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Vocation? What’s that?

In the last issue of the Briefing, we began a little quest to understand what God has to say about work. And, perhaps strangely, we ended up spending a whole article speaking about the creation mandate (God’s command to humanity to multiply, fill the earth and subdue it). Whether you found this helpful or frustrating will probably depend on two things. (1) Are you a big picture person or a details person? and (2) What were you expecting to hear?

In my life, many of the sermon series I’ve heard and the books that I have read about work have majored on the details. And so you might well have been expecting to spend time looking at Paul’s commands to slaves about serving their masters well. Things like:

Bondservants, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord. Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men. (Col 3:22-23)

These passages are full of excellent gospel-centred wisdom about how to go about our work, and I hope that you will read them and reflect on them. But as much as these passages provide godly instruction that is of great benefit, I’m not going to spend much time examining them here. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, I am going to assume that you have already heard people speaking about work from these passages and will do so again. But secondly, I think that the current evangelical landscape involves a deep divide on the issue of work that needs to be addressed from the perspective of the big picture.

That divide revolves around the issues of ‘secular work’ and ‘full-time gospel work’. On the one hand, there are those who rightly want to remember the priority of the gospel. They point out that people only come to know Jesus through the preaching of the gospel, and so they encourage people to do all that they can to further gospel preaching. Many in this camp are encouraging people to leave other employment and to spend all of their time in pastoring/preaching/missionary roles.

In response to this insistence on the priority of the gospel, others counter that we are creating two classes of Christians—those who work full-time in ‘gospel’ work and those who do other jobs. And there is no doubt that some Christians feel this divide very keenly. I have spent many hours with people who were fearful that their decision to enter the secular workforce somehow made them second-class Christian citizens. The response of this group is to say that all jobs are equally godly and that we shouldn’t encourage anybody into one form of work over another. Or, as I think it’s more commonly expressed, that all jobs are callings from God and each person needs to find their own calling in life, whether that be to primary school teaching or to being an electrician or to singing for their supper.

Because of the significance that this idea of calling (or vocation) plays in the debate, and because we are only Protestants because we believe that the Reformers taught the truth from God’s Word, the second step in growing our understanding of the nature of work will need to investigate what the Reformers actually said and how we should think about calling as Christians.

Vocations, jobs and careers

It is almost impossible to find any recent Protestant writing on the doctrine of work that doesn’t make mention of the massive cultural shift brought about by Luther and Calvin’s teaching on vocation. Tim Keller captures the mood in this wonderful little paragraph:

One of the sacraments of the medieval church was the Sacrament of Holy Orders, which divided the world into the “religious” and the “secular”. Those who went into full-time church ministry as priests, monks, or nuns were on a completely different spiritual footing from those who did not. One of the Protestant Reformation’s main planks was to overturn this view with the biblical teaching of the priesthood of all believers (1 Peter 2:9). Martin Luther insisted that all forms of work are God-honoring callings. To be a farmer, a craftsman, or an artist was just as much a vocation, a calling from God, as to be a preacher.1

“There is nothing more godly about being a pastor than a politician or being a preacher than a policewoman. All are able to serve and honour God through Jesus in whatever sphere of life they find themselves.”

You can’t read these words without a smile on your face. As I read them, I can feel my inner Protestant leaping up and down and cheering wildly. I am so thankful that the Reformers dismantled the wall of hostility that divides the sacred from the secular. There is nothing more godly about being a pastor than a politician or being a preacher than a policewoman. All are able to serve and honour God through Jesus in whatever sphere of life they find themselves.  These are beautiful truths.

And yet it is precisely the beauty and joy of these truths that leads to the problem. Because they are so precious, we are wary of anything that smells even remotely like clericalism. Any attempt to challenge the way that these truths have come to be applied over the centuries feels like an attack on the very foundations of Protestantism.

So I am going to ask you to take a deep breath, assume the crash position, and try not to panic. Why? Because I don’t believe that the way that most of us have been taught to apply these truths reflects what the Reformers actually taught. More to the point, the differences between what the Reformers said and what we often think that they said, while seemingly innocuous to some, have actually left us with a stunted understanding of vocation.

The heart of the problem lies in the constant connection between vocation and career. Keller’s piece is illustrative of this virtually unchallenged assumption that when the Reformers spoke about vocation, they were speaking about the jobs that we do. The simple fact is that they weren’t.

