Luther probably did more than any Protestant to establish the concept of work that healthy Christians embrace today. Like no theologian before him, Luther insisted on the dignity and value of all labor. Luther denounced the separation of sacred and secular work and assured every believer that his lawful labor serves mankind and pleases God. He insisted that the farmer shoveling manure and the maid milking her cow please God as much as the minister preaching or praying. Further, as we work in our God-given stations in life, we become agents of God’s providential care: “God is milking the cows through the vocation of the milkmaid.”
Through our hands, Luther said, God answers the prayers of his children. We pray for our daily bread at night, and bakers rise in the morning to bake it. By our work, the naked are clothed, the hungry fed, the sick healed. By our labor, we love our neighbors. Toiling in our God-given place, we are agents of God’s provision. When we pray “Give us this day our daily bread,” God answers that prayer indirectly, through the farmer and the miller. The same holds for clothing. God, Luther said, “gives the wool, but not without our labor. If it is on the sheep, it makes no garment.” Men must sheer, card, and spin.
Developing a Doctrine of Vocation
Luther developed his doctrine of work through his dispute with monasticism. Priests and monks claimed the term vocation for religious, especially monastic, work. They believed monastic life gave unique opportunities to complete one’s faith through good works and so to find assurance of salvation. Luther countered that all Christians hear a call to the gospel and God’s Kingdom, and then to a station in life or profession. Thus, all honest work, performed by a believer, is a calling—and all callings please God equally.
Luther advanced the Christian view of work in essential ways. First, he dignifies all work, even if menial or unsavory. Beyond praising farmers, he advised “if you see that there is a lack of hangmen, constables, judges . . . and you find that you are qualified, you should offer your services.” Second, he corrected medieval hierarchicalism. For Luther, the active life in society is as noble as the contemplative life in secluded monasteries. Third, while Catholicism stressed self-oriented benefits of work—material provision, divine rewards, the way work cures pride—Luther described work as the place to serve God and neighbor.
Engaging Luther’s Thought
Because Luther is so influential, we must assess his thought, beginning with his desire to dignify all labor. When Luther insisted that God calls everyone to a “station” as farmer, magistrate, or servant, it means everyone can serve God and neighbor where he or she is. This is a great consolation to all who feel trapped by their work. And our restless age needs the exhortation to labor in our place, instead of constantly asking, “What’s next?”
But Luther’s consolation has a cost. If every legitimate task is a divine call, it may be imperative for workers to stay where they are. But, if all work is a God-given call, how can anyone seek a new position or reform abuses in the workplace? If we follow Luther, the distance between what we do today and what we might do tomorrow evaporates and the motive to reform the conditions of labor dwindles.
First Corinthians 7:20 was an essential text for Luther: “Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called.” But this covers half of the message. Yes, Paul says a slave should “remain in the condition in which he was called” (7:20), but he also says, “If you can gain your freedom, do so” (7:23, NIV). “Stay where you are” is no absolute principle. Further, 1 Corinthians 7 instructs slaves, not all workers, and slaves were especially immobile. Paul helps Christians endure entrapment in difficult situations, but it does not instruct Christians to stay put even if they are free to move.
Luther’s View of Calling
Luther’s treatise Whether Soldiers, Too, Can Be Saved illumines the point. In it, Luther uses the terms office, work, calling, occupation, work, and position interchangeably, as if they are the same thing. This obscures the difference between work and calling. There is a distinction between a temporary summons to war and a life of soldiering. There is occupation without vocation. One can earn bread as a cashier, cook, nanny, or salesperson without hearing a call to that life. A job pays the bills; our life’s work fits our gifts, interests, and training.
Luther’s view of call better fits a static society. In Luther’s day, economies were simple and work fell into lines that seemed to follow a natural or created order filled with farmers and carpenters. Luther’s ideas fit less easily in societies featuring constant flux and innovation. How can men and women stay in their stations, if their station is liable to disappear through layoffs, restructuring, or relocation?
