Faith and Fruit in a Post-Christian World: Vocation

Can you glorify God in your work? The Dutch Reformed are well aware of Abraham Kuyper’s quote: “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’”1 The Presbyterians would proclaim a similar position, beginning with the first answer of the Westminster Shorter Catechism: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever.”

Both quotes are powerful statements of a Christian work ethic with the glory of Christ at its center. Our Reformed tradition celebrates the possibility of God-honoring lives carried out in secular and sacred professions alike. Of course our work can glorify God, if it arises out of a converted heart that sincerely desires to obey Him.

But that’s a simple answer to a complex question, and it deserves more careful attention in the twenty-first century. Kuyper, like the Presbyterian divines before him, worked in a context where the Christian faith already held sway—a society in which establishing businesses, schools, hospitals, courts, and entire governments on solidly Reformed principles was a conceivable and attainable goal. And that’s where the question becomes difficult. How might our view of vocation shift in a culture that no longer takes fundamental Christian values for granted? How do we glorify God through our work if Rosaria Butterfield’s assessment of Western culture as “post-Christian” is correct?2

Consider the previously unimaginable ethical dilemmas that Christian laborers face in a post-Christian world, even in professions that once provided broad avenues for Christ-honoring service. Today, Christian healthcare providers need to assess how they will counsel women seeking abortions or families seeking euthanasia for elderly parents. Christian teachers need to determine how they will approach scientific norms like evolution or social norms such as sex education. Christian adoption workers need to consider whether they can ethically place a child with a homosexual couple. Such quandaries demonstrate that the question of faithful service in a post-Christian world is a complex and pressing one indeed.

Many Christian books have been written on the subject of vocation, and one of their dominant perspectives finds its roots in Kuyper’s position. Since Christ is King over every inch of creation, the argument goes, let’s partner with him in inaugurating his kingdom here on earth.3 Let’s envision ourselves as agents of renewal and positive change in the world, and let’s leverage positions of power, prestige, celebrity, and fame to proclaim the gospel on a big stage. That’s what we pray for in the Lord’s Prayer, isn’t it? “Thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.” Certainly Christ reigns as King right now in heaven. Certainly He is coming again to create a new heavens and a new earth. And certainly believers are His gospel witnesses here and now to that coming reality. But we must also remember the way that Jesus says His kingdom comes. It is like treasure hidden in a field. It is like a seed buried in the ground. It is like leaven hidden in dough (Matt. 13). In short, the kingdom of heaven comes, for now, in tiny and apparently insignificant ways. Christ’s ministry on earth exemplified this. Until the cataclysmic moment when He comes again, his kingdom is about humble, ordinary things. And that transforms our view of Christian vocation in a post-Christian age. If, as believers, we hang our hopes on seeing tangible results of Christian influence on wide swaths of contemporary culture, the twenty-first century is bound to leave us disappointed and cynical. If, however, we understand vocation as a call to small and ordinary faithfulness in a small and ordinary world, we will find that there is plenty of room for fruitful work in our current age. Here are three ways that a Reformed understanding of vocation testifies to Christ’s coming kingdom in a post-Christian culture.

“To Work It and Keep It”

The fourth commandment teaches us to rest, but it also commands us to work. Diligent labor is part and parcel with our understanding of man’s nature as an image bearer of God.

Although the words profession and professional have endured in the English vocabulary, we’ve lost their initial significance. To profess something is to vow it—to stand behind it with the whole weight of one’s being. In medieval times, professing proficiency in an art or craft was as serious as joining a religious order.4 Just think of how traditional family surnames like Smith and Miller linked one’s profession with one’s identity.

While some Americans still root their identity in their jobs, many more identify themselves by what sports they play, what TV shows they watch, or what vacation destinations they like to visit. And jobs have become mere moneymaking machines to serve the goals of entertainment and consumerism that drive the culture. Today, identity is less about what you produce and more about what you consume.

The Christian doctrine of creation counters a secular perspective by reestablishing an essential link between what we do and who we are. Why did the Lord place Adam in the Garden of Eden? “To work it and keep it” (Gen. 2:15). Work is why we are in the world to begin with.

A post-Christian culture works because of its need for wealth and self-advancement. The Christian works because he was created for it.

“God Gives the Increase”

Steven Garber’s Visions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good frames a Reformed understanding of work in terms of the cosmic effects of the Fall on our world. Garber urges his readers “to see ourselves implicated in history,” called to care for the flourishing of the world.5 For the Christian, work arises out of the realization that the world is broken, twisted, and desperate for redemption and transformation.

At the same time, we must not lose the obligation of everyday Christ-likeness in the loftiness of our vocational goals. Many discussions of Christian vocation focus on the businessman who funds global charities through his multimillion-dollar corporation, the wife and mother who starts her own nonprofit for abused women, or the young person who spends every summer on the mission field in Africa. These are wonderful things. But we are all too good at overestimating our own importance, and it can be far easier to care for Ebola patients half a world way than it is to care for a cranky client or a coworker who routinely comes in with a hangover on Monday mornings. Everyday work, not extraordinary work, is where our ability to love our neighbors as ourselves is truly tested.

