What does Scripture teach us about our Vocations? | Tom Hicks

by | May 14, 2024 | Practical Theology, Systematic Theology


In this lesson, we will examine the biblical doctrine of calling or vocation. This doctrine relates to the places and situations where God has called us to work in this world. The Roman Catholic church teaches that only priests and holy orders like monks and nuns have vocations or callings in this world. But the Reformation insisted that all Christians have vocations before the Lord, which they should discharge faithfully.

Look at 1 Corinthians 7:17. “Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches.” Do you see the word “called” in this verse? That’s the Greek word “kaleo.” There are three main uses of the word “calling” in the New Testament. First, there is an external call of the gospel that goes out to all men. All people everywhere are commanded to repent and believe the gospel.  This outward call of the gospel can be resisted and is resisted by hard-hearted sinners. Luke 5:32 is an example of this external call, where Jesus says, “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” Second, there is an internal call of the Holy Spirit. When the outward call of the gospel comes to God’s chosen people, at the right time, God sends His Spirit to give them the inward call, which effectively saves them. This is sometimes called “effectual calling.” Effectual calling is described in Romans 8:30, where Paul says, “Those whom he predestined, he also called, and those whom he called, he also justified, and those whom he justified, he also glorified.” This teaches that everyone God called, He justified. So that’s effectual calling. But the third meaning of “calling” is found here in 1 Corinthians 7:17. It means God assigns believers to live a certain kind of life. This use of the word calling means “vocation.” It’s a person’s life situation.

Look at Paul’s example in verses 18-20. He says, “Was anyone at the time of his call [that’s speaking of the effectual call] already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision. For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision but keeping the commandments of God.” In Paul’s day, there was a stigma in the Roman world attached to circumcision. When Jews became Christians, they realized that circumcision wasn’t needed for salvation, and some were tempted to remove the marks of their circumcision. But Paul says, don’t do that! If you’re a Jew, remain a Jew. You don’t need to change your nationality when you become a Christian. What matters is your faithful obedience to the commandments of God in whatever nationality you find yourself.

So, we see Christianity doesn’t change your calling. Becoming a Christian doesn’t change your social status. Christ didn’t come to upset the social order. That means, ordinarily, if you’re an American, then you should stay an American. But coming to Christ means being a godly American who keeps Christ’s commandments. Similarly, were you a doctor when God saved you? Then remain a doctor. That’s your calling. Keep on doing what you were doing when God saved you. Were you a construction worker? Then stay a construction worker. But keep the commandments, while you do it. That’s what Paul is saying. Now if you were a drug dealer, bank robber, or involved in organized crime when God saved you, or if you were involved in some other immoral occupation, then you should stop doing that. Repent of all sinful lifestyles because what matters is keeping the commandments of God. All legitimate callings honor the Lord. That’s what verse 20 means when it says, “For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God.”

But now please look at verses 21-24, which brings some balance to what Paul has already said. “Were you a slave when called? Do not be concerned about it. But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity. For he who was called in the Lord as a slave is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise, he who was free when called is a slave of Christ. You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men. So, brothers in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God.” Here again, Paul is saying that Christ didn’t come to overturn the whole social order. Jesus didn’t come to change people’s stations in life. He even tells slaves not to worry about it if they’re slaves. Slaves can and should be slaves to the glory of God. In this day, people were normally slaves because of debts they could not pay. It was a way people could pay back what they owed. But then Paul balances this teaching by saying, “But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.” If you have the opportunity to be free, then go free! Pay off your debts if you can. Get free of the burden of slavery if you can.

So, do you see how this doctrine of vocation, or calling, is very broad? In 1 Corinthians 7, vocation even includes marriage if you look at verses 8-16. Paul is saying that if you’re married, then your calling is to your spouse. And if you’re married, then Paul says that your first consideration in this world is to your spouse. Verse 33 says that a married man is to be concerned about how to please his wife. Even if you’re married to an unbeliever, and that unbeliever will live with you sympathetically, then remain with your spouse. Similarly, if you’re a parent, that’s a calling. If you’re a son or a daughter, that’s a calling. The church you’re a member of is the church you’re called to.  Your nationality is your calling.


