The Reformation doctrine of vocation teaches that all Christians are called by God to live faithfully in three arenas, the household, the Church, and the state, in which all Christians are to live out their priesthood as believers by offering up their lives as living sacrifices to God.
The Reformers formulated the doctrine of vocation in response to the Roman Catholic insistence that “vocation” or “calling” was reserved for those entering the service of the church through the priesthood or a monastic order. Those doing so would renounce marriage, secular work, and economic advancement through taking vows of celibacy, obedience, and poverty. In response, the Reformers argued that all Christians are called by God to live faithfully in the three arenas of life: the household, the church, and the state. As a corollary of the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, all Christians are called by God to offer up their lives as living sacrifices in all areas of life. This means that all of life, including the most mundane tasks, are worship to God, not only select actions and vocations reserved for those who have renounced involvement in normal institutions of worldly life.
Introduction and Definition
The doctrine of vocation is one of the greatest—though strangely neglected and forgotten—teachings of the Reformation. Contrary to the common assumption, it is much more than a theology of work. Vocation has to do with God’s providence, how He governs and cares for His creation by working through human beings. Vocation shows Christians how to live out their faith, not just in the workplace but in their families, churches, and cultures. Vocation is where faith bears fruit in acts of love, and so it grows out of the Gospel. And vocation is where Christians struggle with trials and temptations, becoming a means of sanctification.
The word “vocation” is simply the Latinate word for “calling.” God calls us—addresses us personally with the language of His Word—and we are brought to faith. He also calls us to arenas of service. “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). Thus, the Lord “assigns” us to a “life,” and then He calls us to that life.
The Three Arenas
The immediate context of that verse from the Apostle Paul is a discussion not of the workplace but of marriage. According to Luther, we have callings in each of the three estates that God created for human life:
- The household. This refers to the family, including its economic labor by which it supports itself. Marriage, becoming a father or mother, being a son or daughter, are all vocations. In Luther’s late-medieval economy, most work—whether that of peasant farms, middle class crafts, or the nobility’s political rule—were all based in families and usually conducted at home. The very word “economy,” which derives from the Greek words for “house” (oikos) and “management” (nomia), referred to the concept of the “household.” But our family relationships constitute our most important vocations.
- The church. All Christians are called by the Gospel. God also “calls” pastors. Also elders, other church workers, and all other members, each of whom has a part to play in the congregation.
- The state. We find ourselves in a certain time and place, under certain political jurisdictions, part of a certain culture. This is part of our “assignment” in which we are to live our Christian lives. Our citizenship is a vocation. We are called to our local communities, our nation, our surrounding culture. Christians are free to participate in the political life of their countries, as well as to hold public offices. We thus have vocations even in the “secular” arena, which is where Christians interact with non-believers and function as salt and light in the world. (Matt. 5:13–16)
The Reformers reacted against the Roman Catholic teaching that reserved “having a vocation” or “receiving a call” for entering a monastery, a convent, or the priesthood. To receive that kind of calling meant entering the “spiritual” life, which was considered far more Christian and meritorious than living a “secular” life in the world. To so devote oneself to the church meant taking vows of celibacy (thus repudiating marriage and parenting), poverty (thus repudiating economic productivity in the society), and obedience (thus being subject only to church law and not to that of earthly authorities). To the Reformers, not only were such vows a manifestation of works righteousness in opposition to the Gospel, they were also blasphemous rejections of the very estates that God ordained for human life.
The Reformers responded by exalting the family—particularly the callings of marriage and parenthood (vs. the vow of celibacy)—as a realm of Christian love and devotion. They exalted the workplace as a realm of Christian service (vs. the vows of poverty). And they exalted not just the state but the society as a whole as realms of God’s creation and sovereignty (vs. the vows of obedience).
The Reformation teachings about vocation are facets of the doctrine of the “priesthood of all believers.” This does not mean that every Christian is a minister leading a congregation or that there is no need for pastors. Rather, it means that one does not need to be a pastor—who himself has a calling to proclaim God’s Word—in order to be a “priest.” Farmers, shoemakers, lawyers, merchants, soldiers, rulers, husbands, wives, mothers, children, etc., are all “priests”— performing “spiritual” work in their ordinary labors, interceding in prayer for everyone they deal with, bringing God’s Word into their everyday lives.
