A Biblical Theology of Work and Identity, Part 3: Demystifying ‘the Call’

Oftentimes when Christians throw around the word “calling,” they mean desire—and there’s an important difference.

Contrary to how we commonly appropriate the term, God’s calling in Scripture usually isn’t a whisper in the ear about what job to take or whom to marry.

The Gospel Call

One of the primary meanings of God’s call is the general call to repentance and faith.

Imagine a man on a road headed towards destruction. Jesus calls and commands the man to repent and turn to follow him. When the New Testament refers to God’s call, it is referring to this summons to repentance and faith.

But the Pharisees and their scribes were complaining to His disciples, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus replied to them, “The healthy don’t need a doctor, but the sick do. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:30-32 CSB, emphasis mine)

Christians are to proclaim this general call to all nations, making disciples for Christ over all the earth.

The Call to Holiness

Another “call” in the New Testament is for Christians to be holy. God doesn’t call his church to live like the world but to be distinct from it, behave in a way that flows from his grace in Christ.

So, God’s “call” as it is taught in the New Testament is for unbelievers to first repent and trust in Jesus, then to live a life of holiness through the power of the Holy Spirit.

For God has not called us to impurity but to sanctification. (1 Thessalonians 4:7)

But as the One who called you is holy, you also are to be holy in all your conduct; (1 Peter 1:15)

These are “calls” given to all Christians regardless of spiritual giftings or maturity. In fact, God’s calls work to help all Christians to mature and grow as disciples of Jesus. The idea of a special calling or vocation to a certain class of Christians is largely foreign to the New Testament. Instead, we see the Scripture teaching all believers to repent, trust in Christ, and live a holy life.

Calling or Desire?

If there is little scriptural warrant for a direct vocational “call,” such as to be a pastor or missionary, then what do people mean when they use those terms today? When people ask, “Are you called to be a pastor?” or, “Are you called to the mission field?” I believe that they really mean to ask: Has God given you the desire and qualifications to serve in that way?

We may have the desire to do something good in God’s service, but it may not be part of his plan. King David had a good desire to build the Lord’s temple, but God had never asked him to do that.

When the king had settled into his palace and the LORD had given him rest on every side from all his enemies, the king said to Nathan the prophet, “Look, I am living in a cedar house while the ark of God sits inside tent curtains.” So Nathan told the king, “Go and do all that is on your heart, for the LORD is with you.” But that night the word of the LORD came to Nathan: “Go to My servant David and say, ‘This is what the LORD says: Are you to build a house for Me to live in? From the time I brought the Israelites out of Egypt until today I have not lived in a house; instead, I have been moving around with a tent as My dwelling. In all My journeys with all the Israelites, have I ever asked anyone among the tribes of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd My people Israel: Why haven’t you built Me a house of cedar?’ (2 Samuel 7:1-7)

Just because we have the desire to perform a particular service doesn’t mean that it is part of God’s plan or that he has necessarily equipped us to do it. My point is that the desire to be a missionary or pastor doesn’t necessarily qualify someone for ministry. And God may have other intentions for your life and ministry, even if you have both the desire and qualifications.

Another biblical example of a Godly desire is Paul’s desire to travel to places where the gospel had never been preached. He made it a point to go to places and people who had never heard the good news: “My aim is to evangelize where Christ has not been named, so that I will not build on someone else’s foundation” (Romans 15:20).

But while he made this goal his main focus, he didn’t hold it tightly as an unbreakable calling. We see him breaking this general rule from time to time. He also planned to travel to Jerusalem, Rome, and other places where Christians already lived. He made return trips to places that he had already preached in order to encourage the believers and train church leaders (cf. Acts 14:21-23). He sent Timothy and Titus on follow-up missions to ensure that the churches were properly growing (1 Thessalonians 3:2, Titus 1:5).

Rather than holding to his specific ministry preferences with a closed fist, Paul saw his role as expendable and interchangeable with the Lord’s other servants:

For whenever someone says, “I’m with Paul,” and another, “I’m with Apollos,” are you not unspiritual people? What then is Apollos? And what is Paul? They are servants through whom you believed, and each has the role the Lord has given. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. (1 Corinthians 3:4-7)

Even as Paul clearly saw his role as an apostle to the Gentiles, taking the gospel to place where it had never been preached, that role didn’t define his identity. He didn’t consider ministry to Jews, leadership training, or follow-up discipleship to be a violation of his call to reach the Gentiles. Paul located his identity in Christ alone.

A Noble Desire

Concerning the desire to lead, I feel the need to point out that the desire to be a church leader is not a bad thing. Society often tells us that aspiration is a bad thing—you shouldn’t want to be a leader; you should have to be asked, and then you may only accept it reluctantly. But that is not the idea of church leadership we have in Scripture.

This saying is trustworthy: “If anyone aspires to be an overseer, he desires a noble work.” (1 Timothy 3:1)

For it is God who is working in you, enabling you both to desire and to work out His good purpose. (Philippians 2:13, emphasis mine)

The desire to be a pastor, missionary, or hold a leadership role in ministry is not an evil desire. Certainly, evil people have at times sought positions of authority in order to be abusive. But the desire for leadership is the church is generally a good thing, especially the desire to work hard for the accomplishment of God’s purposes on earth.

How does this apply when Christians feel the irresistible urge to pursue missions? We’ll tackle this in the next installment.

Editor’s Note: This article is part 3 in a series on calling and work as it relates to Christian identity and missionary life.