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.

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.

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.