Editor’s Note: This article is part of our primer series on Christians ethics where a respected leader and thinker recommends and gives a summary overview of a book that helps orient readers to a certain aspect of ethics and philosophy. This series is designed to equip the local church to engage foundational texts of Christian ethics. Find the entire series here.
How does my faith in Jesus connect with my work life? How does Sunday relate to Monday? What difference does the gospel make when I’m stocking shelves, turning wrenches, or answering phones?
These are the types of questions that commonly haunt the everyday, ordinary Christian. For those who are serious and sincere in their faith, but who are not part of a pastoral staff or religious nonprofit, what role do they play in God’s kingdom on a day-to-day basis? Connecting the dots between the Christian faith and missionary work is easy. Connecting the dots for truck drivers and dental assistants is hard.
In the past 20 years, evangelicals have enjoyed a surge of attention and resources dedicated to addressing this intersection of faith, work, and vocation. Christian foundations, think tanks, Christian centers, seminaries, and denominational networks have dedicated much money and attention toward the development of content (books, documentaries, study Bibles, etc.) to inform the Christian laity about the importance and necessity of their roles as “ministers of reconciliation” regardless of their job titles.
While these efforts have proven positive for both pulpit and pew, much work remains for the masses. This must not be an occasional conversation in the church. It must be part of every church’s strategy to “equip the saints for the work of the ministry” (Eph. 4:12).
In his commentary on Ephesians, the late John Stott referred to Eph. 4:12 as an “every member ministry.” And, indeed it is. The “work of the ministry” is not the proprietary business of pastors and missionaries. It is the calling of every Christian to connect Jesus to their work, modeling love for God and neighbor, being salt and light at every time and place, and last but not least, to conduct their work with a love and excellence that proclaims the kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.
Every kind of work is a sacred calling
Gene E. Veith’s book God at Work has quickly become a classic in the Faith and Work titles. Written in 2002, Veith approaches the conversation employing the Lutheran framework for vocation that emerged amidst the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century.
The Reformers, especially Luther, sought to reclaim the notion of calling (vocatio in Latin) for the Christian laity. Veith writes, “In scrutinizing the existing ecclesiastical system in light of the Gospel and the Scriptures, the Reformers insisted that priests and nuns and monastics did not have a special claim to God’s favor, but that laypeople too could live the Christian life to its fullest” (18). This dovetailed nicely with the well-known reformational emphasis on the priesthood of all believers, the doctrine that “all Christians enjoy the same access to Christ and are spiritually equal before Him” (19).
The “priesthood of all believers,” Veith clarifies, did not turn all Christians into pastors. But it did turn “every kind of work into sacred calling.” Building upon this foundation, Luther and the Reformers recognized multiple callings for every Christian, including the calling to work, family, citizenship, and church.
“The doctrine of vocation, though it has to do with human work, is essentially about God’s work and how God works in and through our lives.”
Each of these vocational categories receive a chapter in Veith’s book. But, before diving into these, he considers “How God Works through Human Beings,” wherein he employs the Lutheran Two-Kingdom’s model to explain how God works through means. Following Luther, Veith puts forward distinct spiritual and earthly kingdoms in which God uses the spiritual kingdom to restore sinners and to rule in their hearts, equipping them for everlasting life. This finds “tangible expression in the Church” and its activities (29).
Just as God uses the means of the church to accomplish the purposes of his spiritual kingdom, he also works through means of the earthly kingdom, especially natural law, to accomplish his plans. As well, he works through even the so-called “secular” vocations of people in the earthly kingdom. “That is, He institutes families, work, and organized societies, giving human beings particular parts to play in His vast design” (30).
In chapters three through five, Veith addresses “The Purpose of Vocation,” “Finding Your Vocations,” and “Your Calling as a Worker,” respectively. These are among the most helpful and insightful chapters as they crack open the reality of an “every-member-ministry” way of life for all Christians. Veith pulls the conversation off the stage of the extraordinary and into the realm of the everyday, ordinary Christ-follower. He writes,
“This means that vocation is played out not just in extraordinary acts—the great things we will do for the Lord, the great success we envision in our careers someday—but in the realm of the ordinary. Whatever we face in the often humdrum present—washing the dishes, buying groceries, going to work, driving the kids somewhere, hanging out with friends—this is the realm into which we have been called and in which our faith bears fruit in love.” (59)
This emphasis on the “ordinary” is right and beautiful and has gained greater traction in recent years. An arguable extension of the “faith and work” movement has been the revival of interest in everyday liturgies that see all of life as sacred and holy, purposeful before God despite how extraordinary it may or may not be. Veith goes on to say, “The doctrine of vocation, though it has to do with human work, is essentially about God’s work and how God works in and through our lives” (59). If there were a one-sentence summary to the book, this would be it. He repeats this idea at the end of chapter five, reflecting on those who responded to the planes crashing into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. Those responders insisted their bravery was simply, “doing their jobs.” Veith responds with, “That is the doctrine of vocation. Ordinary men and women expressing their love and service to their neighbor, ‘just doing our jobs’” (75).
Following dedicated chapters on the callings to family, citizenship, and church, Veith offers three short but important chapters on the “Ethics of Vocation,” “Bearing the Cross in Vocation,” and the conclusion, “Resting in Vocation.” In a particularly poignant section in the “Ethics of Vocation” chapter, Veith discusses “sinning against vocation.” Despite the deluge of resources on faith, work, and vocation in the past decade, the notion of “sinning against vocation” remains largely left out and underdeveloped. Veith suggests that one way to look at sin is as a “violation of one’s calling.” “Since the purpose of vocation . . . is to love and serve one’s neighbor, failure to do so is a sin against one’s vocation” (135).
Reflections for today
I have three brief reflections on the book.
First, while Veith is a top-shelf academic and intellect, perhaps the greatest feature of God at Work is its accessibility. In keeping with the Reformers’ intention of reclaiming Christian vocation/calling for the laity, Veith’s book is written and organized brilliantly for the thoughtful layperson, the trained pastor, or theologian—and everyone in between.
Second, while I remain unconvinced of the two-kingdoms approach to God’s world, the four-fold approach to vocation (work, family, citizenship, and church) remains foundational for my own thinking, teaching, and preaching on calling. Veith’s explanations and insights on these areas of Christian calling remain among the best in the literature, informed by the primary and secondary sources but distilled for all audiences.
Finally, while tempted to mention again the great emphasis on the “ordinary” noted above, I’ll refrain in favor of a deep appreciation for the final chapter on “Resting in Vocation.” By this, Veith means both contentment in one’s calling and the importance of Sabbath as part of our calling in Christ. As a friend once said to me, “Rest takes work.” Indeed, it does, and Veith does not neglect to remind us of this in the final pages of his book. Doubtless, anyone who reads God at Work would wish for more than eight pages dedicated to the importance of rest. Nonetheless, Veith leaves the reader with plenty to consider for all of life, working and resting.
Veith’s God at Work made a deep impact upon its release in 2002 and continues to occupy an important place in the ongoing conversation on faith, work, and vocation. Veith’s book was one of the first I read on the topic as a college student transitioning to seminary. The writing was simple, but the ideas were new and profound for me at that time, and they remain organizing principles for how I understand and live into my own callings every day. May God at Work remain not only on the shelves of those teaching and preaching about Christian vocation; but may it find its way to the bedside table of all Christians that each may become a mature and ministering worker of God.