God Gives Gifts Through Human Callings.

Our callings to work in this world are the way that God blesses His world to sustain physical life. God can give us the things we need directly. For example, God fed the Israelites directly by dropping mana out of heaven. But that was a very unique situation. Martin Luther called “vocations” the masks of God. That is, God is providing for you through the vocations of other people. It seems like others are helping you, but in reality, God is the one who provides. How does God ordinarily feed us? He feeds us through the work of farmers, bakers, cooks, and all those who are skilled at preparing food. People who prepare food are the hands and feet of God to feed us. Matthew 6:31-32 says, “So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the nations chase after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows you need them.” How does God give us clothing and shelter? He clothes us and houses us by providing employers for us, who pay us for our work. He clothes us by the callings of clothing manufacturers. And He houses us by the calling of construction workers. How does God provide for children in society in general? He gives them fathers and mothers to take care of them and nurture them when they are young, to train them up so that they will be equipped to live in this world. How does God speak to us? He speaks to us through the calling of the Apostles and Prophets, who wrote down the Word of God for us to read. He speaks to us when our pastors read and preach the Word of God. So, our callings are part of God’s providence. Our callings are part of how God provides for the world to sustain it and keep it stable in the Noahic covenant.


The Purpose of Vocation.

It’s very important not to get confused about the purpose of our vocations. Why do we work in this world? What should motivate and propel us to keep going in our vocations? We need to understand that our work in our vocations is part of the common or shared kingdom of the Noahic covenant. Both believers and unbelievers share callings in this world. There can be believing doctors and unbelieving doctors, police, bakers, and so on. Our callings are not our works to redeem the world. If our work in our vocations could construct the essence of Christ’s kingdom, then we would be working for our salvation. But the Bible says that Christ’s kingdom is a gift.  Jesus says in Luke 12:32, “Fear not little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Some people teach that our good works literally form Christ’s kingdom in the world. But we shouldn’t think that our good works are building Christ’s kingdom. Christ alone builds his kingdom.


What is the purpose of our vocation as Christians?

A Christian’s purpose in his vocation is to love and serve our neighbors to the glory of God and for our own joy. How do we love our neighbors? By keeping God’s commandments. That means we should be honest businessmen who refuse to lie and steal. We should submit to divinely established authorities. We should refuse to murder and steal, but instead to work, give, and protect life. This is how we should live all of the time. But our vocations are the places where we keep God’s commandments in our lives. Now, ordinarily, even non-Christians have to keep God’s commandments in their vocation or else they often end up suffering the consequences. That’s Calvin’s 1st civil use of the law. The natural consequences of the law often serve to curb great outward sin like stealing and murdering. But the purpose of our vocation as Christians is to be the hands and feet of God’s love and provision to others, no matter what the outcome of our works. The purpose of our vocation is to put Christ on display in the world, for the glory of God, whether people see our good works and glorify God or persecute us for them.


How do you find your vocation?

There are many wrong ideas about the doctrine of vocation.  Many believe that our vocations (or callings) are mystical. Mysticism is the belief that “God reveals truths to you through spiritual inward impressions.” People who have a mystical view of callings think that God gives them some inward impression about what they are supposed to do, and now they must do it or else they will be disobeying God. That is an unbiblical teaching. But the Bible does not teach that our callings are mystical. Often, we have no choice in our callings, and we shouldn’t try to change them. Rather, the Bible teaches that you must be faithful wherever God has put you. God’s providence determines your life. Your life is your calling. And we must live our lives faithfully.

