Gordon Green, M.Div., M.A. Counseling
In 1884, Congress declared the first Monday in September as an official Federal Holiday “to honor the American labor movement and the contributions that workers have made to the strength, prosperity, laws, and well-being of the country” (Wikipedia). Unfortunately, like most of our national holidays, Labor Day has gone the way of a retail focus—back-to-school shopping! Hence, many of those with jobs in retail services ironically have to work on Labor Day. Nevertheless, history cannot be ignored: industrious and rigorous work is a hallmark of our nation’s prosperity. The familiar phrase protestant work ethic typifies this cultural value, but is it Scriptural?
In the ESV translation of the Bible, the words “work” and “labor” appear 747 times of which about half address the act of working. However, the concept of “good work(s)” appears only twenty-four times. Outside of the Creation Story, the one occurrence in the Old Testament is found in Nehemiah 2:18
And I told them of the hand of my God that had been upon me for good, and also of the words that the king had spoken to me. And they said, “Let us rise up and build.” So they strengthened their hands for the good work.
The remnant of Israel that returned to Jerusalem with Nehemiah to rebuild the city wall pledged to do good work—not to parlay God’s favor but to labor where they believed that God desired them to work. Similarly, this was Jesus’ mission. He always sought to do the “good works from the Father” (John 10:32). And the expectation was that his disciples would do the same:
In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. — Matthew 5:16 ESV
This command spoken during the Sermon on the Mount adds another element to the purpose of good works: that they would witness to others a good and glorious Father who is in heaven. If our work glorifies anyone or anything other than God, or if we labor for our own self-directed purposes, we labor in vain (Psalm 127:1). While much more could be said about a theology of works, perhaps the most important point is that they are always underpinned by grace and are never a means to salvation. In fact, they are the outcome of our salvation and are generated by God:
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. — Ephesians 2:8-10 ESV
As we celebrate Labor Day this September 3rd, let’s honor the workers who have gone before us to prosper our nation, but let us also celebrate a Good God who has done a good work in us through his Son, Jesus Christ, and has now given us good works to do for his glory. Amen!