What Is the Reformed Doctrine of Vocation?

Posted On January 11, 2017

In today’s society work is too often considered that which must be endured purely in order to survive. However this perspective is contrary to the message of Scripture which clearly shows man’s created duty as one of work for the glory of God. Because of our sinful natures, it is easy to join in the worker’s lament instead of embracing our calling. Practically speaking, we often invest our time in thinking about vacation instead of appreciating our call to vocation.

Every area of life should be dedicated to the glory and honor of God in fulfillment of our created purpose. When we reject the world’s faulty perspective on work and focus on the biblical intent of man’s calling we see that man was created in his perfect, sinless state to work and glorify God. Psalm 90:17 says, “Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish the work of our hands upon us; yes, establish the work of our hands!” This idea was central in the message of the sixteenth century Reformers who set the stage for the “Protestant work ethic” with their holistic view of labor.

But what is vocation? From the Latin, voco, vocare (“to call”), vocation is literally the “calling” which one enters into. This concept of vocation as a calling is broader than merely work for fiscal reward.

The first English use of this word “vocation” was made by William Tyndale, a forerunner to the Reformation, who sought to bring the Bible to the common tongue. During the time of Luther, the idea of specific calling or vocation was limited to church use—one was fulfilling a Holy vocation when one “entered the ministry.” But in ancient medieval times, work was held in higher esteem, especially by the monastic communities. These communities assigned value to both work and leisure. Dr. Stephen Nichols, in his book What Is Vocation? references the ancient monastic motto “ora et labora” as an example of the idea that our lives are defined by the union of work and prayer. (This motto also happens to be my maternal family motto in connection to the Ramsey Clan in Scotland. It served as a declaration of one’s highest calling.)

While “work” can mean a specific “job,” it also can mean a broader calling. As Dr. Nichols writes, all of our work, whether in “noble profession or a menial task”, should be seen in light of our role as children of God (What Is Vocation?, 8). The Reformation pushed the status quo of the medieval church in many ways, but one key aspect of this was Martin Luther’s practical understanding of vocation as applicable to every aspect of life whether parenthood or woodworking. “To Luther, all work and all the roles that one could fulfill were potentially holy callings, which could be fulfilled for the glory of God” (What Is Vocation?, 9).

Because of this, we ought to understand that no morally sound profession is outside the calling of the Christian. Johann Sebastian Bach applied this doctrine in his use of music to glorify God. Whether writing music for the church or for secular use, Bach signed his work “SDG” signifying Sola Deo Gloria. All is to be done to the glory of God.

The Reformers
The Reformers were seeking to recover the doctrine of work found in Scripture. From the beginning of creation, man’s calling was to work. God put man in the Garden of Eden to maintain it as His representative on earth. In Genesis 1:26–28, God created man after His image to “have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” God called man to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it.” The creation mandate gives a clear call to participate actively in life, appreciating every aspect of one’s life work, and doing all for the glory of God.

While man’s perfected state was destroyed by his fall into sin, man still maintains his calling to stand as God’s vice-regent over the earth and to invest himself in work for the glory of God. Man was created to work prior to the fall, and he is still called to this purpose, even imperfectly, in his fallen state. This calling as vice-regent is a universal calling to all who bear God’s image, to all mankind. As Psalm 90:17 reminds us, we are to pray that God would establish the works of our hands. We are not to hate work because it is what we were created to do.

In our modern age we must be careful not to confuse our work for rest and our rest for work. God has designed us to follow the pattern He set in creation. While proper ambition (in pursuit of legitimate calling) is right and good, ambition after our own sinful desires is forsaking our purpose—to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. Nor are we allowed to give our lives to sloth (Prov. 26:15). Today it is hard to focus on work because of all the distractions around us. This makes it all the more important to set aside time to focus on our work which ends in proper God-glorifying rest.

In Ephesians 6:5–9, Paul exhorts us to be grateful in whatever calling we have been placed, even if it is imprisonment and slavery. How much more do we have to be grateful in our own day? Most Western Christians would be hard pressed to compare the ease of their lives to those of the slaves to whom Paul wrote. As Colossians 3:23 says, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord.”

At the end of the day, our theology of work and vocation must be big enough to include work that is not solely done for a paycheck. Our doctrine of (and calling to) work is not tied to that which we make, but is rather tied to that which we are called to do in obeying and glorifying God with our lives.

“Whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:3).

— Joshua T. Phillips is a Senior at Reformation Bible College and serves as Digital Outreach Coordinator at Ligonier Ministries.