On one occasion while we were living in Pretoria, I walked into a computer shop to get the prices of some hardware items that I needed. I was assisted by a young man who had an obvious zeal for the Lord. He helped me courteously, but his spiritual zeal clearly made him far more interested in the Christian choruses that he was preparing for his church than in the computers which made a profit for his employers. This incident highlights a mindset that is prevalent amongst Christians today. Being truly spiritual means devoting yourself to “things above”, to reading the Bible and praying, to church activities, and to evangelism.

However, secular activities like work, politics, the arts, and sport, are just what they are called—secular—and therefore of secondary importance or doubtful value for the zealous believer. Even the Christian who serves his employers with integrity does so more out of a sense of duty than out of a conviction that the work has any intrinsic value in God’s sight. The physical world and all the pursuits that belong to it are far less valuable than the spiritual world (it is, after all, passing away), and the human society that surrounds us is so evidently sold into sin. Therefore, if we want to maintain our purity before God we must strive to avoid the physical world and unregenerate human society. We may be obliged to make a daily foray into enemy territory when we go to work or school, but we breathe a sigh of relief at the end of the day when we can retreat to the safety of our family or home fellowship group.

As common and as well-meaning as these attitudes are, we need to ask whether they are biblical, and whether they do not prevent us from serving God with all our hearts in every sphere of life. We need to question whether the good intention of remaining unsullied by the “world” does not inadvertently keep us from glorifying God and extending his kingdom as we should. Is it possible that we create unnecessary tension in our lives and exclude large areas from the Lordship of Christ by equating Christian zeal with church attendance and explicitly “spiritual” activities?

Let us get straight to the heart of the matter by going back to the law and to the testimony of God’s word.

The Cultural Mandate in Scripture

There is a passage in Scripture whose meaning and importance with regard to these issues is not sufficiently recognised. It is known as the cultural mandate, and comes in that all-important chapter, Genesis 1: “And God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth’” (Gen 1:28). Let us listen to our Creator as he speaks to us in this text.

God’s Example

We begin by observing the interconnectedness of the Genesis 1 narrative. The passage opens with a simple statement that provides the ultimate explanation for all existence: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” The heavens and the earth, however, are initially “without form” and “void”, two issues that are addressed in the six days of creation. During the first three days we find an emphasis on God’s ordering that which was “without form”, as we read statements like “God separated the light from the darkness” and “God . . . separated the waters that were under the expanse from the waters that were above the expanse”. From day four onwards we see God filling that which was “void”, as the heavens begin to shine with sun, moon and stars, the sea teems with living creatures, the sky comes alive with birds, and the land is populated with all kinds of animals. God has fashioned an indescribable masterpiece. Everything is good.                                                                                                                     At this point God’s creative activity is raised to a new level, and we are allowed to listen in on the conversation between the members of the Trinity: “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness”. The next act of creation is not the simple result of a divine, “Let there be!” It is an action that is carefully deliberated within the being of God and produces no mere creature, but man—male and female—created in the likeness of God himself. And this image-of-God man is given a commission: “fill the earth and subdue it”.                                                                                                  If we are to interpret Scripture in context, we can surely expect that the picture given to us of God should govern our understanding of what it means for man to be made in his image. We should therefore seek to understand this image by relating the command “…fill the earth and subdue it” to the picture that God has given of himself in Genesis 1.                                                                                                          For man to be made in the image of God means for him to be like God, to show visibly something of the nature of the invisible God. Thus man is God’s regent—a royal ruler over all that God has made, full of dignity, glory and power in his being and in his works; ordering and organising the creation; filling the world, not only with human offspring (the primary reference of “fill the earth”) but also with other creations like art and literature and technology. And when God has made and commissioned this creature, he looks at his work and calls it very good.                                         One of the ways of expressing this commission that God has given to man is to say that “God has given us the responsibility of developing a culture, of learning to use the creation responsibly to form a human society that will express all of the good potential that exists in both the human mind and in the creation.”[1] Hence, the command to fill the earth and subdue it is often called the “cultural mandate”. It includes all kinds of intellectual inquiry (how can man subdue the earth if he does not understand it?); the creation of literature and works of art (including visual arts and music); technology (a most powerful means of ruling over the earth); and the ordering of human society. The practical outworking of this mandate will be considered in our concluding remarks in section 3, but we still need to examine the biblical teaching in more detail.

Cultural Mandate in Relation to Unfolding Revelation of Scripture

The perfection of Eden was soon shattered by disobedience, and one of the ways in which God punished Adam and Eve was to curse the ground. The productivity, pleasure, and purpose that had characterised Adam’s work up to that point were now replaced with toil and frustration (Gen 3:17–19). But the cultural mandate itself was not suspended. Throughout the Old Testament we see that God still expects man to work. The sluggard of Proverbs, who refuses to work, is well known, and there is no doubt that his example is not to be followed: “Whoever is slack in his work is a brother to him who destroys” (Pr 18:9). Not only is the command to work emphasised, but the Scripture also shows that something of the original blessing of work is restored when God draws near to people in redemptive grace. “You shall eat the fruit of the labour of your hands; you shall be blessed, and it shall be well with you” (Ps 128:2; see also Deut 28:4,11; Eccles 2:24–26).

