I sometimes wonder if many of God’s people feel disconnected from the Great Commission. After all, what does our work as a waitress or a welder, a business owner or a barista, a paralegal or a parent have to do with God’s redemptive mission? Have you heard the saying that ministry is the highest calling? This thinking elevates “sacred work” above “secular work,” implying that to really serve God we must leave our “secular” work and go into full-time vocational ministry. But what if that isn’t God’s calling for you?
How did we get to this place? Perhaps, while rightly emphasizing the authority of Scripture and justification by faith, we neglected another primary teaching of the Reformation: the priesthood of all believers. How should we understand this biblical concept? How does it impact our everyday work? To answer these questions, let’s begin by exploring vocation.
We typically view vocation as our occupation, and that’s partly right. In Latin, vocatio indicates a sacred calling, such as to the priesthood or a monastery. But Luther insisted that all work done in faith is sacred, likening our work to “the masks of God,” as God conceals himself while blessing our neighbors through our daily tasks. In an excellent little book titled God at Work, Gene Veith says when we pray “Give us this day our daily bread,” God answers that prayer through the farmer who grows the grain, the miller who grinds it into flour, and the baker who turns flour into bread. “The purpose of all of our callings is to love and serve the neighbors that each vocation brings into our lives (in marriage, our spouse; in parenthood, our children; in the workplace, our customers; and so on) …We are saved only by grace through faith in the work of Jesus Christ. But then we are sent back into our callings to live out that faith. God does not need our good works, Luther said, thinking of elaborate efforts to merit salvation apart from the free gift of Christ, but our neighbor does need our good works.”
Vocation includes, but is much broader and more varied than, our paid occupations, taking in the many and varied ways we benefit others. All work done in faith is sacred. This is what Paul meant when he wrote: “Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him” (1 Corinthians 7:17, ESV).
Disconnected from faith, work can be unfulfilling; but connected to faith it can be a powerful means by which God blesses people and accomplishes his mission. Understood this way, we experience a deeper joy in our callings, and accordingly participate more effectively in God’s redemptive mission. But is work always satisfying and enjoyable? No, sad to say, we live in a fallen world where some perform their vocations in self-seeking, even destructive ways. If possible, we might transform that place, or we might need to move on. Then too, some vocations are evil, and then the law must do its work.
Perhaps you are now thinking, “I understand our vocations are God’s means to serve and love our neighbors, but how does this help me participate more fully in God’s redemptive mission?” We turn now to the “priesthood of all believers.” As Peter wrote, “…you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Peter 2:9, italics added). Vocation and the priesthood of all believers work together.
Let’s be clear that this priesthood does not replace what we call “offices” of the Church, such as: “the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers” (Ephesians 4:11). Those are specific callings with corresponding spiritual gifts. But offices alone do not satisfy God’s missional purposes in our world. Paul went on to say these offices are “to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (4:12-13). This is evidenced in Acts 8, as “all except the apostles” were scattered and preached the gospel wherever they went. In Acts 11:19-21, Luke picked up the story: “Now those who had been scattered… traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, spreading the word only among Jews. Some of them, however, …went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.” Accordingly, the 16th century reformers denied any biblical grounds for insisting that churchly offices are sacred vocations while the proverbial “butcher, baker, and candlestick maker” are not.
In his 1520 treatise, To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, Luther dismissed the practice of dividing Christians into “spiritual” and “secular” classes: “The fact is that our baptism consecrates us all without exception and makes us priests. As St. Peter says, 1 Peter 2[:9], ‘You are a royal priesthood and a realm of priests’, and Revelation, ‘Thou hast made us priests and kings by Thy blood’ [Rev. 5:9f.] …Everyone who has been baptized may claim that he has already been consecrated priest, bishop, or pope, even though it is not seemly for any particular person arbitrarily to exercise the office.”
So, just how do vocation and the priesthood of all believers work together? Vocation connected to faith serves this priesthood. Are you a parent? Your children are disciples of Jesus in the making, and connect you to a larger circle of parents, children, and organizations that benefit families. Christian parents and children are God’s salt and light in those spheres. Are you a businessperson? You are providing a service through which God brings benefit to others, so conduct your business with integrity and serve well. Here too, you inhabit a larger circle that needs Jesus. Whatever work you do, God gives you the capacity to bless others and build relationships, providing a platform for speaking of Jesus, but also supplying a non-verbal witness in support of the spoken gospel. As Jesus said, “let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). Most likely you are already doing this, but haven’t thought of it as serving God’s mission.
And lastly, a communal witness is compelling. We enhance the effectiveness of our witness by working with other believers, praying for opportunities to bring the good news of salvation in Jesus to our neighbors, locally and globally. Let us join together as God’s Church sent, drawing strength and courage from Jesus’ promise: “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20b).
Dr. Gaylan Mathiesen Ph.D. serves the Church of the Lutheran Brethren as professor of Mission and Evangelism at Lutheran Brethren Seminary.
- www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/how-vocation-transformed-society/ Accessed 7/23/2021.
- John Dillenberger, ed., Martin Luther, Selections from His Writings, Anchor Books, 1958, p.408-409.