The Work of the Lord
Arthur Pink, 1948
Our present design is twofold: to censure a misuse, and to explain the meaning of the following verse: "Therefore, my beloved brethren, be you steadfast, unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord; forasmuch as you know that your labor is not in vain in the Lord" (1 Corinthians 15:58). In the heedless hurry of this slipshod age not a few have taken those words as though they read, "Work for the Lord," and have used them as a slogan for what is now styled "Christian service," most of which is quite unscriptural—the energy of the flesh finding an outlet in certain forms of religious activities. In this day of pride and presumption it has been quite general to speak of engaging in work for the Lord, and to entertain the idea that He is indebted to such people for the same, that were their labors to cease, His cause would not prosper. To such an extent has this conceit been fostered that it is now a common thing to hear and read of our being "co-workers with God" and "co-operators" with Him. It is but another manifestation of the self-complacent and egotistical spirit of Laodicea (Rev. 3:17) and which has become so rife.
But it is likely to be asked, Does not Scripture itself speak of the saints, or at least ministers of the Gospel, being "co-workers with God"? The emphatic answer is No, certainly not. Two passages have been appealed to in support of this carnal and blatant notion, but neither of them when rightly rendered teach any such thing. The first is 1 Corinthians 3:9, which in the Authorized Version is strangely translated "For we are laborers together with God." Literally the Greek reads, "For God's we are: fellow-workers; God's husbandry, God's building, you are." The apostle had just rebuked the Corinthians (3:1-3), particularly for exalting some of the servants of God above others (verse 4). He reminded them, first, that the apostles were but ministers or "servants," mere instruments who were nothings unless God blessed their labors and "gave the increase" (verses 6, 7). Then, he pointed out that one instrument ought not to be esteemed above another, for "he that plants" and "he who waters are one (verse 8) and shall each "receive his own reward." While in verse 9 he sums up by saying those instruments are "God's"—of His appointing and equipping; "fellow-workers," partners in the Gospel field.
The second passage appealed to lends still less color to the conceit we are here rebutting: "We then as workers together with Him beseech you" (2 Corinthians 6:1), for the words "with Him" are in italics, which means they are not contained in the original, but have been supplied by the translators. This verse simply means that the instruments God employed in the ministry of the Gospel were joint-laborers in beseeching sinners not to receive His grace in vain. There is no thought whatever of "co-operating" with God. Why should there be? What assistance does the Almighty need! Nor does He ever voluntarily receive any (Job 22:2, 3; Luke 17:10). What an absurdity to suppose the finite could be of any help to the Infinite! At most, we can but concur with His appointments, and humbly present ourselves before Him as empty vessels to be filled by Him. It is wondrous condescension on His part if He designs to employ us as His agents; the honor is ours, we confer no favor on Him. The Lord is the sole Operator; His servants the channels through which He often—though by no means always—operates. Ministers are not coordinates with God, but subordinates to Him.
There is something particularly repulsive to a spiritual mind in the concept of worms of the earth "cooperating" with the Most High, for it is a virtual deifying of the creature, a placing of him on a par with the Creator. Surely it is enough simply to point out that fact for all humble and Spirit-taught souls to reject with abhorrence such a grotesque fiction. Different far was the spirit which possessed the chief of the apostles. Said he "I labored more abundantly than they all: yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me" (1 Corinthians 15:10). When the Twelve responded to their Master's commission we are told that "they went forth and preached everywhere, the Lord working with them" (Mark 16:20)—otherwise their labors had yielded naught. Paul placed the honor where it rightfully belonged when he declared "I will not dare to speak of those things which Christ has not wrought by me" (Romans 15:18). How different was that from regarding himself as a "co-operator" with Him! It is just such creature boasting which has driven the Lord outside the churches.
