In his essay “The Freedom of a Christian,” Luther declares, “Wherefore it ought to be the first concern of every Christian to lay aside all confidence in works and increasingly to strengthen faith alone and through faith to grow in the knowledge not of works, but of Christ Jesus, who suffered and rose for him.”
In other words, the calling to faith does not mean that we Christians are drawn out of the world and away from responsibilities. Instead, it is exactly within these three estates—the family, the Church, the community—that we are called to live in faith and love.
“Because we are justified through faith in Christ, we are freed to engage in a wide range of activities under God’s Word in the world for the service and well-being of our neighbors,” said Rev. Dr. John D. Pless, assistant professor at Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, Ind.
This is the Lutheran doctrine of vocation.
What God does through us
“Vocation is simply a means through which God orders His creation, and cares for the needs of His creation by giving us all that we need to sustain this body and life,” said Deaconess Betsy Karkan, ministry assistant at Concordia University Chicago.
When we pray “Give us this day our daily bread” we are depending upon all the people who work on the supply chain to get bread from the farmer to the store shelf—and they are depending upon us to do our part—but it is God who feeds us.
This truth stretches through every aspect of life. God heals us through doctors, nurses and surgeons. He clothes us through seamstresses, fashion designers, sales clerks and fabric buyers. He protects us through firefighters, police officers and soldiers. He comforts us through parents, pastors, counselors, friends and deaconesses. He educates us through teachers, historians and principals. He entertains us through musicians, artists, film directors and writers.
“Vocation,” Gene Edward Veith Jr. said in Working for Our Neighbor, “encourages reflection on what God is doing through our lives. … In our vocations, we work side by side with God, as it were, taking part in his ceaseless creative activity and laboring with him as he providentially cares for his creation.”
It’s more than just a job, though. It’s a way of life. A life of sacrifice.
Our response to Christ’s mercy
Vocation, like stewardship, begins with a recognition that life is received as a gift from the Creator. This means that you are a recipient of all that God gives and that everything that you have comes from Him.
“The body of the Christian is to be rendered unto God as a living sacrifice,” Pless said. “For Christ has purchased that body with His own sacrifice for sin and all those who are baptized have been joined to that saving death.”
“Standing as a recipient before God,” Pless continued, “I then stand as a giver before the world.”
This position begins at Baptism. The old man is buried, but the new man is raised from the dead into new life. And that new life is dedicated to the neighbor in love, motivated by the mercy God has shown us.
“Baptism is what we are to live in each day,” Karkan said, “and vocation is the ‘faces and places’ where we are to live out that baptismal calling to love God and serve our neighbor.”
Vocation vs. occupation
Another way to demonstrate that vocation is a way of life is to explain how it is different from an occupation.
On the basis of the New Testament, Luther came to recognize that it is not your position or occupation that makes you holy, BUT FAITH IN CHRIST. — Rev. Dr. John D. Pless
“An occupation,” said Rev. Andrew Preus, senior pastor of two Lutheran churches in Iowa, “is what you do within your vocation. Vocation contains an occupation. The occupation serves the vocation.”
“A father, for example, works as a plumber to support his family as well as other families, his church and even to pay taxes to give revenue to whom revenue is due.”
It’s also important to recognize which vocations are instituted by God and which ones are not—and why.
“Father is instituted by God,” Preus said. “Christian is instituted by God. Plumber isn’t. You can, without sinning, stop being a plumber. You can’t, without sinning, decide to stop being a father.”
Furthermore, Karkan said, “Vocations are gifts given to us by God, not jobs that we apply for, and while skills and abilities are often necessary for us to carry out our vocations, it is critical to understand that they are not the sum of what qualifies us for any vocation.”
But why is understanding the doctrine of vocation important?
Vocation establishes priority
The reason this distinction is important is to give guidance and perspective to what takes priority. What takes priority are the things God instituted.
“Notice how Luther arranges his table of duties,” Preus points out. “He begins with the specifically divinely established offices, such as pastor and hearers, husband and wife, parents and children, government and subjects.
And then he moves into the broader duties of servants and masters and all workers in general.”
Sometimes your duties as a parent will trump your responsibilities as an employee. Or your responsibilities as a parent will get trumped by your duties to your spouse. Or your obedience to God will trump your obedience to the government.
“The family is the foundational vocation,” Veith said in God at Work. “Other earthly authorities grow out of the authority exercised in the family. ‘For all other authority is derived and developed out of the authority of parents,’ says Luther in the Large Catechism.”
There is another reason why understanding vocation is important.
Radical love in the face of rebellion
“Knowing that every vocation has its blessings and crosses to bear really changes a person’s perspective when we ask God, ‘Why?’” Karkan writes. “It helps us to understand that our vocations are gifts from God and that both the blessings and crosses are part of that gift.”
This could not be truer in the realm of parenting. Raising children has its thorns, thistles and sweat. We worry about their health, grades, decisions, relationships and future. These chronic concerns are tribulations of a sort. We hurt deeply when they fall sick, suffer or worse, die.
These are all crosses to bear. Indeed, as are the instances when a child rebels or rejects his or her faith. This, too, is a cross to bear and part of our vocation of parenthood. To stop loving the child at this time is to say no to your vocation.
“Showing the offending child this radical love is manifesting God’s grace to the child,” said Veith and Mary J. Moerbe in Family Vocation: God’s Calling in Marriage, Parenting and Childhood.
“This is an act of cross-bearing at its most profound. The parents suffer, to be sure, but they are also reaching out to the child in love, which is, in vocation, God’s love.”
This can’t be missed: God is the Father whose children have most rebelled against Him. In a similar way, parents may have to suffer their children’s rebellion as well. “The doctrine of vocation,” Veith and Moerbe wrote, “encourages parents to consider that they have followed their calling the best they could and to leave the outcome in God’s hands.”
How to serve God
So, what do you say to someone who asks, “How can I best serve God?”
“You can explain that serving God,” Preus said, “is not confined to the options of being a pastor,
deaconess or Lutheran teacher. Instead, you can suggest he or she consider what their own particular talents, gifts and abilities are and how they might be best employed to help and assist other people.”