Book Review: Work Matters

Major Thesis and Arguments

Tom Nelson’s book Work Matters is written at the popular level for a wide Christian audience.  At its heart, Work Matters addresses the need to have a sharper, more focused view of a Christian theology of work.  A fair thesis of the book is found very early on: “Our work, whatever it is, whether we are paid for it, is our specific contribution to God’s ongoing creation and to the common good.”[1]

Nelson moves through the familiar but helpful metanarrative of Creation-Fall-Redemption-Consummation as he develops his understanding of work.  Beginning with the creation narrative in Genesis 1 and 2, Nelson makes the point that “God’s original design and desire is that our work and our worship would be a seamless way of living.”[2]  Rather than maintaining a false dichotomy between work and worship as so many professing Christians seem to do, Nelson argues that work and worship are intimately related and cannot, therefore, be separated to two distinct spheres of life.  On the contrary, work is designed to be an integral part of “God-honoring worship.”[3]

Yet work does not always function how it was designed to function.  Predictably, Nelson argues that the Fall thoroughly distorts our work and now “sin wreaks a devastating effect on human work.”[4]  Commenting on the extent of these effects, Nelson notes, “In this cursed world, there is alienation from God, alienation from other human beings, and yes, alienation from the good work we were created for.”[5]  Understandably, work has become more difficult on this side of the garden.  In our context, we now have tendencies to view work as an idol, to be slothful about our work, or to be generally dissatisfied and discontent with our work.  Deep in our bones, Nelson asserts, we know something is not right about work in this fallen world.

In response to this most foundational problem, Nelson argues that “as new creations in Christ, transformed from the inside out, we are able to again do the work we were created for.”[6] This point is crucial for Nelson and must not be overlooked: Because of the Fall, work has become both increasingly toilsome and meaningless without a view to the person and work of Christ.  The centrality of Christ in our daily lives of work cannot be undervalued.  Nelson argues that the only meaningful work is done in relationship with the Triune God.[7]

The rest of the book underscores and expands upon this last claim.  Because of Christ, work is now meaningful both in an eschatological sense and in a sanctifying sense.  Now, even the smallest details in our work have profound meaning, not in themselves, but because God has ordained that this is, in fact, the case.  The horizontal nature of work means that Christians are to work for the common good of society around them as well.  Much like Andy Crouch’s notion that “Culture is not optional,”[8] Nelson argues that a biblical understanding of work permeates a Christian’s entire life.

Critique and Assessment

The thesis itself is admittedly broad, yet it captures the essence of an appropriate Christian understanding of work.  In order to encompass the tremendous breadth of what could rightly be called “work,” Nelson’s thesis must remain rather broad.  Note also, he rightly asserts that work cannot and should not be divorced from worship, primarily because God has designed us to work as an act of worship.

Nelson’s use of the Creation-Fall-Redemption-Consummation paradigm might be unsurprising, but it is nevertheless extremely helpful for rightly understanding a Christian view of work.  Much like most other doctrines in the faith, work is best viewed through these lenses.  Work was designed to be and is an inherently good thing, yet the Fall has so distorted our understanding of work and the content and method of work itself that vast confusion surrounds the nature and character of work.  Now, work can be done in immoral ways, or the content of work can be itself immoral (e.g., prostitution).  Yet God, in his own redeeming work, has begun the process of redeeming our work.  Amy Sherman further solidifies this point: “Jesus’ work is not exclusively about our individual salvation, but about the cosmic redemption and renewal of all things.”[9]  An eschatologically-informed view of work provides a depth of meaning to our work that is simply not available to other worldviews.  That is, because God is making all things new, including our work, we can rest assured that our work has intrinsic value.  All of this, Nelson says, should factor into a biblical understanding of work.

After establishing the initial groundwork for thinking rightly about work, Nelson moves to an immanently practical section on what it looks like for Christians to be faithful in their work.  Rather than leaving things in the intellectual sphere at the expense of the practical, Nelson dives right into helping people effectively implement this correct understanding of work into their daily lives.  One strength of Work Matters is the way in which Nelson goes about applying his theology of work.  For example, he notes that he has “repeatedly observed that those who not only do good work but flourish spiritually in the workplace have cultivated and continue to practice the spiritual discipline of meditating on God’s Word while they work.”[10]  In essence, Nelson is drawing on the established truth of work as an act of worship in order to explain and apply how this might look at a particular junction in life.

One important critique that I might make here is that Work Matters would greatly benefit by adding a more extensive discussion of the reasons behind the lack of distinction in value between traditionally “sacred” and traditionally “secular” vocations.  In passing, and in the context of recounting some of his own erroneous views of a theology of work, Nelson notes, “I have wrongly viewed some kinds of work as being more important than others.”[11]  Rather than expanding the meaning of this statement, he simply moves on to another assertion.  Later, Nelson writes, “all Christians are called to ‘full-time Christian work,’ doing good work well for the glory of God, regardless of their specific vocation.”[12]  It is clear that Nelson does not wish to make a distinction between “sacred” and “secular” work, yet it is my opinion that the book suffers from the lack of a more robust argument for why this distinction should not be made.  Simply asserting that there should not be a distinction, however correct that assertion may be, seems insufficient to prove a point.  Nelson’s book would be enhanced by exploring this further, rather than simply assuming that there should be no distinction.

Implications for Ministering with Reference to Work

Overall, I think Nelson does an excellent job of providing a biblically-rooted theology of work.  That said, there are a variety of implications that Christians must reckon with in order to effectively minister to others with specific reference to work.

First, work is our God-given mandate and is therefore intrinsically good.  Far too many Christians have a functional view of work as being opposed in some way to God’s design of the universe.  Work is something that must be done because of the Fall, one might say.  But, as Nelson rightly argues, this is not the case according to the Scriptures.  Human beings are designed to work: it is written into the very fabric of who we are as creatures of a working God.

Second, work is hard.  We should not shy away from the fact that work is notoriously difficult and will remain thus until we die or Jesus returns.  There is a certain level of comfort that can be given to others when we cautiously embrace the difficulties that life presents to us.  In this context, we must affirm the toilsome nature of work while simultaneously pointing to the One who ultimately redeems even that aspect of fallen creation.

Finally, work is ultimately about God’s glory.  When we understand that our work is for the ultimate purpose of glorifying and displaying God’s glory in all of creation, we find a sense of meaningfulness that extends to even the most mundane of tasks.  Because we know and understand that God is redeeming all things and making all things new, we can be certain that our work is meaningful in the sense that God intends to redeem its fallen aspects for the praise of his glory.

[1] Tom Nelson, Work Matters: Connecting Sunday Worship to Monday Work (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011), 24. Notice how this definition of work contrasts starkly with Miroslav Volf”s: “Work is honest, purposeful, and methodologically specified whose primary goal is the creation of products or states of affairs that can satisfy the needs of working individuals or their co-creatures…” in Work in the Spirit: Toward a Theology of Work (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1991), 10.

[2] Ibid., 26-27.

[3] Ibid., 27.

[4] Ibid., 36.

[5] Ibid., 38.

[6] Ibid., 58.

[7] Again, we may point out the stark contrast between Nelson’s definition of work and Volf’s definition (cf. Footnote #1).  For Nelson, work is done primarily for the glory of God, while Volf’s definition seemingly leaves out any explicit notion of God.

[8] Andy Crouch, Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 34.

[9] Amy L. Sherman, Kingdom Calling: Vocational Stewardship for the Common Good (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2011), 67.

[10] Ibid., 111.

[11] Ibid., 15.

[12] Ibid., 45.

Thanks for reading.  Have a question or comment?  Leave it below.

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