October 31, 2017 marks the 500th anniversary of the day Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door at Wittenberg Castle Church. If there was ever a year that our Reformation heritage ought to outshine other October 31st rituals, this is it! How are you planning to celebrate? You could reflect on the five “solas.” Or attend a Reformation worship service. Or host a German-themed Reformation Day party (monastic garb optional).
But have you considered celebrating Luther’s theology of diaper duty? Before you charge me with irreverence, Luther said it first:
“When a father washes diapers, he may be ridiculed by some … but God … is smiling—not because that father is washing diapers, but because he is doing so in Christian faith” (“The Estate of Marriage,” Luther’s Works, vol 45).
As grateful as I am for the doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, I also want to celebrate the reformed doctrine of work, which puts hands and feet on our sola gratia hermeneutic.
In medieval Roman Catholicism, priests and monastics had access to the privilege of earning God’s favor through their “holy” work; the laity employed in “mundane” labors had no such advantage. By insisting that justification is by faith alone, Luther and Calvin challenged this assumption. Both sacred and secular vocations are ineffective for earning God’s favor, but that doesn’t mean work is meaningless. On the contrary, the Reformers proposed that God uses our work for the good of our neighbors and His creation. Luther taught that our labors—farming, building, governing—are the “masks of God,” through which God himself is at work: “In all our doings He is to work through us, and He alone shall have the glory from it” (“Exposition of Psalm 147”, Luther’s Works, vol 14).
Have you ever been to an art museum and observed the Reformation’s impact on Western European art? You see endless Madonnas and saints from the centuries leading up to the Reformation, and then suddenly you find portraits of milkmaids, bakers, and farmers. Under the influence of reformed theology, these painters saw the beauty and value of “ordinary” work in the economy of God’s kingdom.
I wonder if we’ve grasped this concept yet. Do you see your work—washing dishes, fitting braces, teaching algebra—as portrait-worthy material in the annals of Christian art? Perhaps many of us still tend to “venerate the saints.” Perhaps we believe pastors and missionaries are the only ones doing real ministry, and the best we can do is get a boost for our private spiritual walk by attending their ministry events once a week. While this mentality robs our day-to-day work of spiritual significance, perhaps we feel more comfortable keeping God out of our grocery carts, out of our cluttered desks, and out of the office break room.
But to this, our Reformation heritage answers a resounding, “No!” Abraham Kuyper (a later reformed theologian) is famously quoted as saying, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘Mine!’” All of our work provides an opportunity to serve God’s mission, to glorify His name in our little corner of creation, and to proclaim our hope that Christ is reconciling all things to himself (Col 1:20). Luther wasn’t exaggerating about the diapers.
This is a humbling call, but it is also incredibly invigorating—it means that what we do matters. No moments of your life are wasted in God’s kingdom economy. It means that God’s kingdom will come in your city, not solely through the ministry of pastors or missionaries, but through the work of “regular” members of your church community, serving Christ and glorifying Him through their vocations in all the various corners where they have been called.
Even in the call to offer our work for the building of God’s kingdom, we find grace. This call corresponds to our status—already established through the work of Christ—as God’s children. The invitation to live all of life (as the Reformers would say) “before the face of God” is an invitation to abide in relationship with Him as dearly loved children, walking with Him through our day-to-day labors, as He works in and through us.
So this October 31st, celebrate the Reformers who reclaimed the privilege of “vocation” for all Christians. Enjoy a strudel in Martin’s honor and thank God for the gift of bakers and the delight of a well-made pastry! Change a diaper knowing that God is working through you to love and care for that little image-bearer. And rejoice in your identity as one called to live all of life for His glory, by grace alone.
Pamela is a native Midwestern anglophile currently living in California. She has an MA in Theological Studies from Covenant Theological Seminary. She attends Christ Presbyterian Church in Santa Barbara, where her husband happens to be the pastor. She and her family enjoy brewing high-maintenance coffee, never having to scrape ice off of car windshields, and road trips up the 1.
 For more reading on a reformed theology of work, I recommend Every Good Endeavor by Tim Keller, Kingdom Calling by Amy Sherman, Work Matters by Tom Nelson, and Culture Making by Andy Crouch.