To speak, then, of work’s redemption is to speak first and foremost about a decisive work of God in Jesus. Where do we see truly good work? In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. In him we see a new way of working that is from God, done through the power of God, and that is for God’s redeeming purposes and glory. It’s a work grounded in unbroken trust, one heaven-bent on blessing and bringing God’s deliverance, and it is completed in free obedience to God’s will.
And so this, now, is the true condition of all good work: that it be from God, through God, and for God. As it was with Jesus, so it is with us: to live and work in this way is to find yourself participating—in the whole of your life—in God’s own good working, and to find yourself restored to our human purpose. “For we are God’s handiwork,” Paul writes to the church at Ephesus, ”created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Eph 2:10). We need to hear the expansiveness and liberty of this declaration. This is not a stultifying curtailment of work to evangelism and acts of charity according to heaven’s tightly managed brief. Paul is declaring that God himself has done a work that makes good work possible: we’re free again to work and keep the garden—free from sin’s curse and all the distortions this brought to our work; we’re free to work with the grain of the universe, to bless the earth and glorify God. Our work is now from God, is to be done through and with God, and has lasting meaning insofar as it is to him and for him.
So much explains the remarkable freedom of the Christian at work. For his critics ancient and modern, Jesus’s working career was a patent failure. When it came to it, what did he have to show for all his efforts in the end? He left no financial provision for the public good; he’d not built any architectural statement, no monumental reminders; he left no clear political legacy; no lasting impact on this disease or that social condition; no technological innovation; he produced nothing of material value, not even a book of his own teachings. And such inadequacy didn’t trouble his identity at all. In this, he displayed an unparalleled freedom. He was free from the need to make a name for himself, the need to prove his effectiveness, to—as we say—make a difference. His name, of course, has endured; he has made a difference, left a legacy (indeed, since the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost, his body the Church has been ceaseless in its efforts). But Jesus’s work was—and remains—an overflow of his identity as the Son, his life of unbroken trust in the Father, from whom his work came, through whom it was realised, and who it glorified by free obedience.
And so it is for us: our work is from God, an out-working of our place in God’s household. Whenever you’re working, Scripture reminds us, you’re serving something or someone. However enamoured our age is with fantasies of self-fulfilment, such small-minded liberations always turn out to be chained to one or other false god, be that the ancient deity Wealth and Security, or the modern abstraction of Self-Determination. Indeed, our contemporary landscape is littered with the scaffolding and waste of myriad unfinished Babels. But followers of Jesus are free. Our identies are not secured by work, but are God’s gracious gift: “How great,” exults John, “is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!” The Christian is free to work. “You have to serve somebody.”’ Yes! we say—and I serve the only good and worthy Master, the Lord Jesus!
Not only are we freed from the project of making a name for ourselves, but our freedom is such that we now have hope and purpose in our work, because God himself has underwritten our human vocation. Christ’s victory over sin, evil, and death, frees work from all those things that distort and menace it, and re-establishes God as the source and goal of our restored calling. I don’t need to use work to give me an identity, and neither do I need to use work to secure that identity against the ravages of sin, time, and death. Jesus has completed his work. God has raised his faithful worker from death. This is why Paul writes, “Brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourself fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Cor. 15:58). Insofar as our work is good—that is, insofar as it is rooted in God’s good purpose and offered to his glory—it is hopeful and purposeful here and now. As Porters Gate Worship Project put it, “Teach us to run, to finish the race, for only what’s done in love will remain” (“Establish the Work of Our Hands”). What’s done in love will remain.
Our good work is not only from God, but through and with God too. Just as Jesus did the works of his Father, joined with his Father, and found it was the Father in him at work, so this is true of us also. Our work too, can share in the relationship Jesus had with the Father, and can be empowered by the Holy Spirit. Through baptism and the gift of the Spirit, we have life in Christ, and this includes work: again, we’ve been created in Christ Jesus to do good works of God’s purpose. Like Jesus, we find the Spirit is present in our lives to enable, sustain, direct, and correct our working. This why Paul describes us as synergoi, as “fellow-workers” of God (1 Cor. 3:9). This is no mere metaphor—Paul is naming the experience of the early Church. Like Jesus, they found God’s Spirit at work in them, sustaining, directing, and enabling their endeavours. And we too are called to learn what this means where we are, with our particular roles and responsibilities: to be harnessed in tandem with Jesus, and to learn from a good master (Mt 11: 28-30).
So what does it look like to learn such collaboration with God at work—in vision setting and planning, in delivery and execution, in relationships of collaboration and contract? How might I learn to work attentive to God’s priorities and the prompting of God’s Spirit, so that like Jesus I do nothing by myself, but am about God’s work? How do I need to learn to pray and abide in Scripture so that I might work more faithfully? All these questions have answers that the Church has faithfully learned and passed down. Each of us likewise need to take up the invitation to learn what it means to be God’s fellow-worker.
Our work is to be from God and through God. And it is for God: for his purposes, and for his glory. “Let your light shine before all men, that they may see your good works, and praise your Father in heaven,” says Jesus (Mt. 5:16). What is happening here? However much we might like the idea of shining away brightly, we can’t conclude Jesus is talking about job-satisfaction for the workers. Rather, he’s naming what results when women and men faithfully reflect God’s purposes, taking up the call to work and keep the garden: the world is lit up with God’s light as people see God’s work unfolding. Good work brings a blessing to all who see it, and leads others to praise of God Most High. Our work is not for us, but is for the life of the world, and the glory of God.