Defining the Doctrine of Vocation

The doctrine of vocation is yet another imprint left by the reformation. I have benefited greatly from thinking and studying about this reformation gem. I encourage you to take a season of time to immerse yourself in this topic if you have not done so. I am pretty certain you will not regret it. In this post and the next, I want to define the doctrine of vocation and provide a few links to resources for further study. Gene Veith has written many helpful things on this area. Here is his definition of vocation.

“The word ‘calling,’ or in its Latinate form ‘vocation,’ had long been used in reference to the sacred ministry and the religious orders. Martin Luther was the first to use ‘vocation’ to refer also to secular offices and occupations. Today, the term has become common-place, another synonym for a profession or job, as in ‘vocational training.’ But behind the term is the notion that every legitimate kind of work or social function is a distinct ‘calling’ from God, requiring unique God-given gifts, skills, and talents. Moreover, the Reformation doctrine of vocation teaches that God himself is active in everyday human labor, family responsibilities, and social interactions.”

God is at work in and through the every day roles and activities of human beings.  What does it mean to have a vocation? Luther would answer, “that you occupy a station, you are a husband or wife, son or daughter.” He would argue that vocation is true of every station in life and that each station is a context where God is at work.. This is true for the lawyer, soldier, nurse, farmer, preacher, and janitor. Luther’s thought on this topic was influenced by 1 Corinthians 7:17-24. Take a look at this text and keep an eye to the language of calling.

Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches.

Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision. For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God.

Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called.

Were you a bondservant when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can  gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.) For he who was called in the Lord as a bondservant is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a bondservant of Christ. You were bought with a price; do not become bondservants of men.

So, brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God.

The theme is unmistakeable. Paul sandwiches the text with the same exhortation and then inserts that same word of encouragement into the center of the passage. God calls us. This calling is to salvation. His calling comes to us in various seasons and stations of life. He calls us out of sin and to him, but not out of these roles.

As Luther says, “the faith and the Christian station are so free a thing that they are bound to no special orders, but are above all orders, in all orders, and through all orders, wherefore there is no need for you to take up or leave any station in order to be saved it is all free, free…man is not to give up his station when he is called. He is to remain in his office. One is called to faith and love in these stations.”

The three-fold imperative in the passage is clear that the person should not leave their station when they are called to Christ. In between these commands, the body of teaching instructs the readers to not equate salvation with their activities or their stations. The question of circumcision, economic status, and work mean nothing when it comes to getting right with God. The call of God does not rip people out of their stations, it transforms how they are in these contexts. The station of the individual now becomes the place where God wants to work in, through, and for the sake of others.