As I continue to study the doctrine of vocation, I find that nearly all writers in English on the subject–both popular and scholarly–tend to skip over Luther’s version, even though Luther is THE theologian of vocation. Instead, I have noticed at least three other versions that are quite different from his:
(1) The Roman Catholic version. The notion that “vocation” and “calling” has reference only to church-work is still very prevalent, including among many Protestants, evangelicals, and even Lutherans. (I get a kick out of the Google ads on this blog. We talk about vocation so much we are getting targeted with ads for “Religious Vocations for Women” and “Join the Franciscans.”)
(2) The charismatic version. “Calling” becomes a sort of inner voice from God, or a strong inner conviction that God wants you to do a certain thing or pursue a certain “ministry.” This is evident even in non-charismatic writers, such as Os Guinness in his book “The Call.”(3) The Puritan version. “Vocation” becomes a synonym for “the Protestant Work Ethic.” It becomes pure law and principles for Christianizing whatever you do.
These different doctrines of vocation sometimes have elements of truth, but you have to start with Luther and his insights that vocation is about how God works THROUGH people as part of the way He governs the world, that the purpose of vocation is to love and serve our different neighbors, that vocations are multiple, that vocation is about living out our faith in the realm of the ordinary, etc.
On that foundation–and you don’t have to be a Lutheran to profit from Luther’s insights on these points– you can learn from other theological perspectives. But if those others are all you have, you are going to get it wrong and miss out on the blessings of this teaching!