The Christian shoemaker does his Christian duty not by putting little crosses on the shoes, but by making good shoes, because God is interested in good craftsmanship.
For those interested in the Protestant doctrine of vocation, that tasty little nugget allegedly spoken by Martin Luther (1483-1546) seems pithy, appropriate, and worthy of sharing on social media. I have been guilty of doing so myself. Alas, it appears that Luther never actually said it. Still, it is not wholly inconsistent with Luther’s teachings on the idea of Christian vocation, which were encouraging and liberating for believers of his generation and continue to be so today.
The medieval church in which Luther was raised and eventually ordained a priest was one which promoted a two-tiered (well, at least two) vision of Christian vocation and identity. While secular professions, family life, and the other trappings of an ordinary existence were permissible and even good for laymen, to take holy orders and enter the priesthood was to enter upon an entirely higher plane of the Christian life. Ordinary people, no matter how devout, simply weren’t a part of this. As Luther studied the scriptures and began to develop the theology of the nascent Reformation, he came to realize that while the church’s ordained offices are of vital importance, the work of ordinary believers is also honored in scripture, and infused with a dignity of its own. Each of us is to serve God and neighbor through our work, and while Luther did not write the pithy quote above, in a 1522 sermon (quoted here) he did say this about the callings of Christian magistrates and other workers:
The prince should think: Christ has served me and made everything to follow him; therefore, I should also serve my neighbor, protect him and everything that belongs to him. That is why God has given me this office, and I have it that I might serve him. That would be a good prince and ruler. When a prince sees his neighbor oppressed, he should think: That concerns me! I must protect and shield my neighbor….The same is true for the shoemaker, tailor, scribe, or reader. If he is a Christian tailor, he will say: I make these clothes because God has bidden me do so, so that I can earn a living, so that I can help and serve my neighbor.
Referring now to the scriptural basis for this understanding, the Apostle Paul wrote the following to the church at Colossae, after speaking to the particular concerns of several groups of individuals:
Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ. (Colossians 3:23-24)
This is clearly a key passage upon which Protestants from Luther forward have built their understanding of vocation. In his famous commentary, Matthew Henry (1662-1714) had the following to say about this passage:
It sanctifies a servant’s work when it is done as unto God—with an eye to his glory and in obedience to his command, and not merely as unto men, or with regard to them only. Observe, We are really doing our duty to God when we are faithful in our duty to men. And, for servants’ encouragement, let them know that a good and faithful servant is never the further from heaven for his being a servant: “Knowing that of the Lord you shall receive the reward of the inheritance, for you serve the Lord Christ,” Col 3:24. Serving your masters according to the command of Christ, you serve Christ, and he will be your paymaster: you will have a glorious reward at last. Though you are now servants, you will receive the inheritance of sons.
Sadly, many evangelicals have lost sight of this wonderful and liberating doctrine, and in some cases seem to have developed their own two-tiered understanding of the Christian life not unlike that of the medieval church. By this understanding, “full-time Christian service” is the greatest possible calling, and the rest of us should as much as possible engage in mission work, evangelism, various kinds of service projects, and in general spend as many hours as possible at the church or in church activities. When one must of necessity be engaged in secular work, opportunities for evangelism must always be sought and taken advantage of when present, even to the detriment of one’s professional duties. Sadly, this attitude has sometimes left non-believers with an understandably poor impression of the Christian’s work ethic.
I am not suggesting that ordinary Christians should not share the gospel, engage in service projects, or participate in mission work of various kinds. These things are necessary and good. However, our ordinary callings are also necessary and good, and performing them to the best of our ability is a Christian duty that glorifies God and serves our neighbor. Time spent doing “church work” is not the only time in which we can faithfully serve God.
Today I participated in a Bible study on my own time before work, and after arriving at the office I practiced, taught, graded, and made instructional videos for a teaching and recruiting project, all without direct reference to Christianity at all. Did these things honor God? To the extent that I did them to the best of my ability and with his glory and the service of my neighbor in view, the scripture answers in the affirmative. It is liberating to know that even my ordinary work as a teacher and musician can be honoring to God, though at the same time it is convicting—if diligent work is honoring to God, then slothful work is dishonoring to him. With such a motivation in view, Christians should always be the very best workers!
And if I get an opportunity to speak to someone about the Bible and the Christ revealed therein, that will be wonderful, of course.
But I’ll do it on my own time.