Let’s have a look at an example from a sermon that Luther preached:

When I speak of a calling, which in itself is not sinful, I do not mean that we can live on the earth without sin. All callings and estates sin daily; but I mean the calling God has instituted or its institution is not opposed to God, for example, marriage, man-servant, maid-servant, lord, wife, superintendent, ruler, judge, officer, farmer, citizen etc., I mention as sinful stations in life; robbery, usury, public women, and as they are at present, the pope, cardinals, bishops, priests, monks and nuns, who neither preach nor listen to preaching. For these callings are surely against God, where they only say mass and sing, and are not busy with God’s Word, so that an ordinary woman may much sooner enter heaven than one of these.2

In typical Luther fashion it’s a little in your face but that also leaves us with little doubt about the point that he’s making. In his day, it was the priests, monks and nuns who were considered to have a holy calling. More than that, these same priests, monks and nuns taught the people that to be holy they had to do special holy things—like saying the rosary or going on a pilgrimage.3 One of Luther’s chief aims in this sermon was to point out that holiness doesn’t come from doing peculiar religious works. How does he do it?

As we might expect, he employs a number of different doctrines in careful relationship with each other to make his point. One plank in his argument is that it is not the nature of the works but the attitudes of our hearts that matter to God.

Therefore we must close our eyes, not look at our works, whether they be great, small, honorable, contemptible, spiritual, temporal or what kind of an appearance and name they may have upon earth; but look to the command and to the obedience in the works… For it is decreed that God’s eyes look not to the works, but to the obedience in the works. Therefore it is his will, that we look to his command and our calling, of which St. Paul says in [1] Corinthians 7:17: “As God hath called each, so let him walk.”4

Now, because it is our attitude and not the particular works that we do, it is therefore pleasing to God to do your work rather than seeking special spiritual tasks.

Hence it is, that if a pious maid-servant goes forth with her orders, and sweeps the yard or cleans the stable; or a man-servant in the same spirit plows and drives a team: they travel direct to heaven in the right road; while another who goes to St. Jacob or to church, and lets his office and work lie, travels straight to perdition.5

And so, throughout the sermon, Luther’s great desire is to remind us to live out our Christian lives in our callings rather than by doing special churchy things:

How is it possible that you are not called? You have always been in some state or station; you have always been a husband or wife, or boy or girl, or servant. Picture before you the humblest state. Are you a husband, and you think, you have not enough to do in that sphere to govern your wife, children, domestics and property so that all may be obedient to God and you do no one any wrong? Yea, if you had five heads and ten hands, even then you would be too weak for your task, so that you would never dare to think of making a pilgrimage or doing any kind of saintly work.6

Having done a brief survey of the sermon, it is important for us to think carefully about what he was saying, about the context in which he was preaching, and how that differs from our own. Here are a few key observations.

First, Luther wasn’t dealing with the question of whether or not someone should leave their secular occupation to enter vocational ministry,7 he was dealing with a situation where people were neglecting their God-given responsibilities (like being a husband and father or a faithful Lord) to go and pursue holiness through medieval religious rituals.

This leads naturally and importantly to a second crucial observation. For Luther, your station in life—your calling—was something over which you had almost no choice.

Faith… is of the firm conviction, that God governs all alike, places each one in the lot, that is the most useful and suitable for him, and that it could not be better arranged, even if he did it himself.8

And so part of Luther’s teaching was not directed towards people who wanted to give up their secular job to become a monk, but rather who wanted to exchange their profession for another:

Whoever is a merchant praises the lot of a mechanic, that he sits at home and rests, while he must wander around in the country as if going astray. On the other hand, the mechanic praises the lot of the merchant, because he is rich and is out among the people, and so on. Every person is tired of his own lot and sighs for a change. Is one married, then he praises the state of the one who has no wife; has he none, then he praises the married state. Is he in a spiritual calling, then he likes the secular; is he in a secular calling, then he prefers the spiritual; and so it is impossible for God to deal with them so that they are satisfied. If they serve God in the lot God gave them, it would be neither bitter nor heavy for them.9

One of Luther’s key applications of the doctrine of vocation is that you won’t be happier by changing career, so you should just learn to be content in whatever job you might find yourself. I am almost certain that I have never heard any modern writer or expositor apply the doctrine in that way. It would be possible for this to open another whole can of worms that we can’t pursue here. But I make the point because it reminds us to be careful—if we apply the Reformation doctrine of vocation assiduously at one point but ignore it at another, have we really understood the doctrine or are we just using it to make our own point?

