The Sacredness of Secular Work
The Unabridged Gospel
Victor Boutros is one of the few entrepreneurs history will remember a hundred years from now. Because there’s a decent chance that Boutros and his team at the Human Trafficking Institute (HTI) will decimate modern slavery in our lifetime.
Today approximately twenty-seven million people are victims of sex and labor trafficking—many of them children. And although there are anti-trafficking laws in every country, these heinous crimes continue to thrive because of a lack of enforcement.
Boutros—a former star prosecutor at the U.S. Department of Justice—and his team at HTI are implementing a scalable solution to this problem. By helping governments in developing countries create law enforcement units specializing in human trafficking, HTI has achieved truly extraordinary results. In Uganda alone, HTI’s work led to a 225 percent increase in the number of traffickers successfully prosecuted just one year after putting boots on the ground.
What motivates Boutros to do this incredible work is his apprenticeship to Jesus Christ, who came “to set the oppressed free” (Luke 4:18). Because of passages like this one, Boutros has no doubt that his work matters for eternity. But many Christians do—a sad fact that Boutros and his fundraising lead, Miles Morrison, have had to confront many times while trying to raise money from fellow believers.
Take the conversation Morrison had with a wealthy Christian we’ll call Richard as case in point. After Morrison walked Richard through the impact of HTI’s work, the prospective donor was clearly impressed. “It seemed like a perfect meeting,” Morrison told me. “I was certain Richard was going to write a large check.”
But before committing, Richard had one final question: “Now, this is a Christian organization, correct? You all are sharing the gospel with these victims?”
“No,” Morrison explained. “While myself, our founder, and many of our team are Christians, we legally can’t share the gospel with these victims given the official relationship HTI has with our government partners.”
That was not the answer Richard was looking for. The meeting was over. Richard was out.
“I was flabbergasted,” Morrison told me. “But sadly, there are many Christians like Richard who don’t see how pulling these kids out of brothels matters to God. It’s as if the physical redemption of these kids is totally irrelevant unless it also leads to their spiritual redemption.”
As well-intentioned as Richard most certainly was, he had fallen for the lie that the only work of eternal consequence is work that is leveraged to the instrumental end of saving souls.
To debunk that lie, we must address the two thick roots that enable it to grow: an incomplete understanding of the gospel (the subject of this chapter) and an incomplete understanding of the nature of eternity or heaven (the subject of chapter 2). Because what we believe about the gospel is inextricably linked to what we believe about what matters in the grand scheme of eternity.
So we can’t be too hard on people like Richard. His decision is one that many Christians would make based on the abridged version of the gospel that dominates many streams of the modern evangelical church. I could cite hundreds of examples of this version of the gospel, but here are just a few.
One influential Christian philanthropist defines the gospel as “the good news that Jesus came to earth to make it possible for all of us to live forever with Him in heaven.” A popular Sunday School curriculum tells kids that the entirety of Scripture is “the story of God’s plan to save people through Jesus.” And in one of the bestselling books of all time, one pastor declares that “[God] wants all his lost children found! That’s the whole reason Jesus came to earth.” In other words, saving you and me is the essence and totality of the gospel.
All these statements are versions of what I call “the Abridged Gospel,” which can be summarized like this: The Abridged Gospel: The gospel is the good news that Jesus came to save people from their sins.
This articulation of the gospel is pervasive throughout Christian sermons, songs, and media today. And while every word of the Abridged Gospel is, of course, gloriously true, there are three significant problems with defining the gospel in this way.
Three Problems with the Abridged Gospel 1. It’s Incomplete
The Abridged Gospel distills the good news of God’s Word into a two-act drama—humans sinned; Christ redeemed us—and functionally neglects the rest.
I was reminded of this when I visited the Museum of the Bible and saw an otherwise incredible film that says that the Fall of Genesis 3 is “where our journey begins.” All due respect, but no, it’s not!
The Abridged Gospel plops us into the middle of the biblical narrative without the essential context of the beginning and end. It’s the equivalent of starting the Star Wars saga with Episode VI and wondering why Luke has daddy issues.
The Abridged Gospel is all about what Jesus has saved us from—namely, sin. But without the beginning and end of the story, it’s impossible to see what Jesus has saved us for. That’s the first reason why the Abridged Gospel is so problematic. Here’s the second. 2. It’s Individualistic
If I wasn’t a sucker for alliteration, that would read “Hyper-individualistic.” The Abridged Gospel is all about us human beings going to heaven when we die—the rest of creation be damned.
It shouldn’t surprise us that this truncated version of the gospel has become so pervasive in recent years. Its rise to prominence perfectly corresponds to the most individualistic cultural moment in history, when the “North American ‘idol’ ” is unquestionably “radical individualism.”
But as we’ll see in this chapter, while we humans may be “the crown jewel of creation,” we are only part of the creation God has redeemed. In the words of pastor Tim Keller, “[The gospel] is not just a wonderful plan for ‘my life’ but a wonderful plan for the world.” And that truth has enormous implications for our work.
Here’s the third and final problem with the Abridged Gospel. 3. It’s Innovative
If a Christian who lived before the 1800s were to hop into a DeLorean, time travel to the present, and hear us define the gospel as “the good news that Jesus came to save people from their sins,” they would stare at us in awkward silence, waiting for us to say more.
As many historians have pointed out, the Abridged Gospel is a very recent idea. Dr. Mike Metzger explains that “tragically, two hundred years ago the [biblical] story was edited to two chapters; the fall and redemption. The opening chapter of creation was largely forgotten. The new starting line was Genesis Three.”
I won’t bore you with how we got here.* What you need to know is that the Abridged Gospel is new—it’s innovative—and, thus, it should be seriously scrutinized.
* If you’re really curious, read chapter 3 of Hugh Whelchel’s excellent book How Then Should We Work?
To reiterate what I said in the introduction, it’s not a coincidence that the Abridged Gospel came to prominence at roughly the same time the Great Commission became the only commission we preach. These two ideas are inseparable! If “the whole reason Jesus came to earth” was to save human beings, then your work matters only when you leverage it to the instrumental end of sharing the gospel with other human beings.
So, if we want to see the intrinsic value of our work, we have to catch a bigger, more accurate, more biblical picture of Jesus’s good news—the Unabridged Gospel, if you will. Not the abridged two-act version that starts in Genesis 3 and ends at Easter. But the full five acts of God’s good news that stretch from Genesis 1 to Revelation 22.
As the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre once said, “I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’” The Unabridged Gospel answers that question. So go ahead and pour yourself another cup of coffee, and let’s dig into that story together.