Theology 101

Understanding God’s ‘Calling’ to Us in Life and Work

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What do I mean by “calling”? For the moment let me say simply that calling is the truth that God calls us to himself so decisively that everything we are, everything we do, and everything we have is invested with a special devotion and dynamism lived out as a response to his summons and service.

This truth—calling—has been a driving force in many of the greatest “leaps forward” in world history—the constitution of the Jewish nation at Mount Sinai, the birth of the Christian movement in Galilee, and the 16th century Reformation and its incalculable impetus to the rise of the modern world, to name a few. Little wonder that the rediscovery of calling should be critical today, not least in satisfying the passion for purpose of millions of questing modern people.

In short, calling in the Bible is a central and dynamic theme that becomes a metaphor for the life of faith itself. To limit the word, as some insist, to a few texts and to a particular stage in salvation is to miss the forest for the trees. To be a disciple of  Jesus is to be a “called one” and so to become “a follower of the Way.”

The third and fourth strands of the meaning of calling are the basis for the vital distinction elaborated later in history—between primary and secondary calling. Our primary calling as followers of Christ is by him, to him and for him. First and foremost we are called to Someone (God), not to something (such as motherhood, politics or teaching) or to somewhere (such as the inner city or Outer Mongolia).

Our secondary calling: considering who God is as sovereign, is that everyone, everywhere and in everything should think, speak, live and act entirely for him. We can therefore properly say as a matter of secondary calling that we are called to homemaking or to practice law or to art history. But these and other things are always the secondary, never the primary calling. They are “callings” rather than the “calling.” They are our personal answer to God’s address, our response to God’s summons. Secondary callings matter, but only because the primary calling matters most.

This vital distinction between primary and secondary calling carries with it two challenges—first, to hold the two together, and second, to ensure that they are kept in the right order. In other words, if we understand calling, we must make sure that first things remain first and the primary calling always comes before the secondary calling. But we must also make sure that the primary calling leads without fail to the secondary calling. The church’s failure to meet these challenges has led to the two grand distortions that have crippled the truth of calling. We may call them the “Catholic distortion” and the “Protestant distortion.”

The truth of calling means that for followers of Christ, “everyone, everywhere, and in everything” lives the whole of life as a response to God’s call. Yet this holistic character of calling has often been distorted to become a form of dualism that elevates the spiritual at the expense of the secular. This distortion may be called the “Catholic distortion” because it rose in the Catholic era and is the majority position in the Catholic tradition.

Protestants, however, cannot afford to be smug. For one thing, countless Protestants have succumbed to the Catholic distortion. Ponder, for example, the fallacy of the contemporary Protestant term, full-time Christian service—as if those not working for churches or Christian organizations are only part-time in the service of Christ.

For another thing, Protestant confusion about calling has led to a Protestant distortion that is even worse. This is a form of dualism in a secular direction that not only elevates the secular at the expense of the spiritual, but also cuts it off from the spiritual altogether.

In short, the recovery of a holistic view of calling was powerful in culture as well as in the church, and calling was a vital element in the transition from the traditional to the modern world. It demanded and inspired the transforming vision of the lordship of Christ expressed in the famous saying of the great Dutch prime minister, Abraham Kuyper: “There is not one square inch of the entire creation about which Jesus Christ does not cry out, ‘This is mine! This belongs to me!’”

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.” This excerpt is taken from Guinness’ book, The Call: Finding and Fulfilling the Central Purpose of Your Life.

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