The Masks of God

By Chaplain Mike

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

– Ephesians 2:8-10 (TNIV)

God does not need our good works. Our neighbor does. Strictly speaking, we do not ever “serve God.” He always serves us, and through us, he serves our neighbors. God always works through means. In the spiritual kingdom, he graciously provides salvation in Christ through the means of Word and Sacrament. In the earthly realm, he works through human beings fulfilling their vocations.

This, in a nutshell, is one of the most important contributions to Christian theology that Martin Luther and his heirs have given to the church — the doctrine of vocation.

In the future, we will explore this further, but on this “Labor Day” in the United States, when we honor workers and their contributions to our lives and society, I offer the following quote from Gene Edward Veith for your meditation.

When I go into a restaurant, the waitress who brings me my meal, the cook in the back who prepared it, the delivery men, the wholesalers, the workers in the food-processing factories, the butchers, the farmers, the ranchers, and everyone else in the economic food chain are all being used by God to “give me this day my daily bread.”

This is the doctrine of vocation. God works through people, in their ordinary stations of life to which He has called them, to care for His creation. In this way, He cares for everyone — Christian and non-Christian — whom He has given life.

Luther puts it even more strongly: Vocations are “masks of God.” On the surface, we see an ordinary human face — our mother, the doctor, the teacher, the waitress, our pastor — but, beneath the appearances, God is ministering to us through them. God is hidden in human vocations.

The other side of the coin is that God is hidden in us. When we live out our callings — as spouses, parents, children, employers, employees, citizens, and the rest — God is working through us. Even when we do not realize it, when we fulfill our callings, we too are masks of God.

– Gene Edward Leith, “The Masks of God”

For Further Reading
A full set of links to Veith’s articles on vocation, which he wrote for The Lutheran Witness in 2001, may be found at Justin Taylor’s website here.

I also recommend Veith’s book, God at Work: Your Christian Vocation in All of Life (Focal Point Series)

41 thoughts on “The Masks of God

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  2. Veith himself wrote the following in an article in The Lutheran Witness in Nov 2001:

    “One of Luther’s key writings on vocation was a pamphlet titled Whether Soldiers Too
    Can Be Saved. Many Christians in the Reformation time, in the first flush of
    rediscovering the Bible, maintained that since we are supposed to love our enemies,
    Christians may not serve in the military, which involves killing our nation’s enemies.
    Since we are supposed to forgive sinners, Christians may not serve as judges, who,
    instead, have to punish them. In response, Luther asked whether God was allowed to
    take a human life or to punish sin. Indeed, He is. It is God, working through the offices
    of judge and soldier, who takes life and punishes sin. Christians can indeed occupy
    these offices—to be called to them as divine vocations—so that a soldier is loving his
    neighbor when he protects his country; a judge is loving his neighbor when he puts a
    criminal in prison or delivers him over to the executioner (another valid vocation).

    This by no means negates the commands to love our enemies and to “forgive those
    who trespass against us.” In their private life, soldiers, judges and executioners must
    indeed love and forgive. But in their vocations, by virtue of their offices, they are
    authorized to “bear the sword.”

    Those of us who do not have that vocation, however, cannot take the law into our own
    hands. Immediately prior to the Romans 13 text, St. Paul expresses the Christian’s duty
    to forgive wrongdoing in terms just as strong as in the Sermon on the Mount:

    “Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the
    eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at
    peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room
    for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says
    the Lord. On the contrary: ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is
    thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning
    coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with
    good” (Rom. 12:17-21).”


  3. Dr. Veith’s book and the doctrine of vocation has freed many people from the tyranny of being taught that unless you work/volunteer in the church you aren’t really serving the Lord.

    i.e. The anti-clerical version of Clericalism.

    Clericalism is the heresy that “Only Clerics (ordained clergy, monks, or nuns) Matter”. The most extreme example was Renaissance Spain, where close to half the adult population were in cloistered monasteries, cloistered convents, and Holy Orders — at least until the easy money from the Americas ran out.

    Just Evangelical Protestants call them “Full-Time Christian Workers/Volunteers” instead of Priests, Monks, and Nuns.


  4. Lisa, it was Dorothy Sayers who also said, “The only Christian work is good work, well done.” She apparently had a good head on her shoulders.


  5. Dr. Veith’s book and the doctrine of vocation has freed many people from the tyranny of being taught that unless you work/volunteer in the church you aren’t really serving the Lord. It literally set my wife and my father-in-law free from years of guilt and false obligations.

    The recovery of the doctrine of vocation is an invaluable gift to the whole Church from the Lutheran Reformation.


  6. This reminds me of the paradigm shift I perceived in myself after reading — if I am remembering right — NT Wright’s “Surprised by Hope”. Rev Wright makes a comment along the lines that we don’t “do” God’s work “building the kingdom”. He does His work of building and we may or may not be used by him. Rather we are building “for” the kingdom.

