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Our story begins in the thick of the action: a middle-aged Martin Luther is busy at work reforming the doctrine of the provincial German churches. He soon settles on issues surrounding the Christian life. In response to the medieval church’s insistence that the only truly Christian calling necessarily involved a withdrawal or retreat from society (by becoming a monk), Luther began arguing that calling can and ought to affirm the spiritual value of work in this world. In other words, ordinary, every-day work has significant religious value. It may seem silly to us, but this was a reinterpretation of calling in Luther’s day — and it was radical at that.
No longer was the monastery the only place where a Christian could fulfill his or her “higher” calling, for the farmer and the housewife stood just as high in God’s eyes as the monk. The catch for monks, farmers, and housewives, however, was that in order for their work to be pleasing to God it must be performed in sincere faith, responsible to God and contributive to the community.
All Protestants affirmed this redefinition of calling (or recapturing of Scripture; more of that soon), but perhaps none more vigorously than the English Puritans. Society was found religiously valuable if and only if it was made to conform to the will of God as revealed in Scripture. This meant that one’s vocation, or calling, was never to be separated from one’s love and obedience to God, as well as the loving of his neighbor as himself. To this they added all that they deduced from Scripture “by good and necessary consequence” (Westminster Confession of Faith, 1.6) and thereby aspired to bring all work under the discipline of Christianity.
But this balancing act didn’t last forever. Soon, under the increasing religious and political repression of the seventeenth century, devotion to the Christian ideal of vocation began to wane. It wasn’t long before people were leaving their religion at home when they left for work each day. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that this happened at precisely the same time the fatalistic hyper-Calvinism of certain Puritans gave way to the mechanistic Deism of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. When one’s god is so very far away, so very irrelevant to every-day life, it’s no wonder that making the world a better place becomes the sole reason for religion. Westerners eventually found out, especially once they rid themselves of such silly superstitions like the supernatural world (putting faith in modern technology instead), that they could make more money and experience more luxuries right now if they shrugged off this Christian baggage once and for all.
That, in a nutshell, is the story of how a beautifully recaptured Christian doctrine like “calling” devolved into a secular (utilitarian) notion that placed value on anything achieving “the greatest good for the greatest number of people.” Today, we Western Christians live within this tension, the tension that recognizes the brilliance and the benefits of a free-market economy along with the fact that many of those benefits sometimes come at the expense and exploitation of God’s good creation, not least of which, people — real, flesh-and-blood, thinking and feeling, people — with names and faces and families. How do we find our way through this dilemma? Do we retreat from the world like the monks of yesteryear, or do we simply shrug our shoulders and sing “Que Sera, Sera”? Is the duty we have toward our vocations irrelevant or integral to the Christian faith? What we need, it seems, is to recover our sense of calling. We need to go to the Scriptures and see what the Reformers saw.
What they saw was Abraham, forsaking all comfort, faithfully answering the vocation to which God called him. They saw John the Baptist, who believed his vocation was to “prepare the way of the Lord” (Matt. 3:3). Surely he wouldn’t have risked his life by offering an alternative (baptism) to the temple cult if he didn’t think he was called to do it. Think also of the apostle Paul, who, thrown from his horse on the way to Damascus, came to believe that the long-awaited Messiah had finally come, and that his vocation, his calling, was to herald the good news to an idolatrous world. But most of all, let us think about the Messiah Himself. This was a man who knew His calling. Indeed, He “came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10), “not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matt. 9:13). He believed He was sent as Messiah and heir to the throne of David (see Matt. 15:21–28), and to preach this good news was His purpose (Luke 4:43) — the good news that the great exodus was underway, that sin and death would stand condemned, and that the kingdom of God, come in person and in power, has arrived. And, lest we forget, these last two persons were also known as a tentmaker and carpenter, respectively.
This changes things. If we are in Christ and thus saved from God’s wrath as members of His forgiven family, it changes our status on this earth, and it changes the way we approach our every-day work. Salvation does not take us out of the world, for while we have been made new creations in Christ and temples of the Holy Spirit, God has nonetheless called us to a life of faith and faithfulness in this world (see 2 Cor. 5:17–21 and John 17:13–19). Thus we are simultaneously citizens of this world and of the world this one will become, and our vocations are to be dutifully fulfilled in light of this truth.
Our callings in life, from husband to wife, from father to mother, from son to daughter, from farmer to statesman to minister to housewife, flow from God’s call and love for us in Christ. And, mysteriously, our work somehow plays a part in the drama of that final day when the entire creation will be set free from its bondage (Rom. 8:18ff.). This means that the world will be liberated when those in Christ are revealed in glory at the day of their resurrection. But it also means we are called to work toward that liberation in the present by fulfilling our callings as wise stewards of God’s creation, as well as of society, just like He always intended.
What this has to do with our jobs is simply this: “Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Rom. 14:23). That is to say, in our obedience of faith we are to live and work knowing that there is a direct correlation between being called by God to trust in Christ alone for salvation and His call to live like the new day has already dawned — yes, even in the commonplace world of every-day work. For it is in this world that God is working (through our work) to bring His kingdom, His will, to bear on earth as it is in heaven.