How the Reformers Rejected the Secular-Sacred Distinction

How do you view work?

How do you think of work?  Particularly hard physical labor?  Or perhaps work that involves mind-numbing repetition?  Or work that society views as being unimportant?  What do you think of the work that you do?  Answers to questions like these are important to discovering your calling.

Unfortunately, I think most people view work as a negative, a “drag,” something that has to be done in order to get to leisure, or maybe worse.  Most Americans think of work as generally something to be avoided, rather than what it actually is.  (Now, I am not being overly naive.  I know there are workaholics out there.  I will address that issue in a later post.)

As a part of the fourth commandment, the Lord said that we should work six days a week.  “Six days you shall labor, and do all your work (Ex. 20:9 (ESV)).”  We are commanded to labor and work.  Would God command us to do something that is evil or harmful to us?  The answer has to be no.  We know “his commandments are not burdensome (1 John 5:3b (ESV)).”  So, how then should we understand work?

There must be something wrong with our modern view of work.  It is unbiblical therefore it must be rejected.  Further, it leaves us vulnerable to the secular-sacred distinction.  Thus, recapturing the correct view of work is a matter of returning to true biblical doctrine.  Further, I believe it is essential to rejecting the secular-sacred distinction and discovering your calling.

A Proper View of Work as Worship Will Help You Reject the Secular-Sacred Distinction

In an earlier post, I noted how we must reject the secular-sacred distinction in order to have any hope of discovering our callings.  In the next post on calling, I noted the radical transformation that the Reformers brought on this issue.  We ended that post considering how such a dramatic change could be wrought, hoping perhaps to see a similar tide-turning in our time.

How did they do it?  How did they so forcefully reject the secular-sacred distinction?  By returning to the Biblical view of work, not as something wicked to be avoided, but as worship.  The Reformers affirmed that all legitimate work, done in faith, glorifies God–it is worship.

For example, Martin Luther said that “[w]hen a maid cooks and cleans and does other housework, because God’s command is there, even such a small work must be praised as a service to God far surpassing the holiness and asceticism of all monks and nuns.”  Further, in his Commentary on Genesis, menial household chores, while having “no appearance of sanctity,” are, according to Luther, “more desirable than all the works of all the monks and nuns.”  In his Exposition of Ps. 128, he said that “[y]our work is a very sacred matter.  God delights in it, and through it he wants to bestow his blessing on you.”  (For these and other quotations see Leland Ryken, Worldly Saints, p. 228.)

Calvin was just as committed, if not more so, to the view that all licit work is in fact worship when done in faith.  His view, which was taken up by the Puritans, who were almost universally Calvinist, literally transformed Western Civilization and formed the basis for what would become known as the Puritan work ethic.  Alister McGrath, in his excellent biography entitled A Life of John Calvin: A Study in the Shaping of Western Culture, writes this of the nature and importance of Calvin’s view of work:

[I]t may be said that one of Calvinism’s greatest legacies to western culture is a new attitude towards work, and, supremely, manual labour.  Work, far from being merely an inevitable and somewhat tedious means of obtaining the basic necessities for existence, is perhaps the most praiseworthy of all human activities, surpassing all others in this respect.  To be ‘called’ by God odes not entail withdrawing from the world, but demands critical engagement in every sphere of worldly life.  To speak of a ‘Protestant work ethic’ is not to decry those who cannot work, but to censure those . . . who will not work.  ‘Work,’ it must be added, is not understood as ‘paid employment,’ but as diligent and productive use of whatever resources and talents one has been given.

Work is thus viewed as a profoundly spiritual activity, a productive and socially beneficial form of prayer.  Physical and spiritual activity are combined in this one action, by which socially useful functions may be discharged and personal assurance of salvation may be gained.  . . .  [I]t also brings a new depth of meaning to the everyday mundane activities of [life.]

The transformation of the status of work from a distasteful and degrading activity, to be avoided if possible, to a dignified and glorious means of affirming God and the world he created is one of the most important contributions of Calvinism to western culture.  (p. 245)

This profoundly elevating view of work, drawn from the Scriptures, came to nearly eradicate the secular-sacred distinction in the Protestant world for centuries.  Not surprisingly, it is during that time that Protestant nations literally transformed the world.

If you want to discover your calling, reject the secular-sacred distinction.  If you want to reject the secular-sacred distinction, transform your view of work.  Come to understand it as one of the primary and most important ways that you will worship God and make Him known to the world around you.

So, when you get ready to go turn your hand to whatever it is that God has given you to do, try thinking of it, not as a drudgery, but as real and true worship.  Think of it as a task assigned to you especially from God to be done for His glory.  (1 Cor. 10:31; Col. 3:23-24)  For as John Calvin wrote in his Commentary on Luke, “[W]e know that men were created to busy themselves with labor and that no sacrifice is more pleasing to God than when each one attends to his calling and studies to live well for the common good.”