People love to quote Luther when he says God milks cows through the milkmaid. But if all honest work is a divine call or station, how can we question dehumanizing forms of work? If the servant who cleans stalls hears Luther say it is “divine” work to lift “a single straw,” that is comforting. But if lifting straws is labeled a divine call, who dares ask if anyone should lift straws, and if we have found the best way to do it?
The tendency to bless the status quo is stark in Luther’s comments about slaughter in war. He says “war and killing . . . and martial law have been instituted by God.” God’s involvement is direct: “For the hand that wields this sword and kills with it is not man’s hand, but God’s; and it is not man, but God, who hangs, tortures, beheads, kills, and fights. All these are God’s works and judgments.” Luther knows that no Christian should be a thief or prostitute, but seems blind to the way institutions and occupations can be legal and essential and yet corrupt and needing reform.
How Calvin Helps
The summer before I went to college, I worked at a milk-processing plant. One day the boss ordered me to tend the machine that made boxes for specialty cheeses. I mastered the task in an hour. The rest of the day I wondered about the woman who had tended the machine for fifteen years.
Is it right to ask humans to tend machines forty hours per week, in tasks so simple one can master them in hour? But, if every job is a call, how can anyone challenge dehumanizing work patterns? At worst, Luther’s concepts let exploitative leaders command pacified people to do their duty by following orders, whatever those orders may be. Clearly, we need the principle of semper reformanda here. Luther’s teaching on work made a great contribution, but, like every Reformer, he needed others to consolidate and refine his insights. That fell to Calvin.
Because Luther is so influential, we need continue his reforms by appraising his work. Calvin saw that sin distorts the structures of work. Like Luther, Calvin said God placed people in permanent callings, yet he could also question the social order. For example, he urged citizens to obey “arrogant kings,” but added that lesser magistrates have a duty “to withstand kings who . . . violently assault” their own people. Indeed, if they “wink at” violent kings, they are guilty of “nefarious perfidy.” Similarly, Luther condemned the behavior of abusive masters, but Calvin struggled with the institution of slavery. In his sermon on Ephesians 6:5–9, he says that masters had “excessive authority . . . over their slaves” and proposes that God allowed “this state of affairs . . . because of man’s wickedness.” In itself, slavery is “totally against all the order of nature.” It exists because Adam “perverted the order of nature.” So, Calvin advocates reform of social structures.
Working to Transform
Having recently celebrated the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, we are reminded of how much we owe the Reformers, especially Luther’s doctrine of work. Luther encourages us to go to work thinking, “Today, I serve the Lord.” But the Reformation lies in the future as well as the past. Calvin and others urge us to serve in our places—and to transform those places, if we can.
Dr. Dan Doriani is VP of strategic academic initiatives and professor of theology at Covenant Seminary. A version of this article originally at The Gospel Coalition in 2016.
 Martin Luther, The Judgment of Martin Luther on Monastic Vows (1521), trans. James Atkinson, in Luther’s Works 44: 253–316.
 Martin Luther, Temporal Authority: To What Extent it Should be Obeyed?, trans. J. J. Schindel, rev. Walther I. Brandt, in Luther’s Works 45: 95, 103; Kathy Stuart, Defiled Trades and Social Outcasts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 61.
 Luther’s Works 10.1: 308.
 Martin Luther, Whether Soldiers, Too, Can Be Saved, trans. Charles Jacobs, in Luther’s Works 46: 94–100.
 Miroslav Volf, Work in the Spirit: Toward a Theology of Work (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1991), 106–07.
 Luther,Whether Soldiers, 95. He notes that some abuse the office of soldier, but denies that that affects the office (97).
 Luther,Whether Soldiers, 96.
 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 4.20.31.
 John Calvin, Sermons on Ephesians , trans. Arthur Golding (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1973), 633–35.