Douma points out that the Hebrew verb abad means simply to cultivate a field. This labour is required of man if he is to eat (Gen.1:29; 2:5; 3:17ff.). What these verses seem to tell us is that there is a connection between working and eating and that sin has made work difficult.
Hmm … The passage under consideration is —
(Gen 2:15) The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.
And there are two commands: to “work” (‘abad) the Garden and to “take care” (shamar) of it. I’ll grant that ‘abad means to work the ground in the sense of tilling the ground — that is, to make it produce food. It’s a utilitarian verb. But shamar shows up in verses such as —
(Gen 3:24) After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard [shamar] the way to the tree of life.
(Gen 4:9) Then the LORD said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” “I don’t know,” he replied. “Am I my brother’s keeper [shamar]?”
(Gen 6:19) You are to bring into the ark two of all living creatures, male and female, to keep [shamar] them alive with you.
(Gen 18:19) For I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep [shamar] the way of the LORD by doing what is right and just, so that the LORD will bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.”
(Gen 28:15) “I am with you and will watch over [shamar] you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”
Adam was commanded to care for the Garden in the sense of guarding it, protecting it, or honoring it. This is obviously quite different from a command merely to make it productive. It means to keep safe. Plainly, Kuyper’s critics aren’t being fair with the text.
Velema agrees with Douma and rejects the idea that Christians are under obligation to finish off a specific cultural program, for in that case such a program would first have to be drawn up, but for this we find no evidence at all in the NT, let alone that it prescribes a “mandate.” He warns against such a preoccupation with culture and social involvement that the Christian life loses its “pilgrim” character. We are first and foremost strangers and pilgrims on earth. Being a pilgrim is essential for the church of Christ. “The congregation of the NT knows that she is ‘on the way.’ She is not at home here. She has been loosed from her old environment and now looks for the future revelation of the Kingdom which Christ will establish, not man.
Now, I certainly agree that we are to live in this world as aliens. Peter and Paul both say it plainly–
(1 Pet 2:11-12) Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. 12 Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.
(Phil 3:20-21) But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.
Yes, we are to live as aliens and strangers, but one thing we do as aliens and strangers is “live such good lives among the pagans that … they … see our good deeds and glorify God.” We must do good deeds that even pagans see as good deeds — and pagans don’t see evangelism as good deeds. However, they would see as good deeds such things as —
(James 1:27) Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.
(Mat 25:35-36) For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
(1 John 3:17) If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?
And if we’ll take the trouble to notice that these passages and the Sermon on the Mount are references back to many Old Testament passages urging God’s people to help the poor, the widow, the fatherless, and the alien, we begin to understand —
(Eph 2:8-10) For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God– 9 not by works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
The Calvinist churches teach the first part of this passage, but they often ignore the ending “to do good works.” And what good works? Well, it’s the sort of good works prepared in advance for us! This cannot be a reference to evangelism, as evangelism — preaching the gospel to the lost — hardly suits that description. Rather, it’s the good works urged by the Law of Moses and the prophets of old.
More precisely, it’s participating in the work of God to undo the Curse of Genesis 3, which divides man from God and man from fellow man and man from the Garden.
While it is our calling as Christians to try to have this kind of impact on the world [that is, salt and light], we should not entertain unrealistic hopes of success. We should certainly not expect the Kingdom of God to come through our efforts, be they cultural or missionary. The most we can look for in the way of visible results is that the Lord will graciously enable us to erect a few signs of the coming Kingdom. That Kingdom is basically and eschatological reality, i.e., as far as its fullness and visible manifestation is concerned, it is still a future reality. During this dispensation it is basically inward, spiritual and invisible. The kingdom of heaven, Jesus said, is within you. Christ now rules in the hearts of His people and He is King in His Church and acknowledged as such.
Now, if you’re a strict Calvinist, then you can certainly figure that most of the world is predestined to damnation and therefore beyond our ability to redeem. Calvinism can take on a defeatist mentality at times. And if you want to justify an inward, ineffective church life, it’ll get you there. But it doesn’t have to.
But I’m no Calvinist, and I don’t accept that God predestined anyone to damnation in that sense, and frankly find such pessimism offensive. We can’t do this — true — but our God is able, and he is able to change the world through us, if he so chooses.