All posts by Matt Smethurst

Matt Smethurst serves as associate editor for The Gospel Coalition and lives in Louisville, Kentucky. You can follow him on Twitter.

Identity Myopia and the Maker’s Image

When you only understand yourself with respect to the details of your life and not to the bigger picture, you’re experiencing identity myopia. The epidemic is ubiquitous; it affects us all.

So explains Hannah Anderson to Mark Mellinger in a conversation about themes from her new book Made for More: An Invitation to Live in God’s Image (Moody, 2014). “When we take the various spheres of our lives (e.g., wife, mother, writer) and then define ourselves by them,” she observes, “it creates a myopia that prevents us from seeing the full picture.” But far from being ends in themselves, the purpose of such spheres is to enable us to image our King. Identity in Christ, then, isn’t merely about being right with God; it’s about being restored to sort of image bearers he created us to be (2 Cor. 3:18; Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10).

Watch the full eight-minute video to hear the writer and pastor’s wife from Roanoke, Virginia, discuss singleness, motherhood, physical appearance, and more.

Hannah Anderson from The Gospel Coalition on Vimeo.

Are You a Heretic?

“To know nothing of what happened before you were born,” Cicero observed more than 2,000 years ago, “is to forever remain a child.” The Roman philosopher’s words are no less true today. If you’re a Christian, the history of the church is the history of your family. Studying it doesn’t have to be dull and boring. Properly done, it will instruct, exhilarate, give perspective, illuminate, inspire, humble, convict, and fire worship.

The first installments in Zondervan’s new KNOW series, Justin Holcomb’s Know the Creeds and Councils and Know the Heretics are accessible travel guides to the some of the significant events, doctrines, and heresies throughout Christian history. Each chapter covers a statement of faith (or heresy) and includes a glimpse of the historical context, an overview of key points, discussion questions, and suggested further reading.

In every generation, the Christian church must restate its bedrock beliefs, answering the challenges and concerns of the day. In these books Holcomb leads us through centuries of creeds, councils, catechisms, and confessions—as well as the errors that occasioned them—and reveals their profound relevance for today.

I spoke with Holcomb, Episcopal priest and professor at Reformed Theological Seminary and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, about the need for creeds and confessions, today’s most “live” heresies, threats on the horizon, and more.


Are the creeds and confessions we already have sufficient, or do we need more?

I think we’re just fine with the creeds we currently have, but more confessions would be a good thing. I say this because of what creeds and confessions are, how they differ, and how they are used. While there are differences between creeds and confessions in how they’ve been used, a genuine distinction between creeds and confessions is artificial.


In contrast to creeds, which are basic statements of belief, confessions represent more detailed inquiry into the things of God. The creeds are the boundaries of the faith that separate orthodoxy from heresy, while the confessions color in the picture, tying theology to everyday life in all sorts of ways. Because creeds are bare-bones structures (the outlines of the sketch), it makes sense that the earliest statements of the church are creeds, while later statements of particular denominations are confessions. Creeds distinguish orthodoxy from heresy (or Christian faith from non-Christian faith). Confessions distinguish denominational distinctives (or one type of Christian faith from another type of Christian faith).

Christian confessions often define a particular group’s belief on secondary issues such as infant baptism, the end times, predestination, the Lord’s Supper, and the order of salvation. While the creeds aimed to preserve “the faith delivered for all time,” confessions tried to apply the faith to the here and now.

Did the early church accept the councils as authoritative like we do? If not, how should that affect the way we view the creeds?

There are seven ecumenical councils that every branch of the church recognizes today, whether Orthodox, Catholic, or Protestant.

The first recorded instance of a church council is found in the New Testament. The Jerusalem Council is the name given to the meeting of church leaders of Antioch (with Paul and Barnabas) and of Jerusalem in which the large growth of Gentile converts in the early church was discussed (Acts 15:2-29).

Like the Jerusalem Council, church councils were called to address not only disagreement over a theological issue but also the practical ramifications of that issue. For instance, in the Council of Nicaea the question being asked was, “How can we worship one God (the Father) and also worship Jesus Christ?” Though this was a practical question about worship, it couldn’t be disconnected from the more abstract theological issue of how Jesus Christ is related to his Father. The council affirmed that both Jesus and the Father are members of a single being, God.

