What it means to be truly Lutheran: Vocation: Serving God and others

Joel D. Otto

Monasticism received a lot of attention from Luther and his fellow reformers. They saw that the church promoted this “religious” way of life as the best way to improve a person’s chances to get to heaven. It was an example of salvation by human effort.

The reformers also criticized this life of poverty, chastity, and obedience because monasticism confused what it really meant to serve God and others. People were led to believe that you had to live as some kind of “super Christian” to really serve God. Luther said that Christians serve God in their everyday lives when they serve their families and neighbors. But it is hard to serve your family and neighbor if you are sequestered behind the walls of a monastery.

God gives us opportunities to live our faith (Ephesians 2:10). Luther described these opportunities as a Christian’s “station” in life or a “vocation” or “calling.” We have numerous relationships in our daily living: families, communities, schools, workplaces, the marketplace, friendships, churches, government. Each of these provides opportunities to serve God by serving others and by contributing to the welfare of the larger society.

In fact, God provides what we need to help us carry out our vocations. In Luther’s explanation to the Fourth Petition of the Lord’s Prayer in his Small Catechism, we notice how many different aspects of “daily bread” intersect with our service to God and others. “Daily bread includes everything we need for our bodily welfare, such as food and drink, clothing and shoes, house and home, land and cattle, money and goods, a godly spouse, godly children, godly workers, godly and faithful leaders, good government, good weather, peace and order, health, a good name, good friends, faithful neighbors, and the like.” God gives us the opportunities and the means to help others.

Luther especially noted the value God places on the simple, everyday ways that Christians live out their various vocations. Yes, we are serving God. We are doing all things to his glory (1 Corinthians 10:31; Colossians 3:17). But God is also acting through us. He is working through us to care for others. Luther wrote, “God’s people please God even in the least and most trifling matters. For he will be working all things through you; he will milk the cow through you and perform the most servile duties through you, and all the greatest and least duties alike will be pleasing to him” (Luther’s Works, Vol. 6, p. 10).

When we think in those terms, we can see how what seems like an ordinary life is elevated in God’s eyes. We don’t have to be “religious” or “super Christians” to serve God. True Lutherans understand that we serve God when we serve others through our various vocations in life.

Questions to consider

1. Read Colossians 3:12–4:1. How do these verses demonstrate attitudes Christians display in their vocations? How do these verses give specific direction for living out our vocations?

Every attitude that Paul lists in these verses—compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, forgiveness, and love—are all critical in fostering relationships. So many of our vocations, if not all of them, involve living out relationships with others in our family, workplace, school, neighborhood, community, society, and church. All of these attitudes are part of obeying the command, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” For us to live out our vocations in a Christian manner, we need the peace of Christ ruling in our hearts. We need the peace of forgiveness for the times we fail. That peace rules in our hearts when the message about Christ is dwelling in us richly.

These verses give specific directions to various areas of family life and the workplace. There’s also an overall motivation that is present in these verses. Remember who we are. We are God’s chosen people. He has made us holy. He dearly loves us. He forgives us. So whatever vocations we have, the way in which we carry out those vocations should reflect a thankful heart. We live out our vocations in the name of the Savior whose blood bought us and in whom we trust for our salvation.

2. How might we fall into “Lutheran monasticism” today?

None of us will probably be taking vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience or establishing monasteries next to our Lutheran churches any time soon. But we can fall into a “Lutheran monasticism” when we give the impression that things done in connection with the church are better or godlier than living out one’s vocation in the home, workplace, and community. The unintended message of church leaders can be, “You’re only really serving Jesus if you’re volunteering on the evangelism committee or singing in the choir or serving on the church council.” We are in danger of a “Lutheran monasticism” when some people volunteer so much at church that they are rarely at home to live out their vocations as parents or spouses. They’re so busy at church that their family life suffers.

We even are in danger of a “Lutheran monasticism” if we give the impression that serving in the public ministry is a holier calling than “just” being a lay person. It is true that whoever desires to serve in the public ministry desires a noble task (1 Timothy 3:1). Making the preaching and teaching of the gospel one’s vocation in life is a wonderful calling. We even can call it a high and holy calling. You get to tell others about Jesus as your life’s work. The church needs people to serve in the full-time public ministry of the gospel. But we must always beware that we don’t make it sound like service in the public ministry puts someone on a higher level than everyone else or that being a pastor or teacher will somehow bring a person closer to God. Service in the public ministry is another way to do all things in the name of the Lord Jesus.

3. List specific vocations you have in your life. How have they changed over the years? Choose one vocation and think of ways you serve God and others in that calling.

Answers will vary, but think about the different vocations one has in family life, community, workplace, church, school, etc. Consider how those vocations, especially in terms of relationships, change over the years. For example, your relationship to your parents is different when you are 7 years old than when you are 27 or 57. As you choose a vocation on which to focus, think of attitude, words, and actions you might want to display in that specific calling that will allow you to serve God and others.

Contributing editor Joel Otto, a professor at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, Mequon, Wisconsin, is a member at Salem, Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

This is the 11th article in a 14-part series on key doctrinal emphases that Luther brought back to light through his Reformation. Find this article and answers online after August 5.


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Author: Joel D. Otto
Volume 104, Number 8
Issue: August 2017

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