Editor’s Note: This story was originally published in April 2013. 

Two great lies have been promoted in our culture during the past 20 years. They are told to children in school, students in college, and workers throughout the business world.

The first great lie is, “If you work hard enough, you can be anything you want to be.” It is often sold as the American Dream, expressed in sayings such as, “In America, anyone can grow up to be president.”

The second great lie is like the first one, yet it’s possibly even more damaging: “You can be the best in the world.”

These lies are accepted by many Christians as well as non-Christians. They catastrophically damage our view of work and vocation because they have distorted the biblical view of success. These two lies define success in 21st century Western culture. Success, defined as being the master of your own destiny, has become an idol. New York City pastor Tim Keller in his book Counterfeit Gods describes the idol in these words:

More than other idols, personal success and achievement lead to a sense that we ourselves are God, that our security and value rest in our own wisdom, strength and performance. To be the very best at what you do, to be at the top of the heap, means no one is like you. You are supreme.

Thankfully, Scripture gives us a strong antidote to the culture’s misguided idea of success. And nowhere is it more strongly stated than in Jesus’ Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30).

Through this parable, Jesus teaches that the kingdom of heaven is like a man going on a long journey. Before he leaves, he gives his three servants different amounts of money, denominated by talents.

To the first servant, the man gives five talents, to the second two talents, and to the last one talent—each according to his ability.

Upon his return the master asks what they did with the money. The first and second servants doubled their investments and received their master’s praise. The third servant, who was given one talent, safeguarded the money but did nothing to increase it. As a result, he was condemned by the master for his inactivity.

The Parable of the Talents teaches us five important things about the biblical meaning of success while dispelling the two great cultural lies.

First, this parable teaches us that success is a product of our work.

In the book of Genesis we see that God placed Adam in the garden to work it and take care of it; we were made to work. As Christians we have a mission that our Lord expects us to accomplish in the here and now. We are called to steward all we have been given while we wait for our Savior’s return. This is the dominion we are to exercise over all of God’s creation. This is what we were made to do.

We are to work, using our talents to glorify God, to serve the common good, and to further His kingdom.

The medieval church interpreted the talents in Jesus’ parable as spiritual gifts which God bestows on Christians. During the Reformation, John Calvin helped shape the modern meaning of the word talent when he defined the talents as gifts from God in the form of a person’s calling and natural ability.

Calvin made it clear that the use of our talents is not restricted to the church or to pious duties. It encompasses the whole of creation. Therefore, Calvin’s doctrine of callings emphasizes the utility, activity, and purposeful nature of God’s work in the world. Alister McGrath, in an article on the topic of calling, suggests that for Calvin:

The idea of a calling or vocation is first and foremost about being called by God, to serve Him within his world. Work was thus seen as an activity by which Christians could deepen their faith, leading it on to new qualities of commitment to God. Activity within the world, motivated, informed, and sanctioned by Christian faith, was the supreme means by which the believer could demonstrate his or her commitment and thankfulness to God. To do anything for God, and to do it well, was the fundamental hallmark of authentic Christian faith. Diligence and dedication in one’s everyday life are, Calvin thought, a proper response to God.

Far too many evangelical Christians today see their salvation as simply a “bus ticket to heaven” and believe it really does not matter what they do while they wait for “the bus.”  The Parable of the Talents teaches us what we are supposed to do while we await the return of our King. We are to work, using our talents to glorify God, to serve the common good, and to further His kingdom. According to Calvin in his New Testament Commentaries, God put us here to work in the kingdom, and “the nature of the kingdom of Christ is that it every day grows and improves.” Biblical success is working diligently in the here and now using all the talents God has given us to produce the return expected by the Master.

Second, the Parable of the Talents teaches that God always gives us everything we need to do what he has called us to do.

Have you ever wondered what a talent is worth in today’s dollars? It is hard to know for sure, yet whatever its exact value, in the New Testament a talent indicates a large sum of money, maybe even as much as a million dollars in today’s currency.

We are tempted to feel sorry for the servant who received only one talent, but in reality he received as much as a million dollars from the master and buried it in his back yard. Is it any wonder the master was so upset? He was given more than enough to meet the master’s expectations.

Just as the master in the Parable of the Talents expects his servants to do more than passively preserve what has been entrusted to them, so God expects us to generate a return by using our talents toward productive ends. The servant who received five talents had everything necessary to produce five more; the servant who received two had everything necessary to produce two more; and the servant who received one had everything necessary to produce one more.

