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Feature from the Fall 2010 Epistle:

Vocation: A Lutheran Understanding

by Kurt K. Hendel, Bernard, Fischer, Westberg Distinguished Service Professor of Reformation History


This essay is intended to be a theological resource for people of faith, especially for youth and young adults, as they consider their Christian identity and clarify their vocational priorities.

The essay has three objectives:

1. to clarify how Christians receive their identity as God’s people;

2. to explore a striking vision of the Christian life proposed by Martin Luther;

3. to examine the Lutheran understanding of vocation.

The discussion questions that are included after each section may guide further deliberation and conversation.


Part One: The Question of Identity: It all begins with Baptism

The Christian life is a life of faith active in love. How do Christians live lives of love and service? What opportunities do they have to do so? What are the specific contexts for service, for love, for doing good works that serve God and the neighbor? Luther’s doctrine of vocation answers these questions.

Defining vocation

Vocation does not only refer to the professions or jobs that people are pursuing or intend to pursue, although they are also included in this concept. Rather, Luther insists that all other roles, responsibilities and callings that human beings have in life are vocations. Thus, being a wife or a husband, a daughter or son, a citizen, a member of a congregation, a student, are all vocations. For Luther, vocations are all the various responsibilities and roles in life that human beings have. These are the specific opportunities God provides to serve God and the neighbor.

Eliminating hierarchy of “estates”

During Luther’s time, the leaders of the church, indeed, the whole society, differentiated between the so-called spiritual and temporal estates. (Estate here means a group or groups of people who pursue a particular vocation, calling or profession.) Only the priests, monks and nuns were considered to be part of the spiritual estate. They had special privileges, both in God’s eyes and in the eyes of the society of that day. They alone were fully involved in the service of God. Thus only their callings were truly pleasing to God because these spiritual people did what was called the opus Dei or the work of God.

The lay people were the temporal estate, and they pursued callings which were necessary for the society to function politically, economically and culturally. However, their vocations were neither as important nor were they as pleasing to God as the vocations of priests, monks and nuns. In short, the laity could not and did not serve God as the clergy and the members of monastic orders did. There was, therefore, an essential difference between the clergy and the laity which had all kinds of spiritual implications. Lay women and men were clearly second-class citizens in God’s realm or kingdom.

Luther rejected this worldview with his doctrines of the priesthood of all believers and of vocation, both of which were informed by his baptismal theology. His ideas did not only have theological importance, but they also had significant social and political implications. ... (Download the Three-part article with Study Guide.)

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