From Eden to New Creation: Rediscovering God’s Purpose for Planet Earth

This article is part of my ongoing series on Gnosticism. For a complete list of these articles, see ‘Full Links to Gnosticism Series.’
God and the Problem of Creation

Camille is a sophomore in college, majoring in theater with an emphasis in dance. Earlier in the year she was introduced to Jesus through friends with Campus Crusade, leading to what she describes as her “salvation experience.” Now Camille is only interested in serving Jesus. She wonders if perhaps she should switch her major in Bible, for she is unsure how “secular” pursuits like theatre and ballet fit with her newfound faith.

Rodrigo recently became uncomfortable when a group at his church got involved in local politics to try to address issues of homelessness and poverty. Although Rodrigo does not have a problem helping homeless people, he has a strong intuition that the church should not become involved in politics. Didn’t Jesus himself say that His kingdom is not of this world?

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The Real Meaning of ‘Christian’ Work

Is this world, and our physical experiences within it, unimportant to God? Can anything of lasting spiritual importance be accomplished in the present space-time universe, or is it simply a waiting room for the life to come? Is it a waste of time for Christians to invest too much attention in this-worldly ‘secular’ pursuits—whether culture, the arts or our individual vocations—since everything of ultimate value is other-worldly?

For many modern-day Christians, the answers to the above questions are plain: what we do in this world is unimportant, and the best we can hope to do is to focus exclusively on the life to come. Such an understanding leads to a truncated view of the gospel, leaving whole departments of life isolated from the transforming influence of Christ.

We could look at a number of different areas where this diminished view of the gospel is operative, but in this post I will limit myself to the issue of work. Building on my earlier post, I will be using the wisdom of Dorothy Sayers as an entry point into the discussion. (To learn more about Dorothy Sayers, see Chapter 17 in my book Saints and Scoundrels.)

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Christian Work

Dorothy SayersDorothy Sayers, one of the heroes who features in my book Saints and Scoundrels, had an outlook that was particularly “sacramental.” Her sacramental vision enabled her to assert that it is possible to glorify God in ALL departments of life, and not merely those areas we label as “spiritual.”

This is an important point at a time when many Christian writers are claiming that it is a waste of time to invest too much attention on this-worldly pursuits like culture, the arts and “secular” vocations. In contrast to the claims of Neo-Anabaptist writers, as well as some reformed theologians associated with the “R2K” movement, Sayers showed that we must avoid a privatized view of redemption that ends up rendering huge segments of life spiritually neutral and “autonomous” (if I can use this term without the accompanying baggage). Sayers’ message is a much needed antidote to the tendency to suppose that what we do in this world is unimportant and that the best we can hope to do is to focus exclusively on the life to come.

In my article “The Real Meaning of ‘Christian’ Work“, I argue this truncated view of redemption leaves little room for a theology of cultural sanctification or earthly teleology, since God’s purposes come to be perceived as being entirely the province of heaven. On this truncated view of redemption, the work of raising families, building cathedrals, trimming hedges, reading novels, and even corporate worship, are often construed as being of only temporal importance at best unless they contain an explicit evangelistic component. This can lead to the ‘seeker-friendly’ posture of accommodation and compromise (what Hunter describes as the ‘relevance to’ paradigm’ of adaptation in To Change the World) or to the more ‘fundamentalist’ and ‘pietist’ posture of retreat and isolation, since in both cases the work of redemption has essentially become privatized and detached from our public life in the material world. Under both approaches, the arenas of art, politics, drama, economics, literature, film, architecture, education, music, fashion design, gardening and the media become ‘secular’ by default. The only disagreement between the isolationism of fundamentalism and accommodating posture of the ‘seeker-friendly’ paradigm is whether one should retreat from this “secular order” or capitulate to it. Fundamentalists will often take the former course while more accommodating and liberal forms of Christianity are more tempted by the second. In both cases, what tends to be left intact is the basic sacred/secular divide. Serious Christian engagement with all of life becomes the chief casualty of this fragmented posture. What emerges is then an amphibious posture in which one’s religious commitments are sequestered from life in the world, with the latter having little to no organic relationship to the former.