In view of what has been pointed out above, it is scarcely surprising that those possessed of more zeal than knowledge should eagerly lay hold of a clause in 1 Corinthians 15:58, and adopt it as their motto. Such activities as holding Gospel services in the streets, engaging in what is called "personal work," taking part in meetings where young people are led to believe they are "giving their testimony for Christ," and other enterprises for which there is no warrant whatever in the Epistles (where church members are more directly instructed and exhorted), are termed "working for the Lord" or "serving Christ." Very different indeed is the task which He has assigned His followers: a task far more difficult to perform, and one which is much less palatable to the flesh. Namely to keep their hearts with all diligence: mortifying their lusts, and developing their graces (Colossians 3:5, 12), to cleanse themselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit and perfect holiness in the fear of God (2 Corinthians 7:1), to witness for Christ by their lives, "showing forth His praises" (1 Peter 2:9).
There is therefore a real need for the inquiry, Exactly what is meant by "the work of the Lord" in 1 Corinthians 15:58? It should at once be apparent that we do not have to go outside the verse itself for proof that the popular understanding which now obtains of it is thoroughly unwarrantable. First, it is not one which specially concerns ministers of the Gospel nor "Christian workers," but instead, pertains to all the saints, for it is addressed to the "beloved brethren" at large. Second, the work of the Lord which it enjoins calls for us to be "steadfast and immovable," which are scarcely the qualities to be associated with what the churches term "Christian service"—had that been in view such adjectives as "zealous and untiring" had been far more pertinent. Third, the duty here exhorted unto is one which allows of no intermission, as the "always abounding in" expressly states—even the most enthusiastic "personal workers" would scarcely affirm that! Finally, the "knowing [not praying or hoping] that your labor is not in vain in the Lord" makes it clear that the well-meant but misguided efforts of the religious world today are not in view.
Grammatically "the work of the Lord" may import either that work which He performs, or that which He requires from His people. The fact that it is one unto which He calls them, obliges us to understand it in the second sense. When Christ was asked "What shall we do, that we might work the works of God?" John 6:28) it should be obvious that they meant, What are those works which God requires of us? Our Lord answered: "This is the work of God: that you believe on Him whom He has sent": that is what He has commanded (1 John 3:23) and that is what will be acceptable unto Him. The same inquiry should proceed from the Christian: What is the all-inclusive work which God has assigned us? The summarized answer is given in 1 Corinthians 15:58: the "work of the Lord," in which the saints are to be always abounding, is a general designation of the whole of Christian duty. As "the way of the Lord" (Genesis 18:19) signifies the path of conduct which He has marked out for us, so "the work of the Lord" connotes that task He has prescribed us.
As is generally the case with erroneous interpretations, our moderns have taken this verse Out of its setting and ignored its controlling context, paying no attention to its opening "Therefore." 1 Corinthians 15 is the great resurrection chapter, and may be outlined thus. First, the resurrection of Christ Himself (verses 1-1 1). Second, His rising from the dead secures the "resurrection of life" to all His people (verses 20-28). Third, the nature of their resurrection bodies (verses 42-54). In between those divisions, denials of the resurrection are refuted and objections thereto answered. Further indication is this, that to terminate the chapter with an injunction to engage in what is termed "Christian service would be totally foreign to what precedes. Instead, the apostle closes his teaching on resurrection with a triumphant thanksgiving (verses 55-57) and an ethical inference drawn from the same. Therein is illustrated a fundamental characteristic of the Scriptures: that doctrinal declaration and moral exhortation are never to be severed, the former being the ground upon which the latter is based: first a statement of the Christian's privileges, and then pointing out the corresponding obligation.
