While the five Reformation solas (sola Scriptura, sola fide, sola gratia, solo Christo, and soli Deo gloria) get top billing in our historical reflections on the eve of the Reformation’s 500th anniversary, perhaps the most significant development of the Reformation is one of its rather hidden fruits.
By the sixteenth century, the church had developed a peculiar understanding of the nature of work. While human beings were created to find joy in God’s gift of work, the church understood that some kinds of work were more attuned to the heavenly realm than others. Naturally, service to the church was of greater value than, say, to a feudal lord or in service of commercial interest. The highest calling (vocation) to which a person could aspire was dedicating oneself to monastic vows.
However, monasticism also presented a subtle danger–it reinforced the idea of a spiritual life distinct from the ordinary life of faith. If one were to be a “serious” Christian dedicated to cultivating personal spirituality, one had to pursue religious vows. Thus, only the clerical and monastic offices were considered “callings.” Every other ordinary realm of work was worldly–secular.
But the reformation, fortunately, restored a proper understanding of vocation. The key to this restoration was the biblical understanding of the grace to be found in the perfect righteousness of Christ. Justification by faith meant that no human work (no matter how apparently spiritual) curries favor with God. It was in light of God’s mercy, rather than an attempt to attain it, that we are to offer our bodies as living sacrifices (Rom 12:1-2). Thus, our work, in whatever sphere, was not to be done for God in order to merit his love, but to be done in light of God’s love for the good of others. Luther wrote, “God does not need our good works, our neighbor does.”
This rediscovery provides a vital corrective to the crisis many young people feel about what they should do with their lives. Today’s college graduates (perhaps more than any other generation of the modern era) aspire to meaningful careers that will “make a difference in the world.” As laudable as this desire seems on the surface, it tends to generate years of vocational frustration and disappointment. Young people will move from job to job while waiting for the perfect job to appear on the horizon where they can “make their life count.”
What the Reformers understood was that meaning was not to be sought in one’s occupation. Meaning is ultimately found through union with Christ. Fully known and fully accepted, the Christian is unleashed to make any and every vocation rich with purpose and intentionality–by serving his neighbor through love. God, who needs nothing, works through his people to give good gifts to our neighbors who need them. He gets the glory, our neighbors receive the good, and we get the joy.
Thus, meaningful work is not grounded in a mission statement or a job description. It is grounded in the perfect righteousness of Christ which establishes our standing as beloved before God. Every occupation involves people who need the implications of that love–and to be shown its source. If you want to make life count, consider what favor is yours in Christ Jesus, and do with excellence what God has given you to do.
Assistant Professor of Church History and Theology
- Pray with us that God would daily help us unpack the implications of our union with Christ (1Cor 1:30-31).
- Pray with us for grace to cultivate in our college students a proper understanding of vocation.
- Pray for that our community’s love would abound more and more in knowledge and all discernment so that we may approve what is excellent and be pure and blameless for the day of Christ (Phil 1.9-10)