What is a Vocation?

Work as Worship

Date: January 18, 2015
Study: Work as Worship
Teacher: Lawson Hembree

The average person will spend over 90,000 hours of their life working. 90,000 hours! To put that in perspective, it would basically be like clocking in today and working non-stop for just over 10 years before clocking back out. Not only does our vocation consume a significant amount of our time, it is also part of our identity. One of the first questions I always get asked when I meet someone new is: “What do you do for a living?” For better or worse, we are associated with the work that we do.

For something so central to our daily lives, so central to our lives in general, it’s important to ask the simple question, “Why do I work?” What’s important isn’t “How do I work?” or “Where should I work?” but “Why do I work?” That will be our focus for the semester.

Today we’ll be looking at the idea of our “vocation” or “calling.”  We’ll begin by looking at our general calling as Christians and then zoom in to look at our particular callings as individuals. We’ll wrap things up with a discussion of how the doctrine of calling, or the doctrine of vocation, has been distorted over the years, leaving most of us without guidance on why we work, much less how to work or how to choose a job. 

The word “called” comes from the Greek word that we see in Romans 8:30: “And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.” This is “calling” in its most comprehensive sense: this is calling by God of all those predestined for glory. And “vocation” simply comes from the Latin translation of the same word: vocare.  (“vo-KAR-a”)  Think of calling and vocation as synonymous. Same word, different languages.  So then, what is our calling according to the Bible?

Primary Calling
First, let’s talk about our primary calling as Christians. Os Guinness has a great working definition of “primary calling” from his book The Call.  In his words: “Our primary calling as followers of Christ is by him, to him, and for him.” Second Thessalonians 2:14 explains that we are called “by him”: “He called you to this salvation through our gospel, so that you may possess the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.” And Romans 1:6 shows that we are called “to him”: “And you also are among those who are called to belong to Jesus Christ.” And finally, Ephesians 2:10 tells us we are called “for him”: “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” This calling is for all Christians: by Christ, to Christ, that we might do good work for Christ.  It’s our primary calling both because it happened first and because it supersedes every other calling on our lives. As Jesus put it in Matthew 6:33: “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

Secondary Callings
Though all Christians share the same primary calling—the calling to new life in Christ—we each have individualized secondary call-ings in our lives. Guinness once again poses a helpful definition of secondary callings.  He writes: “Our secondary callings, considering who God is as sovereign, is that everyone, everywhere, and in everything should think, speak, live, and act entirely for him. They are our personal answer to God’s address, our response to God’s summons.” As we read in Colossians 3:22–24: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men . . . . It is the Lord Christ you are serving.” Those are our secondary callings.

If you’re in the business world, “work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord.” If you’re a student, “work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord.” If you’re a burger-flipper, “work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord.” If you’re retired, if you’re unemployed, if you’re a pastor, if you’re single, dating, or married—you get it.  This is the essence of secondary callings: that we are called to do things “as working for the Lord.”  And in that, we bring glory to God.

So what exactly does that mean?  Let’s use as our lens what Jesus described as “the greatest commandments” in Matthew 22: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” Love God. Love your neighbor. Using that framework, we can see how our secondary callings ultimately serve to bring glory to God, which is our primary calling.

