Martin Luther on faith and work: 8 abiding lessons

A few years ago marked the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation and Martin Luther’s public protest through his Ninety-Five Theses. The theological core of that protest was Luther’s discovery of divine grace received through faith. Armed with the gospel message of justification by faith and the priesthood of every believer, Luther and fellow reformers would transform much of the world around them.

While much attention from the Reformation is focused on the doctrine of justification and the universal priesthood, less attention is paid to the consequence – the immediate ramification – of justification and universal priesthood: vocation. For if all are priests, none is holier. All forms of work and vocation are noble; no vocation is more “sacred” than another.

The gap that persists between faith and work

In my 45 years of being a Christian, I must admit that I cannot recall ever hearing a single sermon on the dignity of work or the centrality of the doctrine of vocation; this in spite of having been a part of theologically orthodox Protestant congregations since the beginning. Such strange silence is all the more remarkable when one considers that there are few – if any – areas of doctrine or Christian conviction in which the church for over a millennium has largely gotten it wrong as it did concerning work and vocation.

In the current pandemic, with its fears and confusions, it is fascinating — and not insignificant – that bubonic plague had visited the city of Wittenberg several times while Luther taught at the university. The first occurred in 1521, following the papal bull that “excommunicated” him and found him exiled in a castle in Wartburg, given his “heretic” status. A second and third visitation of the plague occured in 1527 and 1535, during which time Luther experienced profound loneliness because many of the university’s students and his colleagues fled Wittenberg on account of the pestilence.[1] However, neither the reoccurrence of a plague nor time itself minimized the transformative effects of Luther’s view of work and vocation. Five hundred years removed, we find it as relevant as ever.

The problem with a monastic theology and the common good

To appreciate how radical the ramifications of justification and universal priesthood were in Luther’s day is to understand the late-medieval context in which Luther found himself. Having entered the Order of Hermits of St. Augustine in the year 1505, Luther would need continually to oppose a monastic system (and mindset) in which works-righteousness, the glorification of “poverty,” and growing socio-economic need were abundantly evident, the latter due to changes in German territories from an agricultural to a more industrial and “profit” economy.

A significant part of the church’s medieval and late-medieval mindset could be summed up in the expression contemptus mundi (“contempt for the world”) – an attitude that was inherited from the patristic era and continued for well over a millennium. To live faithfully, it was broadly assumed in the church, was to live in a detached manner from “the world”; hence the spread of monastic life with its emphasis on self-denial and detachment. Detachment, as the church mirrored it, equated with holiness.

For Luther, however, the problem with this outlook was twofold: (1) it suffered from a deficient view of creation, in which all things are declared good and in need of our stewardship; and (2) it removed the Christian from one’s neighbor, who needs our works of love. Work and vocation, then, for this ex-Augustinian monk, were the immediate effect of universal priesthood. This effect collapsed the “sacred-versus-secular” distinction, dignified the ordinary, emphasized the importance of neighbor-love, and promoted the common good. Our work, whatever that work is (woodworking, farming, or mining, baking, brewing, or butchering – even ruling!), is our worship to God and our service to fellow human beings.

8 lessons from Luther we continue to learn 

David Miller’s important study, God at Work: The History and Promise of the Faith and Work Movement, surveyed recent decades of “faith and work” activity in the Christian church. Miller concluded that this activity, in many ways encouraging and significant, was at bottom a congregant-led phenomenon; few clergy have played any sort of significant role in this “movement.” And as we head into 2021, despite these and other important developments in the church, any emphasis on work and vocation remains a largely congregant-led initiative, which is why teaching and training pastors in with these ideas is essential.

Despite the formation of “faith and work” initiatives in some seminaries in the last decade, there has been little to no curricular change in our seminaries and divinity schools that would suggest a significant change in the vision of theological education. This is a great need, given the importance of theological training for pastors, priests, and Christian educators.

This need is all the more important given the fact that the lessons of the 16th century, as manifest in Luther’s theological commitments, are many – and in large part – abiding:

  • Rethinking mission(s): What is the relationship between Genesis 1 and Matthew 28?
  • Rethinking incarnation: In what ways does incarnation connect creation and redemption?
  • Rethinking stewardship: What are the implications of trusteeship and co-regency?
  • Rethinking resurrection: Why is the material realm important, and why will the present continue in the future life?
  • Rethinking work(s): What is the value of work per se, and why is scriptural teaching on rewards significant?
  • Rethinking service and the common good: Is Christian faith, at bottom, chiefly personal or communal in its effects?
  • Rethinking the importance of local structures in Christian social witness: Why do local structures, authorities and community efforts, and not “federal government,” best address social concern?
  • Rethinking Christian “guidance”: In Luther’s thought, several priorities are to guide the believer: (1) individual giftings, (2) serving our neighbor, (3) identifying genuine need around us, (4) promoting the common good, and (5) being content in our individual callings.

I would argue that we have Luther to thank for raising these issues, even though 500 years removed. And, oh yes, whether in a time of plague or a period of “normalcy,” Luther reminds us that our vocation is to be a part of the world rather than being apart from it.


[1] See Martin Luther, Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague (1527), in Luther’s Works, vol. 43, ed. Gustav Wiencke (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1968), 119-38.

Topics: Common Good, The Faith at Work Movement, Work in History

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