1 Samuel 2:7-8 says, “The Lord makes poor and makes rich; he brings low and he exalts; 8 He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor. For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s, and on them he has set the world.” The point here is that you do not absolutely choose your vocations. You do not make the final determination of any legitimate calling. You do not choose your parents. You do not choose your brothers and sisters. You do not choose the country you are born in. You shouldn’t shop for a church based on your preferences. Rather, you should go to the kind of church God commands you to attend. Many people think they choose their line of work. But that’s not fundamentally true. If people could simply choose their line of work, many might choose something glamorous like a major league baseball player, a fighter pilot, or maybe to be an influential politician or something. Now, some people are called to those vocations. But in truth, your line of work chooses you based on many factors like your location, your opportunities or lack thereof, your culture, and especially your gifts, skills, and qualifications for the job. You can do much to prepare yourself for a certain line of work, but the fact remains that you are only suited for a certain range of work based on how God has made you. You will not ordinarily survive in a line of work to which God has not fitted you. People will see that you are incapable, and they will not hire you because you aren’t doing your job well. Many people think they choose their spouses. But your choice of a spouse is only 50%. And even then, you don’t fully know or understand what you are choosing because you can’t truly predict all the outcomes of your choice. And after you’re married, you don’t get to choose your spouse. God arranges all marriages. And your marriage is a calling, where you must live according to God’s commandments. You don’t have a choice. So, you don’t choose your callings. God makes you, and He puts you where He wants you. This isn’t to say that you have no choices within a certain range. You do. But your choice is not absolute or determinative. God’s choice is. Our society is absolutely bent on personal choices. We are convinced that we have the right to choose everything. For example, some women insist that if they want to be pastors, they have the right to choose to be pastors. But pastoral ministry is a calling defined by God, and God says that only qualified men may be pastors. People don’t simply get to choose it. Just think of all the things that people think they have the right to choose for themselves. People think they have the right to choose their gender. They have the right to choose whether they marry someone of the same sex or not. Wives think they simply get to choose based on preference whether to submit to their husbands or not. In fact, probably most people in our society believe that they should only submit to authorities when they agree with that authority. Personal choice is probably the ruling principle of our society. But personal choices and desires do not determine our callings. Rather, God commands us to live obedient lives where we are called.


What are the ethics of Christian vocation?

Understanding the doctrine of Christian vocation helps us to understand what our duties are and what are duties are not. This is crucial in a social media age that seems to imply that everything in the world is everyone’s business and responsibility. But the doctrine of calling defines our business and our responsibilities. Callings are the place where you obey Christ and where you sin against Christ. One way to understand sin is that it is a violation of your calling. When you lie, steal, murder, commit adultery, or covet as a spouse, you are sinning against your calling to marriage. When you lie, steal, murder, or covet as a parent, you are sinning against your calling to be a mother or father. If a police officer unjustly harms or beats up a fellow citizen, he is sinning against his calling. If a businessman cheats his customers, he is sinning against his calling. If a doctor harms or kills his patients through neglect or incompetence or even maliciousness, he is sinning against his calling. So, all of your sins are committed in a particular calling. And sin always violates a particular calling. Another crucial idea is that callings give us a license or freedom to act in ways we would not be authorized to act unless we had that particular calling. For example, a surgeon has the license to cut a person open to do surgery. But if anyone else cuts a person open, it’s a punishable crime. Only the surgeon has that kind of access by virtue of his calling. A judge has the right and license to punish a criminal and even to sentence them to death for their crimes. But if an ordinary citizen were to take another person’s life, it would be murder. They have no right to take the law into their own hands. Husbands and wives are authorized to have marital intimacy with one another. They have the right of access to one another that no one else has. Outside the calling of marriage, you would be sinning to have marital intimacy. Parents have the freedom and right to discipline their own children. A random person annoyed by a child does not have the right or license to discipline that child.

