It is an epic statement dangerously close to triumphalism but I am not sure it is something for which we will have to apologize: the 16th century reformation of the church shepherded normal work-a-day Christians back to a true humanity to both the benefit of themselves and their neighbors.
What I am referring to specifically is the doctrine of vocation, one of the essential organs of Christian living that was resuscitated by Luther, Calvin and the other usual suspects. As the Lutheran writer and scholar Gene Veith says: "The Reformation brought to the fore three key teachings that would characterize the Protestant movement in all of its variations: the authority of Scripture, justification by faith, and the doctrine of vocation."
What is the biblical doctrine of vocation? In short, it is that God has called each of us to serve him in our work and that service which we render in the ordinary endeavors of our work-a-day lives actually becomes God's work in His providing to the world all that it needs.
If we were to search out a primary text for this doctrine you could do no better than 1 Corinthians 7:17, where Paul says to a church full of spiritual enthusiasts: "Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches.
The Corinthians were under the (self-derived) impression they could expedite their sanctification by merely disengaging from the ordinary endeavors of earthly life. Paul sets them straight. He declares that one's ordinary earthly endeavors do not fall outside of God's will. In fact, God assigned and God called you to ordinary earthly endeavors.
In the immediate context Paul is of course speaking to marriage but in the very obvious fuller context he even includes the duties of slaves (1 Cor. 7:21-23). These earthly duties and bonds are not distractions from serving God. In fact, these are God's callings. The word "vocation" is from the Latin for "calling," and it originally assumed that God was the subject, the one doing the calling.
God has "assigned" and "called" you to specific earthly endeavors. He has called you to be a husband. He has called you to be a wife. He has called you to be a sibling. He has called you to be a butcher, a baker, a candlestick maker. And indeed, if the calling is from God, then the work done is God's work. As Luther was fond of saying, "God milks the cows through the hands of the milkmaid." Or think of it this way: you ask God directly for daily bread and God delivers it through the baker, the truck driver and the grocer. Veith summarizes much of this very well:
For Luther, vocation, like justification, is ultimately God's work. God gives us our daily bread through the vocations of the farmer, the miller, and the baker. God creates new human beings through the vocations of fathers and mothers. God protects us through lawful magistrates. ... God heals by means of doctors, nurses, and other medical vocations. He makes our lives easier by means of inventors, scientists, and engineers. He creates beauty by means of artists, authors, and musicians. He gives us clothing, shelter, and other things we need by means of factory workers, construction contractors, and others who work with their hands. He cleans up after us by means of janitors and garbage collectors.
There are many implications of the biblical doctrine of vocation. The only one I wish to highlight here is probably the most significant and sweeping: the doctrine of vocation declares that human work is not a necessary evil but is in fact a necessary good (thanks to OPC ruling elder, Daryl Hart for that turn of phrase).
The Roman Catholic practice at the time of the Reformation was to reserve the word vocation for monks and priests. Thus the only way to truly engage in a pious life of godly work was to follow the path of the ascetics (take monkish vows of poverty, celibacy, and isolation from the world) or become full time clergy. All ordinary work then - read that as "nonreligious work" - was a necessary evil, an endeavor of a lower order. Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas carefully discriminated between the benefits granted the man under religious vows and the ordinary man, even to the point a judging the layman's sins as more weighty because his are not off-set by religous work (Summa Theologiae, 2a2ae. 186, 2).
The Reformers exploded this man-made myth with the authority of scripture. God is being served in our work. Our work is sufficiently pious and no less so than that of the clergy's work. There is no need for the Christian to make his work more religiously legitimate by adding overt expressions of religious practice to it.
Case in point. How many Christians feel the pressure to make their work religiously significant (or use the phrase "spiritually significant" if you like) by adding evangelism to it?
I have known several folks over the years who believed their work could only be justified - and the wealth they earned by doing it - if they systematically evangelized co-workers or clients. The doctrine of vocation, on the other hand, declares that our work is already religiously legitimate, already spiritually sufficient, already right with God just as is it is. There may be much repenting to do over how we do our work (see Luke 3:10-14), but the work is holy and good all by itself.
When evangelical Christians who have their heritage in the Reformation begin to think that overt religious action must be added to their work they are returning to the bondage of theologically darker ages. Such is also the case for those who begin to think they must shed their ordinary work so they can "do something really significant for God."
A worthwhile piece of commentary on this problem is the 1999 movie, Big Kahuna (rated R for foul language only, but it may be tough for some ears). Kevin Spacey (Larry) and Danny Devito (Phil) play a couple of industrial lubricant salesmen from the same company working a sales convention in a Wichita, Kansas. They are trying to score a big contract with a major player in the industry, "the big kahuna." There is also a third salesman on the Spacey and Devito sales team, the youngish newcomer, Bob.
Bob is a sincere Christian and this plays big in the movie. The desired contract with the big kahuna falls through largely because Bob decides to evangelize the big kahuna instead of working the sale of industrial lubricants. There is much discussion about this in the film and it is done in such a way that one is hard-pressed to conclude anything other than that Bob's character was handled sympathetically even as his immaturity and one-dimensional approach to life is rigorously critiqued.
Bob sees his earthly day job as a platform for the heavenly work of evangelism. In the end this makes it very difficult for him to see the people around him, like his co-workers Spacey and Devito, as human beings. He misses what is in plain sight - two middle-aged men with anxieties, health concerns, relationship wreckage but also wisdom and depth. He sees them instead the way a shallow salesmen might see his clients - as one dimensional marketing targets to merely be acquired.
Because Bob gets vocation wrong, he actually gets evangelism wrong too, not the content of evangelism but the manners. He thinks his work is only legitimate if it is overtly religious and so he thinks his friendships are only legitimate if they are overtly religious. Bob has little time for a job or a human who does not permit him to overtly display his devotion to God at each and every moment. Because of this Bob is suffering and so are his immediate neighbors, Larry and Phil, under Bob's poor doctrine of vocation. Remember, the sale was lost because of Bob.
All of this does not mean, of course, that evangelism is out of bounds in the workplace. What the doctrine of vocation means rather is that evangelism is not the legitimizing salt of your work. The work is religiously legitimate in and of itself if it be not contrary to divine law. Thus the doctrine of vocation permits us to see God's creational gifts as sufficiently good in themselves. They are sanctified by receiving them with thanksgiving and prayer (1 Tim. 4:1-4). Not only is this true of your work but it is true of your very human neighbors and co-workers whom God blesses through your work.