Acton Commentary

Martin Luther on Vocation and Serving Our Neighbors

For Martin Luther, vocation is nothing less than the locus of the Christian life. God works in and through vocation, but he does so by calling human beings to work in their vocations. In Jesus Christ, who bore our sins and gives us new life in his resurrection, God saves us for eternal life. But in the meantime he places us in our temporal life where we grow in faith and holiness. In our various callings—as spouse, parent, church member, citizen, and worker—we are to live out our faith.

So what does it mean to live out our faith in our callings? The Bible is clear: faith bears fruit in love (Gal. 5:6; 1 Tim. 1:5). Here we come to justification by faith and its relationship to good works, and we also encounter the ethical implications of vocation. According to Luther’s doctrine of vocation, the purpose of every vocation is to love and serve our neighbors.

Loving and Serving Our Neighbors

God does not need our good works, Luther said, but our neighbor does (Wingren, Luther on Vocation, 10). Our relationship with God is based completely on his work for us in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. Justification by faith completely excludes any kind of dependence on our good works for our salvation. We come before God clothed not in our own works or merits, but solely in the works and merits of Christ, which are imputed to us. But having been justified by faith, we are sent by God back into the world, into our vocations, to love and serve our neighbors.

Though we may speak of serving God in our vocations, we do not, strictly speaking, serve God. He always serves us. Rather, we are to serve our neighbors—the actual human beings whom God brings into our lives as we carry out our daily callings. Regarding the monastics who insisted that they were saved, at least in part, by their good works—the prayers, devotions, and acts of piety they do in the cloister—Luther asked, in what sense are these even good works? Who are they helping? Luther criticized monasticism not only for separating from the world, but, in the cases of the hermits and the anchorites, for separating from their neighbors. For Luther, good works must not be directed to God; rather, they must be directed to the neighbor. This is precisely what happens in vocation.

Lucas Cranach

Portrait of Martin Luther from the workshop of Lucas Cranach (1528).

Thus Scripture is fulfilled: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 22:37–40). We love God by faith, at his initiative: “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10). And we love our neighbors as ourselves by vocation. We love them not just by internal feelings or by isolated acts of virtue, but in the entire course of ordinary life, which becomes the realm of “faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6).

Who Is My Neighbor?

Thus, every vocation has its particular neighbors. In considering vocation, it helps to consider the question that the lawyer asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29). Jesus answered him with the parable of the good Samaritan. In what Luther termed “the common order of Christian love,” we have informal and some-times temporary relationships that God calls us to—our friends, our enemies, the people next door, strangers, someone bleeding by the side of the road—in order to render them love and service.

In the church, pastors are to love and serve the members of their congregation. The laity are to love and serve their pastor and each other. Members of the choir and other church musicians serve the rest of the congregation by using their God-given talents to help the less-musical members “[offer] praises by their ministry” (2 Chr. 7:6). The ordinary tasks of a congregation—setting up chairs, passing out bulletins, serving on committees, organizing fellowship dinners, teaching Sunday school, visiting shut-ins, making small talk over coffee after the service—may seem utterly mundane, but they are concrete manifestations by which members express their love for each other. Indeed, they are embodiments of the communion of the saints.

The family is a network of mutual love and service. The vocation of marriage entails only one neighbor. Husbands are to love and serve their wives. Wives are to love and serve their husbands. They love and serve each other in different ways and in different roles, but mutual love and service is what makes a marriage. Similarly, in the vocation of parenthood, the neighbor who is to be loved and served is the child. Loving and serving your kids— keeping them fed and clothed, educating them, driving them places, taking them to church—sums up the work of parenthood. Being a son or daughter is also a vocation. The neighbors proper to the vocation of childhood are the parents, whom the child is to love and serve for as long as they live. The family includes other vocations—brother and sister, grandparent and grandchild, uncles and aunts, nieces and nephews—that extend through time, generation after generation.

In the vocations of the state, those with vocations of lawful authority (Rom. 13:1–7) are to love and serve their subjects. They do so by protecting them from evildoers, enforcing justice, and respecting their liberties so that they can lead “a peaceful and quiet life” (1 Tim. 2:2). Citizens are to love and serve their fellow citizens. They do so in the normal interactions of the various communities to which they are called—from their informal social activities to their political activism—continually pursuing the common good.

The economic vocations give us many neighbors whom we are to love and serve: customers, to be sure, and also bosses, subordinates, coworkers, suppliers, and competitors. The Bible teaches that we are to labor both to be self-sufficient and for the benefit of others. But serving others in the workplace is not just an ethical injunction for individuals. It describes the workings of the economy as a whole. In the economic vocations, workers of every kind are to carry out their labors in love and service to their customers. In the simplest terms, a business that does not serve anyone—that does not provide goods or services that people need or that does not help them in some way—will not stay in business.

Vocation Counters Our Materialism

Vocation counters the materialism and self-centeredness of economic pursuits by giving them a new meaning and a new orientation. Similarly, vocation also transforms other social relationships, such as the nature of authority.

“We conclude, therefore, that a Christian lives not in himself, but in Christ and the neighbor,” said Luther. “He lives in Christ through faith, and in his neighbor through love” (Freedom of a Christian, LW 31:371). Luther rules out salvation by works, even as he puts a premium on works of love:

If you find yourself in a work by which you accomplish something good for God, or the holy, or yourself, but not for your neighbor alone, then you should know that that work is not a good work. For each one ought to live, speak, act, hear, suffer, and die in love and service for another, even for one’s enemies, a husband for his wife and children, a wife for her husband, children for their parents, servants for their masters, masters for their servants, rulers for their subjects and subjects for their rulers, so that one’s hand, mouth, eye, foot, heart and desire is for others; these are Christian works, good in nature. (Adventspostille, quoted in Wingren, 120)

Luther’s doctrine of vocation with its radical, neighbor-centered ethic displaces good works from the realm of the merely spiritual into the realm of the material, the social, and the ordinary.

We sometimes talk about serving God in our vocations. Luther might take issue with this formulation, if by it we imagine that we are performing great deeds to impress the Lord, and especially if we mistreat others in doing so. There is, however, a sense in which we do serve God in our vocations. Jesus himself tells us that what we do (or do not do) for our neighbor in need, we do (or do not do) to him (Matt. 25:31–46). So when we serve our neighbors, we do serve God, though neither the sheep nor the goats realized at the time whom they were really dealing with (vv. 32–33).

God is hidden in vocation. Christ is hidden in our neighbors.

This article is an adapted excerpt from Working for Our Neighbor, Gene Veith's Lutheran primer on vocations, economics, and ordinary life. It is available from Christian’s Library Press.