Reflections On The Life of the Royal Priesthood: Vocation and Evangelism

Over the next number of Mondays, excerpts from a paper entitled, Reflections on the Life of the Royal Priesthood: Vocation and Evangelism by Professor John T. Pless of Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne will be posted on “Go!”  This blogger is unsure of the original source of this paper.

Americans, it has been said, worship their work; work at their play; and play at their worship. Evidence for the truth of this observation seems to be apparent. Robert Kolb[1] defines idolatry as seeking ones’ identity, security, and meaning in something other than the Triune God. Using Kolb’s definition it is clear that so many of our contemporaries make a god of their work-seeking identity, securing, and meaning in their job. A false god, of course, requires sacrifice of its devotees. And one who worships his work will sacrifice everything to sustain the idol. The time, energy, and money spent in pursue of recreation demonstrates that many Americans work at their play, sparing no labor to achieve the best score on the golf course or perfect serve on the tennis court. Then, when it comes to worship, we are told that churches are to reach out by means of entertainment evangelism. We are warned that the language of repentance and cross-bearing will not be a welcomed message by the seeker. Church ought to be uplifting and celebratory. Worship ought to be fun. Is there any doubt that many Americans play at their worship?

Against such a backdrop, we consider one of the lost treasures of the Lutheran Church, that is, the doctrine of vocation. We call the doctrine of vocation a “lost treasure” not because Lutherans have excised this doctrine from the Book of Concord, but because, we have, in large part, ignored what Dr. Martin Luther and our confessional writings have to teach us about vocation and have instead turned to other sources in our search to speak meaningfully about the place of the laity in the church and world. This essay will explore the Lutheran doctrine of vocation in relationship to evangelism.

We have become accustomed to think of vocation only in terms of an occupation or a job[2]. A vocational counselor is one who helps you determine what line of work you should pursue. A vocational school provides you with training to perform a particular job. If you are asked, “What is your vocation?” you are likely to answer “I am an accountant, a farmer, or a pastor.” Now such an answer would be partially correct.  The work you do with your head and hands to provide others with needed services and earn a wage for yourself is indeed part of your vocation. But it is only part. Vocation means “calling” (klesis) and this calling embraces the whole of your life.

It is God Himself who does the calling. The Apostle Peter says that God has “called you out of darkness into his own marvelous light” (I Peter 2:9) thus giving you the high and holy status as a member of a chosen generation, a priest in His royal priesthood, a citizen in that holy nation of the elect. This calling is the calling to faith itself. Therefore Paul writes to the Thessalonians “But we are bound to give thanks to God always for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God from the beginning chose you for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth, to which He called you by our gospel for the obtaining of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ” (II Thessalonians 2:13-14). On the basis of God’s redeeming work in Christ, the Apostle implores the Ephesians “to walk worthy of the calling to which you were called” (Ephesians.4:1). Luther reflects the language and thought of Paul when he has us confess in the explanation to the third article of the Creed that “the Holy Ghost has called me by the Gospel.” This is the calling to faith in Christ and this calling gives us a new identity and status before God.

Luther’s doctrine of vocation is about “being” before it is about “doing.” In one of his essential treatises, “The Freedom of a Christian” (1520), Luther writes “Good works do not make a good man, but a good man does good works; evil works do not make a wicked man, but a wicked man does evil works. Consequently it is always necessary that the substance or person himself must be good before there can be any good works, and that good works follow and proceed from the good person, as Christ says ‘A good tree cannot bear evil fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit’ (Matt. 7:18). It is clear that the fruits do not bear the tree and that the tree does not grow on the fruits, also on the contrary, the trees bear the fruits and the fruits are grown on the trees”[3] 

The Scriptures also speaks of “calling” in connection with our place in creation. For example, in his first letter to the congregation at Corinth, the Apostle reminds these Christians that they were bought with the price of the Lord’s own blood. Then, he continues “Brethren, let each one remain with God in the state in which he was called” (I Corinthians 7:24). Those who are married may not use their faith as an excuse for divorce. The slave may not use his freedom in Christ as the grounds for seeking liberation from an earthly master.

The “calling” is a twofold calling. It is a calling both to faith (Third Article) and to a life of love that flows from faith (Decalog/Table of Duties). In this calling, the heavenly and the earthly are joined together. In his classic treatment of Luther’s doctrine of vocation, the Swedish theologian Gustaf Wingren notes that Luther uses two words to describe the duality of the calling, beruf and stand[4].  Both believers and unbelivers have a stand or station in life. That is both Christians and non-Christians are parents, children, governors, citizens, employers and employees. But only believers can be said to have a beruf or calling. In other words, the Christian who occupies a particular stand or station in life fulfills his beruf or spiritual calling in that sphere.

On the other hand, the unbeliever may perform works which are outwardly good in his particular station as a parent, worker, or citizen but as this work is done apart from faith, it may not be said to be a calling. Such work indeed falls under the realm of “civil righteousness.” It has great value before man and is used by God for the good of His creation. The pagan farmer who provides us with food is a larvae dei, a mask or covering of God, through which God gives us daily bread. But in the presence of God (coram deo) such work is without holiness, indeed this work is altogether sinful. William Lazareth aptly summarizes Luther’s thought: “In comparison with Christian righteousness, of course, this civil righteousness (iustitia civilis) comes off a very poor second. Whereas Christian righteousness springs forth from faith and is therefore joyful and willing, civil righteousness is forced out of unbelief and is consequently ‘murmuring’ and ‘involuntary.’ Since ‘all that does not proceed from faith is sin’ (Rom. 14:23), civil righteousness has absolutely no justifying value-no matter how enlightened its self-interest might be. It is ‘reprobate before God’ and ‘inherently vicious’ at its core, however attractive its surface appearance. Luther remains unequivocal in his religious condemnation of all social ethical behavior that is not fired by the loving heart of one who has confessed Christ as his or her Lord and Savior. ‘Now where temporal government or law alone prevails, there sheer hypocrisy is inevitable, even though the commandments be God’s very own. Without the Holy Spirit in the heart no one becomes truly righteous, no matter how fine the works he does.”[5]

The dual calling of the Christian is well expressed by Luther in his treatise, “The Freedom of the Christian” (1520): “We conclude, therefore, that a Christian lives not in himself, but in Christ and the neighbor. Otherwise he is not a Christian. He lives in Christ through faith, and in his neighbor through love.” [6] The existence of the old Adam is focused on self. The old Adam is curved in on himself to use the imagery of Luther. This existence stands in bold contrast to the life of the new man in Christ. The new man lives outside of himself for his calling is to faith in Christ and love for the neighbor. Again listen to Luther “By faith he is caught up beyond himself into God. By love he descends beneath himself into his neighbor.”[7]


[1] -Robert Kolb, Speaking the Gospel Today: A Theology for Evangelism  (St.Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1984), 11.

[2] -Marc Kolden identifies this has “occupationalism.” See Marc Kolden, “Luther on Vocation” Word & World (Fall 1983), 385.

[3]American Edition: Luther’s Works , Vol. 31 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1957), 361. Hereafter abbreviated AE.

[4] -Gustaf Wingren, Luther on Vocation, trans. Carl Rasmussen (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1957), 1-2.

[5] -William Lazareth, Christians in Society: Luther, the Bible, and Social Ethics (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000), 168.

[6] -AE 31: 371.

[7] -Ibid. 371.

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