This is a very important principle to understand. Our right and authority to act comes from our vocations. We do not have the right to violate our vocations. This means that we should not act outside of our vocations. If we act outside of our vocations, we are asking for trouble. Sometimes acting outside of vocation is sinful. But often if we act outside of our vocations, the result will be ineffective, unfruitful, and frustrating. For example, let’s say a medical doctor tried to work with electrical wiring in his home, but then accidentally made a mistake and electrocuted himself, nearly killing himself and having to go to the hospital. And let’s say that the reason this doctor chose to work with electrical wiring is because he’s convinced that every man ought to be independent and able to do everything for himself. But that’s a denial of the doctrine of vocation. It is a kind of radical individualism. Instead, someone who called, qualified and capable of working with electrical wiring should work with electrical wiring. The doctor is qualified to assess medical conditions and prescribe remedies. An electrician probably can’t do that. There is nothing wrong and everything right when a medical doctor defers to the calling of an electrician when it comes to electrical wiring.

I submit that one of the reasons for a great deal of confusion, heartache, and misinformation is that people are speaking and acting outside of their callings. This is part of the sin of our society today, where many people seem to believe that they have competence in everything. In a similar vein, I spoke to a medical doctor who says that many patients think they know more than he does. To give one extreme example, he told a story of a woman who came to him and had researched her problem on the internet and was convinced she knew what her problem was. She only needed him to confirm it and prescribe the right treatment. She told him that she had prostate cancer. And she was dead serious. Now that’s an extreme example, but many people today think their internet searches and social media knowledge can match the knowledge of someone trained in their callings. But that violates the biblical doctrine of calling.

Here’s another example. Let’s say a factory worker comes to church and his pastor tells him, “You should make Bible study your number one priority in life.” That sounds good, doesn’t it? But how would you feel if I told you that Bible study should be the number one priority in your life? You might feel like this factory worker. He works in a factory, long hours, every single weekday. It’s impossible for a factory worker to make Bible study his number one priority. He simply cannot do it. There is no way this worker can keep pace with a pastor who studies the Bible diligently each day of the week. So, his conscience should not be bound to make Bible study   number one priority. Now he should certainly read and study his Bible. He should certainly come to church on the Lord’s Day, which should be his major day of study. But this factory worker is free to be what God has called him, and he doesn’t need to feel guilty that he doesn’t have the same level of knowledge as his pastor.

One other thing we need to consider is the importance of bearing the cross in our vocations. Martin Luther distinguished between the theology of glory and the theology of the cross. The theology of glory yearns for glory, for success, victory, and living happily ever after. Religions of glory promise us a successful life, that answer all of our questions, and promise growth, thriving, and increasing power and popularity. But the theology of the cross says that suffering, trials, temptations and losses are where we meet the Lord. Christ’s call to discipleship is “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Lk 9:23).


Trials in vocations.

Here are a couple of parents who have poured their hearts and lives into their children, and one of them grows up and rejects everything they’ve been taught. They are sometimes tormented with questions. Did we fail as parents? Is this our fault? Here is a businessman who builds a faithful business. He works hard to hire and train employees, but then the economy goes south. He has to lay off workers. He tries to save his business, but it fails. He is deeply discouraged. What becomes of his calling? Didn’t God call him to this? Or here is a pastor who preaches sound doctrine, and the church rejects it and runs him off. He may question, “But didn’t God call me to this?” Or here is a married couple who face hard times. They are struggling in their marriage, and they are even tempted to get a divorce, even though they have no biblical grounds.


Temptations in Callings.

People are often tempted to doubt their effectiveness or usefulness in their callings. They are tempted to doubt their callings themselves. They will even be tempted to abandon their callings altogether or to change their circumstances because things are difficult. Here is what is happening. Satan tempts people to chase a theology of glory rather than the theology of the cross. People are tempted to believe that if they can just change their circumstances, if they can just find the right place, then everything will go well with them. They can be successful and glorious and live happily ever after. But the theology of cross says, “Embrace the cross where you are. Persevere and love and keep God’s commandments where He has put you.” That’s not to say that there are never reasons to change your calling. But it is to say that suffering, trial and temptation are not the right reasons. We need to learn contentment where God has put us and not think that changing our lives will fix our real problems. Our callings are the place where Christ calls us to take up our crosses. And it’s in our callings that we meet Christ through suffering and learn the joy of knowing Him and being conformed to His image.

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