“Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.” I still remember when I really came to believe that statement for the first time. Here was the gospel in all of its scandalous beauty: that God, despite all my wretchedness and brokenness, loved me—loved us—enough to stretch himself out on a Roman cross, as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. It’s scarcely believable.
I was exhilarated at the thought that I could have a personal relationship with the God of the universe. And I do still have those moments of exhilaration, but they’ve become fewer over the years, especially in my work. Part of the problem, of course, is my own sinfulness and spiritual numbness. But I’ve also come to see that I had a very narrow understanding of the gospel. What does the gospel have to do, I would ask myself, with spreadsheets and invoices and stocking office supplies? What does the gospel have to say to me as I stare blankly at my computer while the workday drags on? I didn’t have much of an answer, since I had basically been thinking of the gospel as a two-chapter story:
- Chapter 1: Humans are sinners who are separated from God.
- Chapter 2: Jesus died for our sins so that we can go to heaven to be with God when we die.
But what happens in the meantime?
This two-chapter story isn’t untrue—far from it—but it’s not the whole truth; it’s only part of what the Bible means by “the gospel,” and it’s not an especially helpful framework for thinking about the redemptive value of our work. With a narrow view of the gospel, it can be hard to figure what we’re supposed to be doing with all of our “ordinary” days while we wait to be with Jesus in heaven. What we need is a “Monday-through-Friday” gospel to help us make sense of our work during the hum-drum of our ordinary lives, in those moments when “the sun appears sluggish and immobile, as if the day had fifty hours” and boredom threatens us with “hatred of our place, against life itself, and against the work of our hands,” as the monk Evagrius of Pontus reflected from the deserts of Egypt in the fourth century.
But what if there were more chapters in the gospel story? What if there were a way to find where our work fits into God’s grand mission to reconcile all things–not just individual sinners–to himself? As the Christian Scriptures tell it, the gospel is a drama that unfolds in four acts—Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Consummation—and the scope of the story includes the entire created order. This means, on the one hand, that the bad news is much worse than we may have thought if we are operating within a two-chapter gospel; at the same time, it also means that the good news of the four-chapter gospel is much better than we realize. Here’s the basic shape of the story:
- Creation: The biblical creation accounts depict a world which is the work of a good and wise Creator who shows himself to be collaborative in nature, sharing himself and his work with the only creatures who bear his image, human beings (Gen. 1:28–31; 2:15–25). Significantly, we are told that work predates the fall into sin and death, which shows that work is one of the original goods of creation. The fundamental goodness of work shows up most explicitly in the cultural mandate, in which God commissions human beings to care for creation and make it flourish (Gen. 2:15). In this regard, to be a human being is to be a tasked creature—drawn into God’s dynamic work of creation and care for what he has made and responsible to God for our work.
- Fall: The event known as the Fall—a cataclysmic rebellion against God that plunged the entire created order into a state of disarray and bondage (Gen. 3–11; Rom. 8:19–23)—disrupted the harmoy of God’s good creation on multiple levels. The Fall and its implications are both personal and cosmic in scope, tainting all of our key relationships: our relationship to our true selves (psychological), one another (social), systems and structures (systemic), the created order (ecological), and ultimately our relationship to God (theological). This means that our daily work is both fallen and falling, and we must seek to fulfill our vocations within systems, industries, economies, cities, states, and nations that are all twisted and warped by sin.
- Redemption: So, all human life—including all human work—exists in the shadow of the Fall, what David Bently Hart has called “the long melancholy aftermath of a primordial catastrophe.” But as the New Testament tells it, God has taken radical and decisive action in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ to “reconcile all things to himself, whether in heaven or on earth” (Col. 1:20). The Fall is both personal and cosmic, but so is the cure. Once we recognize that, we’ll discover renewed purpose for our work. With a broader vision of redemption in mind, our work is no longer an instrumental means to an end, but in a limited sense an end in itself. Our work is not the answer to the curse that haunts creation, but it is one of the ways that God invites his people to join in his mission to “gather up all things” into himself (Eph. 1:10).
- Consummation: It is central to the Bible’s main storyline that God intends to redeem and restore his fallen creation, not abandon it. So, contrary to some popular misunderstandings of the end times, Jesus Christ is not rescuing us from the world, he is rescuing us for the sake of the world. Revelation 21–22 depicts New Heavens and a New Earth, where God has finally re-integrated our key relationships, including systems and structures, which have been pulled apart and twisted by sin and death. But here’s the kicker: the New Testament makes the bold claim that it is possible for God’s people, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to live in such a way that not only anticipates God’s future when all things will be made new, but to live in such a way that actually participates in this future, which Christians call the Kingdom of God. The challenge is to imagine how our work might serve as a sign and a foretaste of the Kingdom.
In the end, the way we think about work is tied to the way we think about the gospel. If our understanding of the gospel is too narrow, we will most likely arrive at an instrumental understanding of our work, where we toil in our jobs to raise money for pastors and missionaries. But if we broaden our understanding of the gospel, we’ll find ways to engage our work as part of the mission of God to make all things new.
What’s your place in the plot?
Learn More About The Gospel for Our Work at The Faith & Work Classroom.
Share this article
This post was published July 9, 2020
Ryan serves as theologian-in-residence for Denver Institute for Faith & Work, where he writes and teaches on the integration of faith and work. Alongside his work with Denver Institute, Ryan is an instructor in the Division of Christian Thought at Denver Seminary, where he teaches theology and the history of Christianity, and associate pastor at Foothills Fellowship Church in Littleton. He holds a Th.M. in ecclesiastical history and a Ph.D. in theology from the University of Edinburgh. He has published in the areas of inter-religious dialogue, historical theology, and Christian ethics. Ryan lives with his wife, Adrienne, and their daughter in Lakewood. Most importantly, Ryan is a diehard fan of the Denver Nuggets—and he liked them even when they were terrible.