495 years ago today, on October 31st, 1517, Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg.
Vocation was one topic Luther covered prominently in his theological writings. Gene Edward Veith states that,
Luther was the first to use “vocation” to refer also to secular offices and occupations.
In honor of this moment in history, let’s take a look at what Martin Luther had to say about vocation.
Luther’s Historical Moment on Faith & Work
According to Hugh Whelchel’s history of work within the church, Christians began separating the sacred and the secular by as early as the end of the third century. Influenced by the writings of early church fathers, the church siloed religious vocations and everyday work.
This view remained in the medieval era of the church. Whelchel writes,
In the medieval church, having a vocation or calling referred exclusively to full-time church work.
The division between the laity and the professional priesthood was stark during this time period. The idea of the priesthood of all believers, prominent in the New Testament, became marginalized.
This was the historical context for Luther’s rediscovery of the biblical doctrine of work.
Luther’s Views on Faith & Work
Luther was one of the first theologians to spark renewed interest in reconnecting faith and everyday life. In his book How Then Should We Work? Hugh Whelchel writes that,
It was initially through Martin Luther’s efforts that the sixteenth century Reformers began to recover the biblical doctrine of work.
Lee Hardy summarizes Luther’s contribution to a more robust theology of vocation in his book, The Fabric of This World. According to Hardy, Luther expanded the idea of vocation to include:
- Domestic duties,
- Civic duties,
- And employment.
Luther then argued that everyday work is imbued with spiritual significance. He wrote in The Babylonian Captivity of the Church that,
…the works of monks and priests, however holy and arduous they may be, do not differ on whit in the sight of God from the works of the rustic laborer in the field or the woman going about her household tasks…all works are measured before God by faith alone.
Second generation Reformers, such as John Calvin, would take Luther’s ideas on faith and work and expand them further. But what can we learn from Luther’s ideas today?
Luther In Our Contemporary Context
In an article entitled “The Doctrine of Vocation: How God Hides Himself In Human Work,” Gene Edward Veith outlines how Luther practically applied the newly rediscovered biblical doctrine of work.
Veith references one of Luther’s examples in particular: God uses vocation to give us our daily bread. Our food comes from the hands of farmers, bakers, and distributors. Explaining this example of Luther’s, Veith writes,
In effect, the whole economic system is the means by which God gives us our daily bread. Each part of the economic food chain is a vocation, through which God works to distribute his gifts.
In this example, Luther systematically laid out all the roles that go into producing food. When I read this example, it raised several questions in my mind:
- What other important processes can we dissect in a similar manner?
- What chain is your work a part of?
- How might you begin to see the end result as a blessing from God, and your work as integral to bringing about that blessing?
The key, as Luther explained, is seeing our work as essential to carrying out what Jesus called the greatest commandments in Matthew 22: 37-39:
Jesus replied: “‘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.’
As Hugh Whelchel writes in How Then Should We Work,
According to Luther, we respond to the call to love our neighbor by fulfilling the duties associated with our everyday work.
How does your everyday work fulfill the call to love your neighbor? Answering this question and the ones above can begin to help us apply to our contemporary context the doctrine of work rediscovered by Luther and others.
What do you think? What impact does Luther’s view of faith and work have on how you go about your daily work?