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Direction for Life: Calvin's Concept of Calling

While working in a restaurant in the 1970s, I observed two very different attitudes toward work. The go-getter boss hated idleness and frequently exhorted us to greater productivity.

  • Roger Schultz,
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While working in a restaurant in the 1970s, I observed two very different attitudes toward work. The go-getter boss hated idleness and frequently exhorted us to greater productivity. "Time to lean is time to clean" was his guiding maxim. My friend Mike, on the other hand, was not convinced by appeals to industriousness. "They don't pay me enough to work hard," he explained, 'minimum wage', minimum work!" Rebuffing all attempts to make him work harder, "Minimum Mike" became something of a legend in the kitchen.

Our culture, I'm afraid, has adopted a similar minimalist and secularist attitude toward calling. Work is something you do to make money and thereby fund the real goal of living: the pursuit of leisure, pleasure, wealth, or power. One's labor becomes a necessary evil, the obligatory means to reach a more important end. Hopefully one's employment will be enjoyable and satisfying, but that is only a side-benefit to collecting a paycheck. Even Christian students, when asked about their goals, will often respond: "to graduate, get a good job, and make money."

The Protestant Work Ethic 

The Protestant Reformation restored a sense of dignity and Biblical worth to human vocation. Luther and Calvin both stressed the importance of calling and the opportunity of serving man and glorifying God through one's labor. Studies of the Reformation's impact on attitudes toward vocation abound, with Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism being a foundational study.1

The Bible itself emphasizes the importance of vocation and calling. God gave man dominion over the new earth and commissioned him to subdue it, rule it, and fill it (Gen. 1:28). He additionally charged man with cultivating and protecting the Garden (Gen. 2:15). Though in a cursed world where labor became difficult and frustrating (Gen. 3:16-19, Ecc. 8:17 ), the dominion covenant is reaffirmed in one of the great Messianic Psalms (Ps. 8). Christians have an obligation to work, and to work hard (1 Thes. 4:11 , 2 Thes. 3:8-12).2 Christians should render service to supervisors as unto the Lord (Eph. 6:5-9), and know that the Lord Himself will repay them for faithful service (Col. 3:23f). Above all, Christians should recognize that they have been bought with a price, and are required to glorify God with their lives (1 Cor. 6:20 ).

Faithful service may bring the blessing of God, but there is an ever-present danger of becoming so focused on earthly callings and blessings that we forget the Lord. Puritans frequently warned of the dangers that came with great productivity. The scenario they feared went like this: God's people worked hard and were faithful in their callings; they were blessed by God; they became materialistic; and they forgot God. At the beginning of the New England Puritan experiment, in 1630, John Winthrop concluded the "City on a Hill" sermon with this warning, "[but if we] shall be seduced and worship other Gods, our pleasures, and profits, and serve them . . . we shall surely perish out of the good land."3 And late in the Puritan era, Cotton Mather lamented, "Religion brought forth prosperity, and the daughter devoured the mother!" This is a timely warning for American Christians who have access to such wealth.

Calvin on Calling 

Calvin's focus on vocation is particularly rich, historians argue, emphasizing the importance of community. For Calvin, vocation provides social boundaries, helps people maintain focus in their lives, and encourages contentment and endurance.

Calvin's doctrine of vocation, first, emphasizes the stability of the social order. As he put it in the Institutes of the Christian Religion: "The Lord bids each of us in all life's actions to look to his calling." Because we are fickle and frequently disturbed, Calvin continued, "[L]est through stupidity and rashness everything be turned topsy-turvy, he has appointed duties for every man in his particular way of life" and he has named these various kinds of livings callings. One's calling, Calvin concluded, is a "sentry post so that he may not heedless wander through life."4

Second, Calvin's doctrine of vocation provides focus for life, encouraging us to commit energy and to do what we are called to do. "[T]he Lord's calling is in everything the beginning and foundation of well-doing. If there is anyone who will not direct himself to it, he will never hold to the straight path in his duties."5 In other words, if we are goal directed and purposeful in pursuing our callings, we will be much more successful.

One of my friends challenges his children while they are in high school to consider their calling in life. Young men should not spend their time frivolously, he reasons, but should be concerned to see how they might be of service to the Lord. After all, God calls us to glorify Him in all that we do. My friend's commendable goal is to have his children consider how they might be of service to God, and focus their energies to that end.

Third, Calvin's doctrine of vocation stresses contentment: "[E]ach man will bear and swallow the vexations, weariness and anxieties in his way of life, when he has been persuaded that the burden was laid upon him by God."6 There is great encouragement in knowing that we are doing what God put us on earth to do. When people are convinced of that, and committed to their callings, they can withstand any adversity.

