In previous articles on the topic of Christ’s kingship in all of life, I offered a summary of what is known today as the “two kingdom/natural law” (2KNL) view. According to this view, Christians live in two kingdoms, the kingdom of the church where Christ reigns by his Word and Spirit, and the “common kingdom” of non-churchly life in God’s world where Christ reigns by means of the natural law. Advocates of this perspective are wary of the idea that Christians are called to acknowledge Christ’s redemptive rule in their common vocations or in the non-ecclesiastical realm.
After summarizing this two kingdom/natural law perspective, I began my evaluation of it by arguing that it does not adequately account for the way Christ’s work of redemption involves nothing less than the renewal and restoration of human life in the presence of God, and that this work of renewal has implications for all of life. As the Dutch theologian, Herman Bavinck, often put it, “grace perfects nature.” The new beginning God makes in His work of redemption is one that aims to restore His elect people to fellowship with Himself and to new obedience by the Holy Spirit. In Jesus Christ, a new humanity is brought back into communion with God and is being renewed in true knowledge, righteousness, and holiness. The destiny of human life in union and communion with God is realized in and through the redemptive work of Jesus Christ. In Christ, God is making all things new.
In my last article, I also suggested that the well-known Reformed understanding of the threefold office of believers has important implications for our understanding of Christ’s lordship in all of life. The doctrine of the threefold office of believers illustrates the life-embracing significance of Christ’s saving work as our Mediator. In union with Christ, the radical effects of the fall into sin are reversed, and those who belong to Christ begin, even if only in a small way (cf. Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 114), to live before God in the way God intended us to live.
In this article, I want to consider two further themes that bear upon how believers are called to serve Christ in all that they do, and especially in their particular vocations.
The Christian Life of “Good Works”
In the Reformed confessions’ summary of scriptural teaching, the Christian life in the world is represented not only as a participation in Christ’s threefold office but also as a life of “good works,” which believers perform by the power of the outpoured Spirit of Christ.
For example, in the Heidelberg Catechism’s well-known third part, which deals with the theme of gratitude, the whole of its exposition of the Christian life is framed by the following question: “Since, then, we are delivered from our misery by grace alone, through Christ, without any merit of ours, why must we yet do good works” (Q&A 86). The way this question is framed hearkens back to the catechism’s emphatic teaching that the salvation of the believer is entirely based upon God’s grace in Jesus Christ alone. In Lord’s Days 23 and 24, the catechism vigorously declares that believers find acceptance with God and are entitled to eternal life upon the sole basis of Christ’s work on their behalf. The great comfort of the gospel is that believers are justified before God, declared righteous and properly heirs of eternal life, upon the basis of the imputation of Christ’s entire righteousness to them. Only Christ’s perfect obedience and sacrificial death constitute the ground for the believer’s justification. The gospel promise of free justification need only be received by the empty hand of faith, a heartfelt trust that Christ’s righteousness is a sufficient basis for reception into favor with God. Though such faith is never alone in the justified person, the works that faith produces contribute nothing to our justification before God. Because such works are always corrupted and stained with sin, they are not able to contribute anything that would warrant God’s pronouncement that believers are acceptable to Him in Christ. Whatever good works believers may perform, they are not the kinds of works that could satisfy God’s judgment or add anything to what Christ has accomplished on their behalf.
It is precisely this emphasis upon free and gracious justification that prompts the first question and answer of the third part of the catechism. If believers are justified by grace alone through faith alone, then is there no basis for insisting upon the importance of good works or Christian obedience to the law of God? To this question, the catechism answers with a resounding affirmation of the necessity of a Christian life of good works. While such good works are not born out of an unbelieving and self-righteous spirit, they represent the fruits of the work of Christ’s Spirit in us. Believers perform good works
[b]ecause Christ, having redeemed us by His blood, also renews us by His Holy Spirit after His own image, that with our whole life we may show ourselves thankful to God for His benefits, and that He may be praised by us; then, also, that each of us may be assured in himself of his faith by the fruits thereof, and that by our godly walk our neighbors also may be won for Christ. (A 86)
What is often missed at this point is the realization that the entirety of the Christian life is born out of the gospel grace and work of Christ’s outpoured Spirit. Believers do not produce good works in order to obtain God’s favor. They produce good works out of a grateful acknowledgment of God’s grace in Christ and by virtue of the powerful work of the Holy Spirit in renewing them after Christ’s image. For this reason, the catechism goes on to describe the Christian life comprehensively as a daily conversion or repentance, which consists in the “mortification of the old man, and the quickening of the new” (A 88). Such daily conversion expresses itself in the believer’s Spirit-authored “love and delight to live according to the will of God in all good works” (A 90).