So are the councils’ decisions authoritative? It’s instructive to notice that when Paul is asked whether Christians should eat food offered to idols (1 Cor. 8:1-13), he appeals not to the decision of the Jerusalem Council but instead to the revelation he’d received from Jesus Christ. This shows that Paul saw the Jerusalem Council as authoritative in some sense but not ultimately so. His appeal was to God’s revelation as the arbiter of truth, not to a human decision at a council.

I believe that the creeds produced by the ecumenical councils are authoritative, but just not the final or only authority.

Is the “Great Tradition,” as the collection of early creeds are often called, sufficient for Christian unity?

It is necessary but not sufficient. My understanding of “Christian unity” includes doctrine but also other things that bind us together, such as practice, prayer, and love. Basically, I don’t think it’s enough to define “Christian unity” as saying the Nicene Creed without crossing your fingers.

A unity held together only by orthodoxy (right doctrine) is weak and dangerous. Without orthopraxy (right practice) and orthopathos (right affection), orthodoxy encourages Christians to view faith as a head-trip.

A unity with multiple dimensions is seen in passages like John 13:35, Romans 10:3, Proverbs 19:2, and Ephesians 4:1-6.

Which heresy is most “live” today, even if in slightly repackaged form? How about one on the horizon?

Repackaged teachings from Pelagius and Socinus are the most “live” today. My summary of Pelagius’s heresy is “God has already given us the tools we need.” Pelagius developed an ascetic form of Christianity with an overly optimistic theology of human nature. My summary of Socinus’s heresy is “the Trinity is irrelevant, and Jesus’ death is only an example.”

Pelagius correctly saw human nature as something good created by God. But he ignores humanity’s fall (original sin), causing his theology to fall into error. First, Pelagius argued there’s no such thing as original sin. In no way were we implicated in Adam’s first sin. His sin doesn’t make us guilty or corrupt. Instead, as Pelagius claims, “over the years [our own sin] gradually corrupts us, building an addiction and then holding us bound with what seems like the force of nature itself.” Humans by nature have a clean slate—a state of neutrality—according to Pelagius, and it’s only through voluntary sin through the exercise of an unhampered human free will that we are made wicked. Potentially, then, one could live a sinless life and merit heaven, for there’s nothing intrinsically sinful about humans even after Adam and Eve’s sin. Pelagius didn’t consider us to be intrinsically damnable after the fall.

In short, Pelagius rejected the doctrines of original sin, substitutionary atonement (the idea that Christ’s death in our place is a supernatural intervention to save us), and justification by faith (the idea that believing and trusting in Christ is the way to salvation).

Socinus held a unitarian view of God: only God the Father is truly and fully divine. Jesus, “the Son of God,” received a unique divinely appointed office as the Logos, an office that deserves respect and even worship. However, for Jesus, that respect and worship were limited to his office and didn’t extend to his person, which Socinus argued wasn’t divine. Socinus contended that the ecumenically accepted doctrine of the Trinity couldn’t be defended.

Given his understanding of the radical unity of God and, consequently, Jesus’ merely human existence, Socinus’s view of the atonement logically differed from commonly accepted views. He argued that since Jesus wasn’t divine, his death couldn’t have been intended to make satisfaction (as Anselm argued) or to pay a penalty on behalf of other humans (as the Calvinists argued). Instead, Socinus understood Christ’s death to serve as a way for God to model true love and devotion and to demonstrate the way of salvation. Jesus, then, provided the unique and divinely anointed model for humans to imitate.


On My Shelf: Life and Books with Russell Moore

On My Shelf helps you get to know various writers through a behind-the-scences glimpse into their lives as readers.

I talked with Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, about what’s on his nightstand, books he re-reads, his favorite fiction, and more.


What’s on your nightstand right now? 


On my nightstand right now are the following books: Walter Kirn, Blood Will Out: The True Story of a Murder, a Mystery, and a Masquerade; Arthur W. Hunt III, Surviving Technopolis: Essays on Finding Balance in Our New Man-Made Environments; Andrew Smith, Grasshopper Jungle; Carlene Bauer, Frances and Bernard; John Updike, Buchanan Dying: A Play; Paul Taylor, The Next America: Boomers, Millennials, and the Looming Generational Showdown; and William G. McLoughlin, ed., Isaac Backus on Church, State, and Calvinism, Pamphlets, 1754-1789.

