On Sunday, June 14, 1981, John Piper preached on 1 Corinthians 7:17–24, which begins, “Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him” (1 Cor. 7:17). The point of Piper’s message, he said, could be stated as a declaration and as a prayer:
As a declaration it would be: How you fulfill the demands of your vocation is an essential part of Christian discipleship. Or to put it another way: How you do your job is a big part of your obedience to Jesus. Stated as a prayer, the main point today is: Father, grant to us all the grace to be conscious of your presence at our work and to obey your commands in all our vocational relationships.
He then explained how that declaration and prayer related to Paul’s letter to the churches in Corinth. He concluded his sermon by offering four helpful and practical implications for our work. [To read and/or listen to the sermon in its entirety, click here.]
First, God is much more concerned with the way you do the job you now have than he is with whether you get a new job. We have in this congregation nurses, teachers, carpenters, artists, secretaries, bookkeepers, lawyers, receptionists, accountants, social workers, repairmen of various sorts, engineers, office managers, waitresses, plumbers, salesmen, security guards, doctors, military personnel, counselors, bankers, police officers, decorators, musicians, architects, painters, house cleaners, school administrators, housewives, missionaries, pastors, cabinet makers, and many more. And we all need to hear that what lies most on the heart of God is not whether we move from one to the other, but whether in our present work we are enjoying God’s promised presence and obeying his commands in the way we do our work.
Second, as we have seen, the command to stay in the calling in which you were when converted is not absolute. It does not condemn all job changes. We know this not only because of the exceptions Paul allowed to his principle here in 1 Corinthians 7 (cf. verse 15), but also because Scripture depicts and approves such changes. There is provision for freeing slaves in the Old Testament, and we are familiar with a tax collector who became a preacher and fishermen who became missionaries. Besides this, we know that there are some jobs in which you could not stay and obey God’s commands: for example, prostitution, numerous forms of indecent and corrupting entertainment, and others in which you may be forced to exploit people.
Paul is not saying that professional thieves or Corinthian cult prostitutes should stay in the calling in which they were called. The question at Corinth was: When we come to Christ, what should we abandon? And Paul’s answer is: You don’t need to abandon your vocation if you can stay in it with God. His concern is not to condemn job changes, but to teach that you can have fulfillment in Christ whatever your job is. This is unfashionable teaching in contemporary Western society, because it cuts the nerve of worldly ambition. We need to think long and hard about whether what we communicate to our children about success is biblical or just American. The word of God for all us “success seekers” is this: Take all that ambition and drive that you are pouring into your upward mobility and pour it instead into a spiritual zeal to cultivate an enjoyment of God’s presence and obedience to his revealed will in Scripture.
Third, for you younger people who have not yet entered a profession, the implication of our text is this: When you ask yourself the question, What is God’s will for my life? you should give the resounding answer: His will is that I maintain close fellowship with him and devote myself to obeying his commandments. God’s revealed will for you (the only will you are responsible to obey) is your sanctification (1 Thessalonians 4:3), not your vocation. Devote yourself to that with all your heart, and take whatever job you want. I have no doubt that, if all our young people are bending every effort to stay close to God and to obey the commands of Scripture, God will distribute them in the world exactly where he wants their influence for him.
Fourth, and finally, this text implies that the job you now have, as long as you are there, is God’s assignment to you. Verse 17 says, “Let everyone lead the life which the Lord has assigned to him.” God is sovereign. It is no accident that you are where you are. “A man’s mind plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps” (Proverbs 16:9). “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will be established” (Proverbs 19:21). “The lot is cast in the lap, but the decision is wholly from the Lord” (Proverbs 16:33).
You are where you are by divine assignment, even if you got there by fraud. Your job is your ministerial assignment, just as much as mine is. How you fulfill the demands of that job is just as essential in life as what you do here on Sunday. For many of us that may mean turning over a new leaf tomorrow morning. Let’s all pray before we set out to work: “God, go with me today and keep me conscious of your presence. Encourage my heart when I tend to despair, and humble me when I tend to boast. O God, give me the grace to obey your commandments, which I know are all summed up in this, to love my neighbor as myself. Amen.”