Along with reforming and recovering biblical marriage, the 16th Century Reformation reformed vocation. Again, it was the recovery of the true gospel that caused this reform of vocation. The Reformers did not go out looking for things in the culture which needed change; it was the gospel that changed the culture. Martin Luther famously stated, “I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends, Philip and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything.”
The Word did everything.
Although secular historians care little about the recovery of the gospel, they cannot help but notice the effect the Reformers and the Reformation had on daily life – especially vocation. A whole new attitude towards work changed with the Reformation. For instance, if you look at the nations which were greatly affected and changed by the Reformation compared to the nations engrossed in Roman Catholicism, you would find a stark contrast in the people's attitude towards work and the production of goods and innovation in that nation. The nations where the Reformation had a large impact seem to produce more goods and innovation for the world than the nations where Roman Catholicism continued as the primary religion. In those nations, the people tended to be lazy and apathetic.
In Medieval times, there were three estates which comprised the culture. (1) The clergy were the people who prayed. They were the ones to whom the Scriptures were given, and it was to them the people went if they wanted to have anything to do with God. (2) The nobility were those who fought and ruled. They were the upper class in society, maintaining the majority of the wealth and prestige. (3) The commoners were those who worked. Jobs such as farming and shoe-making were the life’s work of these people.
It is necessary to point out that vocation is the Latin word for calling. It means more than simply a job or work; it is a life’s purpose. The clergy was seen as the only estate to whom vocation had been bestowed. Their work was the work of God because they were the only people who interacted with God. However, with the production of the Bible in the common language, everything changed. The plowboy was able to understand just as much Scripture as the priest. This change was radical. No longer was vocation reserved for the clergy, but now the commoner could pray. Now the commoner was able to interact with God. This development upset the order of the estates. Everyone could now pray, everyone rules (if not in this life, in the next), and everyone works. Vocation was now for everyone in every sphere.
Where did this come from? Well, it was the understanding that our works did not save us. It was the understanding that we had nothing to bring to God which would place Him in our debt. Understanding that every good gift comes from the Father above (James 1:17) transformed the way in which the Reformers understood vocation.
The calling of God is a gift of God. Both the work and the goods produced by the work are gifts from above. As Luther would put it, our vocation is a “mask of God” where God shows up in the ordinary. Often, we are too set on seeing God show up in the extraordinary that we miss Him in the ordinary. Our ordinary work of plowing a field, starting a business, constructing a house, baking a loaf of bread, or changing a diaper are all ways in which God provides for us through basic and ordinary means.
In 1981, the band, Loverboy, released a song that describes our current attitude towards work. “Working for the Weekend,” with the notable line, “Everybody’s working for the weekend,” has become our anthem. Our work has become a means to an end. We view work as something we do to get the paycheck which allows us to do what we really want. What has happened is that we have lost the idea of vocation. We have lost the idea of work being our calling in life.
Our work is, in fact, a means to an end, but the end is not ourselves. Work is not for the benefit of us, but for the benefit of others. This was the radical approach to work which the gospel brought.
Vocation is our service towards others. God has not intended our work to be for our benefit, but for the benefit of others. Just as salvation is a gift from God, so is our gifting in our vocation. So then, we do not work to serve ourselves, but to serve others. John Calvin pointed out that the cobbler was benefiting his neighbor more than the monk. The monk did nothing for his neighbor but sit in a monastery all day. In fact, the cobbler was worshipping God better than the monk because he was serving his neighbor by his work. The radical idea was that we worship God on Monday by going to work.
Sunday is God’s work for us. Monday (and the rest of the week) is God’s work through us. We are fed, encouraged, taught, and ministered to by the Word on Sunday. On Monday, we go out into the world to serve others with the gifts God has given us. The place of worship on Sunday is important. It is like our power-up station or salinization station for the rest of the week. The place of worship is the place we are reminded where we are (in Christ), and what we are (children of God). Here is where we are prepared for the rest of the week. Much disdain has been directed at what are called, “Sunday Christians.” Most of it is deserved, but if continually heeded, does damage to Christianity. Let me ask you this: if you aren’t a Sunday Christian, what hope do you have of being a Monday Christian?
The Reformers discovered the biblical sense of vocation. They saw that work was the institution in which we loved our neighbor. It was the place where we worked alongside every sort of person which meant it was the place where we could show every sort of person the love of God in Christ.
This discovery ought to change the way we see work. It is our service, gifted to us by God, for our neighbor. We must do our best for others, and we must do it with joy. We do all things for the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31). If you are looking for a cause, you needn’t look further than the people around you. Consider the point Os Guinness makes: “The problem is not that Christians aren’t where they should be, the problem is that they are not what they should be where they are.”
Let us learn from the Reformers. The gospel transforms lives – even to the point of radically changing the way we work. As we go out into the world, we must not have the mentality that we are building a kingdom for ourselves here, nor should we desire to have all the riches and pleasures this fleeting world has to offer. Rather, let us go out in humility, putting to death our selfish desires, and serve those around us through the calling to which God has called each of us.