On October 31, 500 years after Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the door of the church in Wittenberg, LeTourneau University held a day of common learning to Celebrate the Reformation. You can listen, watch, or read (below) Bill Peel's talk on how the reformation reformed our view of work.
The Reformation at Work
Do you ever wonder …
- What does God want me to do with my life?
- Do I have a purpose or a calling?
- Is vocation more than just a job?
Questions such as these plague Christians of every age whether you are 18 or 80.
Most Christians see a huge difference between the value of their work to God and the work of a pastor. If I go into business, oil exploration, banking, manufacturing, or government service or I become an engineer, pilot, am I choosing to be a second-class Christians.
Unfortunately, many people embrace a worldview that consists of two realities: God’s world—we call the sacred—and the real world—we call secular. Sacred work: prayer, Bible study, worship, and evangelism is what God cares about. The real world, where we spend most of our life between Sundays, is filled with secular work: business, finance, technology, law, and politics.
Those who divide the world up into the secular versus the sacred forget that most of the individuals we consider biblical heroes worked in the real world, like most of us. Here are a few examples. Can you identify them by their “secular” accomplishments?
- Reared in the family ranching business, his jealous brothers had him kidnapped and taken to a foreign country, where he eventually rose to a top government position and saved the Near East from famine by savvy grain futures trading.
- In a day when women were considered baby factories, she executed several entrepreneurial ventures into real estate and textiles, while maintaining excellent management of her family estate.
That’s the unnamed woman described in Proverbs 31.
- As general contractor over a large government rehabilitation project, he successfully managed an international acquisitions challenge, dealt with an inadequate labor force, and resisted profiteering and under the table deals to bring the job in ahead of schedule.
- She ran an upscale, international textile business and invited Paul to plant the first church in Europe on her estate.
- He accepted God’s call to business and became the Father of Modern Earth Moving, built giant machines that helped win WWII and build the highway infrastructure of America.
That’s R.G. LeTourneau of course—and obviously not a Bible hero, but a hero to us, nonetheless.
We wouldn’t be here today if Mr. LeTourneau had not come to understand his calling to business and that he could bring as much glory to God moving dirt as his sisters could as a missionary to China. When he committed his life to be all in for God, he went to his pastor with a question: “I know a layman can’t serve God like a pastor or a missionary, but what does God want me to do?” After they prayed together, his pastor corrected him, “You know Brother LeTourneau, God needs businessmen as well as preachers and missionaries.” LeTourneau responded, “All right, if that's what God wants me to be, I'll try to be His businessman.”
The confusing notion that some people do sacred—and therefore, significant—work for God while the rest of mankind settles for second best is not new. The idea that only those in full-time church work have a calling from God was the accepted view 500 years ago. The ordinary work of a farmer or milkmaid, blacksmith or weaver, or even work in the home or childrearing was viewed as secular, and a hindrance to a relationship with God.
This was Martin Luther’s view of reality when he abandoned his legal studies to become a monk. For Luther it was not a move from success to significance but a matter of life and death spiritually, to avoid God’s wrath and eternal damnation.
If you lived in Luther’s day, you likely would have thought, with most Christians, that God might forgive your sins—if you (1) repented with deep remorse and (2) tried your hardest to do better. But sincere Christians of Luther’s day were asking the same questions people ask today: What does it mean to try my hardest. What’s good enough?
In response to this question, the medieval church had a pat reply: buy an indulgence or better yet, become a monk. Small wonder ten percent of Luther’s fellow Germans became priests, monks, or nuns.1
But becoming a monk gave Luther no more assurance of forgiveness, although he out monked his fellow monks and drove his confessors crazy with an endless list of sins.
His great breakthrough came while reading Paul’s letters. Rather than an angry God, Luther found a God who “loves sinners, evil persons, fools, and weaklings.”2 The God he found in the Bible was eager to extend His grace in Christ to those who stop trying to buy salvation. What we could never do, He did for us. The Holy Spirit awakened Luther to the truth that we are justified, forgiven, and declared righteous by God, not based on our trying harder, but by Christ’s work on the cross.