    It’s a subtle shift in perspective but was an empowering one for me. I think it breaks the compunction of Evangelicals to “save souls” and instead trust that God faithfully does and will save each soul when and as He so chooses, which may or may not involve all the well-intentioned programs in which we participate.


  7. Mark, we have come to this point before. We disagree. But I have allowed you to say your piece. Thank you.

    Now, I expect that you will not bring up this matter again unless it is directly pertinent to the subject at hand. Any comments that violate this will be deleted, and continual disregard of what I say here will lead to permanent moderation.


  8. Usually, people who disagree with the view of Calvin and the Reformers on the relationship between justification and sanctification ask this question, “So, how much?”

    The measurement is NOT about percentages or numbers. It is not about counting numbers every day of how much I did good or how much I sinned. It’s about the orientation of the heart. Is it more or less inclined towards righteousness, godliness, and virtue (including good intentions) rather than evil, wickedness, and sin – even though we acknowledge that all true believers will always significantly fall short from God’s perfect standard every day (understanding that not every believer is going to have the same degree of this but it must be there). I don’t know how many times I have to repeat this to people who disagree with this biblical position.

    My concern with your position, Chaplain Mike, is that you’re using human experience, your own and others, as the hermeneutical crux to interpret various biblical passages on these issues. For example, how do you interpret the Sermon on the Mount? Many biblical scholars agree that the famous Sermon by our Lord is not exclusively relegated to the law but about the demands that believers must fulfill if they truly belong to the Kingdom (not as earning a wage but as a sign that they truly do belong to God’s people). What about Hebrews 12:14 when the author warns his readers to strive for holiness “without which no one will see the Lord”? Is that also exclusively law that is supposed to lead to the gospel? If so, how do you square that with his exhortation to strive “for peace with everyone” and the verses right after that about bitter root and not being like Esau (vv. 15-16)? Obviously, the author was warning his readers to actually in practical terms to strive after holiness in their own Christian life or lest they be found among the spiritual castaways.

    With all due respect, it is your position that is entirely unbiblical. It is based on a faulty hermeneutic and more on humanistic reasoning. Your view may not lead to bondage but it sure leads to self-deception among many. Thanks for allowing me one more response to your post, btw.


  9. Rick Ro.,

    N.T. Wright’s next book n the “Christian Origins” series, the one on Paul, which he is finishing now and which should be out next year, begins (and I believe ends) with Philemon.



  10. Awesome! We always read a Psalm in the Sunday school class I facilitate; I think I’ll use that one next week!


  11. “God does not need our good works. Our neighbor does. Strictly speaking, we do not ever “serve God.” He always serves us, and through us, he serves our neighbors.”

    Extremely profound, Chaplain Mike! Especially the first two sentences. Thanks for sharing that insight.


  12. Dumb Ox,

    recently I’ve been trying to conceptualize the points you make in your first paragraph. Your references to “incarnation” and “sacramental element” especially hit home. Thanks.


  13. Chaplain Mike, I agree with you that Mark’s position leads to at least a *sort* of bondage on a practical level, but honestly, for me, reading many of his comments is like listening to myself two years ago. I encountered more legalistic thinking and practice in my former Reformed Baptist circles than I have found in my parish since returning to the Catholic Church.

    I know that R.B.’s (and Protestants in general) believe that the sacrament of Confession to a priest is “unBiblical” (obviously, I disagree), but the spiritual counsel which I have received, as one part of that sacrament, has been more freeing, for me personally, than the sometimes-bordering-on-neurotic self-examination, and “examination” of other professing Christians’ words and actions, which I learned as a Reformed Baptist.


  14. Dang, Mark, I didn’t mean to reply to your post and consequently have the Big Dog himself, Chaplain Mike, reply also. Basically, I’m just as lost as anybody here. I don’t know it all and I don’t want to know it all. (I’ll leave that up to God.) If I can ever be given clarity on a subject or scripture, then I’m all for it as both myself and the people I witness to will ultimately benefit from it, after all, it’s all about furthering His kingdom and not our own straw huts.


  15. Mark, I’m not going to allow this to become the dominant theme of this discussion thread, but I must ask some questions here.

    How do I measure “habitually inclined toward evil rather than desiring to please God and do good”? Or does someone else hold the secret book that has that information? And what if I truly desire to please God and do good but continually fail to do so? Do good intentions count?

    And what will I see when I examine my heart? And what hope do I have in getting an accurate picture of it, seeing that all humans (saved or not) are prone to self-deception? If my salvation depends on me being able to examine my heart and find assurance there, I am of all men most to be pitied.

