by Jake Thomsen
Faith-and-work content consistently beats the drum of affirming that marketplace vocations are as important to God as professional ministry. That message is crucial, as resources like this one give those of us with non-church giftings the confidence to pursue our callings. But we can’t stop there. Even if all believers in the marketplace one day know that our vocations matter, we still need to understand why. Otherwise we may run successful businesses guilt-free, but miss the motivation and focus that come from knowing our place in God’s story. Simon Sinek convinced us to “start with why” in our companies, since the what by itself is uninspiring. But we often lack the why behind our faith at work. This is where I found myself a decade ago, and the vision and direction of something called the four-part gospel brought everything into focus for me.
After college I joined a commercial bank. Four years into my career I was running a small region—overseeing sales, operations, and local marketing for my team of 25. I was convinced that my work mattered to God, but if you asked me why, I’d have stumbled through a nebulous answer about bringing Him glory. Looking back, I now know the problem was this: I knew I didn’t need to be a pastor or evangelist in the church for God to use me, but I thought I needed to be a pastor or evangelist in the walls of my company. So I was the guy starting meetings the week of Christmas with holiday fun facts, occasionally slipping in something like the original symbolism of the candy cane. I explained the shape of the shepherd staff, and the red and white stripes of Jesus’s blood and cleansing, and I hoped someone would want to know more. If there weren’t tangible results in the form of conversations and spiritual commitments, I wondered if I was failing.
Then one day Steve—the husband of one of my sales reps, Laura—approached me to say thank you. Steve explained that for the three years before I joined the team, Laura came home almost every night crying. The bank had put a major focus on front-line sales, and Laura felt ill-equipped for the goals that took central focus. She chose a career in banking thirty years earlier to serve clients, and she now felt ingenuous pushing products, like a failure when she didn’t meet her goals, and hopeless when she imagined finding a new job. She fell into depression. Steve explained that the pattern started to change a few months after I arrived. I wouldn’t let us push products to hit our numbers. Instead I coached everyone to find their natural style, and I reframed the goal from trying to sell products, to building relationships with clients and confidently pitching solutions when we identified needs. My charge wasn’t insightful, but it was genuine and gritty. It was also based on what I believed was the God-honoring way to expand the business. A consistent focus on doing the work to achieve excellence with a human focus eventually changed our sales culture. Steve explained that as our culture nurtured each rep’s style, built camaraderie, and led to our rise to become a top-ranked office, Laura came home each day with a renewed sense of purpose. She gradually emerged from depression, and their family was thriving for the first time in years.
That experience hit me hard. It felt so much more natural and powerful than my candy cane spiel, and like it was impact that I uniquely could have. But did the experience matter if it didn’t contribute to “saving souls” at work? That question put me on a path to better understand why my work mattered, and I soon discovered a framework where work finally made sense to me: the four-part gospel. In Surprised by Hope, N.T. Wright explained why I struggled with what success looked like–because I lived under an incomplete view of the Christian story in which personal salvation was all that mattered. I bought into what’s called the “two-part gospel”:
Part 1: We are flawed and sinful people.
Part 2: Jesus came to save us and make us right with God.
Amen! But incomplete. If the two-part gospel were the whole story, the goal of our faith couldn’t be anything more than to find God through Jesus, help others meet him, then wait for the afterlife. The whole goal would be to “go to heaven when I die.” But if I believe that, then I don’t have an others-facing purpose in life beyond saving souls. I can love my neighbor, care for the widow, and give to the poor, but I do so only to find an opportunity to share the gospel in a calculating way. None of it makes any sense otherwise. So under the two-part gospel where I had been living, my work mattered only because it was my arena for evangelism.
Wright argues that the scriptural and historical version of the gospel is the four-part gospel, which sandwiches the above steps between how the world began and where it’s ultimately headed:
Part 1: God created the world and declared it good. It brought God pleasure.
Part 2. The world was broken through the Fall. We became flawed and sinful people.
Part 3. Jesus came to save us and make us right with God. He enlists us for God’s work.
Part 4. God is actively working to make all things new again. His work will culminate in the arrival of the New Heavens and New Earth as described in Revelation.
The two added parts make all the difference for how we understand what God is doing. In the four-part gospel, we don’t escape to heaven in the end. Rather, heaven comes to earth, and God’s people physically resurrect to enjoy the renewed world with him for eternity. This world is and always has been the focal point of God’s plan. As we wait for the New Earth, Christ’s work and the Holy Spirit guide us into the active restoration of creation. We resist the fallenness of the world as we work toward the in-breaking of heaven here and now, which foreshadows what’s coming. The Kingdom of Heaven is upon us, as Jesus said. N.T. Wright calls this “setting the world to right”. It’s what God is doing, and using his people for, at this moment in history.
What does a world set to right look like? It has to include individual salvation so that people become who they are meant to be—like Christ. We know we won’t fully be like Christ until God completes that work at our resurrection, but He is faithful to complete it. I knew this part of the story in the two-part gospel. But in the four-part gospel, there’s more. Setting things to right must also touch every other aspect of life—relationships, families, communities, businesses, and cultures. As God’s ambassadors, we shape our spheres of influence, however big or small, to contribute to human flourishing and to reflect the world as it should be and one day will be. That work also won’t be done until God completes it with the New Earth, but reflecting the coming reality now is worship that pleases God as we make his presence known. So while I accidentally fell into it, God used my work with Laura to help her family flourish and reflect the world as it should be, at least in some ways, in our little corner of the company. My work indeed mattered.
The four-part gospel is a big vision that needs to be made more tangible. But it’s a good place to start because it represents why our marketplace vocations are as important as professional ministry—because God is using His people to make all things new, and those of us in the marketplace touch areas of the fallen world that no one else will. If we’re starting with the why of faith and work, the four-part gospel is it.
Tomorrow I’ll reflect on why I think the framework is especially important for faith-driven entrepreneurs, and share a reframed version that can help translate our why into more tangible strategies and activities.