John Calvin encouraged believers to be involved as salt and light in the world. In his book A Kind of Life Imposed on Man, scholar Paul Marshall describes Calvin’s challenge to believers as a call “to work, to perform, to develop, to progress, to change, to choose, to be active, and to overcome until the day of their death or the return of their Lord.” We can be confident in the eventual success of our work because it is what God created us to do.

The Apostle Paul writes, “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:10). We seldom associate this verse with our vocational work, but we should.

Third, the Parable of the Talents teaches that we are not all created equal.

The most overlooked part of the story is the second half of verse 15: “each according to his ability.” The master understood that the one-talent servant was not capable of producing as much as the five-talent servant. We want to protest that this is unfair. In fact there is a current debate in our society regarding income inequality (see sidebar below). Yet we know this is true from our own experience. Diversity is woven into the very fabric of creation. In a free society, absent dishonesty and cronyism, disparity of wages is not a sign of injustice; it is the result of God’s diversity within His creation.

But even though we’re not created equal in regard to the talents we’re given, there is equality found in the Parable of the Talents and in God’s economy; it comes from the fact that it takes just as much work for the five-talent servant to produce five more talents as it does the two-talent servant to produce two more talents. This is why the reward given to each by the master is the same. The master measures success by degree of effort, as should we.

Many today would cry out against the five-talent servant’s wealth by saying he has too much money. Some would accuse him of being part of the greedy “one percent.” Yet as Christians, we are told in the Scriptures not to envy or covet our neighbors’ possessions. Professor Glenn Sunshine at Central Connecticut State University suggests that although Scripture has some very harsh things to say about the wealthy, this does not mean that all of them are evil or under divine judgment.

Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Job were rich and yet were also approved by God. Just as poverty doesn’t guarantee virtue, wealth does not guarantee vice. … Scripture also tells us that God gives us the power to make wealth, and that he delights in the prosperity of his servants (Psalm 35:27)—which includes material prosperity (Deuteronomy 28:11-13). So it is clear that wealth is not necessarily evil.

Some Christians go as far as saying that making a lot of money is outright sinful. It could cause us and others to stumble, so we should be satisfied with some arbitrarily set amount. Yet if the five-talent servant had taken this advice and stopped working after making only an additional two talents, he might have received a harsh rebuke from the master!

In a sermon on money, John Wesley once preached that, as a Christian, you should earn all you can, give all you can, and save all you can (without interfering with your other biblical commitments such as taking care of your health, family, etc.).

Many Christians are also concerned about the connection between wealth and influence. They ask, “Don’t the wealthy have more political influence than the non-wealthy, and in our system isn’t that wrong?”

It is wrong only when businesses and special interests curry favor from the government in the form of subsidies, bailouts, and legislation to protect their company from market competition. Economists call this “rent-seeking” or “cronyism,” and it is certainly on the rise in this country.

Fourth, the Parable of the Talents teaches that we work for the Master, not our own selfish purposes.

The money that is given to the servants is not their own. The money they earn with the master’s capital is not theirs to keep. The servants are only stewards of the master’s investment, and it is the quality of their stewardship that the master seeks to measure.

A poignant scene in the 1981 Academy Award-winning film “Chariots of Fire” depicts Eric Liddell, a devout Scottish Christian, preparing to run in the 1924 Olympics. Liddell’s athletic success has made him a celebrity. His sister believes that Eric’s popularity has caused him to forget his promise to return to China as a missionary. Liddell assures her that he will return to China, but first he must run in the Olympic Games. He believes that God made him for a purpose, but God also made him fast. When he runs, Liddell says, he feels God’s pleasure. He goes on to say, “To give that up would be to hold Him in contempt. To win is to honor Him.”

Like Liddell, we should maximize the use of our talents not for our own selfish purposes, but to honor Him. It is all about our attitude, the motivation that resides in our hearts.

We know that we work in a fallen world. Because of the curse of sin, our work will be difficult, and we will not feel God’s pleasure all the time or at the level we will enjoy in the world to come. But we should feel satisfaction and joy from doing our best with what God has given us in the place where His providence puts us, seeking to win in order to honor Him.

Finally, the Parable of the Talents shows that we will be held accountable.

The Parable of the Talents is not about salvation or works righteousness, but about how we use our work to fulfill our earthly calling. It is about whole-life stewardship, or what I call “stewardship with a capital ‘S.’” Christians have not been taught that stewardship is about much more than tithing to the church and taking care of their personal finances.

