The Real Protestant Ethic

How ‘Faith Alone’ Sparks Industry

Even during his lifetime, many considered him “the First American.” The list of his accomplishments is astounding: first as an editor and publisher, then as a scientist and inventor, and finally as a philosopher and politician. A certified polymath, he founded not only the University of Pennsylvania but also Philadelphia’s first fire department.

Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790) was born two years after Jonathan Edwards but outlived him by more than three decades — and made the most of his extra time. He invented bifocals, the lightning rod, and the Franklin stove. He served as ambassador to France. Remembered as a “founding father” of the United States, he rallied disparate colonies to unity, and even served as the first postmaster general.

According to biographer Walter Isaacson, Franklin was “the most accomplished American of his age and the most influential in inventing the type of society America would become” (Benjamin Franklin, 492). Franklin’s labors were seemingly indefatigable.

Over a hundred years later, still remembered for his industry and achievements, Franklin appeared to German philosopher Max Weber (1864–1920) to be the paragon of what he called “the Protestant work ethic.”

Weber was badly mistaken.

Grilling Weber

Weber, who made famous the phrase “Protestant ethic” in his 1905 book, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, saw Franklin as “a near-perfect example of how Protestantism, drained of its doctrinal particularity, fostered modern capitalism” (Thomas Kidd, Benjamin Franklin, 3). Like Scottish economist Adam Smith (1723–1790), Franklin was raised in a Protestant, and Calvinist, home, where he learned his diligence, frugality, and industry. However, Franklin’s ethic, writes Kidd, came to be “detached from all direct connection to religious belief” as he “jettisoned Christian orthodoxy” (3–4).

At the outset of the twentieth century, Weber saw Franklin’s aversion to orthodoxy as an advantage for holding him up as his model. Weber wanted Protestant productivity without the drawbacks of Protestant doctrine. His errors, however, were twofold: first, he put a doctrinal label on an ethic emptied of doctrine; second, and even deeper, his understanding of “Protestant” was upside down. Weber’s doctrine-less “Protestant ethic” severed the fruit from the root, and also misunderstood the root to begin with.

In Weber’s eyes, Franklin’s “Protestant ethic” was an improvement on the ethic of his doctrinally particular forebears, who, he argued, sought to prove their election through prosperous work. As John Starke wrote in 2012, in response to the same error still appearing in The New York Times, “Weber’s book unfortunately multiplied myths about Protestantism, Calvinism, vocation, and capitalism. To this day, many believe Protestants work hard so as to build evidence for salvation.”

Whether Weber knew some self-proclaimed Protestants, Calvinists, or Puritans who accented this misconception, I would not doubt. But whether the Scriptures, and the Protestant movement and its spokesmen, teach this impulse, is not ambiguous. The lightning rod of the Reformation was justification by faith alone, and we will do far better than Weber, and any remaining heirs to his misconception, if we take our productivity cues from the electricity of this doctrine.

From Faith, for Work

Weber was onto something as an observer. Protestant theology changed not only the church; it changed the world. Full acceptance with God, by faith alone, unleashed industry. The rediscovery of Pauline justification produced hard work, and manifestly fruitful labor. But Weber failed to accurately explain why. He saw in Franklin a prodigiously productive man, and he hoped that perhaps the “Protestant ethic” could survive without its doctrine. But Weber overlooked how Franklin rode on the coattails of an upbringing steeped in that doctrine — and exactly how it produced such hard work.

The twin recoveries of the Protestant Reformation were the so-called formal principle of supreme authority (the Scriptures alone as final authority over all human authorities, including popes and councils) and the material principle of how humans get right with God (justification by faith alone, rather than human action, however righteous and good). Protestants emphatically do not believe that our labors secure God’s favor, nor that proving our election is the driving motivation for work. Rather, God, in his grace, declares the ungodly to be righteous before him through faith alone, on the basis of Christ’s perfect life, sacrificial death, and triumphant resurrection.

