A Brief Theology of Work

Growing up in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch Country, Lancaster County, the general philosophy of life was often, “Work is never wrong.” A friend of mine once joked about the insanity of the German work ethic, “I caught my grandparents sweeping the forest floor one weekend, for Pete’s sake!” More recently, a friend from church commented, “Young men need work. It keeps them out of trouble.” I also agree that work is good, in fact modeled by God himself. However, the equation is not that simple as our study will expose. In fact work itself may be the number one idol through the whole of Scripture and in one sense is the number one sin, rejecting salvation by God’s grace.
God’s Work in the Beginning
Work is good, created by God and modeled by God. Consider that the whole existence of the universe itself is the result of God’s work. The book of Genesis reads, “On the seventh day God finished his work which he had done” (Genesis 2:2 WEB) and again, “He made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the surface of the earth, having determined appointed seasons, and the boundaries of their dwellings” (Acts 17:26 WEB). So we see God finished his work of creation, he made every nation of men from one man, and he determined the entire course of history.
The New Testament Scriptures also make it plain that the God who did this is Jesus. “For by him all things were created in the heavens and on the earth, visible things and invisible things, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things are held together” (Colossians 1:16-17 WEB). And not only did Jesus create everything he is also actively holding all things together.
Man’s Work in the Beginning
We often tend to extremes. In our introduction we explained that work itself can become an idol. On the other extreme we may believe that work itself is God’s punishment to mankind for Adam’s sin in the garden. However, this also is not the case. We read, ”God blessed them. God said to them, 'Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the sky, and over every living thing that moves on the earth' " (Genesis 1:28 WEB). So we see before the fall into sin, God assigned work for man to do. This work, however, was always perfectly enjoyable because it was not frustrated by sin.
Satan’s Work of Destruction
The ugly side of sin is the work of Satan. Satan himself led man into rebellion against God. The Scriptures say, “Then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord will kill with the breath of his mouth, and destroy by the manifestation of his coming; even he whose coming is according to the working of Satan with all power and signs and lying wonders” (2 Thessalonians 2:8-9 WEB). We also read the hope that Jesus came to destroy Satan’s works. “He who sins is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. To this end the Son of God was revealed: that he might destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8 WEB).
Man’s Work Frustrated
Though Satan led us into sin, God still punished us as well. God said to Adam and Eve, "16) To the woman he said, 'I will greatly multiply your pain in childbirth. You will bear children in pain. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.'  17) To Adam he said, 'Because you have listened to your wife's voice, and ate from the tree, about which I commanded you, saying, 'You shall not eat of it,' the ground is cursed for your sake. You will eat from it with much labor all the days of your life. 18) It will yield thorns and thistles to you; and you will eat the herb of the field. 19) You will eat bread by the sweat of your face until you return to the ground, for you were taken out of it. For you are dust, and you shall return to dust.' "  (Genesis 3:16-19 WEB).
And not only did God initiate the curse with Adam and Eve, but he maintains the curse with each sinful man, that is all of us. God said to Cain after he killed his brother Abel, “Now you are cursed because of the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother's blood from your hand. From now on, when you till the ground, it won't yield its strength to you. You will be a fugitive and a wanderer in the earth" (Genesis 4:11-12 WEB).
God is so resolved that we would call to him as a father that he will destroy even the good efforts of men when he is excluded from involvement. For example we all remember the famous Tower of Babel. But do you remember why God halted the work? “4) They said, 'Come, let's build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top reaches to the sky, and let's make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad on the surface of the whole earth.'  5) Yahweh came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men built. 6) Yahweh said, 'Behold, they are one people, and they all have one language, and this is what they begin to do. Now nothing will be withheld from them, which they intend to do. 7) Come, let's go down, and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another's speech.' 8) So Yahweh scattered them abroad from there on the surface of all the earth. They stopped building the city. 9) Therefore its name was called Babel, because there Yahweh confused the language of all the earth. From there, Yahweh scattered them abroad on the surface of all the earth' " (Genesis 11:4-9 WEB). God halted the work to prevent man from “making a name for themselves” and losing dependency on him.
Isaiah’s confession is a solemn reminder that God’s works surpass our works of the flesh.  “We have been with child. We have been in pain. We gave birth, it seems, only to wind. We have not worked any deliverance in the earth; neither have the inhabitants of the world fallen. Your dead shall live...” (Isaiah 26:18-19a WEB). Man’s efforts have produced nothing whereas God will bring the dead to life!
And most painfully when we turn from our Father God to make any kind of works an idol he will hand us over to work until our idol is broken. “For it is: Do and do, do and do, rule on rule, rule on rule; a little here, a little there. Very well then, with foreign lips and strange tongues  God will speak to this people,  to whom he said, ‘This is the resting place, let the weary rest’; and, ‘This is the place of repose’ - but they would not listen. So then, the word of the LORD to them will become: Do and do, do and do,  rule on rule, rule on rule; a little here, a little there -  so that they will go and fall backward, be injured and snared and captured” (Isaiah 28:10-13 NIV).