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Your Day Job is Your Ministry (Gnosticism and Evangelicalism, part 5)

This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.


“So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” (1 Corinthians 10:31)

My previous article in this series, ‘Building for God’s Kingdom,’ looked at the way God is renewing our world through the present efforts of His people. I did not go to the extreme of suggesting that we can actually build the new heavens and the new earth through our own efforts, which is the temptation of over-realized eschatologies such as Marxism. However, I did suggest that scripture shows there will be some continuity with what we do now to advance Christ’s kingdom, and the final fulfillment of that work when Jesus comes again.

My previous article looked at these questions from a ‘Big Picture’ perspective, considering the large flow of salvation history. In this article, I want to explore some of the same questions with a more narrow focus, looking at what you can do in your day to day life to advance God’s kingdom. In the process, I will again debunk some of the Gnostic assumptions that are often taken for granted within contemporary evangelicalism.

Glorifying God Monday through Saturday

When the apostle Paul was writing to Titus, he told him a specific message to give to bondservants. Paul said that “in everything they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior” even in the mundane tasks they performed. (Titus 2:10) This was also a theme Paul picked up on in his letter to the Corinthians, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” (1 Cor. 10:31) Everything can be done to the glory of God, and not just “spiritual” tasks.

This simple truth can sometimes be hard to truly believe. It’s easy to appreciate how work in Christian ministry can glorify God. It’s easy to appreciate how sharing the gospel with someone can glorify the Lord. But it’s harder for us to understand how the mundane things we do Monday through Saturday – things like eating, sleeping, working at a secular job, etc. – can bring glory to our Creator.

Luther and the Protestant Work Ethic

One man who helps us to think properly about this issue was the great Protestant Reformer, Martin Luther (1483-1546). Luther was born at a time where the work we do in the world had come to be perceived as morally neutral at best. While it may never have been expressed formally as such, an implicit theology had arisen which assumed that the best a lay person could do, so far as his profession was concerned, was to refrain from sinning. In his book Sources of the Self, the Roman Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor described the conditions Luther was reacting against:

“On the degenerate, hierarchical understanding of the monastic life then prevalent, I as a layman am as it were only half-involved in my salvation: both because I need to draw on the merits of those who are more fully dedicated to the Christian life, through the mediation of the church, and because in accepting this lower level of dedication, I am settling for less than a full commitment to the faith.”

This hierarchical understanding helped to fortify the implicit dualism between the spiritual and the material realms, with the concern of the church belonging to the former and the concern of ordinary life belonging to the latter. The result is what Taylor described as “first and second-class Christians” defined by the contrast between the renunciative vocations and ordinary lay ones.

The Dutch statesmen and theologian Abraham Kuyper (1837–1920) would later make a similar point in his lectures on Calvinism:

“Under the hierarchy of Rome the Church and the World were placed over against each other, the one as being sanctified and the other as being still under the curse….Escape from the world was the counterpoise in monastic and partly even in clerical orders, which emphasized holiness in the centrum of the Church…”

Luther realized that the dominion mandate of Genesis 1:28 sanctifies all honest labor. Consequently, the work of a baker, housewife, carpenter or administrator is just as valuable as the work of a priest or a nun. Hence, under the Protestant canopy, the term “vocation” (calling) which had previously only applied only to full-time ministry, came to refer to all legitimate professions. Luther put it like this in one of his sermons:

“…it looks like a small thing when a maid cooks, and cleans, and does other housework. But because God’s command is there, even such a lowly employment must be praised as a service of God, far surpassing the holiness and asceticism of all monks and nuns.”

I don’t know if I would go so far as Luther in saying that secular work actually surpasses the work of monks and nuns. Saint Paul did say that it was better to remain single (1 Cor. 7:7). I don’t think Paul said that because there is anything dirty about sex, but because single persons are able to devote themselves to constant prayer, as we know from the example of Simeon and Anna (Luke 2:25-38). The reformation may have over-reacted when they began destroying monasteries and forcing into secular labor those who, like the leaders in Acts 6:2-4, had dedicated themselves to prayer and the ministry of the word. But Luther and the reformers certainly got one thing right: no matter how low our station, no matter how menial our task, we can glorify God in our labor.