In the context the Holy Spirit has set before us something of the glorious future awaiting the redeemed of Christ: in verses 55-58 He makes practical application of the whole to the immediate present. Doctrine and duty are never to be divorced. Neither in the promise nor the precept is "the life that now is" separated from "that which is to come." All truth is designed to have a sanctifying effect upon our daily walk. Something more than a mere head belief of the contents of Scripture is required of us, namely an incorporating of them in the character and conduct. Truth so blessed as that set forth in verses 42-54 should fill the hearts of believers with joy (verses 55-57), and move them to the utmost diligence and endeavor to please and glorify the Lord (verse 58). The "But thanks be to God, which gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ" (verse 57) is the language of faith, for faith gives a present subsistence to things which are yet future. The final verse announces the transforming effect which such a revelation and a hope so elevating should have upon us; or, stating it in other words, this injunction makes known the corresponding obligation which such a prospect entails. What that transforming effect should be, what that obligation consists of, we shall now seek to state.
"Therefore, my beloved brethren, be you steadfast, unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as you know that your labor is not in vain in the Lord." An analysis of this verse shows that it consists of two things: an exhortation and motives to enforce the same. The exhortation includes a threefold task: to be "steadfast" in the faith, in our convictions of the Truth; to be "unmovable" in our affections, in our expectations of the things promised; to be "always abounding in the work of the Lord," in doing His will, in performing those good works which He has foreordained we should walk in. The "work of the Lord" may be regarded first as a general expression, comprehending all that He requires from us in the way of duty: in the exercise of every grace and the practice of every virtue. "Always abounding in the work of the Lord" signifies ever engaged in obeying His Word, seeking His glory, aiming at the advance of His kingdom. More specifically, it imports that lifelong task which He has set before us, and which may be summed up in two words—mortification and sanctification: the denying of self and putting to death of our lusts; the developing of our graces and bringing forth the fruits of holiness.
Strictly speaking, it is "the work of the Lord" to which we are here called, and the steadfastness and immovability are prerequisites to our "always abounding" therein. But we shall consider them as separate duties. First, "be you steadfast" in the faith and profession of the Gospel, and not "tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine" (Ephesians 4:14). Be firmly fixed in your convictions: having bought the Truth, sell it not. "Prove all things, hold fast that which is good." That by no means precludes further progress of attainment, for we are to press forward unto those things which are still before; yet in order thereto there must be stability and resolution, a "holding fast the faithful Word" (Titus 1:9), an eschewing of all false doctrine.
Second, "unmovable," which is a word implying testing and opposition. Suffer not the allurements of the world nor the baits of Satan to unsettle you. Be not shaken by the trials of this life. Be patient and persevering whatever your lot. Seek grace to say of all troubles and afflictions, what Paul said of bonds and imprisonments—"none of these things move me." And why should they? None of them impugn God's faithfulness. Moreover, they work for us "a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory while we look not at the things which are seen." Then be unwavering in your expectations and "be not moved away from the hope of the Gospel," no matter what opposition you encounter. Notwithstanding your discouraging failures, the backslidings of fellow Christians, the hypocrisy of graceless professors, "hold fast the confidence and rejoicing of the hope firm unto the end" (Hebrews 3:6).
Third, "always abounding in the work of the Lord": constantly occupied in doing those good works which honor God. More specifically: "Whether therefore you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God" (1 Corinthians 10:31). "Giving all diligence, add to your faith, virtue, and to virtue, knowledge; and to knowledge, temperance; and to temperance, patience; and to patience, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love; for if these things be in you, and abound, they make you that you shall neither be barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ . . . for if you do these things you shall never fall: for so an entrance shall be ministered unto you abundantly into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ" (2 Peter 1:5-11). That is "the work of the Lord," that the task assigned us. Then let not the difficulty of such duties nor the imperfections of your performances dishearten you; suffer not the hatred of your enemies nor the severity of their opposition to deter you. "Let us not be weary in well doing, for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not" (Galatians 6:9).
