At Work & Theology 101

How the Protestant Reformation Renewed the Church, Our Work, and Society

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“The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it” (Genesis 2:15).

In October of this year we will celebrate the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. Most historians agree the Reformation officially started on October 31, 1517, when Martin Luther, a little-known German monk, posted his 95 Theses on the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, Germany.

But was Luther’s real desire to start what became the Protestant Reformation? Most historians would say “no”!

Reformation from Within

Luther had been trained as a monk and loved the Catholic Church. What he hated were the abuses that were commonplace in the church of his day. Many of these abuses were addressed in his 95 Theses. Luther’s desire was to bring about change within the church.

The picture most of us have of Luther defiantly nailing his 95 Theses to the church door is not quite historically accurate. He was posting a list of propositions and calling for an academic disputation among scholars. The theses were posted onto what would have been the college “bulletin board” of Luther’s day. A disputation was a formalized method of scholastic debate popular with scholars of the Middle Ages and designed to uncover and establish truths in theology and science.

In addition, the original 95 Theses were written in Latin, which most Germans could not read. After the document was posted, someone (we don’t know who), probably without Luther’s permission, translated the 95 Theses into German, reprinted them, and distributed them widely throughout Germany and Europe.

The document quickly came to the attention of church leaders who tried Luther for heresy. The proceeding culminated in his excommunication from the church four years later.

Luther never dreamed his theses would ignite a revolution that would reshape the Christian church and change Western civilization forever.

Reformation Beyond the Church

After his excommunication, Luther found himself the leader of a movement. Other reformers like John Calvin added to Luther’s work and broadened the scope. The other reformers believed all worldly systems or institutions were in need of reformation—they regarded the church, political systems, and social systems as offensive to God because they did not represent his justice and truth.

The later reformers argued that Christians should engage in this broader reformation through their vocational call, in response to the grace they had received from God. They maintained that regardless of one’s place in society, men and women needed to use their gifts and abilities in their vocational call to reform earthly governing structures so that they, in turn, would glorify God, serving the common good as he originally intended.

Luther’s writings on vocation laid the groundwork for this thinking of the later reformers.

As Luther scholar Gene Edward Veith writes in Working for Our Neighbor:

For Martin Luther, vocation is nothing less than the locus of the Christian life. God works in and through vocation, but he does so by calling human beings to work in their vocations. In Jesus Christ, who bore our sins and gives us new life in his resurrection, God saves us for eternal life. But in the meantime he places us in our temporal life where we grow in faith and holiness. In our various callings—as spouse, parent, church member, citizen, and worker—we are to live out our faith.

Luther’s doctrine of vocation stresses the spiritual and moral value of economic activity. He believed that God works through ordinary human beings to care for his creation (Gen. 2:15).

As we see in the quote above, Luther understood that all the work we do, paid and unpaid, not only in our vocational work but also in the work that we do in the family, church, and in the community, is important to the overall social and economic well-being of a culture. It is through the faithful administration of these duties that Christians live out their faith in love and service to their neighbor.

Or, to paraphrase Luther, the number one way we love our neighbor is by doing our jobs well.

Veith sees Luther’s doctrine of vocation, as refined by the later reformers, as a pivotal factor that led to improved economic mobility, access to education, and overall growth in societal flourishing.

How Luther and the Other Reformers Guide Us Today

Luther’s view of vocation is desperately needed in our lives as Christians today. Properly understood, this idea of glorifying God by loving our neighbor helps us counter the materialism and self-centeredness so prevalent in our current economic climate.

Veith sums up Luther’s views on vocation in an article for World Magazine:

Vocation is nothing less than the theology of the Christian life. It provides the blueprint for how Christians are to live in the world and to influence their cultures. It is the key to strong marriages and effective parenting. According to the classic Protestant theologians, our multiple vocations—in the family, the culture, and the workplace—are where sanctification and discipleship happen.

Luther did not set out to change the world; he was just trying to be faithful to God’s call on his life, as detailed in scripture. The spirit of the Reformation Luther sparked continues in the work of people like you and me.

We are called to reshape and reform our world to be the place God originally intended it to be—restoring order, loving and serving each other with integrity and honesty, meeting each other’s needs, and creating something of value from the raw materials he has supplied—all through the work of our hands.

How are you participating in the ongoing reformation of our world through your work?

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