The Death of the Protestant Work Ethic

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John MacArthur on 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15 in the sermon, A Theology of Work:

“We are…rapidly abandoning that traditional work ethic that grew out of Christian roots and we should expect that it will continue to die. And the reason is this, because God doesn’t matter anymore in our society. In fact, God is to be left out of society. We hear that constantly under the rubric of the separation of church and state. Our culture doesn’t want God involved in anything. They see that as a violation of the first amendment somehow, the government not being able to establish religion.

And when God doesn’t matter, then morality doesn’t matter, and that’s what we’re experiencing now. When God matters as God has mattered in our history, one nation under God, in God we trust on our money, when God matters then there is a transcendent authority and God is the ultimate power. God is the ultimate determiner of destinies, God is the final judge. But when God doesn’t matter, then morality doesn’t matter because there are really no consequences outside oneself. The worst that can happen to someone is that while you’re expressing your freedom to live any way you want to live, you may have some negative results. They might come from other people. They might come from circumstances that you brought upon yourself by the choices that you’ve made, they might be things that happened really outside of your power and control.

But since you’re on your own and you can live any way you want to live, the consequences that come really have nothing to do with God, they’re just all about the way it is in life and some things go well and some don’t. When God doesn’t matter, then morality doesn’t matter. When morality doesn’t matter, then there’s a total collapse of moral commitment in a culture. Sex outside of marriage doesn’t matter. Homosexual sin doesn’t matter. In fact, it ought to be legalized and homosexual marriage ought to be made valid. Dishonesty doesn’t matter. You can lie as much as you want to gain whatever ends you want to gain. Self-indulgence doesn’t matter. Cheating doesn’t matter. Stealing doesn’t matter. Really no other virtue matters because there’s no God. And since we reject God, the definition of God in western culture that’s being rejected is the biblical definition. So in getting rid of God we have gotten rid of the Bible and the prescriptions of Scripture with regard to the will of God, the nature of God and consequently the Law of God for man’s behavior.

When God doesn’t matter anymore, then there is no universal, transcendent standard for behavior. And natural human corruption runs rampant to the degree that any individual person chooses to live. And one of the basic moral virtues that disappears in a culture is work…work. People once worked hard because of the influence of Scripture and because Scripture is a reflection of the will of God. God is the authority and the Bible is the revelation of His will as that authority. Work, you see, is a virtue, work is a moral behavior.

People worked hard because they believed they were accountable to God and they were accountable to the revelation of God in Scripture. They had reverence for biblical authority and they had a basic fear of God. Even those who weren’t particularly evangelical Christians understood the place of God in society, understood the place of Scripture in society that it was the will of God and understood they had a transcendent responsibility before God to behave in a certain way. Now that God doesn’t matter, and the Bible is ridiculed and removed, if not banned from speaking authoritatively on any subject, there is a kind of fearless immorality. And one of the things that’s going to disappear is the virtue of work…the virtue of work. Sinners are happy to think that they answer to no one, but to themselves.

This even plays out in the place of work for the people who do work in the animosity that they feel toward the people who are over them, their bosses, who constrain in any measure their freedoms. And then there are those people who feel that even if they don’t do anything, don’t work at all, the government still owes them money because they exist, because they breathe and because in their minds they’re worthy.

This nation, as I said, once had a very strong work ethic driven by responsibility to God. But it also had another component in it because what the Bible also taught was that you’re not only responsible to God, but you’re responsible to your neighbor. The first commandment was to love God, the second was to love your neighbor. And so, what marked work in America was a sense of dignity in the fact that you dignified yourself by being obedient to God and another corresponding sense of charity. You did what you did because you gained dignity and nobility by being a person submissive to the Scripture and to God and doing what was defined as transcendently supernaturally established as right and you worked because it was dignified, cause it was moral, and you worked because it put you in a position to be charitable and charity is another moral virtue…another moral virtue.

Well all of that seems to be fading away as socialism takes over, as people eliminate God from their culture and determine that they don’t need to do anything except what they want to do, the way they want to do it, when they want to do it. . .

. . .Somebody made the suggestion that originally man was a gardener and the curse turned him into a farmer. Originally man was a flower arranger, and the curse turned him into a plow horse. The Fall did not introduce work, it changed its nature. And as the nature of work that is the punishment, but not work itself. Work neither began nor ceased with the Fall, it just took a different shape. It went from being a righteous blessing solely to being a righteous blessing with a curse on top.

And so, man seeks to restore the glory of work with the sweat of his brow, and all of his ingenuity he goes after this cursed earth, using the wonderful creative gifts that he’s been given because he’s in the image of God to abstract out of the richness of this planet everything that he can possibly extract, to provide value to his life, to provide meaning to his life, to provide provision for his life and those in his family, to provide for the needs of others and most importantly to bring dignity upon himself as one made in the image of God who demonstrates God-like creativity.

Monkeys don’t write symphonies. Monkeys don’t grow gardens. Only men write symphonies and grow gardens. Only men paint beautiful paintings. Only men build massive edifices that are mind-boggling achievements of engineering and brilliance and creativity. This is the dignity of what it means to work in the image of God. This is our dignity. This is part of the nobility of being a man. We have been given, according to Genesis 1:26, dominion over the earth. From the very beginning, this meant that everything that was in the garden was somehow under the control of man for his benefit, his good, to demonstrate his mobility being made in the image of God and then to redound to the glory of God Himself.

One writer says, “The teaching of the Old Testament on the subject of work may be generally summed up by saying it is regarded as a necessary and indeed God-appointed function of human life. Since to labor is the common lot of mankind, it is important that men should accept it without complaining and thus fulfill with cheerful obedience the intention of the Creator for human existence. The basic assumption of the biblical viewpoint is that work is a divine ordinance for the life of man.”

This invests work with dignity. Listen, how dignified is work? We are still doing what man was created to do, take the creation, tend it. Take the animal kingdom, subdue it. Extract from this creation everything that your God-given powers can extract. We’re still doing that with the very difficult reality that we’re fighting a curse in the creation and in ourselves as well. Work can redeem the cursed universe. It can in a measure.

In Psalm 104 we read, “He made the moon for the seasons, the sun knows the place of its setting. You appoint darkness and it becomes night in which all the beasts of the forest prowl about. The young lions roar after their prey and seek their food from God. When the sun rises, they withdraw and lie down in their dens. Man goes forth to his work and to his labor until evening.” God has ordained that men work originally six days a week here. You go to work in the morning and you finish in the evening. Work is designed by God to redeem the curse in a measure. You look at the civilized world, you look at the world that has flourished, you look at the western world in particular, and now, of course, many ascending nations in Asia and other parts of the world, and you see the magnificence that is extracted out of the creation by work. Go to Africa, and you see parched lands, starving people, murderous tribal warfare…people don’t work. It’s a tragic reality.”

HT and listen to the entire sermon: http://www.erictyoung.com/2015/05/25/john-macarthur-on-the-death-of-the-protestant-work-ethic/

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