Your Sentry Post: Classic Thoughts on Vocation from John Calvin
To complement our study of vocation in adult Sunday School, I wanted to share with you a classic passage on the topic from the Reformation era, a time of transformational change in people’s thinking about the spiritual significance of all kinds of human work. John Calvin in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, writes:
The Lord bids each one of us in all life’s actions to look to his calling. For he knows with what great restlessness human nature flames, with what fickleness it is borne hither and thither, how its ambition longs to embrace various things at once. Therefore, lest through our stupidity and rashness everything be turned topsy-turvy, he has appointed duties for every man in his particular way of life. And that no one may thoughtlessly transgress his limits, he has named these various kinds of living “callings.” 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 throughout life.
Now, so necessary is this distinction that all our actions are judged in his sight by it, often indeed far otherwise than in the judgment of human and philosophical reason. No deed is considered more noble, even among philosophers, than to free one’s country from tyranny. Yet a private citizen who lays his hand upon a tyrant is openly condemned by the heavenly judge [I Sam. 24:7, 11; 26:9].
But I will not delay to list examples. It is enough if we know that the Lord’s calling is in everything the beginning and foundation of well-doing. And if there is anyone who will not direct himself to it, he will never hold to the straight path of his duties. Perhaps, sometimes, he could contrive something laudable in appearance; but whatever it may be in the eyes of men, it will be rejected before God’s throne. Besides, there will be no harmony among the several parts of his life. Accordingly, your life will then be best ordered when it is directed to this goal. For no one, impelled by his own rashness, will attempt more than his calling will permit, because he will know that it is not lawful to exceed its bounds. A man of obscure station will lead a private life ungrudgingly so as not to leave the rank in which he has been placed by God. Again, it will be no slight relief from cares, labors, troubles, and other burdens for a man to know that God is his guide in all these things. The magistrate will discharge his functions more willingly; the head of the household will confine himself to his duty; each man will bear and swallow the discomforts, vexations, weariness, and anxieties in his way of life, when he has been persuaded that the burden was laid upon him by God. From this will arise also a singular consolation: that 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.
(John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, edited by John T. McNeill, translated by Ford Lewis Battles, vol. 1, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, Book III, Chapter 10, Section 6)
Grace-Based Action Point
Maybe you feel sometimes the restlessness Calvin speaks of in your heart, making it hard for you to find contentment in the callings God has assigned to you during this season of your life. But I hope you can see the comfort there is in knowing that the challenges particular to your “sentry post” are not arbitrary. If they’ve been assigned to you by the Lord, then you can be reassured that they have value and purpose, and that your struggles and difficult labors in your vocations are not meaningless but “very precious in God’s sight.”
Yours in Christ,