Malcolm B. Yarnell III, professor and department chair of systematic theology, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
Today we use words like “calling” and “vocation” in association with jobs and tasks. However, these are external circumstances that the world can change or take away. Martin Luther’s experience can help us appreciate how our true vocation rests at a deeper level, one that can never be taken from us.
In a critical moment of his life, Martin Luther was afflicted with difficult questions of purpose that continue to afflict the consciences of well-meaning Christians today. Am I doing anything in this world that really matters? Is my life what God wants it to be? What should I become in order to “really make a difference?” Dogged by these questions over many years, he came at last to understand how God’s calling provided not only a clear direction for his life, but a sense of identity that resolved his deeper spiritual afflictions.
At first, badly shaken after surviving a lightning strike, Luther vowed to become a monk. His choice did not please his father, a wealthy businessman, who preferred that his son pursue a career in law. But there was a logic behind Luther’s vow. In the late medieval context, the monastic life was considered to be the only true “vocation” or “calling” that a man or woman could receive from God.
After becoming an Augustinian friar, Luther suffered intense introspection regarding his sinfulness and his failed attempts at performing good works. He was required to study theology, which he took seriously; a conscientious man, he followed the theology of the church, but it only led him back and back again to his painful introspections. Brother Martin’s confessor and religious superior, Johann von Staupitz, tried to help him by pointing him to the sacrifice of Christ, but to no avail.
Then, in what could be seen as a counter-intuitive move, Staupitz appointed the struggling friar to become a Bible teacher at a new university in Wittenberg. This unusual step shaped Luther’s life and reshaped world history: the boy who had refused to become a lawyer, and who had become a monk instead by his own rash choice, was now given responsibility for the thought-life of the future leaders of Saxony. Staupitz’s grant of such a leading role to a self-confessed serial failure seemed to be due more to accident and whim than preparation and foresight. Perhaps the confessor just wanted to get rid of both the teaching assignment and the troubled young friar.
Whether or not Luther and Staupitz understood it at the time, they both later discerned that this was the younger man’s true role. God did not want Brother Martin to be an elite holy man but a simple Bible teacher. God’s calling found Luther, in spite of Luther.
As he studied the Bible, Brother Martin discovered that the medieval structure of Christian life had drifted far from its original mooring. Among the many things he learned, especially from the apostle Paul, was that divine calling was not restricted to monks and nuns. First, Luther’s approach to Bible reading – setting aside cumbersome medieval metaphysics to encounter the text more directly – helped him see that every human being is personally accountable to the Lord’s judgment. Second, his reading of such passages as Romans 1:16-17 helped him see that judgment could be avoided through the gift of righteousness accessible through personal faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Third, Luther discovered that the Lord issues to each person a calling, whatever his or her particular station in this life.
Calling is centered not in jobs or tasks, but in people. It breaks us free from captivity to our assigned cultural identities. “However, each one must live his life in the situation the Lord assigned when God called him” (I Corinthians 7:17). In this passage, Paul considers a divine calling to be allocated according to the person. One man may be a Jew, another may be a Gentile; one may be free, another may be a slave. The point is not the ethnicity or the station one receives in this life, but the calling one receives from the Lord. In I Corinthians 7, Paul is adamant that varieties in religious background, work status, and marital status were not the decisive factors. All these external circumstances are derivative; what is determinative is the Lord’s calling.
We often speak of our careers or jobs or roles as our callings or vocations. These external circumstances would be better described not as vocations themselves, but as avenues for expressing our Christian vocation. Paul could envision a human being staying in the same station he was in when he was called to eternal life (I Corinthians 7:20). He could also envision a person changing his station – perhaps even moving from slave to free status (I Corinthians 7:21). A vocation is not a station in society. A vocation is God’s call for a person to come to salvation (Romans 8:28-30) and then to serve his or her neighbor through witness (I Peter 2:9).
As Luther interprets Paul in his “Sermon in the Castle Church at Weimar,” one can be a magistrate and another can be a Bible teacher. One can be a prince; another, a shoemaker. The critical issue is not what one does for a career, but for whom one does it. On the one hand, Luther says, “The prince should think: Christ has served me and made everything to follow him; therefore, I should also serve my neighbor, protect him and everything that belongs to him.” On the other hand, “If he is a Christian tailor, he will say: I make these clothes because God has bidden me do so, so that I can earn a living, so that I can help and serve my neighbor.”
This is not to say that the choice of a career is unimportant. Careers are important, and we should pray for guidance to our proper stations in life. This is to say, however, that the call of God to salvation and our response of faith are of utmost importance. It is also to say that the call of God to salvation carries with it a call to service, to serve God by serving others.
To put it boldly, as Luther himself might: It is more important to find out who you are in Christ than it is to find out what you are to do in the world. But once you are in Christ, do what you are doing for his glory!