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The Christian Man’s Calling

Category Articles
Date June 18, 2021

One consequence of the individualism that blights the modern evangelical is the loss of what the Puritans called the Christian man’s calling. This loss is partly a cause and partly a result of the present impotence, and derives from the idea that people are primarily non-material beings with non-material1 needs and throw-away bodies. Creation is separated from redemption; the gospel exists to meet the non-bodily needs of men, and to wean them from interest in and involvement with the material (This is in strange contrast to the sensation-seeking and sensation-creating that goes on within evangelicalism). The message of the cross thus speaks only to the private world of the soul and not to the public world in which men live and work. This is of course an old, old heresy that in the past has encouraged hermits and monastics, but for all that its influence dies hard. One sign of its persistence is the fact that the word ‘calling’ has dropped out of use.

It has gone because for all our individualism we have grown unaccustomed to think of individual lives in all their detail. Men and women are souls to be saved, and no more. And because we think in these abstract yet individualistic ways we never come to think concretely about how the faith that, say, a businessman professes is to affect his business, or that of a student his studies.

The very way in which we have become accustomed to think of the gospel cuts across this sort of problem; these questions are never raised, or if they are they are given the haziest of answers.

1. Without the notion of a calling we have no means of connecting up faith and life; faith remains something interior, finding its expression only in religious experience and individual acts of worship. But we do not experience the grace of God as souls but as men and women who are involved in life, with a network of privileges and responsibilities which the gospel is not to leave untouched but to transform. As Adam had a divine calling, so Christians as the fallen but redeemed descendants of Adam have callings, and are to take up again the divine mandate to replenish and subdue the earth (Gen. 1:28).

This means that as God’s workmen not only our motives but the character of what we do must be changed. If the modern evangelical thinks at all about the implications that faith has for life he thinks only in terms of motives. In this he is being true to his understanding of faith as private and psychological. It is at this point perhaps that we falter. We are ready in principle to acknowledge that the character of our work is involved as well as our motives but fail to see how much this is to make an effective difference in our case. We look in the Bible and our hesitations seem to be reinforced for we find there only general principles of guidance which seem far removed from the shop floor or the slum-clearance project, or from electronics and accountancy.

But this is where our mistake is made. We cannot find detailed instructions and so we slip back into our old ways of thinking. But this is a wrong reaction; for the Christian is called upon to be re-creative, and because of this it is in the nature of things impossible to specify in advance what the implications of his re-creative activity will be in the immense number of different situations faced by Christians in all places and at all times. The Bible of course gives us positive and negative guidelines but as far as we are concerned the future is open. The Christian should thus be characterized by initiative, a willingness to consider new ideas, and a shunning of second-rate or sloppy thinking. For ‘the earth is the Lord’s’ and the Christian is the Lord’s steward. This is surely part of what it means to be a man and not a robot or a brute. The Bible is not meant to programme every detail of our lives, but we are meant under the divine guidance to think and work for ourselves. If we despise the search for solutions as worldly as this is to betray our callings. Just as it is to expect supernatural divine guidance to save us the trouble of thinking for ourselves.2

It is in this light that the ‘good works’ of the Christian are to be understood. If it is true that he is a divine workman, then the good works to which he is called will not express the fruit of the Spirit in an abstract way but in a way in which the character of his workmanship is affected. This should give back to the Christian worker an exhilaration and a sense of significance that has been largely lost but which characterised those scientists of 350 years ago who were so much influenced by the Reformed faith. Francis Bacon, for instance, ‘. . . let no man upon a weak conceit of sobriety or an ill-applied moderation think or maintain that a man can search too far, or be too well studied in the book of God’s word or in the book of God’s works–divinity or philosophy: but rather let men endeavour an endless progress and proficiency in both; only let them beware that they apply both to charity, and not to swelling; to use not to ostentation; and again that they do not unwisely mingle or confound these learnings together’.3

The Christian’s calling will be fulfilled by the unlocking of the earth’s potential for the glory of God and the good of men; by inventing new and better ways in which old jobs can be done, new uses for materials, new artefacts of beauty and use. Some of us have more opportunities for this than others, but all have some.

2. Without taking account of the Christian man’s calling the significance of much biblical teaching is lost, for it is so often role-related; it is not addressed to men as souls or even (often) to men as men, but to the old and young, husband and wife, master and servant. We should ask, how does the faith affect me in the place where I am with the duties that I have? What are my ‘good works’ to be? If we think only in generalities we shall soon not think at all. Perhaps it is because we do not think in these ways that we live in a moral vacuum, and our neighbours think us ‘religious’ and no more. We have been accustomed to think of ourselves duties apart, and so have not inkling how the faith should affect our duties; hence antinomianism and slovenliness.