As we understand our everyday callings in terms of the depth of our sin and the majesty of God’s grace, we must remember that the good works that we do were prepared in advance by God (Eph. 2:10). We sow and water, but He gives the increase (1 Cor. 3:6). Garber reminds us, “[O]ur vocations are bound up with the ordinary work that ordinary people do. We are not great shots across the bow of history; rather, by simple grace, we are hints of hope.”6

We work with confidence because Christ has already done the important work for us. Michael Horton states: “The gospel is not about what we have done or are called to do, but the announcement of God’s saving work in Jesus Christ.”7 That’s why the Heidelberg Catechism so beautifully frames the Ten Commandments in terms of gratitude, not guilt—gratefulness for the finished saving work of Jesus Christ rather than dependence on our own feeble efforts. And because the success of our work does not depend on our own exertion, we can work cheerfully and faithfully in anticipation of the Lord’s generous reward.

A post-Christian culture works out of necessity. The Christian works out of grateful freedom.

“O King, We Have No Need to Answer You”

Discussions about vocation often focus on the particular talents and gifts with which God endows individuals for his service. Some scriptural examples of this kind of calling are Bezalel, whom the Lord commissioned to design the tabernacle furnishings (Exod. 31), and Hiram, whom King Solomon employed to build the temple (1 Kings 7). These men received the opportunity to practice their crafts in the construction of the Lord’s dwelling place among his people. What an extraordinary privilege!

In a post-Christian culture, however, believers are less likely to identify with Bezalel or Hiram and more likely to identify with Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the Babylonian captivity. Their faith was tested on a daily basis. Their talents and wisdom were exploited by a pagan king whose only goal was to extend his empire. Their conscientious objections to their master’s orders met with hostility and persecution. And yet they had the faith and courage to respond, when commanded to bow down before Nebuchadnezzar’s idol, “We have no need to answer you in this matter” (Dan. 3:16).

These three men could answer boldly because they knew they were first and foremost citizens of the kingdom of God. And our citizenship in that kingdom is no different today. When corporate, academic, or professional kingdoms make their claims upon us, we recognize that our primary loyalty remains with Christ. In his gracious reign over all creation, he has lent us to a particular profession or employer for a season to accomplish his work there. So we work faithfully—but only insofar as we can remain faithful to the one who is our King. The story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego challenges our understanding of vocation, but it also encourages us. Their faithfulness in a hostile context threatened not just their jobs but their very lives. Yet as they faced the consequences of their convictions, Christ walked with them through the fire (Dan. 3:25). And still, today, Christ walks with us through the fires that beset us in our workplaces. He will give us the wisdom to know when to submit to an unjust command with humility and grace and when to resist with courage and tenacity. We have no need to answer our secular employers out of fear or frustration. Our responsibility rests with the Lord Jesus Christ.

A post-Christian culture works in bondage to fear. The Christian works in the freedom of faith.

Conclusion The Heidelberg Catechism offers the following synopsis of the prayer, “Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven”: “Help everyone carry out his office and calling, as willingly and faithfully as the angels in heaven” (Lord’s Day 49, Question & Answer 124). That is, we pray God to bless our work so that it will contribute to His glory and our salvation, and we remain content to practice patiently our vocations in this life while leaving their final outcome to his fatherly care.8 Kuyper was right: Every square inch of this world belongs to Christ. And if we look with the eyes of faith, we will discover that he is indeed preparing a kingdom for Himself—moreover, that he is using our own weak and faltering efforts at obedience to glorify His name and build His kingdom. So we go forward to work with humility and confidence, since in the Lord our labor is not in vain (1 Cor. 15:58).

1. Abraham Kuyper, “Sphere Sovereignty,” in Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader, ed. James D. Bratt (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 488.

2. Rosaria Butterfield, The Gospel Comes with a House Key: Practicing Radically Ordinary Hospitality in Our Post-Christian World (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018).

3. See, for example, Steven Garber, Visions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014); Amy L. Sherman, Kingdom Calling: Vocational Stewardship for the Common Good (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2011).

4. Janie M. Harden Fritz, Professional Civility: Communicative Virtue at Work (New York: Peter Lang, 2013), 50.

5. Garber, Visions of Vocation, 18.

6. Garber, Visions of Vocation, 189.

7. Michael Horton, Ordinary: Sustainable Faith in a Radical, Restless World (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014), 40.

8. Zacharias Ursinus, The Commentary of Dr. Zacharias Ursinus on the Heidelberg Catechism, trans. G. W. Williard (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1954), 638.

Mr. Michael R. Kearney is a graduate student and research assistant in the Department of Communication and Rhetorical Studies at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. He is a member of Covenant Fellowship Reformed Presbyterian Church (RPCNA) in Wilkinsburg, PA.