The Vocation of the Christian

The Vocation of the Christian

A Theological Account

Dr. Alexander H. Pierce

Assistant Professor of Historical Theology

In late medieval Europe, the religious vocations of clergy from priesthood to monasticism towered above the work of laypersons in moral and theological significance. As is well known, Martin Luther leveled the playing field in his advocacy of the priesthood of all believers and his corresponding assertion of the common vocation (vocatio, Beruf) of all Christian believers.1 Luther’s reimagining of the landscape of vocation and the Christian life came downstream of his renewal of the central importance and practical implications of the Gospel. God calls individuals who inhabit distinct forms and rhythms within this life. But a “calling” can be received only by those who have already received the love of God in faith. Vocation is a curriculum for how to live as a member of Christ in a world still marred by sin, death, and the devil. Believers’ common priesthood means not only that all share direct access to God in Christ, then, but also that we all minister to one another, making Christ’s love present to each other.

The vocation of the Christian amounts to the faith-filled Christian passing on the love of Christ to neighbors in need within the context of the three orders (Stände), of “the household, the government, and the church.”2 Luther agreed with much of the earlier Christian tradition that the orders of the household (marriage and family life) and the church were orders of God’s good creation. But the order of government or the state was a form of divine accommodation to the fallen state of humanity. The entrance of sin into human life also corrupted both of the created orders. These three orders — four if we divide that of the household into family and work3 — are the avenues in which Christians can fulfill their earthly duties out of love for their spouses and children, superiors and subordinates, pastors and political representatives.

The Christian vocation requires that we respond to the promises of God by sharing God’s love in all things and with all persons. At one level, the vocation of the Christian is particular to each individual believer. Every person’s vocation will look a little different. In the case of every believing Christian, however, the vocation of faith active in love involves sharing a gift already received rather than seeking to be worthy of a gift yet to be given.

The vocation of the Christian is also corporate. God told the Israelites in the Mosaic Covenant, “You shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). What, we may ask, does the Lord require of His people? In recalling the words of Micah 6:8, the refrain of “We are Called” (the modern hymn by David Haas) reminds us,

We are called to act with justice,
we are called to love tenderly,
we are called to serve one another,
to walk humbly with God!4

Lorenzo Monaco (Piero di Giovanni), Moses (1408-10)
Lorenzo Monaco (Piero di Giovanni), Moses (1408-10)

But in the New Testament, 1 Peter tells baptized Christians: “you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the excellence of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9; emphasis added). The vocation common to all members of Christ’s Body is to live as those who have been welcomed into the people of God by the waters of baptism and the gift of the Holy Spirit. We must, as Luther teaches in the Brief Instruction, receive Christ both as gift (in the righteousness of faith) and as the example we are to follow.5 But we must also proclaim the Good News of the Gospel, sharing in word and deed our trust that in Jesus’ Person and works God has provided forgiveness of sins, victory over death, liberation from the devil, and the promise of eternal life.

The gift of Christ, that is, His grace in the form of the Holy Spirit, enables the Christian to respond to God’s call with a life conformed to Christ’s example. The Christian vocation of struggling to forge ahead in this already-but-not-yet life is the unpredictable arc of sanctification, a set of forward and backward steps that forms a growth curve as we cultivate proper virtue that flows out of Christ’s alien virtue imputed to us as the righteousness of faith. Yet, we must keep in mind that perfectionism is not possible this side of heaven. Enduring faith in God’s love enables the Christian to love others without placing hope in these works of love. Rather, the baptized continue in the struggle of this earthly vocation against sin, death, and the devil in the hope that God’s promises given and made known in Christ will continue to come true, to the point of Christ’s return in glory to subject all of creation to Himself

  1. For essential reading on Martin Luther’s understanding of vocation, see Gustaf Wingen, Luther on Vocation, trans. Carl C. Rasmussen (Philadelphia, PA: Mulhenberg Press, 1957).
  2. Martin Luther, “No. 5533: Three Rules Used for Translating the Bible, Winter of 1542–1543,” in Luther’s Works, American Edition, 55 vols., eds. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann (St. Louis and Philadelphia: Concordia and Fortress, 1955ff.) [hereafter cited as LW], 54:446.

  3. See Robert Benne, “Martin Luther on the Vocation of the Christian,” Oxford Research Encyclopedias, Religion (2016).

  4. David Haas, “We Are Called,” GIA Publications, Inc., 1988.

  5. Martin Luther, “A Brief Instruction on What to Look for and Expect in the Gospels” (1521), trans. Theodore Bachmann, in LW 35:117–124, esp. 119-120.