Merry Christmas! Apparently it’ll come twice this year. Just today I arrived home and there, on my front stoop, Santa — or perhaps UPS — had left me two packages.

They were much earlier than I expected. And inside were two books I’ve been long awaiting.

Those who know me have me labeled, mostly accurately, as a fiction wonk. Yet I still like to partake of nonfiction, deep-doctrine goodness, of the kind contained in these boxes. Not long ago I finished reading another short book about a favorite topic: Christian vocation. These next two books will address more, specifically from the perspective of Christians’ callings in society and government. Yet God at Work by Gene Veith is a great overview of several God-given roles.

‘Your Christian Vocation in All of Life’

Like Gene Veith himself, I likely once assumed I already knew the truth that God is glorified in the different roles He gives Christians. Sure, “worldly” work isn’t any less spiritual than church work, I might have said. But I doubt I sincerely believed that, which can lead to doubts and even mistrust in God — as if a “spiritual” task glorifies God more than a “secular” career.

Veith says that when a friend gave him a copy of Gustaf Wingren’s book Luther on Vocation:

I had assumed that I knew what the doctrine of vocation was; that, yes, one can do every occupation to the glory of God. […] But both Luther and Wingren said so much more. For Luther, vocation, as with everything else in his theology, is not so much a matter of what we do; rather, it is a matter of what God does in and through us. (9)

Much of Veith’s work is a condensation of both scholars’ works, bringing their truths to the lay level. “After all,” Veith notes, “it is we laypeople who most need to understand the nature of our callings in the world.”

Throughout several short chapters, Veith overviews how Christians have taught vocation in the past. Though Scripture says the world has been corrupted by sin, he says, God’s creation is still running in many ways as it should. Even those who are not saved are under a “common grace,” and God’s people find precedent in Scripture for understanding their varying callings in at least four areas: as a worker, a family member, a citizen of one’s country and a Kingdom citizen.

All the while, Veith repeats the theme of God at work through us as we fulfill our callings.

Each calling also has unique sets of ethics, challenges and tensions. For example, even within one’s calling as a family member, how one fulfills his role as a son or daughter is different from how one acts as a husband or wife; one’s levels of responsibility vary as well. And for Christians acting in capacity as civil officials, their actions may differ from how they’d behave personally.

That last area is perhaps the most fascinating, and controversial. Veith summarizes the three teachings of Reformers about God’s Law: civil, theological (to help people see we can’t perfectly fulfill it!) and didactic (to guide us how we ought to live as Christians). And contrary to some beliefs that no Christian can impose morality on society, the civil law still applies today, he says. This leads to many seeming paradoxes — such as the fact that a civilian Christian is obligated to forgive his enemies, but that same person, working as a police officer, is tasked with enforcing civil justice and falls under the “he does not bear the sword in vain” description of Romans 13.

Understanding Romans 13 as precedent not just about tensions between individual/government callings, but many different vocations, helps Christians avoid confusing their roles, Veith says. It occurs to me that this teaching could solve many debates, such as the question about whether Christians ought to reach out to their enemies, or pursue justice. The real answer? It depends.

What is permissible in one vocation is not necessarily permissible in another. In Romans 12, Christians are told not to punish evildoers. But this does not mean that evildoers will not get off scot-free. God will punish them. “Never avenge yourselves,” we are told; “ ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord.” We are not to take it upon ourselves to repay evil for evil; rather, we are to “leave it to the wrath of God.” Whereupon the next passage develops the notion that the civil magistrate “is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.” When we are wronged, our part is to forgive, overcome evil with good, and repay wrongdoing with kindness. It is God’s part to punish our enemies, since His wrath alone can be fully just. This may occur only at the Last Judgment. Or, in the case of overt evildoing that destroys social peace and physically harms people, God will also avenge wrongdoing in the temporal plane, pouring out His wrath against evil through the vocation of the civil magistrate, who “carries out God’s wrath.” (32-33)

Even a pagan system like Rome’s can reflect Godly standards, Paul implied, and Veith states. Christians who neglect this teaching could call into neo-Gnostic (my word, not Veith’s) patterns of thought, assuming that God only works through overtly “spiritual” activities. But this leads to a Church withdrawn from the world, forgetting God’s many different callings on His people.

I suspect that one reason Christians capitulated so completely to the new God-forsaken vision of the universe is that, well before modernity, they had lost the understanding that God works through means. (28)

Just as God works through means in His spiritual kingdom, so the Reformers thought, He also works through means in His earthly kingdom. God works through the natural laws that He built into creation. He rules the nations, including those who do not know Him, by means of His moral law. And He works in the so-called secular world by means of vocation. That is, He institutes families, work, and organized societies, giving human beings particular parts to play in His vast design. (29-30)

So how exactly might this apply in our everyday lives? Veith doesn’t suggest case scenarios, which may have helped readers consider how this teaching could uproot wrong ideas about our callings and change our lives. That, if anything, could be a weakness of God at Work. (I also wouldn’t have minded hearing more about how we’ll be working throughout eternity!)

But perhaps Veith didn’t need to do this. Already I can tell that, thanks to reading this book and other materials — and listening to a certain radio series on vocation — I’ve not only pondered more about God’s callings in my life, but how it’s Him working through me. That has been bringing me a greater sense of purpose, even at my job with its routine tasks such as covering city council meetings or summarizing police reports; or at home, in tasks like doing dishes.

And this is interesting: knowing that specifically Christian tasks at my church are not the only way to honor God has also led me to grow in even more enjoyment for my local church.

Can it also make me a better citizen? I’m sure it can, and while also avoiding wrong ideas that the Gospel is on par with (or lesser than!) “taking back the country.” This is why I anticipate these next two books that have brought me Christmas two months in advance: City of Man by Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner (forward by Tim Keller; read some of Justin Taylor’s thoughts here), and especially Politics According to the Bible by none other than Wayne “Systematic Theology” Grudem. That last one is 600 pages long. So I suppose I’d best get to work.