It was Luther’s discovery of grace that forced him to develop a new concept of work and calling.3 If a person need not become a super-Christian—as a monk—in order to buy forgiveness, the logical assumption is that a sincere Christian could serve God fully in any kind of work, except the work of “the usurer, the prostitute, and the monk.”4 Luther found support for this radical view of work in Paul’s letter to the Christians in Colossae. “Whatever you do, Paul wrote, “work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men …” (Colossians 3:23). How, Luther wondered, could one love God with all one’s heart as Jesus commanded and work at one’s labor with all one’s heart, if God didn’t value ordinary work?
As Luther’s teaching took hold, the population in monasteries dropped by two-thirds in Protestant regions.5 And, his and teaching on the Priesthood of All Believers helped people see that they were called to their daily work just as much as a priest.
John Calvin, who led the reformation in Geneva, came to the same conclusion—that all work is all work is God’s work. It’s valuable, and possesses an inerrant dignity, no matter how mundane or little esteemed by others. He wrote,
“We know that people were created for the express purpose of being employed in labor of various kinds, and that no sacrifice is more pleasing to God than when every person applies diligently to his or her own calling, and endeavors to live in such a manner as to contribute to the general advantage.”6
The centrality of the doctrine of Justification by Faith, makes our work of absolutely no value, as far as our standing before God is concerned. However, Reformers like Luther and Calvin believed that God uses our ordinary work to carry creation’s bounty to others, giving it inestimable value to God’s kingdom purposes here on earth. Luther wrote,
“He gives the wool, but not without our labor. If it is on the sheep, it makes no garment.”7 In his commentary on Genesis he wrote, “God pours out His generosity … hides Himself in the ordinary social functions and stations of life, even the most humble. God Himself is milking the cows through the calling of the milkmaid.”8
Calvin agreed. He wrote,
“… 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.”9
We are all called—whatever work we might do—called to love our neighbor in the ordinary transactions of our daily work.
So what is your calling?
God has called you to Himself by His Spirit and restored you through the blood of Jesus Christ. You are forgiven through Christ’s merits, beloved in Him, and part of God’s family.
But He’s also called you to join Him in His work of blessing others as a teacher, engineer, pilot, mechanic, entrepreneur, accountant, banker, or a physician.
You have been called to be part of God’s world for a purpose.
You are uniquely gifted by God to work
No one will ever be like you or have the opportunities you have to bless the world.
That’s why He saved us …
Ephesians 2:8-10 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do all kinds of good work, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
If we have come to Christ through faith, You and I never have to worry about being good enough. Christ was more than good enough. So, as Luther preached,
“When the devil throws our sins up to us and declares we deserve death and hell, we ought to speak thus: ‘I admit that I deserve death and hell. What of it? Does this mean that I shall be sentenced to eternal damnation? By no means. For I know One who suffered and made a satisfaction in my behalf. His name is Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Where he is, there I shall be also.’”10
Because of that, you and I are free to bless the world—God at work through us in every ordinary or extraordinary task, every word, and every interaction we have today.
1. William C. Platcher, Twenty Centuries of Christian Wisdom on Vocation (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005), 206.
2. Martin Luther, “Heidelberg Disputation,” Quoted in Platcher, p. 205.
3. Lee Hardy, The Fabric of this World, Lee Hardy, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 46.
4. Hardy, p.51.
5. Platcher, 206.
6. John Calvin, A Commentary on the Harmony of the Evangelists, quoted in The Fabric of this World, Lee Hardy, GR: Eerdsmans, 1990), 56.
7. Gustaf Wingren, Luther on Vocation, trans. Carl C. Rasmussen (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock Publishers), 8.
8. Luther’s Works Commentary on Genesis, 6:10.
9. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 3:10:6, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 725.
10. Martin Luther, Letters of Spiritual Counsel, trans. and ed. Theodore G. Tappert (Vancouver, British Columbia: Regent College, 2003), 86–87.