The New Testament confirms the value, blessing, and redemption of work in the most powerful way. We are told that God is uniting all things in heaven and on earth together under the headship of Christ (Eph 1:10). All things were created through Christ and for him, and God is pleased to reconcile all things to himself in Christ, whether on earth or in heaven (Col 1:16–23). As we contemplate eternity we do not look forward to a disembodied existence in which we will float around like angels on the clouds, but to a new heaven and a new earth in which we will live with resurrection bodies.

To be sure, we cannot expect utopia in this present age and we look forward to the age yet to come, but we do not prepare for eternity by pitting creation against redemption, church against work, physical against spiritual, as if creation, work, and the material world are somehow unspiritual or less spiritual. No, we set our minds on things above by trusting in the redemption of Christ and seeking to obey God’s commands as he graciously and miraculously restores his image in us (Col 3:10)—an image which has the cultural mandate as a central theme. This is the thrust of Paul’s exhortations in Colossians 3, where the phrase “set your mind on things above” originally comes from. Notice that one of the ways in which we should set our minds on things above is to work heartily at whatever we do (Col 3:23). Redemption is not an escape from the created material world (that is a pagan idea), but a restoration of it.

Who is Responsible for the Cultural Mandate?

During this present age, Christians share God’s world with unbelievers. At least some of our workmates, bosses, and subordinates are unbelievers, as are most of our fellow-citizens; many of our relatives do not acknowledge Christ. It is not always easy to know how God wants us to relate to them. Certainly, we must share the love of God with them and seek to win them to Christ (the subject of another article in this issue of Reformation Zambia). But how do we relate to a society which is largely unbelieving?

The cultural mandate is very helpful in this matter, for it shows us that the command to rule over the earth was given to man as man—man made in the image of God—not to man as redeemed man. Although the image of God has been marred, and can only be restored in Christ, there remains enough of that image, and enough of God’s common grace, to expect that even unredeemed humanity can continue to participate meaningfully in the cultural mandate. This implies that we should not separate ourselves from our wider society as we pursue God’s command to create a culture. While we strive to present Christ and call people to faith in him, we recognise God’s image in them, learn from them, encourage them to be more faithful in the development of culture, and show them that all the good things in culture come from God. In this way the cultural mandate also becomes a tool for evangelism (See Calvin, Institutes 2.2.13–16).

The Importance of the Creation Mandate

The previous discussion makes it clear that the cultural mandate is important, but there is more that can be said. The foundation of all our communion with God is his special revelation, i.e. his clear, unequivocal communication of himself and his ways that began with direct revelation in the Old Testament and culminated in Christ and the Scriptures. This is a mighty and exalted theme, and the cultural mandate has a prominent place in it. As A.M. Wolters puts it:


There is something highly dramatic about the moment when God has created a creature to be like himself and then clears his throat, so to speak, to address him. This is the moment when man, the crown of creation, i[s] to be told what God’s plan is for him, why God has placed him in this world, what his marching orders are for the long campaign ahead. It is the significant moment when God almighty enters into communication with flesh-and-blood man, initiates the revelation-and-response structure of man’s total life, making it into religion. It is at this moment of cosmic significance that God gives the command: “Fill the earth and subdue it!”[2]

We may say, therefore, that one of the primary expressions of man’s nature as a religious being, whose whole life must be a response to God his creator, is his creation of culture. What more powerful motivation is there for doing all our work to the glory of God?

Conclusion: The Cultural Mandate in History and Practice

It was the Reformers, following Luther and others, who recovered the biblical teaching on the cultural mandate. In the context of medieval Roman Catholicism, where secular work was regarded as distinctly inferior to life in the church or monastery, Luther pointed out that all callings are of equal value in God’s eyes. This recognition provided the foundation for the Protestant work ethic and the resultant transformation of culture and society which followed the Reformation. In later centuries, Pietism tended again to undervalue pursuits relating to the created world and to give believers the impression that Christian zeal required some sort of escape from this world into the more spiritual world of church and missions. As we seek the glory of God in every part of our lives and of the world around us, we need to recover a biblical understanding of work and culture.

Working out the practical implications of this teaching is a life’s calling for each of us, but doing so will revolutionise many areas of our own lives and of our society, including the following:

  1. Taking responsibility for ourselves and our society instead of waiting for others to solve our problems (i.e. accepting the command to subdue or be in charge);
  2. Our response to poverty and wealth creation in Africa;
  3. Christian influence in society and culture;
  4. Relieving the tension between church, work, and family commitments;
  5. Our appreciation of beauty in our homes, buildings, and environment;
  6. Our commitment to quality, reliability, and safety in plumbing, electrical work, road maintenance, and all other technological tasks;
  7. Being organised and efficient in our own personal lives and in the structures and processes of our society (you cannot master anything if you are disorganised and inefficient).

“May the glory of the Lord endure forever; may the Lord rejoice in his works” (Ps 104:31). 


A.M. Wolters. The foundational command: Subdue the earth! Scientific Contributions of the PU for CHE, IRS Study pamphlet no. 382 (October 1999)

[1] Richard T. Wright, quoted in K.A. Demol, ‘How should Christians think about music?’ Scientific Contributions of the PU for CHE, IRS Study pamphlet no. 377 (May 1999), p.28.

[2] A.M. Wolters. ‘The foundational command: “subdue the earth!”’ Scientific Contributions of the PU for CHE, IRS Study pamphlet no. 382 (October 1999), p.33.