    Your position is entirely untenable on a practical level. It leads to bondage.

    I will allow one answer from you and other commenters to these questions, and then we move back to the points of the post. OK?


  16. Lisa, I recenlty read The Mind of the Maker and enjoyed it very much. Sayers had a great sense of humor too. Subtle, but great.


  17. I don’t think that’s the point. Although Paul encouraged those in slavery to faithfully fully their vocation, for example, the fact that he addressed the masters as well sowed the seeds for slavery’s demise. Read Philemon.


  18. Josh, I agree with you on 2 points: 1) we are not required to do them for our salvation (as if earning a paycheck); and 2) when we truly receive salvation from Christ we want to do good works. In other words, even though salvation is a free gift received by faith alone in Christ alone if our hearts are habitually inclined towards evil rather than desiring to please God and do good then we should examine our hearts to see if we are truly saved.


  19. This understanding of work, and life, would likely serve to set a lot of people free from the competitive ministry job market mentality. Identity in Christ, valuable to God, personal security, gratitude for others….I bet this would lead to happier families, among other benefits. I need this.


  20. I think you need to make clear your statement, “This truth is repeated throughout Scripture. No good works = no real slavation.”
    There is only one type of salvation. To say that there is a real and a non real type is inaccurate. The type of “real salvation” in which scripture speaks of is the type that upon recieving slavation from Christ, we want to do good works, however, we are not required to do them for our salvation. If good works where required for our salvation then why did Jesus have to die.?
    If this is what you where writing about and I just misunderstood, I’m sorry.


  21. “God does not need our good works.”

    You’re right. God doesn’t need anything from us. He is self-sufficient in himself and only in himself.

    Having said that, we need to do good works (not the ritualistic, culturally-mandated, external kind) for us to be numbered among the truly regenerate.

    This truth is repeated throughout Scripture. No good works = no real salvation. Jesus, Paul, and the other Apostles make it very clear in the whole of NT.


  22. Honestly, this doctrine sounds rather dubious to me. It’s scary because it has the potential to justify however our current society happens to function. Are you a slave? Your vocation is to serve your master. Are you a soldier in WWII Germany? Your vocation is to fight for your country. These examples are extreme, I know. But if there is anything history should teach us, it’s that men have a difficult time seeing the errors of their age. We certainly have errors, and insofar as our vocations implicate us in these errors, it’s difficult for me to say that God condones them.


  23. Because of Christian vocation, no matter what we do in life we should do it as though we where doing it for the Lord. I guess becausr in the end we are doing it for the Lord.


  24. This topic also makes me think of “The Mind of the Maker” by Dorothy Sayers. Her book is a theological discussion of how God made us in his image and supplies us with his creative abilities. It reiterates Leith’s idea — that God manifests himself uniquely in each of us. Thanks Chaplain Mike. I enjoyed this!


  25. “God at Work” is a terrific book; our men’s group at our small PCA church recently went through it at my prodding, and we were immensely blessed by it. Also recommend Gustaf Wingren’s book, “Luther on Vocation” as a resource. If we got the Lutheran-Reformed concept that God works our sanctification through our vocations, we would be a better witness to the watching world.


  26. Psalm 50:8-15 catches the nuance to which Kevin rightfully alludes:

    8 I have no complaint about your sacrifices
    or the burnt offerings you constantly offer.
    9 But I do not need the bulls from your barns
    or the goats from your pens.
    10 For all the animals of the forest are mine,
    and I own the cattle on a thousand hills.
    11 I know every bird on the mountains,
    and all the animals of the field are mine.
    12 If I were hungry, I would not tell you,
    for all the world is mine and everything in it.
    13 Do I eat the meat of bulls?
    Do I drink the blood of goats?
    14 Make thankfulness your sacrifice to God,
    and keep the vows you made to the Most High.
    15 Then call on me when you are in trouble,
    and I will rescue you,
    and you will give me glory.”


  27. Allen, I once wrote a paper on “A Theology of Work”. It turned out to be one of the worst papers I ever wrote because my own work was pretty busy at the time and I couldn’t get to the paper, short of being resentful instead having the joyful attitude I was supposed to have. It was one of those ironies. But anyway…

    The worst book I read while researching was Charles Colson’s “Why America Doesn’t Work”. Your pastor may have read it too, but enjoyed it and hit you over the head with it.


  28. Timely article for me. Yesterday morning I sat through a sermon where the pastor laid a guild trip on us if we weren’t doing something “great” for God. For him, my vocation isn’t enough.


  29. You’re conflating two understandings of the phrase “to serve”.

    Chaplain Mike meant it directly, literally; he was making something of a philosophical point, that G-d needs nothing, and will never need anything, and so nothing we do is ever “serving” him in any meaningful way. We are not servants who do his chores and job. We are of no “help” to G-d”

    The meaning you are referring to, and the verses you site, is more literary, more mystic; to serve as in “service in the army”. To be obedient to. To be doing the things another wants you to do.

