Salvation by Vocation (2)

In the last post, I argued that God uses the common stations of life to work his saving grace in us. We saw that God uses child rearing uniquely in the life of women. His saving concern is also lavished on men in their work place and in their homes. Every station of life is transformed into an arena where God is now present to work his salvation: marriage, parenting, manual labor, business, public service, education, etc.

How exactly does God work his grace into these life contexts? I understand him to do this in a few different ways. This list captures a few of the main ways.

  • Vocation exposes our sinfulness
  • Vocation curbs and kills our sin
  • Vocation drives us to the gospel of Christ
  • Vocation is utilized to train our character
  • Vocation forces us outside of ourselves and into the service of our neighbor
  • Vocation is where God works through us to shape culture
  • Vocation is the context where we magnify God with our heads, hands, and hearts

Remember that vocation was a term that was only applied to priests and monks during the time of the reformation. It was a high calling to denounce the mundane life of working a 9-5, getting married, and taking care of children. The real holy and spiritual folks were those who spent their days praying and reading their bibles. Into the fray of all this, Luther asserted that every station of life is worthy of the title vocation. Once Luther stated,  “when God wants to save a monk, he compels him to occupy himself with earthly things.” Gustaf Wingren is correct in the reason for such a statement, “in the cloister one is removed  from the anxieties of vocation and from the transformation of vocation.”

It is in the regular, normal, every day existence of people that God is present. A 9-5 is hallowed ground. Parenting is a holy endeavor. Gustaf Wingren captures the sacredness of the mundane.

“Thus a Christian finds himself called to drab and lowly tasks, which seem less remarkable than monastic life…and other distractions from our vocations.  For him who heeds his vocation, sanctification is hidden in offensively ordinary tasks, with the result that it is hardly noticed at all that he is a Christian.  But faith looks on simple duties as tasks to which vocation summons the man; and by the Spirit he becomes aware that all those ‘poor, dull, and despised works’ are adorned with the favor of God ‘as with costliest gold and precious stones.’  The monk is always uncertain about his works; but in work which really contributes to the neighbor’s well-being and is commanded by God, peace and certainty are found.”

It is in these “offensively ordinary tasks” that God exposes, curbs, and kills our sin. Mark Kolden says this about the doctrine of vocation and the mortification of sin.

“Luther speaks of the work of the law (second use) as putting us to death, and he says that this is the way that God carries out our baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection. According to Luther the Christian ‘dies daily’ (is ‘drowned through daily repentance’, as the Small Catechism puts it). The idea of daily dying has often been spiritualized, to the effect that dying is only understood metaphorically as being penitent for sin. Yet the more realistic emphasis to the effect that each day we actually die a bit seems equally true to Luther, because he also thinks of the eventual physical death of the old sinful self when he uses the phrase ‘dying daily.'”

“Where does this dying happen? In one’s vocation, in which the ‘cross’ of family, hard work, demanding times, etc., gradually (or more suddenly) puts us to death. In addition to being our participation as co-workers in God’s ongoing creative activity (according to the law in its first use), our vocation is also the location of God’s sanctifying work of mortifying the flesh, of putting to death the sinful self (the work of the law in its second use); all of this is so that on the last day only the self that is righteous in Christ will live.”

Gustaf Wingren addresses this same issue in his own words and from his own angle.

“Different aspects of external circumstances serve their function in the crucifixion of the old man. According to Luther, ‘these are true mortifications, not in deserted places apart from the company of people, but right in the social and political order.’ It is in the external and earthly that the slaying of the flesh is to be effected; the crucifixion of Christ was certainly not something inward and refined. Fellowship with Christ is realized in something apparently very unspiritual…We are disciplined in vocation, in labor, and in the demands of social life. Vocation is earthly, just as shockingly earthly as the humanity of Christ, apparently so void of all divinity.”

Sin is put to death in and through vocation. Godliness is also fostered there. Vocation by nature forces us outside of ourselves. It bends our inward focus outward toward our neighbors. Here is Wingren again.

“We have noted above that vocation is so constituted that it is conducive to the well-being of neighbors; it servers others (love). Now we see that it compels one to look to God, to lay hold of his promise (faith). Man is thereby put into right relation both to earth (love) and heaven (faith). God’s complete work is set in motion through vocation: he changes the world and sheds his mercy on hard-pressed humanity.”

Marriage is a perfect illustration of how God works his grace in vocation. Luther said that marriage is of such a character that it “teaches us and compels us to look to God’s hand and grace, and simply drives us to faith.” Wingren states, “Marriage has the function of compelling one to work for the good of others. And when that happens, man generally stands empty-handed and helpless before God; that is to say, faith then has a chance to be born.” Here is Wingren one more time.

“The human being is self-willed, desiring that whatever happens shall be to his own advantage. When husband and wife, in marriage serve one another and their children, this is not due to the heart’s spontaneous and undisturbed expression of love, every day and hour. Rather, in marriage as an institution something compels the husband’s selfish desires to yield and likewise inhibits the egocentricity of the wife’s heart. At work in marriage is a power which compels self-giving to spouse and children.”

Marriage shows us our sin, pushes us to Christ, pulls us outside of ourselves, creates character, fosters godliness, and absolutely transforms an individual. This is God’s design. These things are true because God is in the midst of marriage to save. This is true in every vocation—if we would open our eyes and recognize what God is doing and desiring to do.

In my opinion, this view of vocation infuses all of our roles and tasks with significance and value. It also roots godliness in the every day existence of most people. Mark Kolden captures this well.

“Just as God’s redemptive act in becoming incarnate affirms that salvation is not an escape from creation but a restoration and fulfillment of it, so also the Christian life will not be an escape from creaturely life but a calling to it. The call to follow Christ leads not to any religious vocation removed from daily life, but instead it transforms the attitude and understanding one has of the situation in which one already is.”

On a personal note, my own exploration into the doctrine of vocation has changed me in significant ways. The doctrine is like a reset button regarding our perceptions of every day tasks. It has helped me engage my various roles and tasks with fresh vigor. It has caused me to view all areas of work and responsibility as holy and important. I hope this little exploration has been helpful to you as well. I encourage you to continue researching the topic.

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.