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Roles, Part I

January 27, 2009

C.J. Mahaney oversees Sovereign Grace Ministries. In this post he explores a theology of work and the biblical concept of fulfilling one’s God-designed role in life. It first appeared at the Sovereign Grace Blog on December 17, 2008.

It’s not hard for us to imagine that pastors and church planters are called by God. This is clear to us throughout Scripture. So when we come across the first verse in Romans, where Paul says he was “called to be an apostle”  (ESV), we have no problem with this.

But what about the rest of us?

What about a stay-at-home mom with two kids? What about an auto mechanic? How about a real estate agent and a business owner? Has God called them?

What about you? Are you aware of being called by God to a particular task?

Theology of Work

Disagreements over a “theology of work” are common throughout church history. In fact (I was just told) the Middle-Ages was marked by a stiff distinction between sacred and secular work. Pastors and church leaders were considered called; laborers were not so called. One is sacred; one is secular.

Then along came a Reformation.

Not only did the Reformers make a giant stride by viewing “secular” work as a calling from God, they took a second step and broadened this calling to include not only work but also vocation.

Leland Ryken writes in his book Redeeming the Time (Baker, 1995), “The early Protestants rightly conceived of our callings as being much broader than our job. All of our roles in life are callings. Being a spouse, a parent, a church member, a neighbor, and a Christian are all callings” (p. 151).

By this, the Reformers introduced an understanding of God’s sovereignty that included all of life-every vocation, every detail, every moment.

Today it appears that many Christians aren’t clear on their work as calling. Christians are normally clear that we should live out the Christian ethic in the workplace. But the Reformers were calling for something bigger.

Ryken writes:

“Most Christians believe they can be a Christian at work. To do so involves being a diligent worker, being honest in one’s dealings with an employer, and witnessing to fellow workers. But this still leaves the work itself untouched by one’s Christian faith. The original Protestants were right in going beyond this and claiming that the work itself is a spiritual issue and a means of glorifying God. We can be Christian not only in our work but through our work if we view our work as an obedient response to God’s calling” (p. 148).

This perspective will transform your attitude as you proceed to work, wait in traffic, and arrive to work for yet another day!

Determining Roles

But how can I be certain of my own calling? How can I know I am in the right job? Am I in the proper career path? What about where God wants me in the future? How do I determine God’s intended vocation(s) for my life?

In his book The Spirituality of the Cross (Concordia, 1999), Gene Veith provides two insightful questions.

First, where has God placed me?

“How do we know our vocation? Strictly speaking-and contrary to the way we pressure young people to “decide” what they are going to do when they grow up-a vocation is not something we choose for ourselves. Rather, it is given by God, who “calls” us to a particular work or station. God gives each individual unique talents, skills, and inclinations. He also puts each individual in a unique set of external circumstances, which are understood as having been providentially arranged by God. Since vocation is not self-chosen, it can be known too through the actions of others. Getting offered a job, being elected to an office, finding someone who wants to marry you, are all clues to vocation…”

“Perhaps later, another vocation will present itself. But vocation is to be found not simply in future career decisions, but in the here and now. Nor can a person use the excuse of “not having a vocation for marriage” for getting a divorce, or claim “not having a vocation for parenthood” as a way to dump childrearing responsibilities. If you are married, that’s your vocation. If you have children, they are your vocation” (p. 80).

Second, where am I positioned to serve others?

“The purpose of one’s vocation, whatever it might be, is serving others. It has to do with fulfilling Christ’s injunction to love one’s neighbor…Our relationship to God is not determined by our good works (since those with a sinful nature can never have enough of them to earn anything before God)-what we need rather, is forgiveness for our sins and the perfect good works of Jesus Christ. But our relationship to our neighbors is determined by our good works, which themselves are only made possible by God working through us” (pp. 77, 78).

“Essentially, your vocation is to be found in the place you occupy in the present. A person stuck in a dead-end job may have higher ambitions, but for the moment, that job, however humble, is his vocation. Flipping hamburgers, cleaning hotel rooms, emptying bedpans all have dignity as vocations, spheres of expressing love of neighbor through selfless service, in which God is masked” (p. 80).

It may be that our vocation is not clear because we have not started with these two questions.

* Where has God placed me?

* Where am I positioned to serve others?

Take a moment to look down at your feet. Go ahead, look. For most of us, our feet are currently resting within the geographic circle of God’s calling on our lives. In the future God may call you outside that circle. But that is for another time.

I fear too many Christians are so distracted by thoughts of the future that they cannot discern with clarity how God has called them to serve in their present vocations. Though they show up for work each day, they don’t work with passion and joy each day.


As you ask yourself these questions, pray that God will help his specific call on your life become clear. Look down, and write down what you discover.

Keep the list handy, because next time we will look at that list and get into the specifics.

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