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The most popular presentation of the gospel in evangelical churches centers on Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. It begins with our most fundamental reality—that we are sinners separated from God—and then offers the good news that God, in his great love and mercy, is willing to forgive us through Jesus.
But this presentation of the gospel is incomplete. Amy Sherman explains:
The glorious truths celebrated in this too-narrow gospel do not, in themselves, capture the full, grand, amazing scope of Jesus’s redemptive work. For Jesus came preaching not just the gospel of personal justification but the gospel of the kingdom. It is not just about our reconciliation to a holy God—though that is the beautiful center of it. It is also about our reconciliation with one another and with the creation itself.
Similarly, The Gospel Coalition’s Theological Vision of Ministry states:
The good news of the Bible is not only individual forgiveness but the renewal of the whole creation. God put humanity in the garden to cultivate the material world for his own glory and for the flourishing of nature and the human community. The Spirit of God not only converts individuals (e.g., John 16:8) but also renews and cultivates the face of the earth (e.g., Gen. 1:2; Ps. 104:30).
The gospel, therefore, isn’t just good news for our hearts; it’s good news for our work, too. If we want to understand how the gospel changes everything, including our work, then we must grasp its comprehensive significance.
The gospel is the good news of Christianity, how God has acted in Christ to bring redemption to a fallen world. The grand sweep of Bible’s storyline, then, is how Jesus comes to reverse the curse and make all things new. It has four major plot movements—creation, fall, redemption, and restoration.
Work is not a result of the fall. Work is good. God made us to work. Part of what it means to be made in his image includes working and cultivating his creation (Gen. 1:26, 28). He gave us dominion—that is, creative stewardship—over his creation. It is creative because we use the raw materials of his creation to build new things, and it is stewardship because, although God has given us authority to cultivate the world, he retains ownership of it. In this way, we are “sub-creators,” as J.R.R. Tolkien puts it, working toward human flourishing under God’s sovereignty and delight as a form of worship.
As a result of the fall, though, our work is filled with “thorns and thistles” (Gen. 3:18). First, our relationship to work itself is broken. Instead of seeing it as worship, we see it as a means of self-fulfillment and self-actualization, a way to make a name for ourselves (Gen. 11:4). Second, our relationships with others are affected. Instead of serving one another in joy, we compete in jealousy. Like Adam, who said, “Don’t blame me; blame the woman,” and Eve, who said, “Don’t blame me; blame the serpent,” we shift culpability away from ourselves (Gen. 3:12-13).
In Christ, however, God has begun his work of redemption in the world and in our hearts. He redeems our relationship with work because, as he increasingly becomes the center of our affections, success doesn’t go to our heads and failure doesn’t go to our hearts. Christ redeems our relationships with others, too. When he subdued his enemies and died the death we deserved, saying, “Don’t blame them; blame me,” he unfurled his resurrection power to restore all the ruins of the fall. By his Spirit, we now have the ability and willingness to turn work from a means of personal advancement to a vocational calling driven by selflessness, service, and love.
Our present work ultimately points to our future destiny, the time when all things will be restored (Acts 3:21). At that time, though, we will not enter a garden, as in the original creation, but a city—where there is an abundance of human culture, innovation, and work. Anticipating this future reality shapes our work today because it gives us hope that our work will one day be fulfilled—even as we recognize that our efforts now are only proximate, dim hints of the ultimate restoration of all things that awaits the personal and bodily return of the Lord Jesus Christ, who will return to usher in perfect righteousness and peace.
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The more we understand how the gospel redeems our work, the more we understand that our talents and gifts are not ours to keep, but to give away. Paul says that God gives us “spiritual gifts” to do ministry and build up the church and that each of us has a different role or assignment within the church (1 Cor. 12:8-9, 11). Elsewhere, however, Paul doesn’t limit the application of our gifts to church work only: “Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him” (1 Cor 7:17). Here, Tim Keller notes, Paul uses words like “calling” and “assignment,” which he normally uses in the context of church work, to refer to work outside the church:
Paul is not referring in this case to church ministries, but to common social and economic tasks—“secular jobs,” we might say—and naming them God’s callings and assignments. The implication is clear: Just as God equips Christians for building up the Body of Christ, so he also equips all people with talents and gifts for various kinds of work, for the purpose of building up the human community.
Our work is a vocational assignment, then, if God calls us to do it and if we do it for the sake of others, not ourselves. This is why some people refer to their work as their “vocation,” implying that they don’t just feel a strong sense of suitability for it, but that they sense that the Lord has assigned it to them.
Although we have each been given unique gifts and talents, we exercise them in unison together, for we are “being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit” (Eph. 2:22). Yet we do this in two ways—as the church gathered and as the church scattered.
When we come together for corporate worship, we are “the church gathered.” When we go out into the world to love and serve our neighbors through our work in various places, we are “the church scattered.” The public ministry of the church—from corporate worship to any other activity in which the church as an institution engages—is, therefore, distinct from individual Christians living out their everyday lives in the world. At the same time, though, individual Christians—though geographically separated—remain one body, working together to glorify God and contribute to the flourishing of their neighbors in their communities.
