As the COVID-19 pandemic re-accelerates here in the U.S. and people are once again having fights about simple things like whether we should wear masks or socially distance or get vaccinated, I’ve wondered how people like Martin Luther and John Calvin would respond to our present controversies.
To get an answer, I looked again at their writings on vocation, or calling. The word "vocation" comes from the Latin vocare, which literally means to call. Luther and Calvin both argued that each one of us is called, by God, to various kinds of work. Some kinds are for pay—what we today call occupations. But for Luther and Calvin, vocation included all the roles God calls us to fill—child, spouse, parent, next-door neighbor, citizen of a community, etc. Whether we take actions to protect our neighbors from disease is also part of our vocation.
Luther argued that God uses all our work to take care of our neighbors. In his sermons of 1525, Luther said that God himself provides the clothing our neighbors need by first creating the sheep that produces the wool but then second through human work to shear it, spin it and knit it. “He gives the wool, but not without our labor, Luther said. “If it is on the sheep, it makes no garment.” It is through our work that God’s love flows to all human beings. Man and his work is, Luther said, a “mask” of God—veiling the Person who really bestows good on others.
Vocation includes the work we do in all the various “stations” of life, as Luther called them. Work isn’t just your job; it’s everything you do in your various roles to serve others. Luther insisted that all legitimate stations are designed by God to be helpful to others. He said that even soldiers and executioners, whose work requires them to kill people, are called to that work by God and that their work is an act of love, because it protects others. “All stations,” Luther wrote, “are so oriented that they serve others.” In his commentary on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, Luther added that devoting ourselves to our station is actually devoting ourselves to love, because God has designed our station to work for the well-being of our neighbors.
Luther also identified the stations of our work with the cross. Our labor for our neighbors is hard, but God uses it to slowly kill our old self of sin and bring out in us the new self of faith. “I ask where our suffering is to be found. I shall soon tell you: Run through all stations of life, from the lowest to the highest, and you will find what you are looking for.”
Like Luther, Calvin said that each person has a vocation, often translated as “calling.” Like Luther, Calvin described work as being not about ourselves, but about our communities. Calvin put less emphasis on stations and wrote more about our “gifts”—the abilities, opportunities and possessions God gives us. This idea overlaps with Luther’s concept of “stations”—a nurse, for example, could have the gifts for nursing and a writer could have the gifts for writing. But Calvin’s idea is more flexible. Abilities and opportunities could lead us to many different stations or, perhaps, lead us to invent new stations—like computer engineer or social media star. The purpose of these gifts, however, is the same as Luther’s stations—the benefit of the people around us. In his commentary on Gal. 6:9-11, Calvin wrote, “For while we be here, we ought to apply all God’s gifts to the service of him and of all his, yea and generally of all men. For after as God bestoweth any ability or gift upon any of us he sendeth him to such as have need of him and as he is able to help.”
Notice Calvin’s statement that God sends each one of us “to such as have need of him”. This again overlaps with Luther’s idea of neighbor—the person God puts in front of us, with whom we have a relationship. Yet once again, Calvin’s idea is more flexible. The person who has need of our gifts could be the person already in the community where we live. Or that person could live on the other side of the world. They key for Calvin is less where a person is, but instead recognizing that a person has a need and that the gifts we possess can help.
While Calvin agreed with Luther that our work can never bring us salvation with God, he differed from Luther by asserting that work, if done not for our own profit but for the good of our communities, is a kind of religious worship of God. Later in his commentary on Gal. 6:9-11, Calvin wrote, “Therefore, we must be fully resolved of this, that none of us must be idle or unprofitable, but have an eye to the mean that God hath given us, to the end that every(one) of us may make as it were a sacrifice of it unto him.” God is particularly pleased, Calvin wrote, when we do our own work for the advantage the communities around us. In his commentary on Luke 10:38, Calvin wrote, “we know that men were created for the express purpose of being employed in labor of various kinds, and that no sacrifice is more pleasing to God, than when every man applies diligently to his own calling, and endeavors to live in such a manner as to contribute to the general advantage.”
Like Luther’s cross, Calvin also views work as involving sacrifice. We give away something, but when we do, we can trust that God uses it for good. “We are of opinion that all is lost, if every man seek not his own profit, and be given wholly to himself. But it is clean contrary,” Calvin wrote in his commentary on Gal. 6:9-11. “For although that he which succoreth his neighbor forgo the things that he bestoweth upon him: yet he putteth it in good keeping, as he doth which layeth his seed into the ground, that is, to reap fruit of it in convenient season.”
So would Luther and Calvin wear masks during this pandemic? It’s impossible to know for sure, but based on their writings on vocation, I suspect they would. Rather than focusing on our individual rights, as we tend to do in the U.S., Luther and Calvin would turn our attention to the needs of our neighbors. They would remind us that God calls all of us to make sacrifices for our neighbors, but that God is pleased by those sacrifices and He uses them to bestow love on others and to grow us in faith.
Luther’s Works, vol. 17, 418. This insight into Luther’s theology comes from Gustaf Wingren, Luther on Vocation, tr. Carl C. Rasmussen (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers), 1957, 8-9.
 Wingren, 27-28: “With persons as his ‘hands’ or ‘co-workers,’ God gives his gifts through the earthly vocations, toward man’s life on earth (food through farmers, fishermen and hunters; external peace through princes, judges, and orderly powers; knowledge and education through teachers and parents, etc.). Through the preacher’s vocation, God gives the forgiveness of sins. Thus love comes from God, flowing down to human beings on earth through all vocations, through both spiritual and earthly governments.”
Luther’s Works, vol. 15, 625.
Luther’s Works, vol. 32, 459.
Luther’s Works, vol. 6, 404.