“Vocation” is a word that comes from the Latin word for “calling” (vocare). In modern vernacular it often is an unimpressive synonym for work, i.e., vocational training. However, in Scripture, the word is filled with significance, even dignity. God calls us to himself, out of darkness and death, into the life and love of his beloved Son. Therefore, Christians must understand “vocation” not as a mundane description of work, but rather a dignified “calling” to serve God and the creatures who bear his image. Truly, to ignore or minimize this vocation is to miss a significant facet of the Christian life.
When the Reformers like Martin Luther threw off the shackles of Rome, they restored the doctrine of justification by faith alone. However, contesting the clergy-laity divide, they also esteemed the priesthood of all believers and the doctrine of vocation. In fact, in church history any study of vocation must consider his writings, for he wrote so much and so well about this doctrine.
Taking this into consideration, Gene Veith an evangelical Lutheran has captured much of Luther’s doctrine, make that the biblical doctrine, in his excellent book God at Work: Your Vocation in All of Life. Introducing his topic, he writes, “When God blesses us, He almost always does it through other people” (14). This, in a sentence, is the doctrine of vocation. Or more exactly, this is the fruit of the gift of vocation.
In what follows I’ve traced the themes of his book and encapsulated a number of his best quotes. I hope it piques your interest in this topic, even as it paints a picture of why vocation is so important for the Christian.
Veith begins with biblical and historical survey of the doctrine of vocation and why we should care about it.
“In the medieval church, having a vocation or having ‘a calling’ referred to exclusively to full-time church work.” With the Reformation and a return the Bible, this all changed. The Reformation “taught [rightly] that the pastoral office is a vocation, . . . but it also taught that laypeople as well have vocations, callings of their own that entail holy responsibilities, authorities, and blessings of their own. Not all believers were pastors or church workers, . . . but all believers are priests. . . . ‘The priesthood of all believers’ did not make everyone into church workers; rather, it turned every kind of work into a sacred calling.” (17–19)
Added to this theological shift in identity was a functional shift in activities,
“The doctrine of vocation is utterly realistic, accounting for problems, sins, and confusions that beset each and every vocation.” (23)
“Luther . . . say[s] that vocation is a mask of God. That is, God hides Himself in the workplace, the family, the Church, and the seemingly secular society. To speak of God being hidden is a way of describing His presence, as when a child hiding in a room is there, just not seen. To realize that the mundane activities that take up most of our lives—going to work, taking the kids to soccer practice, picking up a few things from the store, going to church—are hiding-places for God can be a revelation in itself. Most people seek God in mystical experiences, spectacular miracles, and extraordinary acts they have to do. To find Him in vocation brings Him, literally, down to earth, makes us see how close He really is to us, and transfigures everyday life.” (24)
Isn’t that what we want, to practice the presence of God as we wash dishes and wait for retirement? Indeed, the doctrine of vocation teaches us how.
The Good Works of Vocation
The doctrine of vocation takes our vertical longings and presses them into the horizontal relationships of life.
“God does not need our good works, but our neighbor does.” (38)
“Genuine good works have to actually help someone. In vocation, we are not doing good works for God—we are doing good works for our neighbor. This locates moral action in the real, messy world or everyday life, in the conflicts and responsibilities of the world—not in inner attitudes or abstract ideals, but in concrete interactions with other people.” (39)
Choosing A Vocation
Against our culture (and our human nature) which says “I choose, therefore I am,” the doctrine of vocation affirms the sovereignty of God and his calling.
“Despite what our culture leads us to believe, vocation is not self-chosen. That is to say, we do not choose our vocations. We are called to them. There is a big difference.” (50)
‘What do you want to be?’ is indeed a good question. But what you are is in many ways a given. Even your wants—your desires, your dreams, your choices—are a function of who you are. (52)
In our choice-mad culture, people exalt willpower to the point that they even imagine that they ‘choose their own values.’ When it comes to getting an abortion or having a baby, staying alive or being killed by one’s doctor, either action is considered moral as long as there is a ‘choice.’ People choose their own beliefs. And whatever one ‘chooses’ is right ‘for that person.'” (53)
“Our vocations are, literally, in the hands of others—college admissions boards, medical school selection committees, employment agencies, bureaucratic hierarchies, or the person we love who may or may not choose to marry us.” (56)
“‘Finding one’s vocation’ . . . is an important sense . . . misleading. Not only do we not choose our vocation, but, strictly speaking, we do not find our vocation, as if it is something unknown, awaiting us in the future. Rather, our vocation is already here, where we are and what we are doing right now. . . . We are to love our neighbors—that is, the people who are actually around us . . . [F]inding our vocation is largely a matter of finding where God is, the God who hides Himself in our neighbors, in ourselves, and in His world (57, 59, 60)
The Work of Faith
Faith works. And as James teaches, any faith that doesn’t work is a dead faith. The doctrine of vocation, therefore, explains how and where faith works.
