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.

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Progressive Salvation and the Doctrine of Vocation

Salvation is a common term in the Bible that refers to God’s rescue mission. The language of salvation in Scripture is applied to a past reality, a present need, and a future hope. When God saves, these three dimensions will always be present. God has saved, is saving, and will save the person trusting in Christ.  Take a look at these three texts that speak to each of these dimensions.

Past


“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).

Present


“For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18).

Future


“Having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him” (Romans 5:9).

Salvation is a whole package deal. When God saves he does it thoroughly. Every area of need is covered. As of late, my interests have gravitated toward the present aspect of salvation. The idea of “being saved” touches on the way God keeps a person in the faith.  It reaches into God’s continual activity to hold a person in his saving grace. Tim Challies says this about the present dimension of salvation.

“Salvation in the present refers to sanctification and perseverance. Sanctification is a process that is ongoing in the lives of believers. The Holy Spirit indwells us at the moment of salvation and begins to affect change in our lives so that we become more and more conformed to the image of holiness modeled in Christ. As we allow the Spirit to lead and guide us, we grow in grace. The present reality of salvation also promises perseverance so we can have full confidence that we will continue as believers to the end. We do not need to worry about losing the salvation which God granted to us, for He continues to grant it to us on a continual basis.”

In the next few posts, I want to explore the mechanics of the present/ongoing reality of salvation. How exactly does God go on saving us? What does he use to progressively rescue us? I am convinced that one of the main ways that God accomplishes this work is through the ordinary, every day vocations of his people.

By vocation, I mean the specific roles and callings each individual Christian possesses. We are husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, children, employees, employers, students, teachers, church members, etc. In, through, and by these vocations, God works his saving grace into us. My aim is to flesh this out and demonstrate this in the next few posts by looking at this idea of vocation and its link to progressive salvation.

Daily Labor

Work dominates the first two chapters of the Bible. The first sentences of Scripture introduce us to a God at work. Soon after we are introduced to man, the image-bearer who works. It would be difficult to dispute that work is anything but integral to man. Believe it or not work, according to Scripture, is first and foremost gift. The curse of Genesis 3 that led to frustrating toil only makes sense if work was a wonderful privilege. Ecclesiastes is a very interesting book. Many have said that the writer of this book had Genesis 1-3 open before him as he wrote. This book is an extended meditation on life through the lens of the curse. The themes of vanity, chasing the wind, and emptiness come from an honest look at life lived under the sun.

I have always been intrigued by a particular paradox in this book regarding work. Over and over again the author laments the fact that so much of his labor is in vain. He says it is a chasing the wind because you cannot ultimately determine the outcome of your toil. He notes example after example of situations where the fruit of one’s labor is never experienced. If you read the book you will see this theme over and over again. So you read this and you feel it with the author and then he makes an offhanded comment like this: “I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man” (Ecc 3:12).

It seems the author is dispensing great wisdom to the working man through this paradox. He is showing us that work retains its status as gift. He is showing us that this gift has been affected by the curse. We live within this tension every day as we labor. More than that, he is showing us a creaturely posture in our work. As creatures we are incapable of determining the outcome of our work. The author is in agreement with James. “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit—yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.’  As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil” (James 4:13-16).

The ability to determine the end result of our labor requires foreknowledge, omnipotence, and sovereignty. These are attributes that creatures do not possess. They belong to God alone. The call of Ecclesiastes is to enter into the gift of work today without having to know its outcome. There is tremendous freedom here. My job is a gift of God for this day. My job is the provision of today to honor Christ and love my neighbor. This means my job will not be wasted if my desired outcome fails to come to pass. It is never a waste when we engage it as daily gift and work at it with all our might (Ecc 9:10). I really think there is something so helpful and practical here. What are your thoughts on work as gift? In what ways would you say that work is a gift from God? How does a theology of work impact our work for good or for ill? Look forward to hearing you.

What would you do if the world were to end tomorrow?

Luther was asked this question and his response was striking and quite instructive. He said, “I would plant a tree and pay my taxes.” In Luther’s view the imminent second coming should incite faithfulness in ordinary tasks not the pursuit of extraordinary actions. Luther understood that the vocation of the Christian man and woman was primarily filled with normal responsibilities. The Christian man is called to be faithful in his job, in his family, and in his church. The woman is called to be faithful in the home (if married and with children), and in the church. We are creatures with limited ability, limited influence, and limited stewardship. We are not called to operate outside the scope of our creatureliness and biblical responsibility. We are to honor Christ, share Christ, and live for Christ in and through all of these various callings. So if the Lord returns and finds you cooking a meal for your family, working diligently at your job, mowing the lawn, changing a diaper, playing with your kids, eating a meal with your family, or sleeping—be encouraged—he will be pleased at your faithfulness in the tasks he has given.