Theology 101

The Three Callings of a Christian

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If you’re a Christian you don’t have “a calling,” you have three.

Two of the three are fundamental and universal—that is, they aren’t optional and they aren’t individual, but they are by far the most important callings in your life. The good news (and hard news, actually) is they each come with a community who can help you fulfill them. In fact, without that community you won’t fulfill them at all.

Your First Calling: Bear the Image of God

Your first fundamental calling is shared with every other human being: to bear the image of God. We are here to reflect the Creator into the creation, and to reflect the creation’s praise and lament back to the Creator. To bear the image is to exercise dominion, caring for and cultivating the good world and making it very good through our creative attention.

Most human work falls under this heading, which is why Christians work gladly alongside neighbors who don’t share our faith, and also why almost all human work is perfectly appropriate for Christians. It requires no more justification than this: Bearing the image by working fruitfully in the good world is what we were always meant to do.

For the great majority of human beings, this calling is fulfilled primarily in the first and most fundamental human community: the family. The image bearers are called to be fruitful and multiply. “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” From that union come every one of us image bearers, always already immersed in a human community, whose faces we sought as soon as we were born. This is not the “nuclear family” of the late industrial West, but the extended family that has known us since our birth and will, if we are blessed, surround and provide for us at our death. Whether or not we go on to form new families of our own, our human calling is inextricably linked with the family where we first found our name, language, identity and home.

Your Second Calling: Restore the Image of God

Your second fundamental calling is shared with every other member of the family of God: to restore the image of God. The entire story of God’s people—beginning with Abraham and Sarah, and now extending to all nations through the reconciling power of the cross—is a vast, world-historical rescue mission to restore the capacity for true image-bearing. Our distinctive calling as Christians is not just to till and keep the world as image bearers, but to actively seek out the places where that image has been lost, to place ourselves at particular risk on behalf of the victims of idolatry and injustice.

So in every workplace, Christians should be those who speak up most quickly and sacrifice their own privileges most readily for those whose image-bearing has been compromised by that organization’s patterns of neglect. In every society, Christians should be the most active in using their talents on behalf of those the society considers marginal or unworthy. In every place where the Gospel isn’t known, Christians should be finding ways to proclaim Jesus as the world’s true Lord and “the image of the invisible God.”

This image-restoring calling comes with, and requires, a new family: the church. No one can restore the image alone—only a people can do that, mirroring the original creation of human beings as male and female, the divine communion foreshadowed in the words “let us make” and the revelation of God as three in one. Whatever our family of origin, the church becomes our “first family,” bound together in the creative love of the one from whom every family takes its name (Ephesians 3:15).

And the church is especially for those who, in the twists and turns of a broken world, have lost their human family: widows, orphans, refugees, strangers. They above all are our brothers and sisters, our companions in discovering our new identity in Christ. Our image-restoring calling cannot happen without the church, without each other.

What is Your Calling?

So what is your calling? It’s really pretty easy: to bear the image and to restore the image. To engage in the kind of fruitful tending of the world that would cause the Creator to say, “behold, it is very good,” and to boldly confront idolatry and injustice wherever they are found while gently restoring those who have been captives to idols and victims of injustice.

And to do these things above all in the context of the family we were given at birth and the family we were given at baptism. If you’re doing one or both of those things in your daily work (paid or unpaid) and your volunteer time, it’s safe to say you’re fulfilling your calling.

Your Third Calling: Make the Most of Today

Oh, I almost forgot, you have a third calling—but honestly, if you get the first two right, the third is practically an afterthought.

Your third calling is your contingent calling: to make the most of today, while it is called today. “Contingent” is a word philosophers use to describe something that could be otherwise—in that sense, it’s the opposite of necessary. It’s also used, in a related sense, to describe something that depends on something else—in that sense, it’s the opposite of independent.

And that is the nature of all our life and work: It’s far from certain, and it’s deeply dependent on others and, ultimately, on God. It can end as unexpectedly as it began, but every day that we find ourselves able to work and serve others in the world, we can do this much: Bear the image and restore the image in the world, making the most of whatever is given us today. That is all, and that is more than enough.

Editor’s note: This article was first published in a special report by the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics and The Washington Times entitled, “Faith at Work: Individual Purpose, Flourishing Communities.” Adapted from “The Three Callings of a Christian,” reprinted with permission. 

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