Why Learn and Why Work? (Part 2 of 3)

[This article is part of a series. For Part 1 see: http://australia.thegospelcoalition.org/article/wh…]

Principle 2: We are created to love to learn

Calvin famously began with his definitive statement:

“Nearly
all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom,
consists in two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.”

“Ourselves”
here is not an introspective study of the individual human, but a study
of humanity, created, fallen, and restored. And creation is both the
work of God, and also the place in which humanity is set by God, and
which shares the same story of creation, fall, and restoration. The
desire to know wisdom about God and ourselves has been implanted within
us by God. So Calvin wrote,

For we see implanted in human nature
some sort of desire to search out the truth to which man would not
aspire at all unless he had savoured it. Human understanding then
possesses some power of perception, since it is by nature captivated by
love of truth.

This
love of truth is the deep desire to know what is true about God, about
ourselves, and about the universe made by God. Moreover, if we are
always learning, then God is always teaching.

[God] revealed
himself and daily discloses himself in the whole workmanship of the
universe … the Lord began to show himself in the visible splendour of
his apparel … he shows his glory to us, whenever we and wherever we cast
our gaze … this skilful ordering of the universe is for us a sort or
mirror in which we can contemplate God, who is otherwise invisible.

Those who have learnt to learn (by learning the liberal arts) have clearer perceptions of reality of what God has done.

Indeed
men who have either quaffed or even tasted the liberal arts penetrate
with their aid more deeply into the secrets of divine wisdom…there is no
one to whom the Lord does not abundantly show his wisdom…

So
the careful study of the universe brings blessing: “For astronomy is
very pleasant, but also very useful to be known: it cannot be denied
that this art unfolds the admirable wisdom of God.”
[8]

Indeed,
Calvin claimed that the ability to learn and invent is present among
the heathen, for the Spirit’s gifts are found in all humanity, both in
arts and sciences, and in daily skills.

For the invention of
arts, and of other things which serve to the common use and conveniences
of lie, is a gift of God by no means to be despised, and a faculty
worthy of commendation….the excellent gifts of the Spirit are diffused
throughout the whole human race. Moreover the liberal arts and sciences
have descended to us from the heathen … it is well known how far and how
widely extends the usefulness of the art of the carpenter.
[9]

These gifts come from God the Spirit.

If
we regard the Spirit of God as the sole fountain of truth, we shall
neither reject the truth itself, nor despise it wherever it shall
appear, unless we wish to dishonour the Spirit of God.

So
we should not despise these gifts, lest in doing so we despise God, the
giver of the gifts. Even when Calvin was commenting on Paul’s comments
in 1 Corinthians 1 about the futility of human wisdom in the saving plan
of God, he was careful to defend the ordinary gifts of God which enrich
human life.

Paul would not be so very unreasonable as to
condemn out of hand those arts, which, without any doubt, are splendid
gifts of God, gifts which we would call instruments for helping men
carry out worth-while activities, Therefore there is nothing irreligious
about those arts, for they contain sound learning, and depend on
principles of truth; and since they are useful and suitable for the
general affairs of human society, there is no doubt that they have come
from the Holy Spirit.

For human learning, the use of reason, is worthy of honour, as it is the gift of God.

For
what is more noble than the reason of man, by which he stands out far
above all other animals? How greatly deserving of honour are the liberal
sciences, which refine a man so as to make him truly human! Besides,
what a great number of rare products they yield! Who would not use the
highest praise to extol statesmanship, by which states, empires, and
kingdoms are maintained? – to say nothing of other things!

Whatever
part of the universe and its life we are studying, we should treat it
with respect. For, as Randall Zachman shows us, for Calvin, the universe
is the theatre of God’s glory, the living image of God and the garment
of God.[13]
This means that we should respect the evidence we are considering, and
also receive it with gratitude: “Let the world become our school if we
rightly desire to know God.”[14]

What we see in the universe is the effect of sin, as well as the gracious work of God,

He
shows how the creation has in hope been made subject to vanity… all
created things in themselves blameless, both on earth and in the visible
heaven, undergo punishment for our sins; for it has not happened
through their own fault, that they are liable to corruption. Thus the
condemnation of mankind is imprinted on the heavens, and on the earth,
and on all creatures.

Nevertheless, we still see the glory of God in our world:

Agriculture,
but likewise all the arts which contribute to the advantage of mankind,
are the gifts of God, and that all that belongs to skilful invention
has been imparted by him to the minds of men…If we ought to form such an
opinion about agriculture and mechanical arts, what shall we think of
the learned and exalted sciences, such as Medicine, Jurisprudence,
Astronomy, Geometry, Logic, and such like? … Shall we not in them also
behold and acknowledge his goodness, that his praise and glory may be
celebrated both in the smallest and in the greatest affairs?

