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Part 9 in a series on Work and the Church Today

During the Reformation, John Calvin, along with Martin Luther and others, helped Christians rediscover the biblical doctrine of work.

Calvin held a dynamic view of calling, believing that every Christian has a vocational calling to serve God in the world in every sphere of human existence, lending a new dignity and meaning to ordinary work.

He urged believers of his day to become salt and light in the world, thereby introducing a Christian presence and influence within their culture.

Calvin’s message holds true for us, too. He contributed to our understanding of the biblical doctrine of work in many ways, but there are two in particular we can especially learn from:

1. The doctrine of calling.

2. The doctrine of common grace.

Calvin’s teaching in these areas can help us better understand the biblical doctrine of work, and how to live out our vocational callings in the world.

Calvin’s Contribution to the Doctrine of Calling 

Throughout his life and teaching, Calvin made it clear that the use of our talents is not restricted to the church or pious duties. Instead, the call to use our creative gifts and faculties encompasses the whole of creation.

Calvin’s doctrine of calling emphasizes the utility, activity, and purposeful nature of God’s work in the world. His approach to vocational calling included a strong belief in the personal pervasiveness of God’s sovereignty, which meant, as John Piper explains, that

God’s sovereign purposes govern the simplest occupation. He attends to everyone’s work. 

Calvin believed that God not only cares about everyday work but also the manner in which that work is done. Alister McGrath, in his essay Calvin and the Christian Calling, suggests that for Calvin,

Work was thus seen as an activity by which Christians could deepen their faith, leading it on to new qualities of commitment to God…to do anything, and do it well, was the fundamental hallmark of Christian faith. Diligence and dedication in one’s everyday life are, Calvin thought, a proper response to God. 

For Calvin, it is entirely possible to maintain integrity of faith while injecting a Christian presence in the world. Calvin’s message to us, then, is to do our work and do it well, knowing we are serving the common good and God’s greater purposes for his kingdom.

Calvin’s contribution to the doctrine of calling help us hear the call to work in the world; another one of his major contributions, the doctrine of common grace, helps us understand how to work in the world.

Calvin’s Contribution to Common Grace

Christians are called to to transform the world and put everything under the Lordship of Christ until he comes again.

As Christians fulfill this mission vocationally, we will find ourselves working together with non-Christians for common political, economic, or cultural causes. Calvin’s teaching helps us understand the biblical basis for commonality between believer and unbeliever.

Calvin contributed greatly to the doctrine of common grace. Theologian John Murray defines common grace as,

Every favour of whatever kind or degree, falling short of salvation, which this undeserving and sin-cursed world enjoys at the hand of God.

Common grace is one of the means by which Christians serve the common good of their neighbors and transform culture. It allows us to work alongside non-Christians for a common purpose.

We have Calvin to thank for a better understanding of this concept. You might wonder, along with Murray, “how is it that this sin-cursed world enjoys so much favor and kindness at the hand of its holy and ever-blessed Creator?”

Calvin was one of the first to suggest that the answer to such a question is found in the distinction the Bible draws between God’s special, or saving grace, and his common, non-saving, grace.

According to Calvin:

  • The capacity for goodness in the non-Christian was a gift from God.
  • It is the Spirit of God who establishes all human competence in arts and sciences, for the common good of mankind.
  • Common grace is a tool given by God that should not be neglected.

Calvin wrote in his Institutes of the Christian Religion that,

If the Lord has willed that we be helped in physics, dialectic, mathematics, and other disciplines, by the work and ministry of the ungodly, let us use this assistance. 

I often talk to Christians who wonder if they need to leave their jobs because they work in a “secular” workplace or non-Christian environment. Calvin’s teaching helps us understand that it is okay to work alongside unbelievers at our jobs. It is crucial that we as Christians understand common grace if we are to understand how God want to use us at our places of work.

What can you learn from Calvin’s contributions to the biblical doctrine of work? Leave your comments here

Hugh Whelchel

About Hugh Whelchel

Hugh Whelchel is Executive Director of the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics and author of "How Then Should We Work?: Rediscovering the Biblical Doctrine of Work." Hugh has a Master of Arts in Religion and brings over 30 years of diverse business experience to his leadership at IFWE. Read More...

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