But what, according to the catechism’s exposition, does this mean concretely in the life of believers? At this point, the catechism prefaces its comprehensive exposition of the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer with an important explanation of what such “good works” entail. In answer to the question, “What are good works?,” the catechism answers this way: “Only those which are done from true faith, according to the law of God, and to His glory; and not such as are based on our own opinions or the precepts of men” (Q&A 91). Even though this answer is quite familiar to many Reformed believers, its implications for our question regarding the Christian life under the lordship of Jesus Christ cannot be overstated. What stands out in this answer is the comprehensive claim of the Christian gospel upon the Christian life in all of its expressions. To appreciate what this entails, it will be useful to note briefly each of the components that the catechism identifies that belong properly to any good work.
First, the Christian life in its entirety is performed from true faith. Unless believers know that they have been accepted by God for the sake of the work of Christ alone, they will inevitably act from “bad faith,” that is, serve God not out of gratitude or by virtue of the work of Christ’s gracious Spirit in them but out of a desire to obtain or curry favor with God.1 Nothing Christian believers do as members of Christ may be motivated by the aim of securing thereby favor with God. Faith works through love, to be sure, but it is faith that works and produces a thankful Christian life (Gal. 5:6). As the apostle Paul declares in 1 Corinthians, “whatsoever is not of faith is sin,” whether it be eating, drinking, marrying, buying or selling (Rom. 14:23). Or as the apostle Paul reminds Timothy, “[f]or everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer” (1 Tim. 4:4).
Second, the Christian life of good works aims to offer to God what is due Him. It is always a life that seeks to express what it means to glorify God and enjoy him forever. As Creator and Redeemer, God is the Author of every good and perfect gift. And his gifts are to be received with praise and thanksgiving, and used in his service and in the service of others. For this reason, sin is defined in the Lord’s Prayer as “debt,” an unmet obligation that is owed to God. Whenever believers (or any creature, for that matter) fail to give God what is due Him, which is nothing less than the love of all their heart, mind, and strength, they deny their duty and forget they are his redeemed creatures.2
And third, the Christian life of good works is normed by the standard of God’s holy law. This standard is summarized in the Ten Commandments, whose two tables describe what we owe God as the foremost object of our love and delight and what we owe our neighbor who bears God’s image and in whom God is represented to us. When the catechism expounds at length the positive obligations and negative prohibitions of these commandments, it does not describe the Christian life as one that is restricted to the precincts of the church. Rather, it describes the manner of conduct that pleases God in all of life, whether in respect to God or to others.
Furthermore, the catechism treats the obligations of the holy law of God as binding upon all human beings, believers and unbelievers alike. The law of God in its moral content binds all human beings as image bearers of God, whether they acknowledge this obligation or not.3 The law of God, as it is encapsulated in the Ten Commandments, does not norm a peculiar realm or dimension of human life before God. No sharp delineation is drawn between the norms for human life in the “common” kingdom in distinction from the “spiritual,” as is customary in the 2KNL perspective. Rather, the catechism describes in detail the whole life of God’s redeemed people in all of its diversity and richness. The assumption of the catechism is that the ordinary duties of human life in God’s world are addressed in these commandments. While the moral content of these commandments coincides with the moral content of the so-called natural law, the catechism does not hesitate to appeal directly to scriptural applications of the law of God for the behavior of believers in all of the spheres of human conduct, whether in marriage and family, in business or labor, in the civil community, and the like.
The Believer’s Vocation
The last theme that I would like to explore briefly is that of the believer’s vocation.
While in our modern society and culture in the West we have come to speak of our daily calling or work as our career, the better language from the vantage point of scriptural teaching is to speak of the priesthood of all believers and particularly of their vocation to serve the Lord in their work. One of the most significant contributions of the Reformation was the restoration of the dignity and honor of human work, which is to be performed in service to God and others. The older medieval pattern of sharply distinguishing the religious, contemplative life, from the secular or worldly life was displaced by a comprehensive view of the calling of all believers to serve God in whatever station they may find themselves. In this respect, there is considerable agreement between Luther and Calvin, although Calvin (and the Calvinists) tended to view this calling to include not only the service of others in the daily work of believers but also the task to reform the structures and institutions of human society and culture.