In the opening chapter of Genesis we find what is called the Cultural Mandate. “God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground’” (Genesis 1:28). This mandate was meant not only for Adam and Eve, but for us as well. It is our job description and still stands as God’s directive for our stewardship of His creation. Nancy Pearcey, in her book Total Truth, writes:

The first phrase, “be fruitful and multiply,” means to develop the social world: build families, churches, schools, cities, governments, laws. The second phrase, “subdue the earth,” means to harness the natural world: plant crops, build bridges, design computers, and compose music. This passage is sometimes called the Cultural Mandate because it tells us that our original purpose was to create cultures, build civilizations—nothing less.

We are more than merely permitted to engage every part of the created order. We are told that the created world is ours, given to us as a trust from God Himself. We are to engage it, announcing and exercising the presence and rule of Christ over every part of it. This includes the arts and the sciences, social justice and economics, churches and U2 concerts, “The Passion of the Christ,” and “Les Misérables.”

The unfaithful steward in this parable didn’t so much waste the master’s money; he wasted an opportunity. As a result, he was judged wicked and lazy. We are responsible for what we do for God with what we have been given, and one day we will be held responsible. What we hear from the Master on that day is up to us.

So how should we define the biblical meaning of success?

The late John Wooden, a committed Christian who became the most successful college basketball coach in history, was once asked how he would define success. He replied:

Success is peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.

Now certainly this is a large part of the biblical meaning of success; we are to take the talents and opportunities God gives us and make the most of them. Yet, we still need to ask ourselves one more question: “Am I working to make myself look good, or am I working to glorify God?” The answer is almost counterintuitive; when we work for Him and the furtherance of His kingdom in everything we do and especially in our vocational callings, we truly find the purpose, fulfillment, and satisfaction that we all desperately seek.

We work at the pleasure of the Lord, and our work is to be driven by our love of the Master. Our only desire should be to hear Him say, “Well done my good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of the Master.”

Hugh Whelchel is executive director of the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics (tifwe.org) and author of How then SHOULD We Work? Rediscovering the Biblical Doctrine of Work.

6 Responses to The Biblical Meaning of Success

  1. Mary Moser says:

    I am 86 yo. wanting so much to do, to work. Scripture tells us that oldsters are to pass on wisdom, and so I shall pass on this truthful writing to as many people as I can. Thank God that the internet helps me there!

  2. Kevin Labby says:

    Hugh Whelchel’s book (mentioned above) is excellent, a quick yet profound read.

  3. Tom Showalter says:

    Man, I sure do feel sorry for the thief on the cross and the rest of the riff-raff who were not able to excel in the use of their talents. Some of the teachings of Jesus are impossible – and meant to be that way. They point out the impossibility of pleasing God by our works. They point out the problem with law keeping as the means of securing God’s favor. God requires perfection and that could only come through one person’s life lived perfectly – Jesus. We co-opt His righteousness when we come to Him in real trust, abandoning our efforts, leaning solely on His. Only then can we produce fruit, only then can we find eternal success. I recommend reading a book called The Cure. It will help guide you out of the bondage of performance.

  4. Richard Olsen says:

    I don’t understand – the parable seems very clear to me but it sounds to me like you think it has some hidden meaning. Here are three men, each given money. They use that money to make more money and that makes the giver happy because he has earned more income. We all know that it takes money to make money, and that those with lots of money tend to make lots more money. We also know that those who give money (for example, investors) expect their investments to pay off. I draw two conclusions. First, when given the potential to succeed, we should use it and do that. Second, when we have the means to help others succeed, we should do so and with the hopes of mutual benefit, i.e., share MY wealth to grow OUR wealth.

    • Scott Common says:

      Boom! Agreed. And to that I would add that the desire for excellence is judged by God via the intent of the heart – i.e. whom am I (really) serving. Bringing value into the marketplace with, in, and through the character of Christ is the greatest (and in fact, the only) way a believer in Jesus Christ, who has the capacity and desire for entrepreneurship can live. “Employees” by nature, which make up 97% of the work force, in most circumstances, will not seek to maximize “market potential” because they have no market to exploit – in and for the service of God. They’re employees. But investors, entrepreneurs (the other 3%) and such have a wide open door that given their unique limitations and / or gifts DO in fact have unknown…

  5. Hugh Izuchukwu says:

    Our Almighty God is a limit-breaker, thus did not demonstrate inequality through giving talents in different measures. With the grace and favour of the Holy Spirit at work, the servant given just one talent could produce ten-fold more than the one with ten talents. When God asked Moses what he had in hand for the big task ahead of him he simply showed the rod. That rod was insignificant to the task ahead, but God blessed and turned it to something else for the fulfillment of the task.
    We must seek God’s grace and favour to back-up what ever we have in hand since our humanly efforts often get contaminated with negative thoughts that marginalize outcomes.