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When one thinks of the enduring legacy of the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation, there are a number of things that come to mind — things like justification by faith alone, in Christ alone, according to God’s Word alone, and for His glory alone. But there is another Reformation landmark that is often overlooked. It has been preserved in the catchphrase “the Protestant work ethic.” This expression has come to be associated with others like “an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work.” But the reason this is called the Protestant work ethic is because one of the things articulated or re-established by the Reformers is the idea that all lawful work (not just religious or church-related work) is sanctified by God. In short, the Reformers recaptured the biblical concept of the dignity of human labor.
To grasp the significance of human labor in Scripture, all one has to do is consider the many passages that denounce idleness and slothfulness in the most severe terms: “The hand of the diligent will rule, while the slothful will be put to forced labor” (Prov. 12:24). “The sluggard does not plow in the autumn; he will seek at harvest and have nothing” (20:4). “The desire of the sluggard kills him, for his hands refuse to labor” (21:25). “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living” (2 Thess. 3:10–12). As these passages indicate, it is a sin of no small consequence for an able-bodied person not to work. The apostle Paul makes this point in the clearest of terms in 1 Timothy 5:8: “But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”
The Protestant work ethic not only emphasizes the virtue of honest labor but diligence in that labor. Proverbs 18:9 captures this: “Whoever is slack in his work is a brother to him who destroys.” Throughout Proverbs it is not just the man who works that is commended, but he who works diligently. In other words, we are to put forth our best effort in our labors.
But it is because of our fallen state that some are lazy and refuse to work, while others are slothful and careless in their work. Sin causes some to view work selfishly — solely from a financial perspective. In other words, they have little regard for the service they may be able to render to God or the glory due to Him. They view work only as a way to get money and thus stuff for themselves.
Sin causes some to become so immersed in their work that they neglect their families and even their own spiritual welfare. The go-getter, workaholic mindset characteristic of so many in our day masquerades as the diligence called for in Scripture. But this is self-deception. Our diligent labor is not intended to compete with God and family.
Sin causes some to have exalted views of themselves (and a corresponding low view of others) because of the type of work they do. Our culture is full of glamorous jobs that deceive us into thinking we are inherently better than others because of our positions. This leads to condescending judgments about the work, character, and dignity of those who do not have “glamorous” jobs.
Christians must guard against such distorted notions of work and repent when such thoughts are revealed to us. For this reason, any discussion of work from a Christian perspective should include the Sabbath. Genesis 2:3 says, “So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation.” As we reflect and glorify our Creator in our labor, we must reflect and glorify Him in Sabbath observance as well. It is there that our labor is put into the proper perspective. The writer of Hebrews declares that Christ is our ultimate rest and Sabbath (3:7–4:10). When we pause from our labors to contemplate Him and His work on our behalf, our gratitude is rekindled and our perspectives on life and work are kept in a Christ-centered focus.
So, then, what are some implications of the Protestant work ethic? Laziness, idleness, and slothfulness are manifestations of human rebellion against our Creator and a dishonor to His glory.
If we allow our thoughts about work to be shaped by the world, we will be susceptible to making our vocation into an idol. It is not enough to work but to work diligently, so that we do not give room for slothfulness, nor do we simply become men-pleasers.
We should take to heart the strong language of Scripture about sloth and laziness. In our labor and in all areas of our lives we are to live to the glory of God.