"Therefore, my beloved brethren, be you steadfast, unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as you know that your labor is not in vain in the Lord" (1 Corinthians 15:58). In the first portion of this discourse we did little more than give a topical treatment of this verse: let us now furnish a contextual exposition of it. In verses 55 and 56 the apostle asked, "O death, where is your sting? O grave, where is your victory?" to which he replied, "The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law." Then he exultantly cried: "But thanks be to God, which gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ" (verse 57). The tense of the verb should be closely observed: it is not "has given" nor "will give," but "gives us the victory." It is also to be carefully noted that the "victory" here referred to is one over death and the grave viewed in connection with sin and the Law, and that it is shared by all saints and is not some peculiar experience which only a few fully consecrated souls enter into. Obviously, that victory will only be fully and historically realized on the resurrection morning; yet even now it is apprehended by faith and enjoyed by hope, and, in proportion as it really is so, will the believer know practically something of "the power of Christ's resurrection."
"Thanks be to God, which gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ" is the language of joyful faith, in response to the revelation given in the previous fifty-six verses. Christ's triumph over death as the wages of sin and the penalty of the Law ensures the resurrection of all His sleeping saints, for it was as their federal Head (verses 20-22) that He suffered for their sins and bore the Law's curse, as it was that as "the last Adam" (verse 45) He was victorious over the tomb. As faith lays hold of that blessed truth and its possessor appropriates a personal interest therein, he realizes that he himself has (judicially) passed from death to life, that sin cannot slay nor the Law curse him, that he is justified by God "from all things" (Acts 13:39). Such a realization cannot but move him to exclaim "Thanks be to God." By virtue of his union with Christ, for him death's sting has been extracted, and therefore it has been robbed of all terror. It is sin which gives power and horror to death, but since Christ has made full atonement for the believer's sin and obtained remission for him, death can no more harm him than could a wasp whose venomous sting had been removed—though it might still buzz and hiss and attempt to disturb him.
"The strength of sin is the Law": its power to condemn was supplied by the transgressing of it. But since Christ was made a curse for us we are released therefrom. The entire threatening and penalty of the Law was executed upon the Surety, and therefore those in whose stead He bore it are exempted from the same. But more: because in Eden sin violated the holy commandment of the Law-giver, the Law received a commanding power over the sinner, making sin to rage and reign in him, compelling him to serve it as a slave. That was but just. Since man preferred the exercise of self-will to submission to the authority of his Maker, the Law was given both a condemning and commanding power over him. In other words, the enthralling power or strength which sin exerts over its subjects is an intrinsic part of the Law's curse. The Law commands holiness, but by reason of man's depravity its very precepts exasperate his corruptions—as the sun shining on a dung-heap stirs up its filthy vapors. God punishes sin with sin: since the commission of sin was man's choice, the strength of sin shall be his doom. But Christ has not only delivered His people from the penalty of sin, but from its reigning power too, so that His promise is "Sin shall not have dominion over you" (Romans 6:14).
"Therefore, my beloved brethren, be you steadfast, unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord": let that be your response to mercies so great. Manifestly, the apostle is here drawing a conclusion from all that precedes, particularly from what is said in verses 56 and 57. Divine grace, through the death and resurrection of Christ, has judicially delivered the believer from both the guilt and dominion of sin, and from the whole curse of the Law. How then shall he answer to such blessings? Why, by seeing to it that those mercies are now made good by him in a practical way. And how is he to set about the same? First, by complying with Romans 6:11: "Likewise, reckon you also yourselves to have died indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord"; which in the light of the previous verse signifies: By the exercise of faith in what the Word declares, regard yourselves as having legally passed from death to life in the person of your Surety. Second, by heeding Romans 6:12: "Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, that you should obey it in the lusts thereof"; which means: Suffer not indwelling sin to lord it over you. Since you be absolved from all you did in the past, yield obedience to God and not to your corruptions.
