There is 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. Consider how that might play out for our work. Here are twelve basic principles for a theology of work that connect our work to God’s person and work, giving our vocational motivations a ballast to create, excel, and endure.
5 Basic Principles
- The God of Scripture works and ordains that mankind work. The Lord created heaven and earth and sustains it daily (Gen. 1:1–2:4; Isa. 45:18; Col. 1:16–17). Therefore, created in his image, mankind should create, sustain, and keep the world. When God commanded Adam and Eve to work before the fall, he showed that work is intrinsically good (Gen. 1:26–2:15).
- 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 his society generally scorned. The Lord esteems both mental and physical labor.
- Mankind’s rebellion led God to curse 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 labor (Gen. 3:17; Rom. 8:18–23).
- 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” (Ex. 20:9; Col. 3:23; Eph. 6:5–9). Paul said, “If a man will not work, 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).
- The Lord worked six days and rested one, setting 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” (Ex. 20:9–10). The Lord’s pattern prohibits both ceaseless toil and laziness, workaholics and sluggards. Work is essential, but there is more to mankind than our labor. Like God, we work, rest and reflect.
7 Roles and Values
- Work shapes identity. People called Jesus “the carpenter” (Mark 6:3). When Scripture identifies people as priests, fisherman, soldiers, merchants, or tax-collectors, it acknowledges the link between work and identity. Yet, God primarily establishes human identity by making mankind in his image and adopting believers into his family.
- 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 one’s gifts and interests. Further, even the best job has jarring and painful moments.
- The Sovereign Lord assigns places of work, yet believers can move. Paul said, “Were you a slave when called? Do not be concerned about it” (1 Cor. 7:17–24). But, he added, “if you can gain your freedom” do so. Therefore, we affirm a dual truth: (a) God assigns believers to roles or callings; and (b) he permits disciples to more if there is good reason.
- 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 more, but fruit matters, too (Ps. 1:3; 92:14; Is. 32:1–8; 45:8; John 15; Rom. 7:4–5).
- God honors what seems dishonorable and calls it indispensable (1 Cor. 12:21–26). It is good to understand our abilities and to exercise our most strategic gifts as far as possible. Each society has its notions of noble and common occupations. They may or may not align with God’s appraisal.
- God calls every disciple to full-time service. We deny that some work is sacred and some secular. Faithful farmers, manufacturers, engineers, teachers, home-makers, and drivers please God as surely as faithful pastors or doctors do. Disciples can always pray “Thy kingdom come” as we work (Matt. 6:10, 33).
- 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 our work (Matt. 25:31–46).
How the Trinity Informs These Principles
Reviewing these twelve principles, we notice how a biblical theology of work is grounded in God’s character and work. A fully God-centered ethic of work is Trinitarian.
Humankind longs to be creative and to sustain what is good because God the Father created us in his image and recreates disciples in the image of Christ (Rom. 8:29). That means we are Christomorphic, formed by Christ, and become more like him.
We can, therefore, consider the work of Christ 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 rest and stop working (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 him, 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 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 is necessary for our service to God and humanity.
The connection between our work and the Spirit is less obvious. But notice that the Spirit testifies to Another in ways often unseen. So much human work is like that—many of us work almost invisibly, supporting the work of others. We are like the stage crew, ushers, writers, musicians, and business managers behind the actors on stage.
No, we cannot duplicate God’s grand work of redemption, but we can follow in Jesus’s footsteps as we work. Indeed, it’s both our calling and our privilege, as men and women recreated in God’s image.
Dr. Dan Doriani is VP of strategic academic initiatives and professor of theology at Covenant Seminary. A version of this article originally appeared at The Gospel Coalition in 2017.