Moses’ Work Not Adequate
One thing is clear since the Garden of Eden. Mankind needs salvation. So God graciously worked through Moses to bring the Ten Commandments and the Old Covenant. This covenant was beautiful in glory and provided instruction for righteousness as well as instruction for forgiveness and atonement. Was this covenant adequate for salvation? Though misunderstood by many people, Jesus drew a sharp contrast between his New Covenant and the works of Moses. Consider, “For the law was given through Moses. Grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17 WEB) and again “But now he has obtained a more excellent ministry, by so much as he is also the mediator of a better covenant, which on better promises has been given as law. For if that first covenant had been faultless, then no place would have been sought for a second” (Hebrews 8:6-7 WEB).
The greatest contrast is found in the heart of the gospel explained in Romans. “For Moses writes about the righteousness of the law, 'The one who does them will live by them.'  But the righteousness which is of faith says this, 'Don't say in your heart, 'Who will ascend into heaven?' (that is, to bring Christ down); or, 'Who will descend into the abyss?' (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead.)'  But what does it say? 'The word is near you, in your mouth, and in your heart;' that is, the word of faith which we preach: that if you will confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:5-9 WEB). So we see that even though the covenant given through Moses made provision for forgiveness, man still needed to bring the atoning sacrifice to the altar himself. The New Covenant of Christ, however, invites us to believe that Jesus has done it all, from top to bottom!
Christ’s Work of Restoration
The work of Jesus Christ himself is the work that will receive glory throughout all of eternity. ”Jesus said to them, ‘My food is to do the will of him who sent me, and to accomplish his work. Don't you say, ‘There are yet four months until the harvest?' Behold, I tell you, lift up your eyes, and look at the fields, that they are white for harvest already. He who reaps receives wages, and gathers fruit to eternal life; that both he who sows and he who reaps may rejoice together. For in this the saying is true, 'One sows, and another reaps.' I sent you to reap that for which you haven't labored. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor" (John 4:34-38 WEB). He labored to harvest the souls of mankind. Moreover, he effectively completed his work. “I glorified you on the earth. I have accomplished the work which you have given me to do” (John 17:4 WEB). And he effectively continues his work in mankind. “Being confident of this very thing, that he who began a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6 WEB).
Man’s Work Restored
Jesus not only worked to give us his righteousness apart from our works, but also to restore our corruption of work so that we could join him in his good work. And the first work of all that he gives us to do before anything else can or will matter is that we would trust him. Jesus said, “ 'Don't work for the food which perishes, but for the food which remains to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For God the Father has sealed him.' They said therefore to him, 'What must we do, that we may work the works of God?'  Jesus answered them, 'This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent' " (John 6:27-29 WEB). Paul says the same, “Now to him who works, the reward is not counted as grace, but as something owed. But to him who doesn't work, but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness” (Romans 4:4-5 WEB).
Jesus’ work of restoration is so thorough that he even overturns his confusion of men’s languages at the Tower of Babel with the gift of languages at Pentecost. “Now when the day of Pentecost had come, they were all with one accord in one place. Suddenly there came from the sky a sound like the rushing of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. Tongues like fire appeared and were distributed to them, and one sat on each of them. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak with other languages, as the Spirit gave them the ability to speak” (Acts 2:1-4 WEB).
Jesus makes it more than clear that work is good and that he created us to do his good works. “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared before that we would walk in them" (Ephesians 2:10 WEB). However, he insists that we partner with him by faith for a guaranteed good result. “He therefore who supplies the Spirit to you, and works miracles among you, does he do it by the works of the law, or by hearing of faith?” (Galatians 3:5).
But how are we to have the courage to even lift a finger to partner with God’s good work, while we still struggle with sin? “My little children, let's not love in word only, neither with the tongue only, but in deed and truth. And by this we know that we are of the truth, and persuade [rest] our hearts before him, because if our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and knows all things” (1 John 3:18-20 WEB).  But most significantly if we have received Christ we can have great confidence as well as holy reverence that God is working his will in and through us. “So then, my beloved, even as you have always obeyed, not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God who works in you both to will and to work, for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12-13 WEB).
God’s Work - Plan “A” Accomplished
One may be inclined to think that God created good work for mankind in the Garden of Eden, but needed to resort to plan “B” to restore this lost work after the fall. Paul teaches us that, yes, someone has subjected the entire creation to frustration. "18) For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which will be revealed toward us. 19) For the creation waits with eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. 20) For the creation was subjected to vanity, not of its own will, but because of him who subjected it, in hope 21) that the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of decay into the liberty of the glory of the children of God. 22) For we know that the whole creation groans and travails in pain together until now. 23) Not only so, but ourselves also, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for adoption, the redemption of our body. 24) For we were saved in hope, but hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for that which he sees? 25) But if we hope for that which we don't see, we wait for it with patience."
(Romans 8:18-25 WEB)
But who is this one who has frustrated creation? The account in Genesis 3 referenced above is clear, but to remove all doubt Paul himself invites us to know and worship the God of frustration. “For God has shut up all to disobedience, that he might have mercy on all” (Romans 11:32 WEB). Paul confidently invites us to know that God himself has frustrated his creation, even each of us, because Paul also believed that God would sooner or later mercifully set us free. Praise to the God of temporary frustration who is also the God of eternal freedom!
Now that is a plan “A.”