For Protestants, the first word, and the foundational word, about work is that the labor of our hands cannot get us right with God. Human effort and exertion, no matter how impressive compared to our peers’, cannot secure the acceptance and favor of the Almighty. God’s full and final acceptance — which we call justification — comes to us “by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24), not through our working, or even our doing of God-commanded works (Romans 3:28). God’s choice of his people “depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy” (Romans 9:16), and so, fittingly, his final and decisive approval and embrace of his people is through their believing in him, not their working for him (Romans 4:4–5; 2 Timothy 1:9; Titus 3:5).

“The Christian faith — grounded in justification by faith alone — is the world’s greatest rest from human labor.”

The Christian faith — rightly understood, grounded in justification by faith alone — is the world’s greatest rest from human labor. Jesus invites “all who labor and are heavy laden” to come to him for his gift of rest (Matthew 11:28). And then in this rest, God supplies remarkable, even supernatural, ambition, through his Holy Spirit, for pouring out what energies we have for the good of others.

To argue that hard work and justification by faith alone are not at odds, Protestants love to point out that most of the Bible’s teaching on both topics comes from the same voice: the apostle Paul.

Liberated for Love, and Labor

In coming to Christ in faith, we receive another gift, in addition to justification: “the promised Holy Spirit” (Ephesians 1:13). The Spirit not only produces in us the faith by which we are justified, but he gives us new life in Christ, new desires, new inclinations, new instincts, new loves. By the Spirit, our coming into justified rest does not make us idle or lazy. Rather, Paul says, the Spirit begins to make us “zealous for good works” (Titus 2:14), eager and ready to do good (2 Timothy 2:21; 3:16–17; Titus 3:1–2), devoting ourselves to acts that serve the good of others (Titus 3:8, 14), in the household of faith and beyond.

The Reformation recovery of such ultimate rest for the soul produced a different kind of people. Not a lazy and apathetic people. But the kind of people with new energy and freedom, new vision and hope, fresh initiatives, fresh freedom from self, and new desires to expend self for the good of others — all of which we might call love. If there is a work ethic that we might properly call Protestant, this is it.

Fill Your Work with Doctrine

Where Weber desired “Protestantism, drained of its doctrinal particularity,” William Wilberforce (1759–1833), a century before Weber (and far more proximate to Franklin), wanted exactly the opposite. In Wilberforce’s mind, it was precisely Protestant doctrine that fed the fires of its work ethic. Remove the fuel, and the engine will stop. As John Piper observes,

What made Wilberforce tick was a profound biblical allegiance to what he called the “peculiar doctrines” of Christianity. These, he said, give rise, in turn, to true affections . . . for spiritual things, which, in turn, break the power of pride and greed and fear, and then lead to transformed morals which, in turn, lead to the political welfare of the nation.

And what Wilberforce meant by “peculiar doctrines” was, in essence, Protestantism: “human depravity, divine judgment, the substitutionary work of Christ on the cross, justification by faith alone, regeneration by the Holy Spirit, and the practical necessity of fruit in a life devoted to good deeds.” As in every generation, we are in great need of the peculiar and particular Protestant doctrines today.

“The most courageous and self-sacrificial people are those who know themselves to be right with God through Christ.”

In the power of the Holy Spirit, such doctrines will not make us passive. Rather, they will unleash energy and industry, new desires and dreams for how to practically love neighbor, and even enemy. The most courageous and self-sacrificial people in the world are those who know themselves to be right with God through Christ.

From Joy, for Joy

Such full-orbed, detailed, time-tested, biblically grounded, Protestant doctrinal particularity will fill our work and callings with meaning and power. And not just “at work,” but in the home and in the church and in society. For Christians, the concept of work and labor extends far beyond a “day job” and what others pay us to do.

Through faith, Christ is ours, and heaven. Eternity is secure. Even now, we have the Spirit. We are free to love and serve others without using them, and free to learn the lesson that a hard day’s work makes for a happier soul than a day of laziness and distraction.

So, we work, from joy, and for joy — with far deeper roots than Franklin, and for the glory of God.