A “priest” is someone, above all, who offers sacrifices, something even pastors do not do (except for Catholic pastors who call themselves priests because they believe they re-sacrifice Christ in the mass). But though Christ has been sacrificed once and for all so that we no longer need any other sacrifice for our sin (Heb. 9:6), we now are called to present our bodies as living sacrifices (Rom. 12:1) and “to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 2:5). This happens in vocation.
The Purpose of Vocation
Every vocation, according to Luther, is to love and serve your neighbors. Your vocation brings specific neighbors into your life: your spouse, your children, your fellow-citizens, the members of your congregation, your customers. God wants us to love and serve them.
Loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves encapsulates “all the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 22:37–40). Our love of God is based solely on His love for us in Christ:
“In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10). Thus our relationship with Him is based not on our works, our service to him, or our vocations, but upon Christ alone. “God does not need our good works,” observed Luther. “But our neighbor does.” God saves us apart from our works, then calls back into the world, into our distinct callings, to love and serve Him by loving and serving our neighbors.
This love and service, these good works, consist largely not of special “good deeds” but of the ordinary tasks of the vocation. Parents changing their baby’s diaper, which Luther hailed as an act of holiness; farmers plowing their fields; a shopkeeper selling something useful; an engineer designing a useful piece of technology; an artist painting a beautiful picture; a citizen casting a vote—these all can be offered as acts of love and service.
Vocation as the Mask of God
Luther stressed that God himself is living and active in and through vocation. He gives us our daily bread by means of farmers and bakers. He creates new human beings and cares for them by means of mothers and fathers. He protects us by means of lawful magistrates. He proclaims His Word and gives his sacraments through the voice and hands of pastors. Vocation, says Luther, is a “mask” of God: We see only the human face, performing ordinary tasks in everyday life, but behind that calling, through which we are blessed, God himself is hidden, giving his gifts.
God in his providence works even through non-believers. Often the non-Christian is motivated solely by self-interest or self-fulfillment. Christians can experience some of that, but they can also make their work the fruit of their faith—“faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6)—and bear the burdens of their callings as a “daily” cross of service and self-sacrifice (Luke 9:23–24).
To be sure, we often sin in our vocations. Instead of wanting to serve, as Luther observed, we insist on being served. Instead of loving and serving, we harm the neighbor of our vocation. We “lord it over” those under our authority rather than using our authority to serve them, as the “Son of Man” does (Mark 10:42–45). Sin in vocation puts us in conflict with God’s purpose, as we resist God’s love for others and work against Him. Often God still blesses others through our vocation, despite ourselves. But we must be broken to repentance by God’s law, whereupon we can know Christ’s forgiveness again, which restores our vocation.
This is the texture of the Christian life—which plays out in our marriages, parenthood, work, congregation, and cultural life—which, along with the trials and tribulations that also afflict us in these callings, can become occasions for spiritual growth and sanctification.
The doctrine of vocation brings the Gospel into ordinary life. It transfigures the mundane routines of ordinary life, charging them with purpose, spiritual significance, and the very presence of God.
- Genesis 2–3: Marriage and work both before and after the Fall.
- Exodus 35:30–36:7: The “call” and equipping of Bezalel to make the art of the Tabernacle.
- Matthew 19:3–6: Christ’s teachings about marriage, in which it is God who “joins together.”
- Mark 10:42–44: Even authority is to be exercised in love and service to the neighbor.
- Luke 9:23–24:Self-denial in our “daily”—that is, vocational—crosses.
- Romans 8:28: A beloved verse that is actually about vocation: “All things work together for good for those who have been called according to his purpose.”
- Romans 12:14–13:7: We must not avenge ourselves, but God works through earthly rulers, as His agents, to punish evildoers.
- 1 Corinthians 1:26–31: “Consider your calling. . . .”
- 1 Corinthians 7:17–24: The Apostle Paul’s discussion of marriage culminates with this key text for vocation: “Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him.” He then applies this principle to cultural identity (circumcision or uncircumcision) and to socio-economic role (slave or free).