Realizing that all honest labor can be spiritually productive frees us from having to tie the spiritual value of our work to specific functional ends. It is not merely the consequences of our work that brings glory to God, but the process as well. If I spend a month constructing a building that later topples down in an earthquake, my time has (in one sense) not been wasted if the work was done to the glory of God.

The Protestant Work Ethic in the Early Church

The, so called, ‘Protestant work ethic’ actually predates the reformation.

In the ancient Christian text known as the Didache we read, “If a prophet desires to abide with you, and if he is a tradesman, let him work and eat. However if he has no trade, according to your understanding see to it that as a Christian, he will not live with you idle.”

For Augustine of Hippo (354-430), no conflict existed between the work we perform with our hands and the life of prayer. In his tract “On the Works of Monks”, Augustine appealed to 2 Thessalonians 3:10 (“if anyone will not work, neither shall he eat”) in disputation against Carthaginian monastics who had decided not to work.

This understanding was later echoed by Caesarius of Arles (460-542) who taught that ordinary actions can be holy provided they do not proceed from impure motives: “Since God especially advises reasonable concern for food and clothing, so long as avarice and ambition…are not linked with it, an ordinary action or thought can be most rightly considered holy.”

The same notion is also found in a sermon of Saint John Chrysostom (c. 347–407):

“Whensoever then thou seest one clearing wood, smiting with a hammer, covered with soot, do not therefore hold him cheap, but rather for that reason admire him. Since even Peter girded himself, and handled the drag-net, and went a fishing, after the Resurrection of the Lord. And why say I Peter? For this same Paul himself, after his incessant runnings to and fro, and all those vast miracles, standing in a tent-maker’s shop, sewed hides together: while angels were reverencing him, and demons trembling.”

Similarly, the fourth-century collection of Christian writings, known as The Apostolic Constitutions, declares,

“Attend to your employment with all appropriate seriousness, so that you will always have sufficient funds to support yourselves and those that were needy. In that way, you will not burden the church of God…..Some of us are fishermen, tentmakers, and farmers, so that we may never be idle. Solomon says, ‘Go to the ant, though sluggard; consider her ways diligently and become wiser than she.’”

Suffice to say, the ‘Protestant work ethic’ did not originate with Luther. It is an orthodox and apostolic idea that Luther revived. I want to suggest that the same idea needs to be revived in our own time because of certain Gnostic-like ideas that have seeped into the Christian community. But more about that in my follow-up article.

Further Reading

Gnosticism in the Work Place (Gnosticism and Evangelicalism, part 6)

This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.

In Part 1 of this series I explained how the heresy of Gnosticism taught that there was a deep opposition between the spiritual life and the material world. Consequently, the Gnostics believed that this world and our physical experiences within it are unimportant to God. Sadly, many modern-day Christians also believe that what we do in this world is unimportant, so that the best we can hope to do is to focus exclusively on the life to come. This implicitly Gnostic perspective makes it hard to understand how we can glorify God in our secular vocations.

The more Gnostic approach seems to be the position of Pastor Rick Warren, best known for his phenomenal best-seller The Purpose Driven Life. The California-based pastor takes it for granted that one’s “mission” is saving souls, while one’s day to day vocational labors derive eternal value only to the degree that they serve the ends of the former. Warren’s thesis is that by focusing on our “mission”, our lives become “purpose-driven” instead of merely wasted. Asserting that “Everything else will eventually vanish,” Warren asserts the work we do in our day job derives value only to the degree that it gives us opportunities to evangelize:

“Life on earth is just the dress rehearsal before the real production….

“Your mission has eternal significance. It will impact the eternal destiny of other people, so it’s more important than any job, achievement, or goal you will reach during your life on earth. The consequences of your mission will last forever; the consequences of your job will not….The clock is ticking down on your life mission, so don’t delay another day.”