But finally, the most important observation of all is that for Luther vocation was about so much more than just your job. In Luther’s list of vocations that aren’t sinful, he includes being a wife, a citizen, a lord, a farmer and a maidservant, to name just a few. At best only three of these are analogous to our modern idea of jobs or careers. Even more significantly, it is possible to hold more than one vocation at once.

All of this ought to give us pause for thought. If the only way that we ever use the idea of vocation in our modern Christian world is with respect to the jobs that we do, then we need to ask whether we’re talking about the same thing that the Reformers were speaking of.

But what about the Bible?

But of course, even that question is inadequate. For as full of the Spirit as the Reformers were, and as undoubtedly helpful as their writings still are, the greater question is: what does God have to say about this doctrine of vocation?

“If we are called to anything as Christians, we are called first and foremost to living our whole lives in faithful obedience to our Lord and Saviour.”

It’s a big question, and one that we won’t be able to fully answer here. But here are some key observations that will help us on our way. First, in the New Testament, the word for ‘calling’ almost never refers to our job or our situation in life. The vast bulk of the references to ‘calling’ in the Scriptures are actually to the call to become followers of Jesus. If we are called to anything as Christians, we are called first and foremost to living our whole lives in faithful obedience to our Lord and Saviour.

We will return to this point shortly, but in order to understand its full significance we need to detour through the one passage in the New Testament that uses the word calling to describe our situation in life: 1 Corinthians 7.

At first glance, 1 Corinthians 7 is a strange place to go to settle an argument about the importance and significance of our work, because it says nothing about our work. The issue that Paul is addressing in the chapter is the value of marriage and singleness. But as he addresses this issue, he expounds a particular understanding of calling that influenced Luther and needs to influence us.

The particular section of 1 Corinthians 7 that interests us begins in verse 17: “Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him”. In the context, the life that we have been called to by God includes whether we are a slave or a freedman, circumcised or uncircumcised, and single or married. To put it another way, Paul uses the word ‘called’ here to indicate a kind of state of life. Our calling is not to a particular job, but involves all circumstances of the life that God has given to us.

However, as the passage moves on, Paul shifts from speaking about our calling as a state of life to speaking of our calling in the more usual New Testament sense of being called to live for Christ. And so he says: “He who was called in the Lord as a bondservant is a freedman of the Lord” (v. 22).

Why does Paul move from one sense of calling to the other, and how do they relate to each other? Paul’s argument is quite detailed but relatively straightforward. Basically he says that there is no reason for a Christian to change their circumstances of life. If we were single when we became a Christian, then singleness is a perfectly good state of life to live in and be Christian in. Likewise for marriage or for circumcision or for slavery.10

But the really interesting thing about the passage is that its main aim is to discuss why someone would change their circumstances in life. Why would the single person decide to be married? Why would the slave choose to be free? The answer lies in the gospel. Someone might choose to change their calling (i.e. their situation in life) because the change would help them to live out their calling in the gospel, to live wholeheartedly for Jesus. As Paul puts it later in the passage, his desire is to secure our “undivided devotion to the Lord” (v. 35).

With this understanding in place, we are in a position to understand what Luther was saying and also how we might go about applying the doctrine of vocation in our world today.

Hopefully, thinking about 1 Corinthians 7 has helped you to see why Luther said what he said. In a world desperate to find holiness and acceptability with God through special religious practices, Luther wanted to tell people that they could be holy and serve God wherever they were, that true holiness often looks a lot more like being godly in the daily situations of life than crawling up the steps of a cathedral on your knees, or celebrating a special feast day, or bowing down and worshipping human institutions.

In a world where the pressing question was not “Are you a Christian?”—most people thought they already were—Luther was trying to point out that very mundane things like being a godly husband and father or a faithful ploughboy was more of a reflection of love for Jesus than doing special religious things. He was exactly right to tell people that how they lived their everyday lives was at the heart of Christian devotion.

As he explained these things, he spoke about living out our responsibilities under God in all of the circumstances of life. For Luther, our vocation was the life that God gave us, and our Christian duty was to listen to the word of God and live that life faithfully.

