, Jesus demonstrated that all honest labor is noble.
Jesus honored the work of shepherds, farmers, carpenters, servants, and physicians. When Paul commanded believers to work with their hands (Eph. 4:28), he ennobled manual labor, which society generally scorned. The Lord esteems both mental and physical labor.
4. Humanity’s rebellion led God to curse both creation and work.
After the fall, God cursed the ground, and work became frustrating toil. Today, thorns and thistles blight our work, and disorder and entropy afflict creation. Sin mars all our labors (Gen. 3:17; Rom. 8:18–23).
5. Work is mandatory.
People work, in part, to make a living. The Lord commanded all Israel—leaders and servants, male and female, old and young—to work six days weekly and to work “heartily, as for the Lord” (Exod. 20:9; Col. 3:23; Eph. 6:5–9). “If a man will not work,” the apostle insists, “he shall not eat” (2 Thess. 3:10), and “Anyone who does not provide for his family is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Tim. 5:8).
6. Work shapes identity.
People called Jesus “the carpenter” (Mark 6:3). When Scripture identifies people as priests, fishermen, soldiers, merchants, or tax collectors, it acknowledges the link between work and identity. Yet God primarily establishes human identity by making humanity in his image and adopting believers into his family.
7. Work and vocation are not identical.
Jesus worked with wood and stone, and Paul made tents, but they had other God-given callings (Acts 18:3; Rom. 1:1). One can temporarily work in a field while moving toward a position that better fits his or her gifts and interests. And even the best job has jarring and painful moments.
8. The sovereign Lord assigns places of work, yet believers can move.
“Were you a slave when called?” Paul asks. “Do not be concerned about it.” Then he says to “gain your freedom” if you can (1 Cor. 7:17–24).
Therefore we affirm a dual truth: God assigns believers to specific roles or callings, and he permits them to move if there is good reason.
9. Human abilities vary.
The principal call is to faithful exercise of the talents God bestows, whether many or few (Matt. 25:14–30). Steadfast labor counts most, but fruit matters too (Pss. 1:3; 92:14; Isa. 32:1–8; 45:8; John 15; Rom. 7:4–5).
10. Work that results from the fall is still noble.
A great deal of human toil is a direct result of the fall, but these attempts to mitigate the effects of sin shouldn’t be despised. After all, Jesus’s work of redemption “merely” reversed the effects of sin. Because the Lord works zealously for redemption, we can work “heartily, as for the Lord” (Col. 3:23; Eph. 6:5–9), even on tasks that are only necessary beacuse of the fall. Policing, garbage collection, pest extermination, and care for the terminally ill are all dignified.
11. God calls every disciple to full-time service.
We deny that some work is sacred and some secular. Faithful farmers, manufacturers, engineers, teachers, homemakers, and drivers please God just as surely as faithful pastors or doctors do. Disciples can always pray “Thy kingdom come” as we work (Matt. 6:10, 33).
12. In our work, we can become the hands of God.
When we ask for daily bread, God gives it to us through farmer, bakers, and grocers. So let us discern God’s presence in and through our work (Matt. 25:31–46).