Martin Luther and the Doctrine of Vocation

A Matter of Discipleship

by Derek J. Brown

Among the many issues with which I expected to be absorbed as a pastor, I did not anticipate that so much of my teaching and counseling would be devoted to the doctrine of vocation. Clarifying major theological questions, helping beleaguered saints find assurance of salvation, solving relational problems, preaching the gospel, defending the faith, and shepherding Christ’s sheep through personal suffering would be the primary matters of the ministry.

Yet, the more I got to know our church members and regular attenders, I observed that a number of these folks—many of them theologically well-grounded Christians—held faulty views of their daily work. The problem was not that these believers were too easily yielding to the temptation to idolize their work and locate their whole identity in what they did for a living, although that was an issue for some. For those who actively sought to walk in faithfulness to Jesus, the danger of worshipping one’s job was a hazard often easily discerned and successfully navigated.

Rather, my concern was that several of the people with whom I interacted viewed work chiefly as a burden—a mere means to a greater (read: more spiritual) end—they were required to bear on the way to heaven. Consequently, they believed that what they did during the day to earn an income or manage the home was not nearly as important as what they did in the Sunday school room or on the mission trip. It became clear to me that my efforts in discipleship would involve reorienting these believers to a more robust vision of work and vocation.

I am grateful that for several of these Christians, the rediscovery of the biblical doctrine of work has transformed not only the manner in which they approach their jobs, but also the way they understand their service to God. In this process, God has used Martin Luther to give me better biblical purchase on this important topic and its relation to discipleship.

Justification by faith and the doctrine of vocation

The grand rediscoveries of the Reformation are expressed in what have come to be known as the five solas. Man is justified by faith alone (sola fide), in Christ alone (sola Christus) by God’s grace alone (sola gratia) to the glory of God alone (soli Deo gloria). We find these truths and everything else required for life and godliness in the Scripture alone (sola Scriptura). For Luther, the discovery of justification by faith relieved his burdened conscience from the pangs of guilt and gave him entrance into a “paradise” of peace with God. But these truths also transformed Luther’s understanding of ministry, work, and family.

Due to its doctrine of man and its synergistic view of salvation and the sacraments, the medieval church had developed, and, at the time of the Reformation, maintained a sharp distinction between the “sacred” and the “secular.” Because of the medieval church’s theology of infused grace, men and women viewed the church and the monastery as the place where the real spiritual work happened. By implication, the church taught that certain callings in life were inherently more holy than others. The priest, for example, was in a better position to secure his place in heaven than the cobbler, for the former served God while the latter only served self. The monk dwelt closer to God than the farmer because union with Christ was achieved through solitary meditation and prayer, not the lowly work of tilling and tending soil.

Even the word “vocation” prior to the Reformation referred specifically to church-related callings like serving as a priest or monk or nun. Luther recaptured this word and used it instead to refer to every calling a Christian might legitimately fulfill: cobbler, farmer, baker, blacksmith, wife, mother, civil servant, and so on. But his emphasis here was not the arbitrary decision of a disgruntled ex-monk to undermine the Church’s teaching. To Luther, the cobbler’s work was just as valuable as the priest’s precisely because justification was received by faith alone. A sinner did not come into union with Christ or earn his right standing with God on the basis of mystical contemplation or religious activity. Saving righteousness was received immediately—not as a process—by faith.

The doctrine of justification by faith, then, removed the distinction between so-called sacred and secular employments because it taught that one’s work—whether it was church-related or otherwise—was never determinative of one’s salvation. Nor did Scripture require men and women to neglect their daily callings or their needy neighbor in order to perform the good works necessary to attain salvation. If justification was a once-for-all legal declaration based solely on Christ’s righteousness received by faith, then there was no need to seek infused grace by engaging ceaselessly in sacramental ritual in the church or retreating from the world into the monastery.

