Most of us have small views of the liberty we gained in the Protestant Reformation.
The Westminster Larger Catechism says that, through Christ’s intercession, God accepts both our “persons” and our “services”—that is, the totality of our lives, including our day-to-day grind. But we haven’t embraced this liberty across its whole spectrum.
While we revel in our salvation from works and know God accepts on Sundays, we often become slaves to our work and worry about him accepting us on weekdays.
Bread of Anxious Toil
The Reformation’s recovery of our freedom in Christ unleashed a Christian ethic of integrity and excellence—the so-called Protestant work ethic. Of course, Christians should strive for excellence in our work, and God honors hard work done in faith (Prov. 12:11; Col. 3:23). But we live in a transactional society, where we often celebrate the visible fruits of our labor (raises, promotions, raising successful children, and so on) over the inner graces of our character. Plus, our fears of losing what we’ve gained dominate and distract our emotions.
As a result, we’re fretful. Admitting we don’t “deserve” salvation or success compels us to strive even harder for it. We know and rejoice that God promises to lead us safely to glory, but we also know and fear that he doesn’t promise us temporal success—measured by bank accounts or titles—along the way. Contentment becomes elusive, and daily joy utterly foreign. Fretfulness takes hold, and we mask our uncertainty in confidence, our inabilities in busyness, our failures in criticisms, and our worries in distractions.
Working in Vain
Have our daily lives really been reduced to navigating safely between laziness and perfectionism? Does God intend there to be a massive chasm between the security of our eternal glory and the uncertainty of our day-to-day lives?
Psalm 127:1–2 reminds us that the battle that belongs to the Lord—not just the cosmic battle to crush sin and Satan, but also the day-to-day battle to rest in God:
Unless the LORD builds the house,
those who build it labor in vain.
Unless the LORD watches over the city,
the watchman stays awake in vain.
It is in vain that you rise up early
and go late to rest,
eating the bread of anxious toil;
for he gives to his beloved sleep.
The Lord does not judge us by our daily work ledgers. No doubt—as these verses state—there are houses to build, cities to oversee, and work to do. But there is a vain way of working that only leads to fretting.
Instead of believing God accepts us as we are, we often think we can put him in our debt, forcing him to reward us for our labors. We’ve turned the Creator of the universe into senior management always on the lookout for the next Employee of the Week. And since success is a moving target, we get trapped in an anxious cycle of toil and uncertainty. We wear our successes on our sleeves to overcome our unworthiness, even though we know our successes are paltry in any eternal sense. So, driven by our goal-oriented efforts and putting our hope in ourselves, we’re crushed and exhausted.
In short, we’re always compensating, always trying to earn approval, always striving after an unpredictable, fickle, and elusive measure of success.
Rest for His Beloved
But Psalm 127 teaches us that God wants to be the author of our endeavors. He wants to remove our self-loathing of failures past, and our fears of future failures. He wants us to know we can’t impress him in any ultimate sense—even if our work earns an A+ from others (a closed deal, a promotion, a pat on the back). The good news of the gospel is not only that we don’t work for our salvation, but also that we don’t strive for God’s acceptance in our daily work. All of it has been accomplished in Christ.
“Sleep” reminds us that we aren’t in control, that God doesn’t need us, that the world continues to turn, that our hearts continue to beat, and that Christ still reigns—even during the hours we’re at our most powerless. Knowing this, Peter invites us to cast all our anxieties on our Father, because he cares for us (1 Pet. 5:7).
The impulse to work hard doesn’t come from an irrational place. Christians are meant to labor for God’s glory (Col. 3:23). Understanding how to bring honor to him in our callings—whatever they are—is a great privilege and a powerful witness. Yet we must not add a works-based occupational salvation to it.
Our “anxious toil” will not satisfy us—and God doesn’t want it to. He wants our creativity and work to blossom as we rest in his power and work on our behalf. A “watchman” who successfully protects the city will inevitably take credit for its safety. The sense of unworthiness we feel when we receive his work for us is a blessing—because we can take solace in knowing that the Creator still cares for his creatures, the Father for his children.
The Lord has no more promotions left to give you—you are now his child. He has no more raises to give you—you now have an eternal inheritance awaiting you. So rest as you work, and enjoy the salvation the Lord achieved for you.