Recently I was asked whether a person can miss his or her “calling” from the Lord. The idea is that God has one specific will for your life—a calling—and if you miss it, you’ve messed up everything. If you follow Jesus, the simple answer is, “No.” Let’s dig a little deeper, however.
The idea of a calling is ancient. The prophet Isaiah seems to have been minding his own business when the Lord appears to him in a vision in order to call him as a prophet. Jeremiah was a priest in Israel when the Lord appeared to him and supernaturally called him to be a prophet, to speak on behalf of the Lord. We have less detail but this is how Ezekiel was called to be a prophet. Amos was busy shepherding sheep in Tekoa when the Lord appeared to him and called him. Sometimes a prophet was unwilling to respond to his call. This was the case with Jonah. He hated Nineveh and its people and the last thing he wanted to do was proclaim God’s mercy to them. In his case, it was impossible for him to avoid his calling, even if it meant God sending a great fish!
In the New Testament Jesus is clear how his disciples became his disciples. In John 15 he tells them quite directly, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you” (John 15:16). In his letters Paul either claims directly to have been called to be an apostle or he is an apostle “by the will of God”. The apostles and prophets were, of course, appointed to these roles by the Lord himself. What about the rest of us?
There are those who claim there is no “calling” to vocational ministry, claiming that every time the New Testament Scriptures speak of being “called” (other than the apostles), the calling is to salvation and not vocational ministry. Paul’s second letter to Timothy suggests otherwise, however. Given its highly personal nature and its use of the singular “you” throughout (with the exception of the church-wide greeting at the end: “Grace be with y’all”, 2 Timothy 4:22), Paul is writing directly to Timothy and refers to their mutual calling.
He says in verse 8 of chapter 1, God has “saved us and called us to a holy calling”. It is possible that he means the general call to salvation but given the context this is quite unlikely. Paul knows his execution draws nearer. He’s giving his instructions the weight of holy Scripture, that timid Timothy might be emboldened to fulfill his office in Ephesus. He directly mentions his specific calling as an apostle in verse 11 (“for which I was appointed a preacher and apostle and teacher”). Timothy must not be ashamed of the Lord’s testimony but must “share in suffering for the gospel” with the apostle (1:8). Timothy must “follow the pattern of the sound words” he has heard from the apostle. In verse 6 Timothy is told to “fan into flame” the gift he has received, and this gift came through “the laying of [Paul’s] hands”, along with those of the council of elders in Ephesus, who ordained Timothy (1 Timothy 4:14). Both First and Second Timothy are about Timothy fulfilling his office as an overseer / elder in Christ’s church. It rather clear that the “holy calling” Paul refers to is that of being set apart to serve the Lord with his entire life.
Most followers of Jesus will never serve him in this manner. Few will be lay elders in churches, let alone vocational elders. Those apostles and prophets on whom the church is built (Ephesians 2:20) received extraordinary callings to ministry. Those who are ordained by a church are called to vocational ministry. This is a special calling to a special role in the church. What about the rest of us, though?
If you are in Christ, you have a calling! A simple word search on “called” or “calling” in the New Testament reveals a remarkable calling on each of our lives. In Romans 1:6 those believers in Rome “are called to belong to Jesus Christ”. This calling is to salvation. In Romans 8 the elect are those who are foreknown by God and predestined, and “those whom he predestined he also called” (Romans 8:30). The Corinthians “were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:9). There are numerous references that clearly refer to a calling to salvation, but the calling all followers of Jesus receive is greater than this. In his letter to the Ephesian church Paul wrote:
I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift.Ephesians 4:1–7 ESV
Here Paul speaks of a calling each believer has received that goes beyond what is commonly understood to be salvation (assuming a very limited view of what salvation actually is). Believers are to live in such a way that comports to their calling, and this calling is seen in received gifts of grace. Paul then goes on to describe five types of spiritually gifted individuals given to the church. These spiritually gifted apostles and prophets and evangelists and shepherds and teachers—not to be confused with the Apostles and the Prophets, mind you—are given to the church to help the church grow into mature adulthood. Then he says this:
Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.Ephesians 4:15–16 ESV
This “extra” calling that goes beyond the call to salvation is direct involvement in the life of the local church. It is when each part, each gifted person given to the church, works as it should that the body grows. This is the calling each and every follower of Christ has on his or her life. In 2 Thessalonians Paul tells them he prays for them.
To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling and may fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.2 Thessalonians 1:11–12 ESV
Notice the calling here is for “good and every work of faith”. Peter says something similar. After listing a number of character qualities—think “fruit of the Spirit”—he adds this:
For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins. Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall.2 Peter 1:8–10 ESV
Notice again the connection between a believer’s calling and fruitfulness in ministry. We are all called to serve the Lord and to serve one another. To get back to the original question, then, are we called to serve in a particular way? Does each one of us have a particular calling that is unique and specific to us, and if so, can we so completely miss God’s will for our life that we mess up everything?
The closest we get to this idea is in 1 Corinthians 7. There Paul is answering their questions about marriage. He first addressed the act of marriage, insisting that it rightly belongs to marriage and should be engaged in by a married couple. He gives some instructions regarding those who are currently unmarried and/or widowed, as well as how to handle an unbelieving spouse desiring out of the marriage. Then he adds this:
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. Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision. For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God. Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called. Were you a bondservant when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.) For he who was called in the Lord as a bondservant is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a bondservant of Christ. You were bought with a price; do not become bondservants of men. So, brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God.1 Corinthians 7:17–24 ESV
Here we see each person has a life assigned to him or her by the Lord. That assignment is that person’s “calling”. And what, exactly, is that calling? It is the calling to remain faithful to the Lord. His entire point is that one’s circumstances do not determine one’s purpose. What matters is “keeping the commandments of God”. This doesn’t preclude improving one’s circumstances, as Paul indicates. What is of even more importance to God is that one is faithful right now. This is God’s call on your life. God called you to faith and repentance and God continually calls you to faithfulness. Is it possible to mess up this calling? Yes? I suppose if you do not live faithfully you are messing up his call on your life but as soon as you confess your sins and are cleansed from all unrighteousness and begin following him faithfully again, you’re right back on track, fulfilling your calling in life. This doesn’t mean you won’t have to live with any consequences of your sin, but as soon as you begin following him faithfully, you’re fulfilling your calling.
Too often some become obsessed with finding “God’s perfect will” for your life, as if there is a specific thing you must do or everything else that comes after that missed opportunity will be God’s second best, at best, for your life. Barring a call to vocational ministry, which comes through others, by the way, each one of us is called to a regular life of faithfulness to the Lord Jesus. You do not have to go out and be extraordinary in order to fulfill your calling. God may do extraordinary things through you, but for every Paul, there were dozens and perhaps hundreds or even thousands of Timothys who serve in very ordinary ways. For every Timothy there are hundreds and thousands of very ordinary church members who fulfill their calling by being faithful to serve the Lord and his body. New City, don’t miss your calling! Even if you serve in rather ordinary ways, in doing so we experience an extraordinary Savior who is delighted when we serve him and his people. Now that is a high calling!