  1. Love of God
    First, our secondary callings are a major way in which we love God. How do we love God through our work? By working as if we are working for him.  Because we are. Do you feel that your work is drudgery and toilsome? Love the One who redeemed you in Christ by doing that work cheerfully and with excellence. Scripture itself makes that demand in Ephesians 6:  “Obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. . . . Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men, because you know that the Lord will reward everyone for whatever good he does . . . .”  We love God when we work “with all our hearts.”
    If the Lord was your boss, or even more intimately, if the Lord was your master and you were an apprentice, how would you work? Wouldn’t you always use the right tool for the job? Wouldn’t you always take an extra moment to make sure that line is straight, that those numbers are correct? Would you ever hand in a document with typographical errors? Would you ever be tardy or take a “surf the internet against your boss’s wishes” break? Would you leave those dishes in the sink for your wife or roommate to do or let the leaves remain unraked?
    If we truly are to “work at it with all ours hearts, as working for the Lord,” our work will be dramatically different. I try to encapsulate this notion in one word: excellence. Our Lord deserves no less. The Bible calls us to no less a standard. Ecclesiastes 9:10 challenges us to excellence like this: “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might . . . .” We love the Lord through our secondary callings when we perform them with excellence, “as working for the Lord.”
  2. Love of Neighbor
    Secondly, we bring glory to God through our secondary callings as we love our neighbors.  Jesus taught us to pray: “Give us this day our daily bread.” God gives us our daily bread through the work of others to which he calls them. God calls the farmer to farm; the miller to mill; the baker to bake; the trucker to deliver; the shopkeeper to stock; you to purchase and prepare. These are all secondary callings by which God through his providence causes us to love our neighbors.
    Do you see how God gives each person a specific set of talents that are to be used to love our neighbors? Any lawful occupation is worthwhile, and fits in to God’s providential care for people and creation. All lawful occupations have dignity before the Lord, and are useful to him. Consider the meditations of some of the Reformers as they explored the biblical doctrine of callings. Martin Luther wrote: “The works of monks and priests, however holy and arduous they be, do not differ one whit in the sight of God from the works of the rustic laborer in the field or the woman going about her household tasks, but that all works are measured before God by faith alone . . . .” William Perkins, the English Reformer, wrote: “The action of a shepherd in keeping sheep, performed as I have said in his kind, is as good a work before God as is the action of a judge in giving sentence, or of a magistrate in ruling, or a minister in preaching.”
    So there is value in all of our secondary callings, no matter how mundane they may seem to us.  But it’s important to note that that value is found as our secondary callings line up with God’s purposes, not our own.  This view of secondary callings should humble us. Instead of being self-satisfied in our education, or training, our abilities, or even our successes, we must realize that our sovereign Lord equipped us for our particular callings to please him and to love our neighbors through our work—in fact, He prepared these good works in advance for us. If you work only for yourself, or only for your boss, or only for your clients or employees, you are missing the point of your secondary callings. You are called to what you do for God’s purposes.

This distinction between primary and secondary callings carries great challenges that have been misunderstood historically by the church. The first challenge is that we must keep the two categories of calling in the right order: primary calling first, and secondary callings second. The second challenge is that we must keep the two categories of calling together: we must make sure that the primary calling leads inexorably to the secondary callings. The church’s failure to rise to these challenges has led to two great distortions of the doctrine of calling. We will call the first the Catholic distortion, and the second, the Protestant distortion.  Not that either is always true of either school of thought, but historically because of correlations of error with different types of people, this is what historians have called them.

The Catholic Distortion
The Catholic distortion fails the first challenge of primary and secondary callings: making sure that the primary calling comes before the secondary. Instead of considering these callings in order, Rome separated them completely, and believed that some were called to a primary calling of ministry, and others were called only to secondary callings of work. Eusebius, the Bishop of Caesarea, wrote that there are two ways of life in the church: the perfect life and the permitted life. The perfect life was spiritual and was reserved for priests, monks, and nuns. The permitted life was secular and was reserved for maids, soldiers, and kings.

This distorted dualism affected later church thinkers like Augustine and Aquinas, who elevated the contemplative life over the active life. The active life—while praised—was viewed as second-class; the contemplative life was the life of freedom, and was to be preferred. But this view is not biblical. Look to the account of creation to see that God had secondary callings—before the Fall—to tasks other than “the contemplative life.” God called Adam and Eve to marriage in Genesis 2:24, to parenthood in 1:28, to collection of food from the bounty of creation in 1:29, and to stewardship of all creation in 2:15. Remember, these are all pre-Fall directives and secondary callings. Of course, the Fall resulted in these callings becoming toilsome and corrupted, but that does not mean that secondary callings are inherently toilsome or corrupted.

