Theology 101

Establishing the Work of Our Hands

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May the favor of the Lord our God rest upon us;

establish the work of our hands for us—

yes, establish the work of our hands.

 —Psalm 90:17

There is an old story set in the Middle Ages during the construction of one of the great European cathedrals. A nobleman was walking among the workers, asking about their labors. The stonemason explained the care involved in raising a plumb wall. The glass worker pointed out the details of a leaded glass window. The carpenter spoke about the wooden frame which provided the support for the whole building. Finally the nobleman spotted a peasant woman with a broom and a bucket going around cleaning up trash. He asked her what she was doing. She replied, “I’m building a cathedral for the glory of God!”

This peasant woman had a firm grasp on what we have been calling in this blog “the Biblical Doctrine of Work.”

In this new series we want to ask and hopefully answer the question, what are the implications of the Biblical doctrine of work for Christians today?  We suggest the following three answers, which we explore in more detail over the next couple of weeks.

  • We must rediscover that our primary call is to follow Jesus.  We must realize that this call encompasses the whole of our lives, including our everyday work. Our call should lead Christians to a radically different lifestyle, seeking not to follow the culture but to influence the culture for the glory of God.
  • We must understand the mission that we have been called to do in this world.  For the Christian, life without work is meaningless; but work must never become the meaning of one’s life. We must find our identity in Christ, not in our work. It is our union with Christ which transforms our hearts and gives us the desire to serve Him out of gratitude while we engage the world.
  • We must realize that the purpose of our work is to have a positive impact on culture.  A prominent metaphor in the Bible is the bringing of light into a dark world (Matthew 5:16; John 1:5). When light is brought into a dark room, the room is transformed. The light of the gospel has the power to radically transform individual people and their culture as a whole.

The Biblical doctrine of work is one of the most powerful means God provides for us to shape and influence culture. Yet today we hear many Christians say that we should not be involved in shaping culture. People who say this are actually supporting the social status quo, whether they agree with it or not. Tim Keller had this to say in a recent essay on work and culture:

When Christians work in the world, they will either assimilate into their culture and support the status quo or they will be agents of change. This is especially true in the area of work. Every culture works on the basis of a “map” of what is considered most important. If God and his grace are not at the center of a culture, then other things will be substituted as ultimate values. So every vocational field is distorted by idolatry.

When Christians do their jobs with excellence and with accountability, in a distinctively Christian manner, they cannot help but have a profound effect on the world around them. Thomas Cahill, in his book How the Irish Saved Civilization, tells how Christian monks in the Middle Ages moved out of Ireland and through pagan Europe. Along the way they invented and established academies, universities, and hospitals. Through these new institutions the monks transformed local economies and cared for the unfortunate.

The Irish monks’ goal was not to change the pagan culture into the church. Instead, their vocation was inspired by the gospel, and that changed the way they carried out their work. They worked for the flourishing of all mankind rather than strictly for themselves.

Christians today have a similar opportunity. If we are serious about the truth of Christianity, we need to engage in cultural renewal, working to serve the common good toward the furtherance of the Kingdom and for the glory of God.

Question: What have you perceived to be the Church’s attitude towards the cultural status quo? Leave a comment here.

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  • Thank you Mr. Whelchel for your exhortation. As a mother of 6 children whose education my husband and I are managing from home, we seek to have the work of our own hands established by God and to pass this value into the lives of our offspring. Excellent reminders to do everything to the glory of God. I will remind myself of this in my daily labors.

  • While I agree with the three answers you give as secondary purposes of work as Christians, is not the Great Commission (Matt 28:16-20 – “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”) the first and foremost reason? Everything else we do here and now should focus us on fulfilling this primary calling. Impacting culture is only useful if it glorifies God and leads to repentance and faith in Christ.

    • gregoryayers

      Hi Stephen – thanks for sharing your thoughts! We’re excited to hear from you. First, we agree with you that the Great Commission is important, as is evangelism. However, we believe that the Cultural Mandate found in Genesis and the Great Commission are not exclusive. In fact, many theologians have argued that the Great Commission is Jesus’ restatement of the Cultural Mandate in light of His life, death, and resurrection. The call to establish dominion over the earth and the call to make disciples of all nations are the same. We achieve both through our work.

      • gregoryayers

        Also, Stephen, if you’d like more info or resources on this question, I encourage you to read through some of our posts on the Cultural Mandate and the Great Commission:

        • Thanks for your responses. I am going to finish reading this series and then take a look at the other series. I am sure I will have some further comments after that. Thanks for your great work here.

          • gregoryayers

            Take your time – it’s a lot to sift through! Glad you’re finding everything food for thought.

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