What are some books you regularly re-read and why?

I find that I regularly re-read almost the entire C. S. Lewis corpus, and I’m often surprised by how much of his thought I’ve absorbed while forgetting he was the one who taught me. I regularly re-read Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, and his essays, especially those in Signposts in a Strange Land. I also return often to Irenaeus’s On the Apostolic Preaching and Augustine’s Confessions and The City of God. I re-read J. Gresham Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism rather often, and always find it prophetic and timely.

What biographies or autobiographies have most influenced you and why?

John Leland’s biography is very influential on my view of the relationship between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this age. Other influential biographies or autobiographies for me include Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain, Brad Gooch’s biography of Flannery O’Connor, Willie Morris’s North Toward Home and New York Days, and Peter Brown’s Augustine of Hippo. I like biographies and memoirs of musicians, too: Terry Teachout’s Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong, David Cantwell’s biography/cultural analysis of Merle Haggard, and Michael Streissguth’s Outlaw: Waylon, Willie, Kris, and the Renegades of Nashville are some I’ve enjoyed in recent days. For whatever reason, I’m drawn to the biographies or autobiographies of losing presidential candidates, whether I like those candidates or not, ranging from William Jennings Bryan to Henry Wallace to Barry Goldwater to Hubert Humphrey to George Wallace to Walter Mondale. This isn’t technically a biography or autobiography, but I return often to the correspondence between Walker Percy and Shelby Foote.

What are your favorite fiction books?

My favorite fiction books include Wendell Berry’s Hannah Coulter and Jayber Crow, Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces (which is the funniest book I’ve ever read, and I re-read it often if for no other reason than to hear the voices and accents of my home region—accents that are fast erasing, even most lamentably long ago from my own voice, in a culture-flattening America), Eudora Welty’s short stories, and Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair. I also like John Updike, Anton Chekov, and Tennessee Williams.


Also in the On My Shelf series: Jared WilsonKathy KellerTullian TchividjianJ. D. GreearKevin DeYoungKathleen NielsonThabiti AnyabwileCollin HansenFred SandersRosaria ButterfieldNancy Guthrie, and Matt Chandler.


I Love My Black Letter Bible

With the way some Christians talk, you might be forgiven for wondering why the canon includes more than four books. Sure, the Old Testament is useful in tracing the development of human reflection on the divine, and the New Testament in conveying the thoughts of some of Jesus’ earliest followers. But if you really want to know what God thinks about something, you hear today, you’ll need consult the recorded thoughts of Jesus. And if you want to do that, you’ll need to stick to the “red letters.” In other words, flip to Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John (or that less traversed terrain, Revelation 2-3) and stay put.

To be sure, I understand the impulse. It makes some sense in light of the differences between the sinless Son of God (on display in the Gospels) and the bona fide sinners who penned most of the rest of New Testament (unbelieving James and Jude, denying Peter, blaspheming Paul, and so on). Dubious résumés, to say the least.

Nevertheless, Christians have always recognized the God-breathed character of their words. The miracle of inspiration means the whole Bible is the voice of God. While central and foundational, the fourfold Gospel witness is no more true or reliable or relevant or binding than the black letters that precede and follow. Indeed, when we treat the red letters more seriously than the black ones, we muzzle the Son who speaks in all of them.

The Pages in Black Fulfill the Promise in Red

It’s foolish to downplay the Bible’s black-lettered pages if for no other reason than they’re fulfilling a red-lettered promise. Consider Jesus’ words to his apostles:


I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you. (John 16:12-15, emphasis added)

Now ponder the words of Paul:

For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. (Gal. 1:11-12, emphasis added)

Did you catch the parallel? Christ’s promise finds fulfillment in Paul’s teaching. The ministry of the Savior marches on in the ministry of the apostle. Jesus said that he had more to say. He promised further revelation of truth to his apostles through his Spirit. Paul is just Exhibit A.