Significantly, the subtitle to The Purpose Driven Life is “What on Earth Am I Here For?” Warren’s answer to the subtitle’s question seems to be that we are here purely for the purpose of preparing for the next life. As he puts it in chapter 4,

“Earth is the staging area, the preschool, the tryout for your life in eternity. It is the practice workout before the actual game; the warm-up lap before the race begins.” Or again, “This is not your permanent home or final destination. You’re just passing through, just visiting earth…..Your identity is in eternity, and your homeland is heaven.…earth is not our ultimate home….”

This instrumentalizing of our lives in this world leaves little room for a theology of cultural sanctification or earthly purpose, since God’s purposes are entirely the province of heaven. In keeping with this perspective, Warren defines “mission” in a way that circumnavigates around any secular labors. Secular labors become missional only to the degree that they present opportunities for evangelism. The labors we engage in outside sharing our faith, even “all kinds of good things”, he says are actually “diversions” thrown at us by the devil to delay Christ’s return. In his book The Purpose Driven Church Warren suggests that even the value of weekly church services is an adjunct to the evangelistic ministry.

Under this outlook, raising families, building cathedrals, trimming hedges, reading novels, and even corporate worship, are only of temporal importance at best unless they contain an explicit evangelistic component. At worst, such activities are dangerous distractions sent from the devil. Lurking behind Warren’s truncated idea of mission is an unconscious dualism between creation and redemption, as if God’s purposes for the latter have nothing to do with His original intentions in the former.

Warren’s dichotomy between the ordinary work we do for our job vs. our mission was echoed by Richard Coekin. In his essay ‘The Priority of gospel ministry’ (published in Workers For The Harvest Field), Coekin reflected much popular thinking when he made the distinction between “creation ministry” and “gospel ministry.” The former involves things like “[contributing] where we can to the biblical government of this planet” and “the improvement of the welfare of all humanity, especially the poor, weak and vulnerable.” By contrast, ‘gospel ministry’ involves “the world to come… of seeking to save people from hell for heaven.” After comparing these two types of work, Coekin concludes that gospel ministry “is generally more important and takes priority over our ‘creation ministry’ seeking to improve people’s lives in this world.” He continued:

“the eternal benefits of gospel ministry seem to clearly outweigh the more temporary benefits of creation ministry. Put crudely, while medical help can delay death for a few years, it is only gospel ministry that can rescue us from an eternity in the horrors of hell for an eternity of joy in the new creation. The priority of gospel ministry is clear from the relative benefits of each.”

While not wanting to oversimplify the theological issues at stake, it is noteworthy that Coekin’s antithesis between gospel ministry and creation ministry, like Warren’s disjunction between mission and vocation, closely parallels the dualism between matter and spirit that has become so endemic of contemporary thought. This is because mission and gospel relate to the “spiritual” end of saving souls, while our vocations in the material sphere only have temporal value. The result is that only those who are in “full time ministry” can see their day job as being spiritually dynamic. The work of a garbage collector, car salesman, administrator, accountant or ballet dancer achieves value only derivatively through the opportunities such employment may bring for evangelism.

This orientation limits the work of missions to the immediate task of getting people saved, while considerations about ways in which Christian mission might flesh out into the larger culture are neglected.

This Gnostic approach to labor distorts the meaning of the gospel, by truncating the good news of Christ’s Lordship to a delimited sphere. (In its original context, the gospel included every department of life, because it was the announcement of Christ’s Lordship over all of creation. To learn more about this, read my post ‘The Meaning of the Gospel.’)

Truncating the Gospel

In The Purpose Driven Church, Warren claims to navigate between the extremes of cultural imitation and cultural isolation. However, his solution is not to return to an expansive understanding of the gospel in which all legitimate departments of life can be sanctified; rather, his solution is simply to infiltrate the culture with evangelism, to be more serious about the Great Commission and to create a service that is attractive to unbelievers. As everything other than evangelism becomes reduced to unimportance, mission becomes divorced from vocation and one’s labours in the secular world derive their legitimacy only to the degree that they provide raw material for evangelism.

Culture thus becomes a matter of spiritual indifference, often leading to uncritical accommodation rather than thoughtful engagement. While culture may have some functional value (for example, it may provide the medium for evangelistic marketing techniques), it remains essentially spiritually neutral under the truncated idea of the gospel.

