All lawful secular vocations are sacred. The recovery of the gospel has also meant the recovery of the doctrine of vocation.
When we hear the word “vocation” we usually think secular work. We hear the expressions like “vocational training,” “Vocational Rehabilitation” or “Vocational Counseling” and we think—secular employment. However, up until recent decades vocation was a religious word. Vocation comes from the Latin word, “vocare.” It means “To be summoned.” The One summoning or calling us is God.
Before the Reformation, in the 16th century, the term “vocation” referred strictly to a religious calling, i.e. monk, priest, or nun. Before 1517 only the religious had vocations. That was because the church did not understand how to apply the gospel. They believed that Jesus died for sinners, but they assumed that people appropriated the saving benefits of Christ’s death by working, by earning their salvation.
This belief motivated Martin Luther to join the order of the Augustinian Hermits. Luther felt his sin poignantly. He was studying law, but he was deeply worried about going to Hell. One day, while journeying to a distant city, he got caught in a thunder storm. A bolt of lightning struck the earth next to him. He cried out, “Save me St. Anne, and I shall become a monk.” Having survived the lightning, he realized that he had to make good on his vow. Much to his father’s chagrin, he immediately abandoned law and entered into a Catholic order of Priests called the Augustinian order of Hermits—an order of monks that led an especially severe and austere existence. They were the 16th century marines of the spiritual life. Luther wanted to go to Heaven. He assumed he had to merit eternal life. Monastery life was the best way to assure this goal.
Because the gospel was lost, most people shared Luther's assumption, and it had an unintended effect. It divided work into two classes—sacred and secular. The lower class was the secular, anything non-religious, i.e. lawyer, miner, baker, housewife, or mayor. Since these jobs did not advance your chances of eternal life, i.e. they did not give you “merit” with God, they were of lesser importance. In fact, if they stirred up greed or selfish ambition they might actually impede ones chances of eternal life.
However, there was a higher level, the sacred calling, and only to this did the term “vocation” apply. Vocation was a call to full time “religious” life, a call to be a priest, a monk, or a nun. It was higher because , if one worked to get into Heaven, a calling to the religious life enhanced ones chance of salvation—of becoming good enough to get in to Heaven.
The recovery of the gospel, during the Reformation destroyed this sacred-secular dichotomy. When the Reformers realized that no one gets into heaven by working, that it is a free gift of grace given to all who believe, then the advantage of the religious life disappeared. Suddenly the lawyer, the miner, the baker, the housewife, and the prince were equally close to God. They were just as confident of salvation as the person in the religious life. Salvation belonged to those who believed, not those who worked. This had radical implications for the way we see vocation.
For example, William Tyndale (1494-1536) said that if we look externally "there is difference [between] washing of dishes and preaching of the word of God; but as touching to please God; none at all." William Perkins (1558-1602) agreed: "The action of a shepherd in keeping sheep…is as good a work before God as is the action of a judge in giving sentence, or a magistrate in ruling, or a minister in preaching.” (Leland Ryken, Worldly Saints)
Therefore, because of the Reformation, all legitimate work became sacred. All service to humanity became a sacred calling. All moral work was a call to serve.
In his book Vocation, Douglas Schuurman writes, “God’s callings also relate to human needs, whether those needs are in the church or beyond it. When a Christian perceives a genuine human need and has the abilities needed for attending to it, that need becomes a spark of God’s calling to him. To the extent that the duties of one’s many places of responsibility also contribute to meeting human needs, those duties also are God’s callings.”
We Protestant’s are not exempt from the sacred/secular dichotomy. For many of us the "sacred work" is the call to be a foreign missionary. The “really committed” are missionaries overseas. Those who stay at home are second rate. They have compromised God’s greater call. However, nothing could be further from the truth.
How do we know this? The gospel frees us to serve God with joy in the secular realm. All lawful secular work is a sacred calling.