Redefining good works

A clear implication of the doctrine of justification was that there were no unique spheres of religious activity that provided exclusive access to the kind of works that were pleasing to God. Rather, when a sinner is declared righteous apart from works, he is free to perform good works in every area of his life: in the home, at the kiln, on the farm, or in the public square. Delivered from the need to secure his salvation by rigorous attention to the sacraments, the believer is now truly free to serve his neighbor. In Freedom of the Christian Luther comments,

Man, however, needs none of these things [good works] for his righteousness and salvation. Therefore he should be guided in all his works by this thought and contemplate this one thing alone, that he may serve and benefit others in all that he does, considering nothing except the need and advantage of his neighbor .

Luther’s redefinition of good works enabled the believer to see that any work conducted in faith was an opportunity to reflect his Creator and love his neighbor. A mother provides food, clothing, and a well kept home for her closest neighbors—her children and husband. The cobbler provides quality footwear to his customers and a reasonable living to anyone he might employ. The farmer supplies food for the greater community. The blacksmith forges tools that will enable his neighbor to work efficiently and effectively. The pastor provides spiritual sustenance for the men and women in his congregation. In every case, the Christian is exercising dominion in their specific calling and serving their neighbor. Such work, when conducted “in faith, in joy of heart, in obedience and gratitude to God” is pleasing to the Lord. As Gustov Wingren famously quipped in a summary of Luther’s teaching at this point: “God does not need our works, but our neighbor does.”

The task of discipleship and the doctrine of vocation

Luther’s insights here have immediate application to the task of discipleship. Whether it is the zealous brother who sees pastoral ministry as man’s highest calling and despises any kind of “secular” employment, the mother of four who wonders how changing diapers and wiping noses has anything to do with serving God, or the young man who excuses his poor work ethic because “evangelism is what really matters,” the recovery of a full-orbed doctrine of vocation will do much to deliver biblical balance, joy, and purpose to our people’s daily lives.

Luther’s retrieval of the doctrine of vocation, however, did not focus solely on the believer’s approach to his calling, whatever that calling might be. Yes, a Christian must perform his daily work with excellence, but in order to grasp the fullness of the doctrine of vocation, a person had to see God’s handiwork in how he had providentially orchestrated humankind’s mutual interdependence. This is what Luther meant when he referred to our vocations as “the masks of God.” We encounter the baker who prepares and supplies our bread, but behind this baker is a gracious Creator faithfully providing for his creatures. Far from serving as a mere means to a more spiritual end, our work has an inherent dignity and value because it is God’s chosen means to provide for his creatures.

Yet, in our work of discipleship we cannot miss the theological connection that Luther made between vocation and justification by faith. Rectifying our people’s thinking in the area of vocation will not be accomplished merely by upholding the inherent goodness of work. When we find that our people view their jobs or their daily parenting tasks as second-tier activities that, in terms of eternal significance, pale in comparison to teaching a Bible class or working in the nursery on Sunday, it is possible that they have imbibed an outlook that is more aligned with medieval theology than biblical doctrine. In other words, a dim view of work may indicate that your people need a better understanding of justification by faith and its implications for how to define good works, despite the fact that you just completed a three-year study in Romans.

Conclusion

Luther’s rediscovery of vocation serves the church by giving us what Gene Edward Veith calls, “a theology for the ordinary life.” Although entirely valid and worthwhile pursuits, a Christian does not need to move to the mission field, pursue pastoral ministry, or engage in full-time evangelism in order to serve God. Nor do we need to retreat into spiritual enclaves in order to experience God through solitary mystical contemplation. “Rather,” as Veith continues, “the Christian life is to be lived in vocation, in the seemingly ordinary walks of life that take up nearly all of the hours of our day. The Christian life is to be lived out in our family, our work, our community and in our church. Such things seem mundane, but this is because of our blindness. Actually, God is present in them—and in us—in a mighty, though hidden, way.”

For those who secretly harbor suspicions over whether they can truly serve God in their daily, mundane tasks, Luther offers a helpful corrective. For pastors, because the doctrine of vocation, by definition, encompasses the whole of life, it must become a centerpiece in our discipleship work. So, as we are always reforming in our pastoral labors, let us make sure we heed Luther’s instruction and never fail to teach our people the value of their ordinary callings. 

Derek Brown (Ph.D., Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is Associate Pastor at Grace Bible Fellowship in Silicon Valley, CA.