Where Pietism and Fundamentalism Meet

 Viewing the physical order as spiritually neutral can lead to the “seeker-friendly” posture of accommodation and compromise (what Hunter describes as the “‘relevance to’ paradigm” of adaptation) or to the more “fundamentalist” and “pietist” posture of retreat and isolation, since in both cases the work of redemption has essentially become privatized and detached from the material world. Under both approaches, the arenas of art, politics, drama, film, economics, literature, architecture, education, fashion design, gardening and the media become ‘secular’ by default. The only disagreement between the isolationism of fundamentalism and the accommodation of the “seeker-friendly” posture is whether one should retreat from this “secular order” or capitulate to it. Fundamentalists will often take the former course while more accommodating and liberal forms of Christianity are often tempted to the second. In both cases, what tends to be left intact is the basic sacred/secular divide. Serious Christian engagement with all of life—including our Monday through Saturday jobs—becomes the chief casualty of this dualistic posture.

Neo-Anabaptist authors have written some trenchant criticisms of this bipolar approach to the world, urging radical discipleship in all of life. However, the separatist and pietistic tendencies of neo-Anabaptists mean that their approach can be just as schizoid, especially when it comes to our ordinary labor in the material world. Robert Brimlow’s book Paganism and the Professions is a notable example.

Despite the fact that the Genesis narrative records Adam working before the fall, Brimlow maintains “that God intended work as a punishment for sin” and contends against the position “that all work is somehow good and blessed by its very nature…” Brimlow writes that “To label our work and the professions as ‘callings’ or ‘vocations’ is not only arrogant it also, and importantly, cheapens the gospel. There is one calling we should recognize – discipleship – and one vocation – to follow Jesus.”

Brimlow was echoing Duke University professor Stanley Hauerwas who had similarly suggested that “work need not be regarded as ultimately significant. Work is simply common as it is the way most of us earn our living. Indeed, if there is a grace to work it is that we do not need to attribute or find in our work any great significance or salvation.” Significantly, in his book In Good Company: The Church as Polis, Hauerwas was highly critical of what he termed “John Paul II’s attempts to give work an intrinsic status by underwriting the dignity of common work…”

Once again, this Gnostic-type approach is not what we find in either the Bible or Christian tradition. The Church has taught that all legitimate aspects of life can be dignified and put to the service of Christ, not merely those things we consider ‘spiritual.’

A Christian Vision for All of Life

How do we recover from this Gnostic orientation to a more expensive vision of the gospel? A good place to start is going to work with a different attitude. Instead of thinking of our jobs as a necessary evil so that we can simply earn money to survive, we can begin thinking of work—even unpleasant work—as an arena in which we can glorify the Lord.

Maybe our work will provide opportunities for evangelism, maybe it won’t. Perhaps our work is making the world a better place, or perhaps it isn’t. But if we do our work to the Lord, then it is spiritually productive whether or not we understand how (provided, of course, that we are doing nothing sinful). In short, you can begin thinking of your day job as your ministry.

I’d like to end with a quotation from Albert Wolters, from his book Creation Regained. In discussing the passage from James’ epistle about friendship with the world being enmity with God, Wolters noted that

…Christians of virtually every persuasion have tended to understand ‘world’ to refer to a delimited area of the created order, an area that is usually called ‘worldly’ or ‘secular’ (from saeculum, the Latin rendering of aion), which includes such fields as art, politics, scholarship (excluding theology), journalism, sports, business, and so on. In fact, to this way of thinking, the “world” includes everything outside the realm of the “sacred,” which consists basically of the church, personal piety, and “sacred theology.” Creation is therefore divided up neatly (although the dividing line may be defined differently by different Christians) into two realms: the secular and the sacred.

This compartmentalization is a very great error. It implies that there is no “worldliness” in the church, for example, and that no holiness is possible in politics, say, or journalism. It defines what is secular not by its religious orientation or direction (obedience or disobedience to God’s ordinances) but by the creational neighborhood it occupies. Once again, it falls prey to that deep-rooted Gnostic tendency to depreciate one realm of creation (virtually all of society and culture) with respect to another, to dismiss the former as inherently inferior to the latter.

Further Reading