We don’t have to choose, therefore, between advancing the local church as an institution and supporting the individual Christians within that local church. It is a both-and, not an either-or. Pastors can promote both, as Daniel Strange contends,
the primacy of word and sacrament and the ultimacy of evangelism and discipleship in the ministry of their church and the need for Christian worldview thinking, vocation, cultural engagement, and more broadly, the societal and cosmic implications of the gospel.
When we are the church scattered, we are “the masks of God”—that is, agents of his providential love. Luther notes that God could have chosen to give us every good thing by speaking a word or waving a hand, as he did in the garden and in the desert. Instead, he chooses to use his image-bearers to give us all things because he wants us to be bound together in interdependent love, relationships, and communities. For example, when Luther teaches on the Lord’s Prayer in his Larger Catechism (translated by Janzow), he says that praying for our “daily bread” means we’re praying for everything that must happen for us to have and enjoy it (90):
You must open and expand your thinking, so that it reaches not only as far as the flour bin and baking oven but also out over the broad fields, the farmlands, and the entire country that produces, processes, and conveys to us our daily bread and all kinds of nourishment.
When we praise God for his protection and provision, therefore, we recognize that people like police and farmers act as “the masks of God” to secure our borders and fill us with wheat. We celebrate that God is using his image-bearers to show us something of his goodness and to make us bound together in love. This also shows us that Christians can do almost any kind of work—from data-entry to education to medicine to so much more—as an offering of worship to God.
Since all assignments are from God for the common good, then all work done in faith is “ministry” work. As The Gospel Coalition’s Theological Vision of Ministry reads,
Christians glorify God not only through the ministry of the Word, but also through their vocations of agriculture, art, business, government, scholarship—all for God’s glory and the furtherance of the public good. . . . We have a vision for a church that equips its people to think out the implications of the gospel on how we do carpentry, plumbing, data-entry, nursing, art, business, government, journalism, entertainment, and scholarship.
In other words, some Christians are called to the pulpit, but others are called—in the same way—to different vocations. The distinction between “sacred” and “secular” vocational callings is, therefore, artificial. As pastor Kevin DeYoung observes in Just Do Something: A Liberating Approach to Finding God’s Will,
Please don’t ever think you are a second-class citizen in the kingdom of God if you aren’t in full-time ministry. You can honor the Lord as a teacher, mother, doctor, lawyer, loan officer, or social worker; you can work in retail, fast food, politics, or big business; you can be a butcher, a baker, or a candlestick maker. You can be just about anything you want as long as you aren’t lazy (Proverbs 6:6-11; 26:13-16), and whatever you do you perform to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31). (pp. 102-103)
There is, therefore, one world, not two, that is created and fallen, that is being redeemed, and that will one day be restored. And Christ’s lordship extends over every aspect of it. As Abraham Kuyper says, “If God is sovereign, then his lordship must extend over all of life, and it cannot be restricted to the walls of the church or within the Christian orbit.”
We are sojourners and exiles, living in Babylon, not Jerusalem. As the scattered church, we live and work in environments that don’t share all of our values. In fact, we’re sometimes the only ones in our workplaces trying to do the right things, which means we’re often thinking through complex issues when “the right things” aren’t always clear.
For example, the Bible doesn’t offer a set of rules to obey, like whether to work for a cigarette company or whether to dismiss a particular employee. Wisdom requires going to God for discernment. The Holy Spirit is immensely powerful and omnipresent, so redemption is not ours to bear. But for our own joy and peace, it helps to build a relationship with God on a daily basis—not just in our moments of need.
In light of this high view of faith and work, how now shall we work? In its Theological Vision of Ministry, The Gospel Coalition offers some ideas:
Such a church [that integrates faith and work] will not only support Christians’ engagement with culture, but will also help them work with distinctiveness, excellence, and accountability in their trades and professions. Developing humane yet creative and excellent business environments out of our understanding of the gospel is part of the work of bringing a measure of healing to God’s creation in the power of the Spirit. Bringing Christian joy, hope, and truth to embodiment in the arts is also part of this work.
Conceptually, it’s helpful to look at three different lenses by which we approach work—heart, community, and world.
The gospel changes our heart motivations for work—from selfish gain to worship and service. It also changes the honor we ascribe to work—we don’t make it an idol, dismiss it, or approach it with laziness—for we work “as unto the Lord” (Col. 3:23).
The gospel also changes how we relate to others. In our jobs, we are in relationships with many people—customers, colleagues, clients, students, parents, and more. The gospel changes all of these. Yet it doesn’t make us the model for goodness; only Christ is Savior. It does, though, enable us to be redeemed sinners, sharing the gospel not merely with words but also by exhibiting lived-out repentant lifestyles.
Finally, the gospel changes the world and the culture in which we operate—whether that is a particular firm or industry or the culture-at-large. Our work has ripple effects that reach far beyond what we can imagine at any given point in time. Small decisions at banks, for example, can impact an entire housing market. A new technological innovation can disrupt old systems. When we work self-serving purposes, then dangerous things can happen. When, however, they’re made for God’s glory and the love of others, people can flourish.
The following examples of Christian women exercising their faith as they lead in their workplaces help provide some ideas for believers who seek to cross the “sacred-secular” divide on a weekly basis.
I don’t ”integrate” prayer into what I do—I start with prayer, I cover it in prayer, follow it up with prayer. Prayer is the work. John 15:5 says “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (NIV).
Workplace wisdom from the women cited above.
Workplace wisdom from the women cited above.