A Reformation Doctrine To Be Recovered: Every Christian Has A Vocation

Finally, this point is to be noted: the Lord bids each one of us in all life’s actions to look to his calling [vocatio].8 For he knows with what great restlessness human nature flames, with what fickleness it is borne hither and thither, how its ambition longs to embrace various things at once. Therefore, lest through our stupidity and rashness everything be turned topsy-turvy, he has appointed duties for every man in his particular way of life. And that no one may thoughtlessly transgress his limits, he has named these various kinds of living “callings.” Therefore each individual has his own kind of living assigned to him by the Lord as a sort of sentry post9 so that he may not heedlessly wander about throughout life. Now, so necessary is this distinction that all our actions are judged in his sight by it, often indeed far otherwise than in the judgment of human and philosophical reason. No deed is considered more noble, even among philosophers, than to free one’s country from tyranny. Yet a private citizen who lays his hand upon a tyrant is openly condemned by the heavenly judge [1 Sam. 24:7, 11; 26:9].10

But I will not delay to list examples. It is enough if we know that the Lord’s calling is in everything the beginning and foundation of well-doing. And if there is anyone who will not direct himself to it, he will never hold to the straight path in his duties. Perhaps, sometimes, he could contrive something laudable in appearance; but whatever it may be in the eyes of men, it will be rejected before God’s throne. Besides, there will be no harmony among the several parts of his life. Accordingly, your life will then be best ordered when it is directed to this goal. eFor no one, impelled by his own rashness, will attempt more than his calling will permit, because he will know that it is not lawful to exceed its bounds. A man of obscure station will lead a private life ungrudgingly so as not to leave the rank in which he has been placed by God. Again, it will be no slight relief from cares, labors, troubles, and other burdens for a man to know that God is his guide in all these things. The magistrate will discharge his functions more willingly; the head of the household will confine himself to his duty; each man will bear and swallow the discomforts, vexations, weariness, and anxieties in his way of life, when he has been persuaded that the burden was laid upon him by God. bFrom this will arise also a singular consolation: 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.11

—JOHN CALVIN | Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, The Library of Christian Classics (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), | 3.10.6.


8. On Calvin’s conception of vocation, see Karl Holl, “Die Geschichte des Worts Beruf,” Gesammelte Aufsätze III, no. 9, 189–219; H. Hauser, “L’Économie Calvinienne,” Étude sur Calvin et le Calvinisme, pp. 227–242; G. Harkness, John Calvin: The Man and His Ethics, chs. viii–x; on this section, see esp. p. 211. Miss Harkness has, perhaps too gently, criticized the exaggerated opinions of M. Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, tr. T. Parsons, to which R. H. Tawney largely subscribes in Religion and the Rise of Capitalism. Despite the brilliance of Weber’s essay, Calvin’s statements on vocation were very inadequately brought to notice in it. Some other studies bearing on this point are briefly described in J. T. McNeill, “Thirty Years of Calvin Study,” Church History XVII (1948), 232–235. R. S. Wallace, in Calvin’s Doctrine of the Christian Life (a significant independent examination of Calvin’s entire ethical teaching in its religious setting), sheds light on the conception of occupational calling, esp. in Part III, chs. iii–vi. Cf. Kolfhaus, op. cit., pp. 420–433. A. Biéler, in a more recent work, La Pensée économique et sociale de Calvin, brings a basic knowledge of Calvin to the examination of the various theories, and offers an adverse view of Weber’s interpretation. See especially Part II, ch. vi, pp. 477–514, and, on vocation, Part II, ch. v, pp. 391–414. Valuable also is Protestantism and Capitalism: The Weber Thesis and Its Critics, ed. R. W. Green, with critical appraisals by W. S. Hudson, H. Sée, H. M. Robertson, A. Fanfani, and A. Hyma. Cf. II. x. 12, note 11.

9. Cf. Cicero, On Old Age xx. 73: “Pythagoras forbids us to desert our fort and station in life unbidden by God, our commander.”

10. Cf. IV. xx. 25–30; Seneca, On Benefits VII. xv. 2; xx. 3 (LCL Seneca, Moral Essays III. 490 f., 504 f.).

11. Here we have Calvin’s far-reaching observation on the splendor of God brightening even the lowliest daily task that is done in his service. Cf. Wallace, op. cit., p. 155.


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  1. When I first started reading this I thought for sure it was Luther. Sounds just like some of the points be made in his sermons, as recorded in Luther’s Works and his Large Catechism, regarding the calling of ordinary men and women to their various occupations as a devotion to Godliness.

  2. Did the Reformers provide much by way of resources on finding ones vocation?

    I’m inclined to think no, which would be unfortunate. But it’s surely a more complicated affair today, with all the choices available, than in theirs; when your average Johannes just kind of did what his dad did.

    • Andrew,

      There was discussion of the principles of a universal vocation as distinct from the monastic and Romanist idea of vocation (e.g., that only clergy and monks have a vocation). Were there extensive discussions of the method of discovery? Not that I’ve seen.

      Why not? We can’t read back into the 16th century our self-expressive culture (e.g., “I’ve got to find my passion” etc). You’re right. One’s vocation was externally decided most of the time. It’s not as if they did not struggle with this. Remember that Calvin himself wanted to be a quiet scholar and was repeatedly (e.g., Geneva and Strasbourg) compelled by others (Farel, Bucer) to serve as a pastor & teacher when he did not personally want to do it.

      I can do more with this in a post but the formula is one of gifts, opportunities, and need governed by the moral law.

    • “…the formula is one of gifts, opportunities, and need governed by the moral law…”

      Yes, indeed. This is one of those areas where I can easily get crosswise with evangelicals who like to what I assume is a form of what might be called QIRC: this, that, or another thing is what God wants me to do, etc. versus examining their strengths and weaknesses to see which things might fit them best.

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