Luther on Vocation and the Christian Life-Part II

This post is the second on this topic.  In order to read part I, go here: Luther on Vocation Part I

Dr. Martin Luther often preached and taught regarding the doctrine of vocation.  His sermons, particularly the collections known as the House Postils and Church Postils had a wide circulation in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  Numerous pastors used these sermon collections to produce their own sermons or simply to copy Luther’s text.  Therefore, these texts had an influence beyond Luther’s own time.  The following short article will focus on documentary evidence from these sermons.

In a sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity from 1532, Luther expounded on the idea of service to God based on the Gospel Reading (Matthew 6:24-34).  He explained that true service begins with faith in Christ upon which all proper familial relationships rest.  When Christians fulfill their vocations in the family and all stations in life, they do so in obedience to God’s command, particularly the Fourth Commandment.  Luther contrasted self-chosen monastic practices with the domestic servant performing her duties.   In the same manner that a pastor serves God through fulfillment of the duties of his call, the servant girl may joyfully serve God through completing her daily tasks.  It would be as if the servant was cooking for God in heaven.  Therefore, according to Luther, the Christian may joyfully accept their service and calling and perform them with great effort. [ML, “Sermon for Fifteenth Sunday After Trinity,” The House Postils, vol. 3, ed. Eugene Klug (Grand Rapids 1996), 9-11.]  Later in the same sermon Luther concluded:

 “When a young woman decks herself out for dancing, hers, too, is an adornment, one that pays court to the world.  But it is as dirt when compared with the adornment of her duties and calling—tending to the children, the kitchen, the house, and doing what she is commanded to do; so also when a servant takes manure to the field and discharges his duty.” [Ibid., p. 13]

In a Christmas sermon Luther uses the shepherds, who visited the newborn Christ, as an example of those who come to faith in Christ and yet return to their daily tasks.  Luther contrasted the shepherds, who returned to their vocations to serve their neighbors after meeting Christ, with the cloistered monks and nuns.  He explained that true faith should not lead people to forsake their worldly duties in order to be saved as the irrational monks had believed.  Christ seeks to convert the heart by faith in His promises.  Then, instead of taking up some special way of life, Christ wants believers to serve their neighbors based upon their proper vocations and stations in life.  Dr. Luther concluded:

Service to God consists of this: that you continue in the station into which God has placed you.  A husband should remain a husband, a wife should continue to be a wife, an emperor should continue as an emperor, a commoner as an ordinary citizen. Everyone should learn to serve God in his station and in that [place] he should glorify God. [Luther, “Holy Christmas Day,” The House Postils 1:148-151 (quote on p. 151); See WA 52:61-63, (quote on p.63).   I have changed the translation to more closely reflect the WA.]

We hear a very similar message from Luther’s sermon for St John’s Day (Dec. 27) recorded in the Church Postil.  Luther discussed how many people carry out external religious activities such as a pilgrimage to a famous saint’s shrine or joining a religious order.  Instead, he explained that everyone should focus on his or her calling.  “Are you a husband,” Luther asked rhetorically, “and you think you do not have enough to do in that estate with governing your wife, children, domestics, and property so that all may be obedient to God and that you do no one any wrong?”  He follows this with similar questions regarding the vocations of childhood, domestic servants, and spiritual and secular rulers.  Luther exhorted each Christian to obey God’s command associated with his or her calling. [Luther, “Gospel for St John’s Day,” Church Postil I, LW 75:353-54.]

In a sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Trinity, published in the House Postil, Martin Luther explained that God’s Word produces faith that leads to properly living out one’s vocation, especially in the family.  Having received God’s grace, the Christian may securely follow his conscience and do whatever his calling and station in life demand.  In this manner serving one’s neighbor, prayer, work, and service to one’s wife is akin to serving God in heaven.  Thus, Luther concluded that God has established and sanctified all walks of life.  In a brilliant passage he explains how the Fourth Commandment (the holy orders of the family and civil society) related to the Christian’s daily life:

The fourth commandment addresses this for us: Thou shalt honor           thy father and mother.  This commandment encompasses all vocations: father, mother, son, daughter, husband, wife, servant, maid, magistrate, subjects, and so on.  For the estate of matrimony is the source from which all walks of life originate.  [Luther, “Fifth Sunday After Trinity,” The House Postils 2:303-04.]

Dr. Luther taught similarly concerning faith and vocation in his lectures.  While teaching on Galatians 5, he addressed the relationship between faith and love.  He stated that Christians serve others through love when they diligently perform their duties according to their callings. [Luther, Lectures on Galatians, LW 27:49-50.]  Although Luther made it clear that faith in Christ must come first, he stated that love should follow.  For only faith can truly fulfill the Lord’s command to love one’s neighbor.  When Luther describes what it meant to love the neighbor he used the language of vocation.  Christians fulfill this command in daily activities in their walks of life.  His examples included obeying magistrates, respecting one’s parents, and “being patient in the home with a cranky wife and an unmanageable family.” [Ibid., LW 27:56.]

We have read now how Dr. Luther envisioned the liberated laity should live out their vocations according to God’s ordinance.  Remember this included the holy orders of church, family, and civil society.  Since the Christian did not need to seek to please God through self-chosen pseudo-piety, he or she was free to serve the neighbor as part of his or her daily vocation. This could mean cleaning a room, cooking a meal, changing a diaper, or teaching one’s children the Catechism.  According to Luther, the baptized priests (the laity), even though they do not possess the public office of preaching, had the “right and duty to teach, instruct, admonish, comfort, and rebuke his neighbor with the Word of God at every opportunity and whenever necessary.” [Luther, Commentary on Psalm 110, LW 13:333.]

In fact, for this very reason, Dr. Luther wrote the Small Catechism, especially so that fathers (and mothers) could teach their children (and other members of their household) the basics of the Christian faith.  The last section of Luther’s catechism contains a compilation of biblical texts “for various holy orders and positions,
admonishing them about their duties and responsibilities.” Small Catechism, Table of Duties  Notice how this statement brings together the holy orders and vocation.   These Table of Duties reflect the biblical instruction and exhortation to obey the divine mandates as part of one’s station in life and the vocations attached to those walks of life. When we consider the contents of these passages, it certainly reminds us of a Luther’s sermons and lectures addressed above.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About Dr. Matthew Phillips

My name is C. Matthew Phillips and I am an Associate Professor of History at Concordia University, Nebraska. I completed my Ph.D. in medieval European history at Saint Louis University in 2006. My research has focused on medieval monasticism, preaching, devotion to the True Cross, and the Crusades. Additionally, I have interests in medieval and early modern European education and the writings and life of Martin Luther.


At Concordia I teach World Civilization I, World Civilization II, Europe Since 1914, Early and Medieval Christianity, Renaissance and Reformation, The Medieval Crusades, The History of Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union, and The Modern Middle East.


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