    Be the bigger man/woman, and try to discern what is being said to you, not parse the words it is said with 🙂


  30. “I sought my soul,
    but my soul I could not see.
    I sought my God,
    But my God eluded me.
    I sought my brother,
    and I found all three.”
    – Author Unknown.

    I found this poem in a book ages ago. To me, it summarizes how we often get religion so wrong. We can follow our bliss, or strive for our best life now, but it all ends up feeling hollow and selfish – losing ourselves in the process of trying to find ourselves. We can seek God through pietism, emotions, meditation, or some strange esoteric experience, but in the end God seems more distant than before. But when we seek to love God through loving our neighbor in our daily mundane activities, God is there. I think it is our way of experiencing the incarnation. There is a sacramental element that is hard to explain.

    I think it is harder for us Americans to receive God’s gifts from others. We like being the giver rather than the receiver. We want to be independent – the do-it-yourself, self-made type. We’re ok with entitlements, which is strange. I think we still feel in control when we think we deserve or can expect something, rather than feeling dependent on someone else’s skills, vocation or trade. Someone else might do a poor job or overprice us. The risk is real. Being independent seems so secure, until we disappoint ourselves. Then we are truly alone.

    Perhaps it begins with being unable to to truly accept Christ’s finished work on the cross. We want to contribute something to Christ’s work, so that we can maintain that feeling of independence. We would prefer a do-it-yourself salvation. That humility we experience when we finally give up and receive God’s salvation opens the door to the humility needed to be truly served by our neighbor – to allow another to wash our feet.


  31. Mike I find it interesting that you said, “strictly speaking, we do not ever ‘serve God'” but the Bible says otherwise. For example:

    “And Pharaoh’s servants said unto him, How long shall this man be a snare unto us? let the men go, that they may serve the LORD their God” (Exodus 10:17).

    “And if it seem evil unto you to serve the LORD, choose you this day whom ye will serve; whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the flood, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land ye dwell: but as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD” )Joshua 24:15).

    “Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling” (Psalm 2:11)

    “Serve the LORD with gladness: come before his presence with singing” (Psalm 100:2).

    “Knowing that of the Lord ye shall receive the reward of the inheritance: for ye serve the Lord Christ” (Colossians 3:24).

    Sometimes in our effor to share a truth with others, we often overlook what the Bible actually says. I hope that was not the case with you post.


  32. Christopher,

    I could only hope more of my friends had your attitude.

    I was going to write “Protestant friends,” but I realized that might seem condescending.

    One of my best friends is Catholic, by the way.

    Happy Labor Day brother.


  33. I may not be a Protestant (anymore), but I’m happy to say that Martin Luther’s doctrine of vocation has been, and is, a great blessing to all Christians. A movement within the Catholic Church, Opus Dei (started, I believe, in the early 20th century), focuses on this very doctrine and the various ways of living it out in one’s own life.

    I just want add that, for those of us, like me, who don’t currently have jobs or spouses/families, we can glorify God just by living our lives and attempting to be a blessing to those who are within our “spheres of influence.” In my situation of having Cerebral Palsy, I currently rarely even get out of the house much– but when I do, I want to be a blessing to people, however I can. When I’m stuck in the house, alone (humanly speaking), as I am today– well, I can at least pray for others and hopefully post helpful comments on blogs. 🙂 Happy Labour Day and Soli Deo Gloria to everyone from this Catholic brother in Christ!


  34. If it weren’t for Luther, would some of the “monks” who come to this site have the vocation of John Tetzel, the indulgences seller for Pope Leo X?

    I think the answer is no. Someone would have come along long before today.

    I could only hope that I would be able to “stand,” like Luther did, in the face of such opposition.

    Sometimes it takes someone so obviously incorrect, like Monk Tetzel, to prompt us to our vocation as Christians. In Martin Luther’s case, it prompted the posting of the “Theses” and so much more.

    Great post Chaplain Mike and great point JeffB.


  35. I’m not sure how it was in Luther’s time, but growing up RC in this country in ’50s and ’60s, I remember the dignity of honest labor “in the air” in RC teaching and parish life. It’s one of the things I missed when I left RC’ism when I was in college.



  36. In my readings this morning in Nehemiah, I noted how many of those rebuilding the wall of Jerusalem were working on a section right outside their own houses. To do the Lord’s work and build the Kingdom, you don’t have to join a youth mission trip and build houses in Mexico, you don’t have to go to seminary and become a pastor in some state on the other side of the country, etc—-just carry on with your ordinary vocation and skills—whatever they are—across the street, in your office, etc.


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