Our problems stem from the fact that we have taken his teaching and slowly (and probably unwittingly) twisted it. We have twisted it by only ever applying it to jobs. By only speaking about vocations as things like being artists or teachers or preachers or musicians, we have flattened out the biblical teaching. God’s word tells us that our vocation is much broader than that. To give just a basic list, my vocation includes: husband, father, son, brother, pastor of Unichurch, member of St Matthias Anglican Church (I am part of another church where I am not the pastor!), friend, member of Pagewood soccer club, next door neighbour and Australian citizen. I could go on, but you get the point. And the point is very important.

“My work as a Christian is not just to devote myself to my job… but to work out how to carry out all of the responsibilities that God has given me.”

If my job is my calling, then I must be committed to doing that thing with all of my heart, soul, mind and strength. But if the whole of my life is my calling and I am called to live out my life for Christ, then my job becomes just one piece of a large puzzle. My work as a Christian is not just to devote myself to my job—to be the best plumber, lawyer, engineer, electrician, teacher or whatever it might be that I can be—but to work out how to carry out all of the responsibilities that God has given me.

This has very practical implications. It means that if my music career is so taking me away from my children that I am ceasing to be a faithful and godly father to them, then my music career needs to change. Or if being a parent to my children is so controlling life that I have ceased attending my local church, then I need to change that as well. My life is not simply one thing that I am to do with all of my energy to the glory of God—what vocation has become in many places. It is rather a whole set of circumstances and responsibilities that have been given to me by God where I am to work out how to honour him.

There is another significant difference between Luther’s world and ours. In Luther’s world, your station in life was often handed to you and you had no choice. In our world, we are aware of our many choices from infancy. Our jobs, who we marry, where we live, what hobbies we will pursue, what friendships we will treasure and a thousand other options lie before us. In that world, what does the doctrine of vocation say to us?

Firstly, it tells us that whatever situation in life we find ourselves in, it’s been given to us by God, and our mission is to work out how to use it for God’s glory. But what the doctrine of vocation also tells us is that we are free under God to change the circumstances of life for the sake of devotion to him.

It is at this point that I want to point out two difficulties with the doctrine of vocation as it is usually applied to the question of what to do in life. First, most Christians talk about our vocation as something that we have to find. Young men and women the world over are encouraged to find out what their life’s calling is, as if there is some specific job that God has stored up for them that they must search and discover. But that’s not how the Bible speaks about vocation at all. My vocation is not something that I have to find, but it is what I already have. My life’s project is not to find out the special place that I am to serve God but rather how to serve God in the circumstances that God has already given to me.

This leads me to my second difficulty. To illustrate it, I will use the article on vocation by Keller that I cited in the beginning, not because I think that it is particularly terrible, but because I think that what he says there represents what I have heard spoken or written or preached in so many different places.

The article begins by arguing that the doctrine of vocation means that every single occupation is equally God honouring. Having established that, Keller wants to ask how we can know what God has called us to do. He suggests that we will discover our calling by thinking about three things: “What ‘people needs’ do I resonate with?”, “What are my abilities and deficiencies?”, “Where does the community tell me I am needed?”11

It would be easy to caricature this position and I want to be careful not to do that. The article explicitly states that we must begin with the needs of the community around us rather than our own gifts and abilities in order not to become self-centred—and there is deep biblical wisdom in what it says. But I can’t help feeling that the whole nature of this argument ends up missing the point.

In this argument, the doctrine of vocation means that I can do anything that I like for God because everything is equally valuable in God’s sight. So what must I do next? I must find the special calling by asking about my feelings, thoughts and the voice of my community—what needs do I resonate with, what are my abilities and deficiencies, where does the community tell me I am needed?

But if what we have seen in Luther and the Bible is true about vocation, then our vocation is not some secret plan of God that I must find, it is first and foremost my calling to live wholly for the purposes of Jesus. More than that, the doctrine of vocation suggests that I can do that whatever my circumstances are. I don’t need to carefully discover the particular job or career or area of social responsibility that is to be my special contribution to life in God’s world. I just need to prayerfully think through my circumstances and seek to make progress in using those circumstances for Jesus’ glory—aware of the fact that it might sometimes be for Jesus’ glory and my good to change some of those circumstances.

What I am going to suggest next time around is that the gospel does indeed give us priorities that will shape how we end up using our circumstances for Christ, but let’s finish by thinking about the implications of vocation for us now.

If all the circumstances of life are God’s gifts, but we are free to change any of them if they are intruding on our undivided devotion to Jesus, then it is worth asking ourselves some big questions. Are our jobs or our family lives or our hobbies or the web of relationships that we are a part of dragging us into sinfulness or disobedience?