- Ephesians 5:22–6:9: The great texts about wives and husbands, children and parents, masters and servants. Christ is intimately involved in each of these vocations. Again, the key, contrary to the contemporary ethic of self-fulfillment, is self-denial: Husbands give themselves up for their wives, emulating Christ’s sacrifice for the church. Whereupon wives deny themselves (“submit”) for their husbands, as the church responds to Christ’s sacrifice.
- 1 Thessalonians 5:12–24: Admonition to respect pastors and church leaders—”those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you”—and to avoid idleness. Culminating with the reminder that the meaning and the effect of the calling lies in the Caller: “He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.”
- 2 Thessalonians 3:6–12: Why all Christians should work for their livings.
- John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book III, Chs. 6-10
- John Calvin, A Little Book on the Christian’s Life.
- Martin Luther, The Freedom of the Christian
- Martin Luther, To the Nobility of the German Nation
- Martin Luther, Whether Soldiers Too Can Be Saved
- Martin Luther, Genesis
- Martin Luther, Sermon on the Mount
- Martin Luther, Church Postils
- Martin Luther, Table of Duties in the Small Catechism
- Martin Luther, Ten Commandments in the Large Catechism
- Einar Billing, Our Calling
- Gene Edward Veith, God at Work: Your Christian Vocation in All of Life. See this brief book summary.
- Gene Edward Veith, Working for Our Neighbor: A Lutheran Primer on Work, Economics, and Ordinary Life
- Gene Edward Veith and Mary Moerbe, Family Vocation: God’s Calling in Marriage, Parenting, and Childhood
- Gustaf Wingren, Luther on Vocation
- James M. Hamilton, Work and Our Labor in the Lord. See an author interview here.
- Michael Horton, Calvin on the Christian Life: Glorifying and Enjoying God Forever. See an author interview here.
- Os Guinness, The Call: Finding and Fulfilling the Central Purpose of Your Life
- Robert Benne, Ordinary Saints: An Introduction to the Christian Life
- Stephen Nichols, What Is Vocation? See a brief book summary here.
- Timothy Keller, Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work
- Aaron Denlinger, Calvin on Genesis 2:15
- Alastair Mackensie, Faith and Work: Martin Luther
- Allister Stone, John Calvin, the Work Ethic, and Vocation
- Art Lindsley, The Image of God and the Dignity of Work
- Dan Doriani, The Power and Danger in Luther’s Concept of Work
- Dave Jenkins, Enjoying God Who Calls Us to Work
- David Murray, The Beauty of Manual Labor
- David Schrock, God At Work
- Douglas Wilson, Has the Church Damaged the Protestant Doctrine of Vocation
- Gene Edward Veith, How Vocation Transformed Society
- Gene Edward Veith, The Protestant Work Ethic
- Gene Edward Veith, The Purpose of Work
- Greg Forster, How the Reformation Revolutionized Diaper Changing
- Ian Hart, The Teaching of Luther and Calvin about Ordinary Work: 1 Martin Luther
- Ian Hart, The Teaching of Luther and Calvin about Ordinary Work: 2 John Calvin
- Ian Hart, The Teaching of the Puritans about Ordinary Work
- J. I. Packer, Video: God and Vocation
- J. I. Packer, Video: Offer Your Work to God
- J. I. Packer, Video: Daily Work is Worship
- J. I. Packer, Video: Daily Work is Ministry
- John McKinley, More Than a Carpenter
- John Piper, How a Business Person Can Glorify God in Work
- John Piper, How Do I Glorify God in My Job?
- Michael Horton, Video: Working for God’s Glory
- R. C. Sproul, God’s Will and Your Job
- Sam Storms, Faith and Work – Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4
- Sam Webb, Under the Eye of God: The Puritan Doctrine of Vocation – Part 1 and part 2
- Steven Nichols, Why Work
- Steven Nichols and Michael Horton, Luther on Vocation
- Timothy Keller, Video: Why Work Matters
- Timothy Keller, 4 Ways the Gospel Transforms Work