One of the greatest joys of my life is witnessing the power of the gospel in giving new life to those around me. I remember the first time I met Ron at a local coffee shop. Although Ron had not done the church thing for a long time, he had been attending our Sunday morning worship services, and to his surprise he had found his church experience meaningful. Ron had many questions about the Christian faith, so we set up a time to get together over a cup of coffee. At first glance, Ron displayed the many appealing attributes of a successful career in sales and marketing. Ron was warm, engaging, and confident. His years of work had hewn his social and relational skills to a razor-sharp competency, but as we talked further, Ron transparently began to reveal more about the turbulent currents swirling under the waterline of his life.
Ron had experienced the pain of two failed marriages and a growing sense of discontentment and disillusionment in his corporate world. Ron was seeking wisdom and guidance on living life well. He wanted to know what the Christian faith was and how it connected to the real world of his messy life and competitive work environment. During the next couple of months, Ron and I met several times over coffee, and I shared with him the good news of the gospel. We had a thoughtful conversation about how the gospel transforms us from the inside out. We also interacted about how the gospel reshapes how we view the world as well as how we live and work. Ron and I talked extensively about how the Christian faith permeates all of life and that it seamlessly connects what we profess to believe on Sunday and how we practice our work on Monday.
Ron’s New Creation Story
Ron seemed truly surprised as he began to grasp that the Christian faith, properly understood, brought not only purpose and meaning to one’s life, but also an integral coherence to all of life. Like discovering the sequencing code of DNA, discovering the gospel unlocked the sequencing code of reality. The gospel made sense of life. I will never forget the look of joy in Ron’s eyes as he contemplated the truth that the Christian faith is not about being good enough to somehow be accepted by God. Throughout his life Ron had thought that Christianity was about being good enough for God to let a person into heaven. Now Ron realized that the gospel called him to place his complete trust in what Jesus had done for him on the cross. There was no way he could earn a right standing before a holy God; salvation was a gift he was to receive in repentance and faith.
One day later, Ron stopped by my office. After some small talk and catching up a bit, Ron told me he now understood the gospel and wanted to become a Christian. I asked him if he was sure about making such an important commitment. Ron nodded. We got down on our knees, and Ron embraced Christ as his personal Lord and Savior. Over the weeks and months that followed, I began to see evidence of the transforming power of the gospel in Ron’s life. Ron’s love for Christ and the fruit of the Spirit was increasingly evident. Ron’s commitment to his marriage strengthened. Though the very real day-to-day challenges of Ron’s work and workplace did not immediately change, Ron’s attitude toward his work profoundly changed. He now saw that work mattered, and he embraced his work with renewed passion and creativity. Because things were well at soul level, Ron was more focused at work. He brought a new calm and confidence to the workplace. He viewed his coworkers through the lens of common grace, affirming them and truly seeking their success and betterment. The gospel not only made Ron a more integral person, it also made him a better employee.
We sometimes think deeply about our work without thinking deeply about the gospel. But there is really no good news about our work without the good news of the gospel. For the gospel is the transforming power that changes us. Gustaf Wingren makes this important point: “Only the gospel, not one’s vocation, can remove that judgment against the sinful heart and gives peace to the conscience.”
In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells a story not of a runaway household servant but of a runaway son. Running away from family is no small thing, of course. Before running off to a far country, this prodigal son did the unthinkable. He disgraced his family and demanded from his father his share of the family inheritance. Nevertheless, the son’s gracious father granted his son’s wishes. Off the young man went, embracing a slothful, self-indulgent, immoral lifestyle. Over time, the foolish son squandered all that his father had worked for, and eventually there was nothing left. Hitting rock bottom, a repentant prodigal son made his way back to his father’s waiting and loving arms. His father threw a party for him and, with lavish grace, received his runaway son back into the family.
But before we celebrate the return of the prodigal, we should remember Jesus’s good news story doesn’t end here. There is another son in Jesus’s story. While the younger son was slothful, the elder son was a hard worker at home. Yet both sons were estranged from their loving father.
The elder brother stayed at home, followed the rules, and dutifully worked hard. Though he had not physically left home, the elder brother had left his father’s heart. He had worked hard, but his work was not connected to a loving relationship with his father. The tragedy of Jesus’s good news story is that while the younger brother was lost and then found, the lost elder brother didn’t realize or refused to admit he was lost and so never was found. Tim Keller reflects on Jesus’s heart-arresting story: “Jesus the storyteller deliberately leaves the elder brother in his alienated state. The bad son enters the father’s feast but the good son will not. The lover of prostitutes is saved, but the man of moral rectitude is still lost.”
Hard work, however noble, without a relationship with the Father proves empty, meaningless, and despairing. The elder brother was really only working for himself. What a pitiful and tragic aim. The work we do will not win us favor with our Father. Yet as new creations in Christ, transformed from the inside out, we are able to again do the work we were created for.