“A Christian and a non-Christian may labor side by side in the same job, and on the surface they are doing exactly the same thing. But work that is done in faith has a different significance than work that is done in unbelief. The doctrine of vocation helps Christians see the ordinary labors of life to be charged with meaning.” (61)
“Human work is an imitation of God’s work, a participation in God’s creation and His creativity. Ruling, subduing, multiplying, causing plants to grow, making things—these are what God does, and yet God gives them as tasks to human beings.” (62)
“It follows that not every occupation or way of making a living can be a vocation. Being a drug dealer is not a calling from God. This particular job does not involve loving one’s neighbors; rather, it harms them. Occupations such as thief, embezzler, contract killer, and other crimes would also be outside the pale of vocation. They are intrinsically sinful. They show no love and service. God is not hidden in them. Only the Devil is.” (65–66)
“Christians are engaged in the world by carrying out their vocations. This is how they can be a positive influence in the culture.” (67)
To those who say: “‘We are just doing our jobs.’ That is the doctrine of vocation. Ordinary men and women expressing their love and service to their neighbor, ‘just doing our jobs.'” (75)
Vocations in the Home and the State
Beyond the workplace, we find God calling us in the home, the state, and the church. (God at Work has a chapter on our calling in the church, but here we’re only looking outside the church).
“The family is the most basic of all vocations, the one in which God’s creative power and His providential care are most dramatically conveyed through human beings.” (78)
“Marriage is a vocation from God. . . . Marriage is not a sacrament but a vocation. Nevertheless, marriage is a tangible manifestation of the relationship between Christ and the Church, though only Christians couples, through the eyes of faith, will be able to glimpse how this is so” (79–80)
“Something may be good when done inside a vocation, but bad when it is done outside that vocation. Sex outside of marriage wrong, but not because there is anything wrong with sex. Within the vocation of marriage, it is a great good. Outside the vocation of marriage, though, it is evil. You are not called to have sex with anyone other than your spouse. You have no authority to have this positive physical relationship with someone you are not married to.” (84)
In the family, husbands are called to love and serve their wife, and vice versa. At the same time, God calls fathers into the “God-like” vocation of fatherhood. Mothers too have the vocation of nourishing and training their children. Reciprocally, children are born as sons and daughters. This too is a vocation:
“Not everyone is called to be a parent, of course, but everyone has a parent. Being a child is also a holy calling, with particular work and particular obligations.” (87)
Citizens and governors are also God-given vocations. Citizens are called to honor and obey their governors (Romans 13:1–7; 1 Peter 2:13). Governors are given the sword to defend the innocent and punish the guilty.
“In other words, just as God gives his daily bread through the means of a farmer, He deals out punishment to evildoers and protects law-abiding citizens through the means of governing authorities.” (102)
The doctrine of vocation comes with a lifelong learning curve. Here but a few principles for living.
“Every vocation has its unique temptations and capacity for sin.” (135)
“More often, acting outside of vocation is morally innocent, but it results in ineffectiveness, frustration, and wasted time.” (139)
“Our vocations, like the rest of the earth, are under a curse, one directed explicitly at marriage, childbirth, and work (Genesis 3:16–19).” (143)
“‘He who labors knows that there are times when all human ways are blocked,’ observed Wingren. ‘In a special sense this is the time for prayer.'” (149)
Quoting Martin Luther: ‘God gives daily bread indeed without prayer, also to all the wicked; but we pray in this petition that He would lead us to know it, and to receive our daily bread with thanksgiving.'” (150)
There is so much more to say about the doctrine of vocation, let alone learn and practice. But I pray these quotes prompted thoughts and prayers that draw you to consider your calling.
Christians must consider their vocations as God appointed means of glorifying God and loving neighbor. Indeed, in our daily lives we glorify God by loving neighbor. We do not serve him by abstractly loving others; rather, we display God’s love and truth when we pray, plan, and perspire in our labors to bring good to people with names and needs. Of course, the greatest good is the good news of Jesus Christ. Still, how paltry will our witness be if we ignore the humanity and misery of those who we share Christ. Truly, God has given us mouths to pray and preach but also hands and feet to work.
May the God who calls us to himself give us a passion to fulfill our calling through the vocations he has assigned to us. God at Work by Gene Veith is a helpful book to consider that subject, as are the following resources:
- The Gospel at Work: How Working for King Jesus Gives Purpose and Meaning to Our Work by Greg Gilbert and Sebastian Traeger
- Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work by Tim Keller with Katherine Leary Alsdorf
- What’s Best Next?: How the Gospel Changes the Way You Get Things Done by Matt Perman
- Made to Flourish — A Pastor’s Network for the Common Good
Soli Deo Gloria, ds