Vocation and Neighbor

In the last post, we sought to define the doctrine of vocation. We saw that the language of vocation/calling was a technical term during the Reformation era for clergy. Luther took this language and applied it to every station in life thus destroying the distinction between sacred and secular, holy and mundane.

Vocation teaches that God transforms every arena where we live, move, and have our existence. Our stations in life are important. God works through them for the good of his creatures. In this post, we will look at how vocation is intended to serve others and then flesh out some implications of the doctrine. Gustaf Wingren does a good job articulating the “otherness” that should characterize vocation.

“In his vocation man does works which effect the well-being of others; for so God has made all offices. Through this work in man’s offices, God’s creative work goes forward, and that creative work is love, a profusion of good gifts. With persons as his ‘hands’ or ‘coworkers,’ God gives his gifts through the earthly vocations, toward man’s life on earth (food through farmers, fishermen and hunters; external peace through princes, judges, and orderly powers; knowledge and education through teachers and parents, etc., etc.).

Through the preacher’s vocation, God gives the forgiveness of sins. Thus love comes from God, flowing down to human beings on earth through all vocations, through both spiritual and earthly governments…So vocation belongs to this world, not to heaven; it is directed toward one’s neighbor, not toward God. This is an important preliminary characteristic. In his vocation one is not reaching up to God, but rather bends oneself toward the world. When one does that, God’s creative work is carried on. God’s work of love takes form on earth.”

Vocation has been termed a “mask of God,” meaning it is a place where God is at work in tangible ways though we don’t see him or connect that work to him. Wingren says, “God does not come to man in thoughts and feelings which well up in him when he isolates himself from the world, but rather in what happens to man in the external and tangible events which take place about him.”

God hides himself in the farmer and provides us food through him. He hides himself in the judge through whom he executes justice through. He is behind the doctor who provides healing. He is working through the carpenter to build and provide shelter. He is disguised in the pregnant mother bringing new life into the world.

God is working for the good of the world in and through people. Common grace makes this true for all people. Specific grace makes it uniquely true for the one who responds to the call of salvation. As Robert Kolb says, “For Luther the situations and responsibilities which structure human life are part of the doctrine of creation. God places all people, not just Christians, in these situations; He assigns all people these responsibilities. Only those who trust in Him, however, recognize His hand in the construction of their situations. Only those who recognize His lordship perceive that their responsibilities are personal assignments from God.” Thus eyes are opened and every arena is now full of meaning, opportunity, and purpose for the Christian. Every station is transformed. Luther captures this idea with his usual winsomeness.

“If you are a craftsman you will find the Bible placed in your workshop, in your hands, in your heart; it teaches and preaches how you ought to treat your neighbor.  Only look at your tools, your needle, your thimble, your beer barrel, your articles of trade, your scales, your measures, and you will find this saying written on them.  You will not be able to look anywhere where it does not strike your eyes.  None of the things with which you deal daily are too trifling to tell you this incessantly, if you are but willing to hear it; and there is no lack of such preaching, for you have as many preachers as there are transactions, commodities, tools, and other implements in your house and estate; they shout this to your face, ‘My dear, use me toward your neighbor as you would want him to act toward you with that which is his.’”

I love the breadth of this perspective. Every skill and tool that God gives us is to be pressed into the service of our neighbor.  The posture of vocation is outward looking. It calls us to use what we are and have for the good of others.

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