As John Murray put it:

Prior to his ascension, Christ’s teaching was directly by word of mouth. But afterward he taught by a different mode . . . by the ministry of appointed witnesses and inspired writers. The New Testament, all of which was written after Jesus’ ascension, is not one whit less the teaching of our Lord than that delivered verbally during the days of his flesh. How utterly false it is to set up a contrast between the authority of Jesus’ spoken words and the authority of the New Testament as Scripture. The latter is the teaching of Christ given in his own appointed way after his ascension. . . . The guiding of the Holy Spirit into all truth does not suspend Jesus’ own speaking. (Collected Writings, Vol. 1, 40)

The apostle Peter goes so far as to say the prophetic word of Scripture is a revelation “more sure” than even Christ himself in transfigured glory (2 Pet. 1:19). That’s a stunning claim! He then exhorts us to recall the ”commandment of our Lord and Savior through [the] apostles” (2 Pet. 3:2; cf. Acts 2:42). No wonder Paul enjoins his protégé to heed the ”sound words you have heard from me” (2 Tim. 1:13) with no less urgency than the ”sound words of our Lord Jesus” (1 Tim. 6:3). Or elsewhere claim his instructions are “the Lord’s command” (1 Cor. 14:37; cf. 1 Thess. 2:13; 4:15) imbued with heaven’s authority (2 Thess. 3:14).

When I write, the result is a tweet or a blog post. When Paul wrote, the result was holy Scripture (2 Pet. 3:16).

Is the church’s authorized foundation, then, Jesus (1 Cor. 3:11) or the Bible (Eph. 2:20)? Yes.

The Word of God: Jesus or Scripture?

Another related mistake is the popular tendency to imply that since Jesus is the Word of God, Scripture must be something else. But once again this is a false dilemma. The Bible tells us that Jesus is God’s Word (e.g., John 1:1-2; Heb. 1:1-2; Rev. 19:13) and that it is God’s Word (e.g., John 10:35; Acts 17:11; Heb. 4:12; 13:7). The urge to wrest an “either/or” out of a “both/and” smells more of Enlightenment rationalism than biblical Christianity. What God has joined together, let no man separate.

As Kevin DeYoung observes:

God’s gracious self-disclosure comes to us through the Word made flesh and by the inscripurated Word of God. These two modes of revelation reveal to us one God, one truth, one way, and one coherent set of promises, threats, and commands to live by. We must not seek to know the Word who is divine apart from the divine words of the Bible, and we ought not read the words of the Bible without an eye to the Word incarnate. When it comes to seeing God and his truth in Christ and in holy Scripture, one is not more reliable, more trustworthy, or more relevant than the other. Scripture, because it is the breathed-out Word of God, possesses the same authority as the God-man Jesus Christ.

Diminishing the integrity of the Word inscripturate in the name of upholding the integrity of the Word incarnate is, ironically enough, the quickest way to domesticate and diminish him.

Jesus Blinders

I recently heard a remark that only in Jesus do we see God “as he is.” While this statement may sound profound and even have a ring of truth—Christ is the “image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15; cf. Heb. 1:3) and the point of the biblical story (Luke 24:27, 44)—it is finally misleading since it does not reveal the whole picture. The Lord’s self-disclosure was not exhausted by the Son’s earthly life. Jesus’ appearing neither nullified the revelation that came before (Matt. 5:17-18) nor rendered redundant the revelation that followed after (John 16:12-15).

On the surface, “Jesus shows us what God is really like” language appears pious and even Jesus-exalting. In reality, it betrays a tragically truncated view of the Jesus of the Bible. We see God “as he is” by gazing with the eyes of faith on the pages of his Word—all of them.

One day, our faith will vanish into sight, and we will at last behold the king in his beauty. Until then, however, we live and move and have our being in the age of the ear. “For now,” Augustine taught 1,500 years ago, “treat the Scripture of God as the face of God. Melt in its presence.”

If you love Jesus, you’ll love his voice wherever it appears—even in the black letters.


On My Shelf: Life and Books with Matt Chandler

On My Shelf helps you get to know various writers through a behind-the-scences glimpse into their lives as readers.

I talked with Matt Chandler, president of Acts 29 and lead pastor of The Village Church in Dallas, about what’s on his nightstand, books he re-reads, favorite biographies, and more.


What’s on your nightstand right now?

I’m reading A Season on the Brink by John Feinstein and How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind by Thomas Oden.

What are some books you regularly re-read and why?

The first two books put the immensity of God in front of me. They are like a warm blanket to my soul. Lewis’s Chronicles have always had a deep effect on my emotions. They profoundly stir my affections for God.