If they are, then we need to prayerfully repent and ask God to help us to change our situation. This won’t always be possible. Some of us are in positions where family relationships and promises mean that we can’t and shouldn’t just walk away. But even acknowledging that those things are challenging our relationship with Jesus, and taking steps to acknowledge the problem and ask for help will help us to keep clinging to Christ.

One of the saddest things that I have seen as a pastor is people who have felt so trapped by their circumstances that they have slowly but surely ebbed away from Jesus. God has given us our lives, but he has also given us his Spirit and his truth and the ability to make changes in our habits and patterns of life.

“If the doctrine of vocation means anything, it means asking God to help us live for Christ in all of life rather than letting life happen to our relationship with Jesus.”

And so finally, rather than just thinking through what things might need to be changed because they are hindering us, it will also be useful to think prayerfully through how we might use each of the circumstances of our lives to live for Jesus and to glorify him. If the doctrine of vocation means anything, it means asking God to help us live for Christ in all of life rather than letting life happen to our relationship with Jesus.

  1. Timothy Keller, Vocation: Discerning your Call, cited from http://cdn.theresurgence.com/files/2011/06/06/Vocation-Discerning_Your_Calling.pdf?1307425464, 6/2/2013
  2. Martin Luther, Sermons of Martin Luther–Day of St John the Evangelist, cited from http://www.godrules.net/library/luther/129luther_a9.htm.
  3. These are just two of the things that Luther mentions in this sermon.
  4. ibid.
  5. ibid.
  6. ibid.
  7. This seems to be the question that most often elicits appeals to the Reformers and vocation.
  8. ibid.
  9. ibid.
  10. It’s not instantly obvious how someone might choose to be uncircumcised.
  11. Keller, op. cit.

7 thoughts on “Vocation? What’s that?

  1. Thanks for the article Paul! Very interesting and many good challenges to the way we think about work. It raised a lot of questions and answered few but perhaps that was the point.

    “But if what we have seen in Luther and the Bible is true about vocation, then our vocation is not some secret plan of God that I must find, it is first and foremost my calling to live wholly for the purposes of Jesus. More than that, the doctrine of vocation suggests that I can do that whatever my circumstances are. I don’t need to carefully discover the particular job or career or area of social responsibility that is to be my special contribution to life in God’s world. I just need to prayerfully think through my circumstances and seek to make progress in using those circumstances for Jesus’ glory—aware of the fact that it might sometimes be for Jesus’ glory and my good to change some of those circumstances.”

    I can’t help but feel that this paragraph in particular pushes us toward a false dichotomy. It is very clearly Biblical that our “foremost… calling (is) to live wholly for the purposes of Jesus” and most Christians (hopefully all) would agree that we should seek this end in “all circumstances”. However, this provides a very broad framework in which to make decisions about what to do with one’s life as a Christian. I would suggest that INTO such a framework, we must apply the sort of “deep biblical wisdom” espoused by Tim Keller so we can be effective for the kingdom. Why should we not seek to be deliberate and forward-thinking about how we can serve Jesus even as we serve in our current circumstances? Is it negligent not to do so? Also, I wouldn’t dispute the fact that such plans will most likely be subject to change and the will of God, but is that a reason not to prayerfully make such plans?

    One other thing. I would agree that our job is one among many important vocations as in the article. However, firstly it should not logically follow then that it is less important. i.e having a family does not make your job less important, even though your family should be the priority! Secondly, to be pragmatic, people spend a lot of time doing their jobs! Christians should think carefully about their careers because they will be spending a lot of time doing them (even if they had the perfect church-family-work balance, which no one has). I’m sure Paul put more deliberation into his decision to become a minister than he did into which Soccer Club to play for.

  2. Hi Paul, 2/3 of the way thru Center Church your article is a timely help with a few things that weren’t quite sitting right. Just wondering what part 3 will be about?

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  4. Thank you Paul. Since there are few comments here. I just want to say thanks! The article for me was one of those total mind shifts in thinking. It’s brilliant. What an important article! I am pushing for all staff where I work to read this. MANY THANKS!

  5. Pingback: Vocation? What’s that? | Bits and pieces

  6. Excellent article, thank you. Gordon Fee in his commentary on 1 Corinthians (in the New International Commentary series) takes a similar line on chapter 7 – see pp. 308ff. Like you, he emphasises that ‘one may live out the Christian life in whatever setting that call [i.e. the call to follow Christ] took place’.

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