3. If we begin to think in terms of our callings we shall have a counter to the meaninglessness and anxiety of modern life. Part of our trouble at present is that rightly rejecting the view that the only reward for labour must be cash, we have no alternative perspective to put in its place. Hence work itself becomes suspect. But the calling that a Christian man has provides just such a perspective. We have a purpose to our existence even in routine drudgery for we are God’s men working in God’s world. And as we work we can have the confident expectation that having a mandate to subdue and replenish the earth, the earth is subduable–it will yield its secrets and be manipulated for God’s glory and man’s good. This is not to excuse the existence of monotonous and routine work; the point is that even in such barely tolerable conditions our lives still have a point beyond that of ‘earning a living’. ‘No task will be so sordid and base, provided you obey your calling in it, that it will not shine and be reckoned very precious in God’s sight’.

4. Then there is the question of anxiety–the ‘rat race’. The fact of the Christian’s calling is a remedy for this as well. This is how Calvin sees it in the passage from which we have just quoted. He says in the same section, ‘Therefore each individual has his own kind of living assigned to him by the Lord as a sort of sentry post so that he may not heedlessly wander about through life . . . It is enough if we know that the Lord’s calling is in everything the beginning and foundation of welldoing. And if there is anyone who will not direct himself to it, he will never hold to the straight path of his duties . . . Besides, there will be no harmony among the separate parts of his life. Accordingly, your life will then be best ordered when it is directed to this goal . . . it will be no slight relief from cares, labours, troubles, and other burdens for a man to know that God is his guide in all these things’.4

Of course this sort of language can be used to defend the status quo however deplorable that may be. But this is not Calvin’s point; rather the Christian’s calling is to provide him with a standard of excellence beyond that of human approval or social success. In modern western society there is a great deal of educational and social mobility and the pressures upon us as well as our opportunities are great. But if we remember our callings we shall not run ourselves into the ground, or become drop-outs (as the modern evangelical sometimes hints that we should) but seek to fulfil our callings as God’s men. There was a time when the social constraints on a man were such that his job was decided for him; this is to a large extent no longer the case and the Christian in this situation will try to match his gifts to his opportunities.

We said in an earlier article (‘Is Evangelicalism Just a Cult?’: Banner of Truth #52; January, 1968) that the biblical teaching about creation and redemption could be of help to us at present in seeking a renewal of the gospel. Here is a case in point. The Christian man’s calling will take him into the world, not to identify him with it but so that he may subdue it for the glory of God. What is more, it may be that in this way the gospel will find a point of entry into the lives of our neighbours not many of whom are interested in religion but not a few of whom are concerned about the quality and significance of life.


  1. I use ‘non-material’ instead of ‘spiritual’ on purpose. In the New Testament ‘spiritual’ has reference to the work of the Holy Spirit, and is not synonymous with ‘non-bodily’.
  2. For illustration of this point compare the following: ‘Dependence on God does not mean that the Christian is in a privileged position, with the answer turning out right whether or not he bothers to amass the evidence and get down to some hard thinking. Nor, in most cases, does it mean that in the course of his thinking he will find something subjectively extraordinary happening to his mind. The mind of the man who has dedicated his life to God is the “expression” of the mind of God to the extent that his dedication is complete’ (D. M. Mackay; Humanism, Positive and Negative p. 9). ‘The ideal of having rules for literally everything was part of the pharisaic vision of the good life, which our Lord rejected. The suggestion of the “new moralists”, that Jesus prescribed nothing at all save the motive of love, is certainly an incorrect report of his teaching; yet it is evident that Jesus understood the keeping of God’s law in terms not of a mechanical observance of rules but of a discriminating application of principles and ideals, whereby one seeks constantly to “make something” of situations for the good of men and the glory of God’ (A. M. Stibbs and J. I. Packer The Spirit Within You, p. 54).
  3. The Advancement of Learning. Quoted in W. Stanford Reid: Christianity and Scholarship p. 68.
  4. Both quotations are from The Institutes Bk. III Ch. XI Sect. 6, ‘The Lord’s calling a basis of our way of life’ (Vol. I pp. 724-5 of the Battles translation). It is surely significant that the words quoted form part of Calvin’s treatment of ‘The way we receive the grace of Christ’.

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    Institutes of the Christian Religion by John Calvin
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    One consequence of the individualism that blights the modern evangelical is the loss of what the Puritans called the Christian man’s calling. This loss is partly a cause and partly a result of the present impotence, and derives from the idea that people are primarily non-material beings with non-material1 needs and throw-away bodies. Creation is […]

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    One consequence of the individualism that blights the modern evangelical is the loss of what the Puritans called the Christian man’s calling. This loss is partly a cause and partly a result of the present impotence, and derives from the idea that people are primarily non-material beings with non-material1 needs and throw-away bodies. Creation is […]

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