“The Protestant ethic.” We hear that phrase all the time. Usually, people speak of the Protestant ethic as something that belonged to the American (or British, or Dutch) people generations ago, but which is dead today. In fact, the only place it still seems to flourish is in Japan, except that the Japanese are not Protestants. But whatever it is, or was, most people are convinced that it is a thing of the past, another feature of Christian civilization that is gone forever.
We have to say in all honesty that the remnants of the older Protestant ethic are threadbare in our day. Humanism was progressive from the period of the l860’s through the 1960’s, but then the stolen capital of Protestant culture began to run out. The drug culture, the counter culture of the hippies, the collapse of public school performance results, the apathy of workers, and the increasing hostility between generations all combined to shake people’s faith in humanist culture, yet they have not returned to the faith of their great-grandparents, orthodox Christianity. Labor output has fallen. Productivity is at an all-time low in American and British history. What can we do to reverse these trends?
The obvious thing to do is to preach a full-orbed gospel of redemption: personal redemption, economic redemption, and cultural redemption. The law of God applies to all spheres of life. The blessings described in Deuteronomy 28:1-14 are still available to a society which repents. The work ethic is a product of Christian faith; where faith is restored, that ethic will reappear.
The problem we face today is this: even those who express their faith in Jesus Christ have no understanding of the calling. The calling was a basic component of Protestantism; and especially Calvinism, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. People knew what the word meant. They no longer understand.
Calling: General and Special
The Bible teaches us that there is a special calling of God to His people. He calls them to faith in Jesus Christ. This involves a turning away from the evil life style of the past. God calls men to a new way of life. He restores them to full ethical sonship (John 1:12). This is the doctrine of adoption. “Call upon the name of the Lord,” is a familiar biblical phrase. Christ said, “No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw [literally: drag] him: and l will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:44l. God calls His people to faith in Christ. This is sometimes called the “effectual call,” and it is also referred to as the “special call.” It is a call to salvation.
The general calling refers to men in general. Each man is called to subdue the earth to the glory of God (Genesis 1:28). This is a call to labor under the general sovereignty and providence of God. It is man’s assignment to exercise dominion. The general calling is a man’s vocation (“vocal” or “voice”). A man’s vocation is his life’s work, a form of service to God, whether he recognizes that he is under God or not.
The general calling took on great significance during the Protestant Reformation. Luther and Calvin stressed that all godly, honest labor is acceptable to God, and that there should be no distinction of an ethical nature between the minister and the farmer. There are functional distinctions, of course, which is why the Bible establishes certain personal requirements for men to serve as church leaders (I Timothy 3), but there is no ethical distinction. No man is more holy in the sight of God because of the kind of job he has.
This doctrine freed men from the psychological suppressant of feeling inferior because of their work. If any man’s labor is acceptable to God, then it pays a man to work as well as he can. God honors competence, and grants more competence, to those who humble themselves before Him and who try to improve their performance. A good plumber gains more respect from his work than a lazy preacher. The question relates to diligence, not the kind of work performed.
This is clearly a liberating doctrine. It calls all men to labor hard and honestly. It teaches men that no matter what they do for a living, it is worth doing well. This, in turn, increases economic output, for men strive to work more intelligently and less wastefully. They strive to give a good account of themselves before God, and in doing so, they give a good account of themselves before men. This means greater wealth for all members of the market, for everyone is a beneficiary of efficient labor–everyone except those who are inefficient, lazy, or incompetent, who face greater competition than before. They deserve what they get.
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