And while we call this the Catholic distortion, it has had impact far beyond the Roman church. Consider the account of William Wilberforce, who as a Member of Parliament led the abolition of the slave trade through the Slave Trade Act of 1807. When he became a Christian at the age of 25, his first thought was to leave politics for the paid ministry. Like many, Wilberforce believed the life of the ministry to be more important than so-called secular work. Happily, John Newton—the celebrated composer of “Amazing Grace”—persuaded Wilberforce otherwise. In 1788, Wilberforce wrote in his own journal: “My walk is a public one. My business is in the world; and I must mix in the assemblies of men, or quit the post which Providence seems to have assigned me.” If Wilberforce had left politics for the pulpit, he would have “quit the post” God assigned him for the abolition of a great evil. (2 Corinthians 7:17)

Our callings are not divided into spiritual and secular: the callings of a believer are all spiritual. A secondary calling to be a priest or a pastor is not inherently superior to a secondary calling to be a dishwasher. William Tyndale wrote “that if our desire is to please God, pouring water, washing dishes, cobbling shoes, and preaching the Word ‘is all one.’” And Luther—in his typical earthy style—once wrote “God and the angels smile when a man changes a diaper.”

This is not to suggest that paid ministry is not a worthy calling. If a man is called to the ministry as his paid occupation, he is called to a great and sober task with eternal rewards. But if a man is not so called—and self-evidently not all believers are so called—he should not view his actual calling with regret, or consider it “second-rate,” or “secular.” As believers, our primary calling to salvation and discipleship should flow naturally into our worthy and spiritual secondary callings, whether they are paid ministry or motherhood paid in the laughter of children. In all our secondary callings, we work for God’s glory and the love of others.

The Protestant Distortion
Now, on to the so-called “Protestant distortion.”  Os Guiness noted that: “Whereas the Catholic distortion is a spiritual form of dualism, elevating the spiritual at the expense of the secular, the Protestant distortion is a secular form of dualism, elevating the secular at the expense of the spiritual.”  The early Reformers and the Puritans had a clear understanding of the doctrine of calling. They did not confuse primary and secondary callings. But slowly over the course of time, the celebration of the spirituality of secondary callings became imbalanced. Words like “work,” “trade,” “employment,” and “occupation” came to have the same meanings as “calling” and “vocation.”

Os Guinness puts it well when he writes: “Eventually the day came when faith and calling were separated completely. The original demand that each Christian should have a calling was boiled down to the demand that each citizen should have a job.” And then work itself was made sacred. President Calvin Coolidge once declared: “The man who builds a factory builds a temple. The man who works there worships there.” And Henry Ford said: “Work is the salvation of the human race, morally, physically, socially.”

This is the distortion in which many of us find ourselves in today’s world. Few of us give a thought to calling in the biblical sense. We don’t understand why we work, though we can appreciate why we may need to work. We give little thought to what work we should do, other than what seems enjoyable to us, or something for which we might have an aptitude—and sometimes declare that because we enjoy something or are particularly good at it, we are called to it. And then when work and other duties (or callings) collide, say a difficult job and caring for a family, we don’t have frame of reference to resolve the competing imperatives. Worse, we can become defined by our jobs, not our Caller, and so when we are unemployed, underemployed, or unsuccessfully employed, we can face an existential crisis.

Thank God, there is a way forward, and it is simple. We must at all times recognize that we are not primarily called to do something or go somewhere: we are instead primarily called to someone—to our creating God. Our first vocation is our primary calling of salvation and discipleship as new creatures in Christ. The primary call requires us to be devoted to no one more than God; to desire nothing more than God; to glorify nothing but God; to enjoy nothing beyond God. This is what it means to have a Christ-centered focus for your work, because only in Christ will you be able satisfactorily to answer the question “Why do I work?”

The Gospel at Work by Sebastian Traeger and Greg Gilbert
Every Good Endeavor by Timothy Keller
What’s Best Next by Matt Perman

Adapted from Christians in the Workplace: Lesson 1, Capitol Hill Baptist Core Seminars


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