What books have most profoundly shaped how you serve and lead others for the sake of the gospel?

The Christian Ministry by Charles Bridges and Biblical Eldership by Alexander Strauch have helped shape how I lead and serve others.

What biographies or autobiographies have most influenced you and why?

Bonhoeffer and Amazing Grace by Eric Metaxas as well as The Last Lion series on Winston Churchill are my favorite biographies. In each of the them there are extreme peaks and valleys wrapped into fights that were worth having and wouldn’t be cheap to win. I need to be reminded of that truth often.

What are your favorite fiction books?

I don’t read a lot of fiction (besides The Chronicles of Narnia). This past year I have devoured Cliff Graham’s Lion of War series on David’s mighty men.


Take God at His Word: Kevin DeYoung on the Character of Scripture

Your Bible is evidence that the Maker of the universe is a God who initiates, who reveals, who talks. There are, after all, only two options when it comes to knowledge of one’s Creator: revelation or speculation. Either he speaks, or we guess.

And he has spoken. The Lord of heaven and earth has “forfeited his own personal privacy” to disclose himself to us—to befriend us—through a book. Scripture is like an all-access pass into the revealed mind and will of God.

By virtually any account the Bible is the most influential book of all time. No shortage of ink has been spilled on writings about it. But what does Scripture say about itself? In his new book, Taking God at His Word: Why the Bible Is Knowable, Necessary, and Enough, and What That Means for You and Me (Crossway) [20 quotes], Kevin DeYoung cuts through the fog of contemporary confusion to offer a readable and constructive defense of the clarity, authority, sufficiency, and beauty of God’s written Word.

I spoke with DeYoung, pastor of University Reformed Church in East Lansing, Michigan, about bibliolatry, threats on the horizon, and more.


You claim that “what we believe and feel about the Word of God should mirror what we believe and feel about Jesus.” Aren’t you guilty of bibliolatry here? 


Bibliolatry is one of those words that gets thrown around as an insult without anyone carefully explaining what they mean. Sometimes people will say, “Well, we worship the ‘Word Christ’ not the ‘word the Bible.'” Which is true in a sense. We don’t prostrate ourselves before the artifact of ink on a page or the glow of a handheld device. So of course we don’t worship paper and pixels. But we must not separate the revelation of God in the Scriptures from the revelation of God in Jesus. We would not know everything there is to know about the latter without the former, and even Jesus directs our attention to the Scriptures. If the Bible is God’s speech, his voice, the opening of his most hallowed lips, then whatever we feel about the Word of God should mirror what we feel about God in the flesh.

What Scripture-related error is most “live” among evangelicals today? For what issue on the horizon will we need to be most equipped?

I see several. Let me briefly mention two. At the level of praxis, many evangelicals do not believe in Scripture’s perspicuity. Once they see that some Christians view an issue differently, they pack it in and give up ever knowing what the Bible says. We’ve seen this recently on the issue of homosexuality with certain voices calling for a moratorium on debating the issue because there are obviously two good positions out there and who are we to try to settle things. But, of course, PhDs disagree on almost everything in almost every field of human investigation. Evangelicals can be too quick to say “that’s just your interpretation” instead of actually making an argument from the Bible for their position.

Second, evangelicals are constantly being faced with the temptation to make special revelation subservient to general revelation. Rightly understood, the two do not contradict each other. As the truism goes, all truth is God’s truth. But the Protestant confessions have always understood that special revelation is clearer than general revelation. Peer-reviewed science journals do not trump what God says in the Bible. Now, if we’ve misread the Bible, let’s see our mistake and own up to it. But until we are convinced from Scripture, we should not trade the unchanging truth of Scripture for the changing winds of contemporary academia.

What’s wrong with disliking some of what the Bible teaches so long as we obey it?

It’s better to obey the Bible when you don’t like it than to disobey and not like it. The goal of mature Christian discipleship, however, is more than a begrudging acceptance of God’s will and God’s ways. We should learn to delight in what God says in his Word, because it is the reflection of his character. To dislike what the Bible teaches is to call into question in our hearts who God is and what he’s like.

What do you mean when you claim God’s speech is ongoing but his revelation is not?