In Luther’s understanding of the vocation of believers, there is a clear connection between the gospel and the freedom of the Christian to lovingly serve others within the ordinary callings of life. While Luther distinguishes between the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of earth in a way that 2KNL advocates find appealing, he does not divorce or separate them from each other. For Luther, the kingdom of heaven concerns our relationship to God, which is based upon faith’s wholehearted trust in the work of Christ as Redeemer. Upon the basis of Christ’s righteousness, believers may be assured that their acceptance with God does not depend upon their own works or performance of their duties toward God or others. In contrast to the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of earth concerns our relationship to our neighbors, which expresses itself in love toward others whom we are called to serve freely in God’s name. The ordinary tasks and works that belong to our particular vocations belong to the earthly kingdom. The performance of whatever legitimate tasks belong to our earthly vocations does not spring from the motivation to obtain God’s favor upon this basis. Rather, the performance of our duty or vocation is an act of Christian freedom in which we love others and serve them in Christ’s name.
In Luther’s doctrine of vocation, all of the tasks that pertain to our daily work are so many ways in which we relate to others and serve them in Christ’s name. Whatever our station in life—whether we are husbands or wives, parents or children, magistrates or subjects, masters or servants, yes, even butchers or bakers or candlestick makers—we have a calling to serve others in God’s name and in accordance with his holy will. Contrary to the medieval practice of privileging the so-called religious life of the monastery, Luther encouraged believers to “put our whole trust in his [God’s] mercy and with utter certainty and without any doubt to have faith that we ourselves and all our works are pleasing to him not because of our worthiness or merit but because of his goodness.”4 As Lee Hardy writes in summary of Luther’s view of vocation,
By maintaining that one’s relation to God is established through faith alone and relocating works of religious significance in the earthly realm, Luther showed it possible to respond to God’s call even in the lowly and mundane occupations of this life. To follow Christ it is not necessary to abandon one’s earthly station, for Christ commands us to do such works ‘as concern people here below who are in need, not those that concern God or angels. Therefore the Christian life does not consist of that which such men as monks invent; it does not drive people into the wilderness or cloister. . . . On the contrary, the Christian life sends you to people, to those that need your works.’ According to Luther, virtually all occupations are modes of ‘full-time Christian service’—except those of the usurer, the prostitute, and the monk. The point of the Christian religion is not to leave the world behind to live the life of faith, but to live the life of faith in the midst of the world.5
For my purpose, it is significant that Luther, despite his clear affirmation of the distinction between the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of earth, views the work of believers in their respective worldly vocations as a priestly service. When believers engage their callings in order to promote the good of others, they do so as believers, as those who have received the promise of free justification and acceptance with God on the basis of Christ’s righteousness alone. When believers perform the duties that belong to their proper vocation in life—whether as a husband, wife, father, mother, son, daughter, schoolteacher, farmer, tradesman—they are performing a religious service that is born of faith and offered in grateful obedience to Christ. Even the rich biblical teaching regarding the Christian life as a self-denying and cross-bearing life is directly linked by Luther with the Christian’s vocation: “I ask you where our suffering is to be found. I shall tell you: Run through all the stations of life, from the lowest to the highest, and you will find what you are looking for . . . therefore do not worry where you can find suffering. That is not necessary. Simply live as an earnest Christian preacher, pastor, burgher, farmer, noble, lord, and fully your office faithfully and loyally.”6 When Hardy speaks of the “full-time Christian service” that belongs to the Christian’s fulfillment of his or her legitimate calling in life, he accurately reflects the implications of Luther’s teaching regarding the Christian life.
In the case of Calvin’s doctrine of vocation, it is even clearer that Christian service of others in one’s daily calling is an act of spiritual service. Calvin shared Luther’s repudiation of the medieval emphasis upon the monastic and contemplative life as the privileged form of service to Christ. In his commentary on Luke 10:38–42, a passage that recounts Jesus’ visit to the home of Mary and Martha, Calvin strongly condemns the customary medieval allegorical interpretation of this passage. According to the medieval interpretation, Jesus’ commendation of Mary was an affirmation of the contemplative life, which is the best and most desirable form of Christian service. However, in his comments on this passage, Calvin offers a robust defense of the broad understanding of the Christian’s vocation in all of life:
Now this passage has been wickedly perverted to commend what is called the contemplative life. But if we aim at bringing out the genuine sense, it will appear that Christ was far from intending that His disciples should devote themselves to idle and frigid speculations. It is an ancient error that those who flee worldly affairs and engage wholly in contemplation are leading an angelic life. The nonsense that the Sorbonne theologians invent about this betrays their debt to Aristotle, who placed the highest and ultimate good of the human life in contemplation, which he calls the fruition of virtue. . . . But we know that men were created to busy themselves with labour and that no sacrifice is more pleasing to God than when each one attends to his calling and studies to live will for the common good.7
