Martin Luther on the Vocations of the Christian
- Robert BenneRobert BenneRoanoke College
A teaching of Martin Luther that has had great historical effect is his teaching on vocation. Protesting the Roman Catholic arrangement in which the clergy had callings of higher religious and moral significance than the laity, Luther taught that all Christians have callings or vocations, and that all callings are equal in moral and religious seriousness. They only differ in function. This teaching unleashed unprecedented commitment and energy to worldly work in the Western world. Paralleling his teaching on the priesthood of all believers, Luther taught that all Christians are called by God through Christ to be his beloved and forgiven children, and that they need no mediators to receive that graceful call directly. At the same time, however, Christians who receive that grace through Christ become priests to their neighbors, mediating God’s love through them to the neighbor. They do that very concretely in their vocations. Thus, Christians become conduits of God’s love received through Christ and offered to the neighbor in the various places of responsibility they have been given. For Luther, Christians do not need to cast about for places to exercise their obedience; they were given in the orders of creation into which each Christian was inevitably placed—marriage and family life, work, citizenship, and church. Each person—lay and clergy alike—is called to work in the world. In fulfilling their work gladly and conscientiously, they serve their neighbor. Plain ordinary work is transformed into a Christian vocation as the Christian exercises his faith-active-in-love. Work is no longer simply a job or occupation; it is a calling, a vocation. It is a summons from God. Vocation is also where the Spirit sanctifies the Christian’s life, not in a self-centered quest for perfection, but rather in humble service to the neighbor. While Luther thought there were some occupations that were off-limits to Christians, he accepted most worldly roles as useful to the neighbor. The Christian could be a soldier in a just war and even a hangman in a just cause. One alleged weakness of the classic Lutheran teaching on vocation, however, was that it tended to accept uncritically the roles prescribed by the world. In such teaching, the Christian willingly does what the world prescribes. However, recent Lutheran interpretations of vocation are more dynamic. For example, Gustav Wingren, in Luther on Vocation, argued not only that the orders of creation are dynamic and call for constructive change, but that in Christian vocation the two ways that God reigns in the world intersect. The Christian under the reign of God’s gospel interjects the love liberated by that gospel into one’s worldly occupation, transforming it into a genuine vocation. Love has a transformative effect. It functions critically and constructively. Lutheranism at its best has incorporated more dynamic elements into its great teaching on vocation.