Attitudes toward work help define societies. The ancient Greeks believed that “work was a curse and nothing else.” Ancient Greek society supported slavery so that free men, like the gods, could pursue contemplation and immortality. But basic perceptions regarding work are not important only for understanding societies—they also practically affect how most people experience life.
Calvinism is associated with a particular view of work. The “Protestant Work Ethic” has been defined as “the value attached to hard work, thrift, and efficiency in one’s worldly calling, which, especially in the Calvinist view, were deemed signs of an individual’s election, or eternal salvation.” Although the term was popularized by Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905), some argue that “for the past three centuries Western civilization has been dominated by a secularized perversion of the original Puritan work ethic.” Even contemporary literature links Calvinism or Puritanism with the character of North America’s political and economic systems. Secular critics point to the Protestant Work Ethic to critique religious involvement in the public square. Some blame the legacy of Puritanism for lifestyles “that are damaging to people and the environment.” The Puritan heritage has been linked to versions of “health and wealth” theologies, a work-life imbalance and lack of leisure in society, and even the obsessive use of company fitness programs.
Given these misrepresentations, there is a need for the teachings of Calvinism to be applied properly to issues of work and vocation. I propose three general themes to reorient our understanding of Calvinism and the idea of work.
First, the Protestant Reformers considered work to have intrinsic dignity. Calvin wrote, “No work will be so mean and sordid as not to have a splendor and value in the eye of God.” Hugh Latimer linked the dignity of work to the dignity of Christ: “This is a wonderful thing, that the Savior of the world, and the King above all kings, was not ashamed to labour; yea, and to use so simple an occupation . . . Here he did sanctify all manner of occupations.” John Cotton noted, “Faith is ready to embrace any homely service his calling leads him to, which a carnal heart would blush to be seen in.”
Reformed, Calvinist teaching regarding work can be summarized as follows:
- God works, and we are called to bear His image;
- God derives satisfaction from His work;
- God provides for us through our work;
- God has commanded man to work, and to work within the framework of His commands;
- God holds us accountable for our work and expects to be acknowledged through it;
- God provides particular gifts designed to meet particular needs in the advancement of His kingdom;
- The Fall has radically affected our work. Work became toil; thorns and thistles frustrate our efforts. Fallen man seeks to glorify himself rather than his Creator through work;
- Work is an individual as well as a social activity;
- God takes pleasure in beauty, and the Scriptures do not focus simply on the functional and utilitarian aspects of work; and
- Christ worked as part of His active obedience, and the believer’s work through Christ is part of that obedience.
Second, Calvinism closely associates work with vocation. The most influential Puritan writing on vocation is William Perkins’s sermon, “A Treatise of the Vocations or Callings of Men” (1603). In his exposition of 1 Corinthians 7:20, “Let every man abide in the same calling wherein he was called,” Perkins defines vocation as “a certain kind of life, ordained and imposed on man by God, for the common good.” He uses military and clock metaphors to show how the callings of individuals relate to one another, suggesting that “no more may any man leave his calling, except he receives liberty from God.” The purpose of a calling is not individual accomplishment but:
common good, that is . . . the benefit and good estate of mankind . . . The common good of men stands in this, not only that they live, but that they live well, in righteousness and holiness and true happiness. And for the attainment hereunto, God hath ordained and disposed all callings, and his providence designed persons to bear them.
Perkins distinguishes between general and personal callings. General calling is “the calling of Christianity.” In that context, a believer should carry out her personal calling. Personal calling includes “the execution of some particular office,” with distinctions in work arising from the application of different gifts. There is a “diversity of gifts that God bestows on his Church, and so proportionally in every society.”
Our gifts are not only for ourselves, but also for service to church or society. As Perkins argues:
Every particular calling must be practiced in and with the general calling of a Christian. It is not sufficient for a man in the congregation, and in common conversation, to be a Christian, but in his very personal calling, he must show himself to be so. For example, a Magistrate must not only in general be a Christian, as every man is, but he must be a Christian Magistrate, in bearing the sword.
Perkins concludes that the benefits we realize from our callings are not the real purpose for them:
Some man will say perchance, ‘What, must we not labour in our callings to maintain our families?’ I answer, this must be done, but this is not the scope and end of our lives. The true end of our lives is to do service to God, and in service of man: and for a recompense of this service, God sends his blessing on men’s travails and allows them to take for their labours.
In contrast to medieval dualism, which viewed contemplation as the best way to worship God, the Reformers approached all work as worship. For Calvin, God is not “the vain, indolent, slumbering omnipotence,” as the Sophists portrayed Him, but “vigilant, efficacious, energetic, and ever active.” As Lee Hardy notes, “It follows, on Calvin’s view, that we express the image of God within us, that we become most Godlike not when we turn away from action, but when we engage in it.”
Finally, it is true that the Puritans would not have denied that believers considered their work to be blessed because of God’s covenant faithfulness, citing 2 Thessalonians 3:10 and others. But early Puritan literature does not support the notion that wealth is to be regarded as a sign of God’s favor. The more common theme in their writings is the spiritual danger inherent in the possession of wealth. Richard Baxter warns, “Remember that riches do make it harder for a man to be saved.” The Puritan Samuel Willard notes, “As riches are not evidences of God’s love, so neither is poverty of His anger or hatred.”
“Every age,” writes Leland Ryken in Work and Leisure in Christian Perspective, “has tended to make its view of work conform to prevailing social practices.” As Western civilization has drifted from its Christian roots, he argues, its work ethic has similarly wrested free of its religious base. A Christian view of work must be based on something more authoritative, something deeper and more lasting, than mere human thought. The time is ripe for a committed and thoughtful recovery of a Calvinist theology of work in North America. Such a recovery will affirm the dignity and the calling of work, yet acknowledging human brokenness and the inadequacy of the greatest human efforts to build what is just and good.
This is work that glorifies God.