Throughout his writings, Calvin frequently took issue with the medieval preference for a contemplative life, separated from daily work and industry. A significant dimension of human life in the image of God is our participation in the administration of God’s handiwork, and our discharge of daily tasks in service to God and others. Just as God is “not the empty, idle, and almost unconscious sort that the Sophists imagine, but a watchful, effective, active sort, engaged in ceaseless activity,” so those whom God redeems in Christ are called to active service and engagement with their earthly tasks.8 According to Calvin, “God prefers devoted care in ruling a household, where the devout householder, clear and free of all greed, ambition, and other lusts of the flesh, keeps before him the purpose of serving God in a definite calling.”9 Unlike our tendency to withdraw from public life, particularly the civil and political arena, Calvin is well-known for his active engagement with the civil community. In his treatment of the calling of the state and civil magistracy, Calvin notes that “they have a mandate from God, have been invested with divine authority, and are wholly God’s representatives, in a manner, acting as his vicegerents.”10 For this reason, political service is not to be disdained by believers but embraced as a high and legitimate calling. “Accordingly, no one ought to doubt that civil authority is a calling, not only holy and lawful before God, but also the most sacred and by far the most honorable of all callings in the whole Christian life.”11
Although I have provided only a sampling of Calvin’s understanding, it should be evident that Calvin, even more than Luther, had a robust view of the believer’s calling to serve God, and all who bear his image, in every legitimate sphere of human endeavor within God’s creation. Like Luther, Calvin did not ascribe any religious value or merit to such service, as though it formed a partial basis for our acceptance with God. In this respect, Calvin shared Luther’s emphasis upon the doctrine of justification by grace alone through the work of Christ as a liberating doctrine. Within the framework of the believer’s acceptance with God, Calvin viewed service to God and others is an expression of free obedience and obedient freedom. In every legitimate vocation, believers are called to a life of holiness in self-sacrificial service to God and to neighbor.
1. For a similar description of the “good works” of believers, see the Westminster Confession of Faith, Chap. 16, esp. section 7, which reads: “Works done by unregenerate men, although for the matter of them they may be things which God commands; and of good use both to themselves and others: yet, because they proceed not from an heart purified by faith; nor are done in a right manner, according to the Word; nor to a right end, the glory of God, they are therefore sinful, and cannot please God, or make a man meet to receive grace from God: and yet, their neglect of them is more sinful and displeasing to God.”
2. David Vandrunen, Living in God’s Two Kingdoms: A Biblical Vision for Christianity and Culture (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), 166ff., acknowledges that this is true and therefore speaks of “subjective” versus “objective” differences in the conduct of Christians in the common kingdom. According to Vandrunen, believers perform the same duties and tasks as unbelievers, and they do so according to the norms of God’s “natural law.” The one distinguishing feature of Christian conduct is that it arises from a “different inner motivation and subjective attitude” (167). While I do not deny that believers and unbelievers alike perform actions that conform to the same standard, the “natural law” of God, and that these actions are not always “materially” different, if I may use such language, I do not believe Vandrunen and the 2KNL perspective do justice to the degree to which unbelievers suppress and distort the natural law of God. Nor does the 2KNL perspective recognize the extent to which scriptural revelation clarifies and enlarges our knowledge of God’s will for human conduct, which has real (objective) consequences for their life in obedience to God. As I shall note in a concluding article in this series, for the conduct of believers to be described as “distinctively Christian” in the fulfillment of their various vocations in the world, it does not have to be technically or materially different in every respect. For this reason, I cannot agree with Vandrunen’s taking exception in this connection to the thesis that “to be a Christian is to be truly human.” This is exactly the point I would wish to make: being truly human is precisely what it means to be a Christian, for God’s work of redemption transforms us into the kind of persons we ought to be and for which we were destined at creation.
3. The Westminster Confession of Faith, Chap. 19.5: “The moral law [summarized in the Ten Commandments] doth forever bind all, as well justified persons as others, to the obedience thereof; and that, not only in regard of the matter contained in it, but also in respect of the authority of God the Creator, who gave it. Neither doth Christ, in the gospel, any way dissolve, but much strengthen this obligation.”
4. Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, gen. ed. Helmut T. Lehmann (St. Louis: Concordia, 1966), 44:277.
5. Lee Hardy, The Fabric of This World: Inquiries into Calling, Career Choice, and the Design of Human Work (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 51.
6. Martin Luther, Werke Kritische Gesamtausgabe (Weimar: Hermann Böhlaus, 1883), 51:404.
7. John Calvin, A Harmony of the Gospels: Matthew, Mark, and Luke, trans. T. H. L. Parker, ed. David W. Torrance and Thomas F. Torrance (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972), 2:88.
8. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), I.xvi.3.
9. Institutes, IV.xiii.16.
10. Institutes, IV.xx.4.
11. Institutes, IV.xx.4.
Dr. Cornelis P. Venema is president of Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Dyer, IN. He is a contributing editor of The Outlook.