Hearing God’s Call

  The one man more responsible than anyone else for ending the British slave trade 200 years ago was a powerful Christian statesman named William Wilberforce. But according to a new book by Os Guinness, Wilberforce nearly missed his calling. The Wilberforce story illustrates how crucial it is for every believer to have a biblical understanding of 'calling'—what it means to be called by God. Wilberforce, though a young man, was a Member of Parliament when he was converted to Christianity. After his conversion, his first reaction was to think about getting out of politics and enter the ministry. Like many Christians, Wilberforce mistakenly believed that 'spiritual' affairs are more important than 'secular' affairs. But then John Newton, the converted slave trader and author of the great classic hymn, "Amazing Grace," persuaded Wilberforce that God wanted him to stay in politics rather than enter the ministry. Newton wrote to Wilberforce, "It is hoped and believed that the Lord has raised you up for the good of the nation.” Wilberforce took Newton's advice and stayed in politics. The rest, of course, is history, for he produced what his biographer, John Pollock, calls "the greatest moral achievement of the British people"—the abolition of the slave trade. What do Christians mean by the word 'calling'? Guinness defines 'calling' as the truth that God decisively calls us to himself—so decisively that we are determined to live our lives with "a special devotion and dynamism" as a response to "his summons and service.” “As followers of Christ,” Guinness writes, we are to "think, speak, live, and act entirely for him," whether we are missionaries or homemakers, lawyers or artists. Sadly, the concept of calling has been distorted in both the Catholic and Protestant traditions. The Catholic distortion, Guinness says, has been a "form of dualism that elevate[d] the spiritual at the expense of the secular.” Church fathers like Augustine and Thomas Aquinas taught that priests, monks, and nuns were living "the perfect life" while farmers, soldiers, and tradesmen lived "a kind of secondary grade of piety." This unbiblical view of work excluded most Christians from any sense of divine calling. The Protestant tradition, on the other hand, often elevated "the secular at the expense of the spiritual.” The Puritans initially had a proper understanding of calling. But gradually, Guinness writes, "such words as 'work', 'trade', 'employment', and 'occupation' came to be used interchangeably with 'calling' and 'vocation'." In other words, the Puritans forgot Who had called them and focused simply on doing their jobs well. "The original demand that each Christian should have a calling was boiled down to the demand that each citizen should have a job," Guinness writes. A biblical view of calling avoids both of these distortions. As Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper put it, "There is not one square inch of the entire creation about which Jesus Christ does not cry out, 'This is mine!'“ So our work is important, not because it is work, but because it is our mission—our 'call' to serve God. And it matters greatly to Him—more than it does to our employer—how we do it. Os Guinness's book, The Call, is a great resource for Christians to understand what 'calling' really involves. And as the life of William Wilberforce demonstrates, a proper understanding of God's call on our lives can have earthshaking consequences.


Chuck Colson


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