Fourth, Calvin's doctrine of vocation encourages perseverance. There is a "singular consolation," Calvin argued, in "that no task will be so sordid and base, provided you obey your calling in it, that it will not shine and be reckoned very precious in God's sight."7 My wife claims that changing diapers became less odious when she approached the chore with a similar perspective: she was called to be a homemaker, to faithful service with the children, and so changing messy diapers diligently and cheerfully was for the greater glory of God.

I once knew a fellow who had, vocationally, "wandered heedlessly" through life. He was a Christian, a professional, and very good at what he did. Yet he was always discontent, forever looking to relocate, to find another church, to get into a better business relationship. People used to joke, "What will X do when he grows up?" It was a sad situation, and in his frustration and discontent the man was never used to his potential for the kingdom of Christ. It is a wonderful thing to know your calling and purpose in life.

Determining a Call 

How does one identify a calling? Calvin's advice concerning ministerial calls included practical advice useful for other vocations.8 Concerning an outward or solemn call, Calvin said: "But there is the good witness of our heart that we receive the proffered office not with ambition or avarice, not with any other selfish desire, but with a sincere fear of God, and a desire to build up the church."9 What is important is the inner conviction that one is pursuing a calling from pure motives (not selfish ambitions), a fear of God, and desire to further the kingdom of God . That can be used in evaluating any vocation.

Here are some simple questions for considering a vocation or call, be it secular or religious:

First , do I have a desire to do this work? It is true that God may sometimes have us do unpleasant things, or things that we dislike. But when God calls us to a task, He ordinarily gives us a desire or passion for that work.

Second , do I have the gifts or aptitude to do the job? There are jobs that we might like, but for which we have no skill or training. Many people would like to play in the NFL, or be movie stars, or become the President, but lack the ability or training. Likewise in the church, God has equipped us for different tasks (1 Cor . 12:12ff.).

Third , has God opened doors? One may have interest and gifts in a particular calling, but find that God has not providentially provided opportunities.

Fourth , is the calling lawful, or honoring to God, or useful in advancing His kingdom? God would not call a person to a task that is forbidden in His Word, and one shouldn't invest his life in a calling that is frivolous and meaningless.

Fifth , do I have a confirming witness? Godly counselors can offer an objective assessment of an opportunity or calling and offer good Biblical direction.

These were considerations for me, eighteen months ago, when I chose to leave a church and area that I loved to take a position at Liberty University . I was interested in the Liberty position, had the proper credentials and experience, and believed that it was a God-given opportunity. But before accepting the position, I consulted with the Elders of my church to get godly counsel. The Elders hated to see me and my family leave, but concurred that this was the Lord's calling and that the position would give me a greater opportunity to use my gifts for the cause of Christ. Relocating a family of eleven is a major undertaking, especially after living in one place for many years. It is helpful to know that it is the Lord's calling, and that we live and move within His good providence.

We all have a calling in life. We are called to glorify God in all things, even in our earthly labors. We should work hard, as unto the Lord, in whatever vocation we have. The Biblical doctrine of vocation that Calvin developed will help to provide a focus and a kingdom orientation. Christians must never become Minimum Mikes. We should serve the Lord with our whole heart, soul and mind (Mt. 22:37), in whatever He calls us to do.


1. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, was first published one hundred years ago. Other classic works include R. H. Tawney, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, and Ernst Troeltsch, The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches . For a recent Reformed analysis dealing with the topic, see Gary North, "The Economic Thought of Luther and Calvin," Journal of Christian Reconstruction (Summer, 1975), 76-108.

2. I recently told a friend that his son had distinguished himself in a protest at a homosexual rally. That's fine, my friend countered in the spirit of 2 Thessalonians 3, but the boy needs to learn the value of "W-O-R-K." In other words, entertaining oneself, no matter how noble the cause, should not replace productive labor.

3. John Winthrop, "A Model of Christian Charity," in An American Primer, ed. Daniel Boorstin (N.Y.: Meridian, 1985), 41.

4. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion , ed. John T. McNeill (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1960), III: X: 6.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid.

8. Calvin speaks of the pastor's inner call and outward call. (A minister will sometime refer to his "Macedonian call," taken from Acts 16:9, referring to a vision or authenticating experience.) But Calvin seems more interested in the solemn, outward call than the subjective experience.

9. Ibid, IV: III: 11.

  • Roger Schultz

Dr. Roger Schultz is Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Liberty University.  He previously served as Chair of the History Department at Liberty and has taught at Virginia Intermont College, the University of Arkansas, and Oak Hills Christian College. He is a member of the Phi Beta Kappa Society.  He holds degrees from Bemidji State University (B.A.), Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (M.A.), and the University of Arkansas (Ph.D.)

His specialty is American religious history.  His essays and reviews have appeared in numerous publications and have been translated into Hungarian and Spanish.  Dr. Schultz frequently preaches in local churches and speaks at academic and Christian conferences.  The Schultzes have nine children.

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