Wednesday, June 03, 2009

...a biblical view of work ethics

by Pastor Greg Withrow

I am delighted to present the following article to you for it is written by one of my dearest friends who serves as the senior pastor of The Assembly of Christians church in the Toledo, Ohio area. For the past 12 years Greg and most of his church would host produce and promote The Toledo Reformed Theological Conference which I have been honored to participate in for tenof those years. I am also privileged that Greg serves as chairman of the board for AudienceONE Ministries. He is a faithful expositor of God's Word, an under-shepherd of Christ who smells like "sheep"; and is one whom I can say has been an example of Christlikeness in his daily life to me personally.

In this following article, Greg offers a practical and insightful look at the nature of work and the need for recovering a God honoring, biblical work ethic today. Greg reminds us that all believers in the Lord are members of the priesthood--not just those in ecclesiastical calling or position. I pray that his words will cause us all to see our daily employ has having "priestly value and divine calling." I highly commend it to you.

Col. 3:17

"Based upon conversations and personal observations over two decades in the pastorate, I have compiled the following list of the three primary things most people would do if they came into a fortune: pay off all their bills; quit their jobs; and go on vacation (predominantly in that order). It seems that our bills represent our need to work, our job the source of work, and vacation the escape from work. In lieu of a fortune, most will simply begin to count the years to retirement. However, after retirement most will not have an unlimited income, or enough to do to keep busy, and without knowing how long they might live, no freedom to spend what they do have. In fact, it has been my experience with retirees that the closer they get to retirement, the less sure they are that they are ready for it.

It is a sad testimony that work has come to be seen as a necessary evil, an infringement upon our freedom to do as we please, and wealth the answer to all of our work-related problems. Is it then any wonder that the state lotteries and Las Vegas have become such popular vices of hope in such hopelessness? As we utilize modern flex hours on our jobs and rush toward our Friday weekend like the consumers we are, it becomes harder and harder as Christians to not get pulled into a world view of work that sets leisure as the ultimate goal. And without a strong theological, biblical base it is even harder to know what our view should be.

Occupation - Value and Virtue from God
The Reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin have served the church well in this area. They developed a healthy, proper, biblical view in their generation when questions on this issue of work were as muddied as they are today. In their time, work was divided between that which was sacred and that which was secular or common. The Roman Catholic institution had set up very separate and distinct offices of the priesthood. These offices were referred to in Latin as the vocare, “calling,” from which we derive the English “vocation.” These were considered above all other occupations and the only ones that were directly connected to the religious life; all other occupations were simply earth-bound, man-oriented necessities of life.

Martin Luther was the first reformer to breach this long-held view. He discovered in 1 Peter 2:9 these words to the church at large: “But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, his own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” From this and other Scriptures (which we will address shortly), Luther concluded that while there are distinctions within the ordained calling, these are more about ecclesiastical position and responsibility than value or standing before God. Luther maintained that all true believers are members of the priesthood; therefore all work done by the church (i.e., its members) has priestly value and divine calling. Sacred or secular in nature, all are vocations or callings from God.

In Luther’s view, this calling is not limited to believers only, but because God is sovereign and providential, all work has a sense of divine calling. The difference is that the church is aware of God at work in them, whereas the world sees only themselves and their circumstances, or luck, as they prefer to call it.

The Mask of God
Luther writes, “We pray give us our daily bread, which he does. He does so, not directly as when he gave manna to the Israelites, but through the work of farmers and bakers.”(1) Luther referred to these providential acts of God in the vocations of men as “the mask of God.” He writes, “God who pours out his generosity on the just and the unjust, believer and unbeliever alike, hides himself in the ordinary social functions and stations of life, even the most humble. God himself is milking the cows through the vocation of the milkmaid.” (2)

To build upon this view of Luther, let us go all the way back to the Garden of Eden. In Genesis 2:15 we read, “And the Lord God took the man and put him into the Garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it.” Here in the garden, in perfection with no curse, God created man to work, for vocation, not vacation. The garden was not the ideal retirement resort, nor a haven from work built for leisure. Work is not a curse upon man; we were created to work, and not to work stands in opposition to God’s creative design for us. Genesis 2:19-20 informs us that God gave Adam the task of naming the animals, no small undertaking, and it calls Eve Adam’s helpmeet. If the garden was about doing nothing, what was it she was meant to help him do?

It is true that work in the garden was a fulfilling, unencumbered act, but it was still work. In Genesis 3:17-20, which records the judgment placed upon mankind after the fall, we do not find God declaring work to be a curse in and of itself. He has left work to be a part of the created purpose for man; the curse involves the fact that work will no longer be unencumbered. It will include burden and hindrance, which Genesis 3:19 calls “the sweat of your face.” Genesis 3:17 says, “cursed is the ground,” but we do not consider this a curse upon agriculture alone, because there is no profession that is not ultimately derived from the ground. For example, we work with wood or various metals, ores, or alloys. Our medicines come from plants growing in the earth. Our animals, from which come our clothing, shoes, and a great steak dinner, survive upon it. When God curses the ground He invariably spreads the curse into every conceivable type of work man may ever do, and sweating is not about the literal act of perspiring, but about the fact that work will take something out of us. It is to be energy-depleting.

To wish for or to strive for a life free from the burden and hindrance of work is to reach for what cannot, should not, and will not be in this life. Even redemption does not remove the temporal consequences of the curse upon mankind or our own sin, but only removes the eternal consequences of it and bestows the future hope of its end in and with Christ Jesus our Lord. Work must not be viewed as evil or something to be avoided, but as a way in which we serve God in His providence and fulfill our created purpose.

