Implications of the Doctrine of Vocation

In the last two posts, we focused on defining the doctrine of vocation and exploring its focus on the neighbor. I think it is important to think through some of the implications that follow from grasping and applying this doctrine to our lives. From my perspective, the ripple effect of these truths are quite liberating and life giving.

All roles and stations in life are significant and important. The doctrine of vocation undercuts any spiritual hierarchy that would elevate one role above another. The role of the mother is no less valuable than the role of the pastor. God is no less present in non-ministry roles. In one sense, this was the whole point of this reformation doctrine. The reformers pulled together justification by faith alone, the priesthood of all believers, and the doctrine of vocation. This trio was a destructive force against any system of thought that would degrade the common every day tasks of most people.

In Luther’s words, “As long as the shoemaker or blacksmith clings to these two, to the Word of faith toward God by which the heart is made clean, and to the word of understanding which teaches him how to act toward his neighbor in his station in life, everything is clean to him, even if with his hands and his whole body he deals with nothing but dirt.”

Vocation is the primary arena for loving and serving our neighbor. As finite creatures we are granted a limited existence. We only have so much time, so many relationships, and so much influence. We live out our lives in a few very small geographical locations. We find ourselves in a few different stations in a few different places among a few different people. Vocation helps us grasp that the people, places, and stations of our lives are the arena for fulfilling the command to love.

We are responsible for our little spheres of influence, nothing more. As Wingren says, “One important fact in God’s providence is that I have the neighbor I have.” This perspective frees us from unrealistic thoughts on our roles, responsibilities, and abilities. It also sharpens our focus and beckons intentionality for engaging our actual callings.

Vocation is the context where God spills out his grace to us. This perspective will help us recognize that God is behind the people that love us, serve us, and bring good into our lives. The world will open to us in fresh ways if we can see it with this lens. Worship and gratitude will fill our hearts when we see God behind the activity of our neighbors.

In the words of Wingren, “if he ponders what he receives through the faithfulness of others to their vocations. He receives the good gifts of God love through both prince and preacher.” In other words, God is hidden in the road construction workers and the automobile manufacturers that make your commute to work possible and smooth. He is with the farmer, preparer, and server of the chicken sandwich you eat for lunch. He is disguised in the loving smile and supportive companionship of friends that meet your basic human needs.  His grace is coming at us from all directions. Vocation gives us eyes to see it.

Vocation is the context where God spills out his grace through us. Our stations in life do not exist for our self-satisfaction though they may provide fulfillment. We are parents, children, and employees for the sake of other people. Vocation is the vehicle of God’s love and kindness to the people in our lives.

Wingren asserts that man must look at his “position in his own vocation, not asking what he receives but what he is to do, what God requires of him…Christ frees neither the hand from its work nor the body from its office. The hand, the body, and their vocation belong to the earth. The purpose is that one’s neighbor be served. Conscience rests in faith in God, and does nothing that contributes to salvation; but hands serve in the vocation which is God’s downward-reaching work, for the well-being of men.”

Vocation is the context where God works his grace in us. It is my contention that God uses vocation to persevere his people in the work of salvation. The first post in this series discussed the three temporal aspects of salvation. I will argue in the next couple posts that the present aspect of God’s saving work is accomplished, in part, through the various stations where God places us. God does not just use vocation to benefit us and others. He uses it to rescue us.

Resources on Vocation
The following are some helpful resources on the topic of vocation. My favorite of these is Gustaf Wingren’s work on vocation. Gene Veith has done some excellent work on communicating the concepts of vocation in a contemporary manner. Keller’s work on vocation is also very helpful. 
 
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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.