In all our learning, we are, in words attributed to the astronomer, Johannes Kepler, ‘thinking God’s thoughts after him.’

Principle 3: Our daily work is a way in which we love our neighbour

God blesses daily work with success (Deuteronomy 2:7; 8:18; 15:10; 2 Corinthians 9:6–11), and the Bible teaches us to work hard and responsibly (e.g. Proverbs 6:6-11; 10:4,5; 12:24). God gifts us for our work, and allocates to us the work we should do:

[E]ach individual has his own kind of living assigned to him by the Lord … no task will be so sordid and base, provided you obey your calling in it, that it will not shine and be reckoned very precious in God’s sight.

Our daily work is also a way we relate to our neighbours. Calvin wrote of our closeness to our neighours,

Since he has stamped his image upon us, and since we share a common nature, this ought to inspire us to provide for one another. The one who seeks to be exempt from the care of his neighbour is disfiguring himself and declaring that he now longer wishes to be a man.

The division of labour[19] means that we serve others through what we do, and they serve us through what they do. To care for others is to express true and godly humanity. The best good works include our daily tasks of “digging earth … sewing and tailoring,”[20] for by these we honour God and benefit our neighbours.

The recovery of the value of ordinary daily work was one of the most striking features of the Reformation. Previously it had been “spiritual” work which was honoured, while ordinary daily work was under- valued. Now daily work was seen to honour God. So Calvin wrote,

We know that the principal service that God requires of us is that we devote ourselves entirely to him … we will follow the vocation we have when we are called, without pride, ambition or envy. God takes delight in this.

All human tasks should be an expression of loving our neighbour. Adam Smith wrote, from a different world-view:

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.

Of course there are many good reasons to do work, and many good reasons to do paid work, including the income it provides (2 Thessalonians 3:12) and there are good reasons to choose to do one job rather than another, including the evangelistic opportunities that may occur. But in all of this, we ought to ensure that we can see how we love our neighbours through our work, do our work in ways that best express that love, however indirectly, and consciously think of our neighbours as we work, and pray that they will benefit from our work.

This good desire will produce tensions. We may work for an organization which has good aims but is not achieving them as effectively as it might, or not doing its best for its neighbours. Or it may serve some neighbours well (for example, the shareholders) and other neighbours badly (the customers, or the workers). We may do good work in research that finally does not achieve the outcome we wanted. We may do unpaid good works in our community, which later wisdom discovers to have been less than productive. All human work is subject to futility by the judgment of God. But if we do not retain the motivation of loving our neighbour in our work, then we will limit ourselves to serving ourselves, and may take advantage of our neighbour. As Adam Smith pointed out, our neighbours will in fact benefit from our welfare: but our Christian calling is to increase that benefit, and work to increase it.

We are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26–29) and the God in whose image we are made is revealed in Genesis 1 as “God the worker”. We are made in the image of God the worker, with the task of cultivation and to classification (Genesis 2:15, 20). The Christian world-view has been criticized for promoting the abuse of creation.[23] However, Scripture is clear that as human beings made in the image of “God the worker”, we should follow his example:

Your dominion endures through all generations. The LORD is faithful to all his promises and loving toward all he has made… The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food at the proper time. You open your hand and satisfy the desires of every living thing (Psalm 145:13, 15–16).

God wants to bless us. And God want make us a blessing to others; to pass on his blessing to others through us.

Three Biblical Principles

  • “Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”
  • We are created to love to learn.
  • Our daily work is a way in which we love our neighbour

A Prayer For Workers

Heavenly Father, please make me the person you want me to be, prepare me to do the good works you want me to do, and help me to do them.

I pray for my neighbours whom I will serve through my work today: please bless them, and help them be a blessing to others.

Please use me for your good purposes for this world. Please forgive my sins of learning and my sins of working. Please help me invest in my knowledge and skills for the sake of future service to others.

Lord Jesus Christ, I do everything today in your name, giving thanks to God the Father and glorifying him through you. Amen.


[3] John Calvin, , []. This is his summary of Christian theology. I use Calvin in this paper, because of his great insights into our topics.

[4] Calvin, 1.1.1, (That is Book 1, Chapter 1, Section 1). In the case of Calvin’s Commentaries and Sermons, the reference will be to the passage of Scripture on which the comment was made.

[5] Calvin, 2.2.12.

[6] Calvin, 1.5.1.

[7] Calvin, 1.5.2.

[8] Calvin, 1:16.

[9]Calvin, 4:20.

[10] Calvin, 2.2.15, 16 and see also 2.2.17.

[11] Calvin, 1:17.

[12] Calvin, 1:20.

[13] Randal C. Zachman, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), 231–242.

[14] Calvin, , argument.

[15] Calvin, 8:21.

[16] Calvin, 28:29.

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