We cannot rightly interpret 1 Corinthians 15:58, unless its connection with verses 56 and 57 be duly noted. Its opening "Therefore" is as logical and necessary as the one in Romans 6:12, and what follows that passage enables us to understand our present one. "Neither yield you your members as instruments of unrighteousness unto sin; but yield yourselves unto God as those that are alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness unto God": that is, conduct yourselves practically in harmony with what is true of you (in Christ) legally. Another parallel passage is, "Forasmuch as Christ has suffered for us in the flesh, arm yourselves likewise with the same mind" (1 Peter 4:1), where the doctrinal fact is first stated, and then the practical duty enjoined. Legally, "victory" is ours now, as our justification by God demonstrates. Experientially, we have been freed from the dominion of sin, and are delivered, in measure, from its enticing power, for there is now that in us which hates and opposes it. At death, sin is completely eradicated from the soul; and at resurrection its last trace will have disappeared from the body. From his exposition of the grand truth of resurrection the apostle made practical application, exhorting the saints to walk in newness of life.
In view of our participation in Christ's victory, we are here informed of the particular duty which is incumbent upon us, namely to strive against sin, resist temptation, overcome Satan by the blood of the Lamb, and bring forth the fruits of holiness to Him. But, in order thereto, we must be "steadfast" in the conviction of our oneness with Christ in His death and resurrection, and "unmovable" in our love and gratitude to Him. The Greek for "always abounding in the work of the Lord" conveys the idea of quality more than quantity, progressive improvement rather than multiplicity of works—"continually making advance in true piety" (Matthew Henry). Excel in it is the thought: rest not satisfied with present progress and attainments, but each fresh day endeavor to perform your duty better than on the previous one. This lifelong task of mortification and sanctification is called "the work of the Lord" because it is the one which He has assigned us, because it can be performed only in His strength, and because it is that which is peculiarly well pleasing in His sight.
That duty can only be discharged in a right spirit as faith apprehends the Christian's union with Christ, and then thankfully acts accordingly. There cannot be any Gospel holiness without such a realization. There can be no evangelical obedience until the heart is really assured that Christ has removed death's "sting" for us and has taken away from the Law the "strength of sin. Only then can the believer serve God in "newness of spirit": that is, in loving gratitude, and not from dread or to earn something. Only then will he truly realize that as in the Lord he has "righteousness" for his justification, so in Him he has "strength" (Isaiah 45:22) for his walk and warfare. Thus the opening "Therefore" of our verse not only draws a conclusion which states the obligation entailed by the inestimable blessings enumerated in the context, but also supplies a power motive for the performance of that obligation—a performance which is to be regarded as a great privilege. Since "Christ died for our sins (verse 3), since He be "risen from the dead, and become the first fruits of them that slept" (verse 20), since we shall be "raised in glory" and "bear the image of the heavenly," let our gratitude be expressed in a life of practical holiness.
A second motive to inspire the performance of this duty is contained in the closing clause of our verse: "forasmuch as you know that your labor is not in vain in the Lord." He will be no man's Debtor: every sincere effort of gratitude—however faulty its execution—is valued by Him and shall be recompensed. "God is not unrighteous to forget your work and labor of love which you have showed toward His name" (Hebrews 6:10). The Christian should be fully assured that a genuine endeavor to do God's will and promote His glory will receive His smile, produce peace of conscience and joy of heart here, and His "well done" hereafter. "In the keeping of His commandments there is great reward." This was the motive which animated Moses in his great renunciation (Hebrews 11:24-26): "he had respect unto the recompense of the reward."
"Forasmuch as you know that your labor is not in vain in the Lord." "Labor" is a stronger word than "work," signifying effort to the point of fatigue. "In the Lord" means in union with and dependence upon Him. Such labor shall not be strength spent for naught. Yet that is exactly what it appears to be to the Christian. To him it seems his efforts to mortify his lusts and develop his graces are utterly futile. He feels that his best endeavors to resist sin and bring forth the fruits of holiness are a total failure. That is because he judges by sight and sense! God, who looks at the heart and accepts the sincere will for the deed, reckons otherwise. "You know that your labor is not in vain in the Lord": such an assurance is ours in exact proportion to the measure of faith. The more confident our hope of reward, the more determined will be our efforts to mortify sin and practice holiness—the only "labor" God has assured us "is not in vain"!