God continues to speak. We don’t have to pray for the Word of God to come alive. It is already living and active. But God is not revealing new information about the Son of God or how we are saved. I don’t have space here to unpack the argument, but the book of Hebrews makes the case that redemption and revelation both have their finality in Christ. The two aspects of Christ’s work cannot be separated. There is no sacrifice for sin left to be made and no new revelatory work needed for faithfulness as a Christian.

Why do you believe Scripture’s sufficiency (as opposed to its authority or clarity or necessity) might be the attribute “most quickly doubted by rank-and-file churchgoing Christians”?

It’s wonderful that evangelicals want an intimate relationship with God, but this good impulse often leads us to make wild claims that can’t be substantiated by Scripture and, in fact, undermine the finished work of Christ. I’m thinking of people who make their sense of “calling” more important than the Word of God or the wisdom of the church. I’m thinking of denominational groups I’ve been a part of that claim to get their 10-year vision from God himself (which, of course, makes opposition to that vision tantamount to blasphemy). I’m talking about runaway bestsellers—from devout, good Christians I imagine—that anchor biblical truths in life-after-death experiences or suggest that Jesus is writing special letters every day just for us. Is the Bible alone sufficient for salvation, for life, and for godliness as a Christian? Evangelicals say “yes,” but then often live out “no.”


When the Gospel Transforms Your 9 to 5

Does Monday morning excite you? If so, good for you! But that’s not where many of us live.

Our jobs challenge and threaten to consume us. So what does devotion to Jesus Christ look like in competitive—and often cutthroat and insecure—workplace environments? How about in painfully mundane ones?

In their new book, The Gospel at Work: How Working for King Jesus Gives Purpose and Meaning to Our Lives (Zondervan) [free study guidewebsite | Twitter], Greg Gilbert and Sebastian Traeger bring their pastoral and workplace experience to bear on a constellation of issues concerning the intersection of faith and work.

I spoke with Gilbert (pastor of Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville) and Traeger (entrepreneur in Washington, D.C.) about idolatry and idleness, working for the weekend, how pastors can encourage people in their jobs, and more.


If this book is “not a theology of work,” what are you aiming to accomplish in The Gospel at Work?

When we say the book isn’t a theology of work, we certainly don’t mean that it avoids theology! We aren’t trying to say everything that could be said about work, and we’re certainly not trying to give an opinion on every question people ask about work and its place in God’s plan. But the whole book is built on theology. After all, theology explains why our work can be so frustrating, theology tells us why we can become so consumed by it, and theology explains why there can be so much conflict in it. And, ultimately, theology helps us understand how we really ought to think about our work, be encouraged in it, and do it well.


We want to encourage Christians in the workplace, whatever that means in their particular situation, to view what they do in light of the gospel of Jesus Christ and therefore do it with freedom and energy and joy. We want them to realize that whatever the particulars of their job right now, ultimately they are working for the King—and that perspective changes everything.

Many of us incline toward vocational idolatry—operating as if our jobs hold the key to ultimate satisfaction. What are some signs we might be succumbing to idolatry of work?

Making an idol of our work is extremely easy to do. Our jobs become the primary source of satisfaction, purpose, and meaning in our lives. Idolatry shows up not just in working too many hours, but in a heart that’s finding its sense of wellbeing in what we do. If work is going well and our professional stock is rising, we think life is good. We feel secure. But then when it’s not going well, our sense of wellbeing fades or even collapses.

If you look carefully at your own heart, you can see this kind of idolatry showing up in lots of different ways in how you think about work. Maybe it’s thinking of work primarily as a way to make a name for yourself or as a way to provide unfailing security. That’s not to say it’s categorically wrong to want to succeed or to make money to have influence; it’s just to say that if any one of those things becomes the controlling definition of your work and why you do it, you ought to check your heart and make sure you haven’t allowed work to become an idol.

But here’s the thing: When you realize that you actually and ultimately work for King Jesus—at his command, according to his plan, and for his glory—that realization cuts the root of idolatry. Because of Jesus’ work for us, we already have all we need. Identity, love, belonging, acceptance, forgiveness, meaning, and reward—it’s all ours already because of Jesus! And that means we no longer have to pursue those things in something that could never provide them in the first place—our jobs. Instead, we realize our jobs are an arena in which God will work in us and through us to make us more like Jesus and to glorify himself.

Others of us incline toward vocational idleness—operating as if God doesn’t care about our jobs. What are some signs we might be succumbing to idleness in work?