Love Thy Neighbor
Work gives us the opportunity to keep what Christ called the “second greatest” commandment, “love thy neighbor.” The Swedish theologian Gustav Wingren stated, “God does not need your good works, but your neighbor does.” (3) This is what followers of Calvin called “the cultural mandate. (4) This means that we are not individuals in our vocations but a part of the greater whole. In fact, our vocations are to function in and through our culture. Christianity is not meant to be applied topically. In our vocations we are in the mix of life, not separate or exclusive. Here we can be salt and light. Where do we most often find the Lord Jesus in the Gospels but in the mix? In the cultural mandate, Luther’s milkmaid is loving her neighbor who needs milk, and so are the delivery man who brings it and the store who sells it, even if they do it unintentionally, when it is just a job to them.

Consider John 5:17 where the Lord Jesus responds to an accusation that he has violated the Sabbath work laws (an issue outside the scope of this article). He replies, “My father has been working until now, and I have been working.” Imagine if God should at any time retire, step out of the business of providence, and set aside His sovereign role in all that exists. How long could the world last? Colossians 1:17 states that “by him all things consist,” so we must conclude that the world would cease at the moment He stopped working. (5)

Work in the truest sense reflects our working creator and is a real part of being in His image, since when we work, we are required to be rational, moral, and creative. Work is what we were created to do. Our vocation is a divine calling by which we serve God and love our neighbor. Through it, we affect our culture and reflect in image our creator God. Yes, it is often overwhelming and burdensome, and yes, we are human to desire that it not be so, but let it move us to long for a better country to come, not escape or alter the current one. Work is necessary but not evil, and no amount of money can buy us out of it. Remember, vacation is not a vocation, and even vacation is not always that good."

1. Gene Edward Veith, “The Doctrine of Vocation: How God Hides Himself in Human Work,” Modern Reformation, 8, no. 3 (May/June 1999), 4.
2. Veith, 5.
3. Veith, 5.
4. W. Robert Godfrey, “Neither Individualism nor Statism,” Modern Reformation. 8, no.3 (May/June 1999), 22.
5. God’s rest from work noted in Genesis 2:1-3 is a rest from His work of creation, not His work of sustaining. Colossians 1:17 states “by him all things consist,” which means “to hold together,” so obviously He continued to sustain while He rested. Even on the Sabbath, when the Israelites were commanded not to work, they could do any work that was necessary to sustain life. The Lord Jesus was accused of Sabbath-breaking for this very type of work in the picking of corn (Luke 6:1-5).

Reprinted with permission from the Business Reform magazine,
a bimonthly magazine published by The Business Reform Foundation (, Ashland, Ohio


REM said...

Excellent post.

Jeremy Weaver said...

I remember reading a sermon buy Martin Luther when I was wee lad, and was struck by the idea that our employment should be our ministry. I wish I could remember the title or the text that he used, but that sermon was pivotal in my own life as I began to see the whole world as being full of the glory of God, and learning how to labor in and for that glory.

donsands said...

What a needed lesson for me to hear.

Now if I will only listen.
We bring glory to our Lord in our calling/vocation: small business owner (me), carpenter, computer tech, car mechanic, or whatever. Why is this so difficult to grasp?

"God Himself is milking the cows through the vocation of the milkmaid".

Thanks, I needed that today.

Eek said...


I just wanted to thank you for teaching at the "Men of God Conference" in Belfontaine, Ohio. I really appreciated your 3 sessions and the gracious and humble way in which you opened Gods Word.

Thanks again!

In Christ,

Terry Rayburn said...

This is the kind of handling of a subject that another writer may have expanded into a 200-page book, 190 pages of which would be filler, making the book a bore.

Greg has said the book's-worth in a few pages, and said it wonderfully.

It sky-walks beyond the morality of work, or the "Work Ethic" to the very sovereignty of God.

Habbakkuk asked God, "How could you let Israel get away with their evil behavior?"

When God told Him he had already "hired" (appointed) an enemy to chastize Israel, Habbakkuk asked God, "How could you allow such evil men to oppress your Chosen Israel?"

When God told him that He had already "hired" (appointed) punishers for the evil invaders to recompense them for oppressing Israel, Habbakkuk gave up and said, loosely, "Wow! That's it for my complaints. No matter what, I will praise You!"

To see God's hand in all work (dare I say, the Al Quaeda terrorist, as well as the Special Forces soldier hunting him well as the milkmaid?) is a staggering, profound, yet beautiful thing.


Carol said...

To paraphrase Spurgeon:
"If the ministry is done right it will suck the life out of you".
No matter what the ministry brings it's worth it.Without God there is no life.

Blue Collar Todd said...

I was actually thinking about this and did a short post on it. I think a biblical work ethic stands in stark contrast to the Nanny State mentality we see today. It is sad how envy is used as a political weapon against those who work hard to provide for their families.

R W S said...

We do need a biblical view of work and vocation.Plus the Church needs to recover its view of compassionate care to those in need and stop allowing the government to do all the work.The care of widow , the sick , orphans , those injured and cannot work anymore , working families stretched to the limit etc.Living in Canada many think we have a "nanny state" here but that is far from the truth.
While I do think its right to call people back to a solid understanding of work , those who employ people need to recover their responsibility to not have unbalanced scales , so to speak.

Anonymous said...

I needed this...