Vocational Sacraments: Ends of Grace

Part six of a series.

On my list of four things we can learn from the sacraments about vocation, the fourth is:

My daily work participates in the ongoing drama of the world’s redemption.

In the very delicate theological tap dance that constituted my last post, the key problem was relating creation and redemption. Sacraments, I proposed, are the legacy of Christ’s redemptive intervention in history after the fall – the legacy of Bethlehem, Calvary and Pentecost; whereas our daily work is the legacy of Eden before the fall.

That legacy is also Christ’s, of course. Paul tells us in Colossians not only that it was Christ who made the world, but that Christ is the world’s organizing principle. Nonetheless, while creation and redemption are both Christocentric, creation is not redemption. Therefore the work we do on the other six days is not a sacrament, and on Sunday the ministry of word and sacrament rather than the ministry of creative service rightly plays the primary role in the pulpit, even after all allowances are made for connecting Sunday to Monday.

At stake in that discussion was the contested concept of “means of grace.” My point was that, although everything that is part of the believer’s sanctification (including daily work) is a means of grace, the tradition of regarding word, sacrament and prayer as the primary means of grace is a reasonable one.

But this week, work returns to center stage. To talk about means implies we are striving toward ends. What are the ends of grace?

The only ultimate end of grace, admittedly, is to glorify God. We have to keep that at the center, or God himself becomes a means – an instrument toward some purpose outside himself. All things must finally culminate either in the glory of God or in eternal ruin. If we admit some other end of grace, this implies we value God because he helps us get to something else that is not God. (C.S. Lewis once recounted an experience during his wartime service when a chaplain led the men in a prayer that God might help them to achieve and be worthy of “the things thou standeth for.”)

But what do we mean by “glorify” God? This is a harder question than it may at first appear to be.

It does not mean we are giving God any glory he does not already have. Perish the thought that God’s glory depends on us – that we have the power to increase or decrease the magnitude of God’s glory. This would fatally compromise the transcendence of God.

Rather, what we mean is something like manifesting and enjoying together the glory of God in the creaturely forms in which he has given it to us. God creates in order to communicate his glory. He communicates it to us through truth, righteousness, beauty and all that is good in the created world. When we manifest these created vessels of God’s glory and enjoy them together, we “glorify” God.

But this does not go far enough. By itself, it is an implicitly unitarian and static picture of God’s glory where God has a thing called “glory” that he delivers to us, like FedEx delivers a package. This is the impression we can get from reading Old Testament passages, especially those that identify the shining cloud as God’s “glory,” without the new lens of the New Testament.

The trinitarian revelation – that God is one being who is three holy people who love each other – requires a reformation of all our thinking and practice. The glory of God is not a substance that could be stuffed into a FedEx package. The glory of God is the holy love of the three people who are God – their love for one another, supremely, and by extension their love for all things. God glorifies himself not by sending us packages of a thing called “glory” but by putting this triune holy love into action, first in creation and again in redemption.

This has profound implications for daily work. For our daily work exercises the holy love of God. The same love that the Father, Son and Spirit have for one another eternally has been poured into us in Christ by the Spirit. And it was poured into us so we could pour it back out again – in liturgy and contemplation and rest, but primarily in work, which is the main form of worship in which we engage.

Work is worship because it puts the holy love of God into action, glorifying God by loving God and neighbor.

Our daily work is not just a means of grace but an end of grace. The whole point of redemption is to restore and perfect the world of holy love God created in the first place. Redemption means that the legacy of Bethlehem, Calvary and Pentecost comes to the rescue of the legacy of Eden, putting it back on track and even making it better than it was before.

That is what it means to say, as we say so often in this movement, that work is not just instrumentally good (that, too, of course) but intrinsically good. That is why it matters profoundly, as we also say so often in this movement, that we will work in eternity.

If we don’t keep that fact in mind, the “salvific thrust” of the sacraments becomes meaningless. If the ends of grace do not take us beyond the means of grace, the means themselves collapse into a self-referential void. “Being saved” only means “becoming Christian,” which only means “using the means of grace,” which only means “being saved,” and so on forever.

As Amy Sherman asked in that memorable video series, “what is our salvation for?”

Word and sacrament are central on Sunday because they are primary means of grace. Work that puts the holy love of God into action is central the other six days, because it is a primary end of grace.

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