Idleness in work is the other major problem Christians tend to have when it comes to their work. At its most extreme, “idleness” means not doing the job. It’s wasting time, slacking off, and generally being unproductive. That’s a problem. But just because you’re “getting it done” doesn’t mean you’re avoiding idleness. That’s because the deepest problem is not so much idleness of the hands as it is idleness of the heart. In other words, many go through the motions—and even do the mechanics of their work with efficiency and productivity—but they’ve lost sight of God’s purposes for them in it. When Paul says we’re to do our work “with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord . . . as working for the Lord” (Col. 3:22-23), he means our work itself ought to be an act of worship to our King.

So how do you know if your heart is tending toward idleness? Some have come to see their jobs as merely a means to an end. “I work so I can play,” or ”I work so I can provide,” or even “I work so I can give to my church.” What’s wrong with that way of thinking? It ignores the fact that God has purposes for us in our work itself. Our jobs are more than just means to an end. They are one of the key ways God matures us as Christians and brings glory to himself.

What’s wrong with working for the weekend?

It depends on what you mean. If you mean that one of your primary motivations is to work to provide for your family, to support your church, to give to those in need, and to limit your time at work so you can spend time with family, then there’s nothing wrong with it. God gives us the freedom to have multiple motivations for our jobs. And it’s fine if the day-to-day mechanics of your job aren’t the most satisfying—you can still glorify God by working as unto him by doing work that is good, serves your boss and customers, and provides for the needs of others.

However, if by “working for the weekend” you mean I slog through the week or don’t really care about my job, that it’s simply a means to doing “the really important things,” then we’d like to challenge you to consider the purposes God has for you in your 9-to-5. One of the key themes of The Gospel at Work is that “who you work for is more important than what you do.” God isn’t compartmentalizing your life into the drudgery of 9-to-5 on the one hand and the “important stuff” of the weekends on the other.

Martyn Lloyd-Jones once remarked, “To me the work of preaching is the highest and the greatest and the most gracious calling to which anyone can ever be called.” Was Lloyd-Jones mistaken to elevate one calling above the others?

Preaching is an awesome and wonderful calling. We pray and hope many will preach full-time, and for that matter become missionaries and seminary professors. I’ve heard others express this same thought, and I don’t think they’re making theological statements so much as personal ones. For example, for Lloyd-Jones I think preaching was the highest and greatest and most gracious calling he could possibly pursue. Anything else would’ve been “lower” for him. But is this true for everyone? No, it can’t be.

The idea espoused in this quote is one I’ve wrestled with over the years, so we wrote a chapter in The Gospel at Work specifically addressing the question: “Is full-time ministry more valuable than my job?” How do we come down on that question? By recognizing the King deploys (calls) different people to different roles.

We shouldn’t all be pastors, and we shouldn’t all be police officers, either. So how does it all get determined? The King deploys us as he wills. He puts us where we’ll serve his purposes best. Some he deploys as pastors and missionaries; others he deploys as teachers and businesspeople.

Ultimately, it’s up to him. It comes down to personally trusting the King with your life and working with others and through opportunities to discern where he’s assigning you to labor faithfully for him.

How can pastors better empathize with and encourage their people in regard to their work?

I’ve had many conversations with people in the workplace who feel discouraged. Of course, not all discouragement can be solved by a pastor. The point of The Gospel at Work is to help people start with their own hearts, goals, and expectations.

But just because a pastor can’t do everything doesn’t mean he can’t do some things. I wrote a longer article on how pastors can encourage their congregations, but I’ll just mention three ideas here:

  • Encourage those in the workplace by caring about their daily lives. Do this by praying for them publicly, hearing them share how they’re applying the gospel to some of the challenges they’re facing, and by intentionally encouraging them—especially on Mondays!
  • Give those in the workplace a vision for “vine work” in their families, in their workplaces, and in the church. This vision primarily means applying the gospel and the whole counsel of God to their whole lives. Work hard at application and show how the gospel seeps into every area of their lives.
  • Take advantage of the “trellis-building powers” of those in the workplace. Most people I know in the workplace would love to use their skills, creativity, expertise, and experience to serve the church. Yet most are frustrated that they’re rarely asked. One way to encourage folks, then, is to invite them to help you and the church.