Liberating those who work

THE NOTION OF CALLING has always been at the very heart of Christian identity. For Jesus’ earliest followers, entering into Christian community meant sharing in a calling that stood in strong tension with other identities (see “Called first to Christ,” pp. 8–12). As Christianity spread throughout the Mediterranean world and became the faith of the empire, however, that tension began to ease. 

When Christianity transformed from an underground, persecuted sect into the Roman Empire’s established religion, monasticism soon emerged as a high-tension alternative to the increasing laxity and worldliness of mainstream churches. Monasteries issued a clarion call to drop everything for Jesus. As Basil the Great (329–379) explained in rules for his monastic community, “A beginning is made by detaching oneself from all external goods: property, self-importance, social class and useless desire, following the holy example of the Lord’s disciples. James and John left their father Zebedee and the very boat upon which their whole livelihood depended.” 

This might seem like a recipe for disaster—after all, if all Christians are “called” to abandon their nets to follow Christ, who will catch the fish? Milk the cows? Tend the crops? Build the roads? Change the diapers? Maintain justice? 

And yet, in the millennium that followed, monasticism proved to be one of Christendom’s most compelling and enduring institutions. It allowed Christianity, as philosopher Charles Taylor put it, to operate “at several speeds.” By restricting the term “vocation” to the monastic life, the church maintained an ideal of spiritual perfection, while acknowledging that not everyone—in fact, only a very few—is called to this sort of arduous asceticism. The ministry of those “in the world” could be pitched at a lower speed to accommodate the needs of the less committed, while the monasteries offered a fast lane for religious “virtuosos.” 

Medieval writers typically divided Christian society into three parts: the church, the political order, and the economy. Eleventh-century bishop Adalbero of Laon put it, “God’s house, which we think of as one, is thus divided into three: some pray, others fight, yet others work. . . . The services rendered by one are a precondition for the labors of the other two, and each in his turn takes it upon himself to relieve the whole.” But by the later Middle Ages, this arrangement was starting to show signs of strain (see “Duty and delight,” pp. 14–19).

Enter Martin Luther.

A new lane altogether 

Luther (1483–1546) had tried life in the spiritual fast lane, and it had done him no good. “Though I lived as a monk without reproach,” he recalled, “I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience.” As he lectured on the Bible in his post as theology professor at the university in Wittenberg, Luther gradually came to develop a radically different understanding of Christian salvation. It did away entirely with “fast lanes” and “slow lanes,” as well as with the idea that vocation necessarily implies a call to abandon one’s nets and leave the world for the cloister.

Luther’s revolutionary new theology of justification by faith alone was based on the insight that human life is lived out at the intersection between two basic relationships: a vertical relationship “before God” and a horizontal relationship “before humanity.” Before God, humans stand in a purely passive, helpless relationship. Luther argued that we, as finite beings, are utterly incapable of meriting our own salvation, or any good thing, for that matter. What makes the gospel “good news,” in Luther’s view, is that it reveals to us the righteousness God grants to sinners as a pure gift. 

“What do we do to obtain this gift?” Luther asked. “Nothing at all. For this righteousness means to do nothing, to hear nothing, and to know nothing about the law or about works and to believe only this: that Christ . . . sits in heaven at the right hand of the Father, not as a Judge but as one who has been made for us [i.e. on our behalf] wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption from God.”

This righteousness, Luther argued, is given to us freely through the Word of God. In contrast to human words, which merely name things—for example, when Adam gave names to the animals in the Garden of Eden—God’s Word is powerful. It called the universe into being from nothing, and it was the same creative Word calling faith into being when Christ spoke to his disciples from the seashore, or to his church through Scripture, sermon, or sacrament.

This meant for Luther that vocation defined Christian identity. And “vocation” was not a special invitation to join God’s “fast lane” as a priest or a monk, but the transformative power of God’s Word uniting people to Christ in faith. 

That may seem like a rather abstract point, but it had radical implications in the sixteenth century. In his Address to the German Nobility in 1520, Luther spelled these implications out with startling clarity: the distinction between religious and secular, between sacred and profane, is nothing more than a “specious device invented by time-servers,” for “our baptism consecrates us all without exception, and makes us all priests.” 

For Luther this did not mean, however, that all Christians were called to perform the same duties or occupy the same stations. Since human beings are incapable of rendering anything to God in return for his grace, Luther argued that God does not need our good works. But our neighbors do. Therefore God so ordered things that each is assigned his or her proper task to help the body of Christ function. The vocation that unites people to Christ in faith always comes first. But “when I have this righteousness within me,” Luther explained:

I descend from heaven like the rain that makes the earth fertile. That is, I come forth into another kingdom, and I perform good works whenever the opportunity arises. If I am a minister of the Word, I preach, I comfort the saddened, I administer the sacraments. If I am a father, I rule my household and family, I train my children in piety and honesty. If I am a magistrate, I perform the office which I have received by divine command. If I am a servant, I faithfully tend to my master’s affairs. 

 In short, whoever knows for sure that Christ is his righteousness not only cheerfully and gladly works in his calling but also submits himself for the sake of love to magistrates, also to their wicked laws, and to everything else in this present life—even, if need be, to burden and danger. For he knows that God wants this and that this obedience pleases him.

The gate to paradise?

Luther experienced these “discoveries” as “the very gate to paradise,” and he was confident that his gospel would liberate “those who work” and “those who fight” to rediscover the joy of their salvation. But Luther’s critics, then and now, pointed out that this understanding of vocation seemed to underwrite a deeply conservative view of the social order. And much confirmed this. Luther made clear that justification by faith alone dissolves the distinction between the “spiritual” and the “secular,” but he left wholly untouched any secular distinctions. 

Rulers are called to rule and servants to serve: “If you are called in slavery, then remain in the slavery in which you were called,” he said, and elsewhere, “We know that everybody . . . must be able to tell himself: ‘This is my office; this is my vocation.’ Such a person is pleasing to God. It is God’s will that I be a father or mother, a husband or wife.” And yet Luther always insisted—sometimes in the face of his own experience—that truly understanding vocation in Christ would transform how people treat others. Commenting on 1 Cor. 7:20, Luther responded to the question, “What if the Gospel calls me in a state of sin, should I remain in that?” by saying:

How can you sin if you have faith and love? Since God is satisfied with your faith and your neighbor with your love, it is impossible that you should be called and still remain in a state of sin. . . . This call brings you from the state of sin to a state of virtue, making you unable to sin as long as you are in that state. All things are free to you with God through faith; but with men you are the servant of everyman through love.

Luther was unwilling to use the gospel as a blueprint for reconstructing the social order. But he also insisted that a master who exercises his office

sinfully, with no recognition that the gospel makes him “the servant of everyman,” fails to understand the gospel.

Luther’s ambiguous legacy on these points echoed through the centuries, as Christians wrestled with the question of when their vocation as Christians calls them to support the social order and when it calls them to change it. But through those centuries, his message of God’s universal calling also comforted many in knowing they were doing the work of God’s kingdom as they caught the fish, milked the cows, tended the crops, built the roads, changed the diapers, and maintained justice. CH

By David C. Fink

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #110 in 2014]

David C. Fink is assistant professor of religion at Furhman University.
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