We hear the word “calling” thrown around in both the church and the secular community, but what exactly does it mean to walk in our calling?
According to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, calling is defined as “a strong inner impulse toward a particular course of action when accompanied by conviction of divine influence.” I find it so interesting that “conviction of divine influence” is included in their definition. Truly, not every dictionary includes acknowledgement that calling has to do with the divine. “Calling” in the Oxford English Dictionary is “a strong urge towards a particular way of life or career; a vocation.”
While a secular dictionary may have a variance of definitions of the word — some with reference to God and some not — calling in biblical terms is a divinely initiated invitation to live out God’s purposes for our lives. According to Holman Bible Dictionary, calling is an “invitation, summons, commission, or naming.” As this definition suggests, calling means not only to be called to an area of service, but it is also an invitation and a naming. When we are called by God, we are told a piece of our identity and purpose in Him.
To further understand the word “calling” in terms of Christian service, it is also helpful to look at how the word “apostle” is used in the Bible. Paul speaks on numerous occasions of his calling to be an apostle to the Gentiles. His use of the word “apostle” is key in helping even those of us not necessarily called to plant churches or travel as missionaries understand our own callings. “Apostle” means “sent” or “one who is sent out.” Just as Paul was chosen by God to preach to the Gentiles, we, as Christians have also been “sent” and commissioned by God to a particular area of service by God — and He is the One that reveals that to us (Ephesians 2:10).
In Galatians, Paul essentially gives us the blueprint of what calling in biblical terms looks like. Though he is writing with the purpose of defending his apostleship against the accusations of false teachers and seeking to correct the church and uphold the Gospel, we can gain so much from looking at his words about what it means to live out our God-given callings and retain the right focus in the process.
3 Things We Can Learn From Paul About Calling:
1. Our calling comes from God.
In Galatians 1:1, Paul starts his letter to the Galatians by identifying himself as “Paul, an apostle — sent not from men nor by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead.”
Paul’s words may seem arrogant, but he says what he does not to put himself on a pedestal but defend his apostleship against attacks from others who claimed he wasn’t a real apostle and establish to his readers the greater power behind his calling.
As we see here by Paul’s words, our calling by God is that which is initiated by God and gives us the foundation to do what we are doing. Not only is our calling that which gives us the authority to do what we are doing, it also helps us continue along the right course when the going gets tough. How so? When we look further into the word “apostle,” not only does it mean “sent,” a further shade of meaning exists. As Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary suggests, “apostle” is one given a task to fulfill, but the emphasis is on the one who sends, not one sent.
When we are starting out, bogged down in the middle, or trying to make a good finish in our calling, we may feel like we don’t have what it takes. Though we are called by God and are given authority to do what He has called us to do, our ability to do what He has called us to is not based on who we are but on who He is. Paul says this later in Galatians 6:14 when he says he boasts of nothing but the cross.
Calling is that which always starts with God and is meaningful because it is done in His power and authority. So, in places where we question our ability or have others questioning us, we can always draw on the fact that we are doing what we are doing because God calls us — and the emphasis isn’t on us so much on us as the “sent” as it is on Him who sends us.
2. Our message comes from God.
Not only does Paul emphasize that his calling comes from God, he also emphasizes that his message is from God as well. Note what he says in Galatians 1:11: “I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it: rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.”
Again, we must remember that Paul says what he does here to defend himself against attacks against him. In addition, we should note that we are in a different position than Paul in that the Bible has been written in its entirety at this point in history and given to us for our instruction. Paul, on the other hand, was in a unique position in that he received revelation from Jesus to write a good portion of the New Testament. However, what we can take away from Paul’s words is that we, too, carry to others the Gospel which is not a mere work of men, but the divine words of God.
Just as our call is not our own or given by men — neither can our message be man-made. While we may be tempted after our call to go and do our own thing with our God-given talents and abilities, we must always remember that we do what we do in God’s power. We have a responsibility to stay attached to God (as it is only through His power that we do what we do) and ensure our message is that which is in line with the Gospel.
Certainly, there are false prophets that minister in God’s name that declare a gospel that departs from the Gospel given to us in the Bible, but as the IVP Commentary points out, we are only valid apostles (or those sent out by God) as long as our message and mission align with the Gospel. The IVP Commentary says the following about Paul: “His apostolic power is not arbitrary; it is only valid as long as he adheres to the true gospel.”
3. We are accountable to God.
As I’ve alluded to in my previous two points, it might make our heads swell a bit if we focus too much on the “called by Christ with a message from God” theme only when it comes to walking in our calling and leave out the important idea that though we have been called to serve others using our spiritual gifts and share the Gospel of Christ, when we do so, not only do we need to align ourselves with the Gospel — we are always under the authority of Christ.
According to 1 Corinthians 12:4-7 (check out 1 Corinthians 12:4-11 for a more complete idea of the different types of gifts), it says this:
There are different kinds of gifts but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work. Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.
If we notice in this verse, there are different kinds of service and working — but the same Spirit. The Holy Spirit gives us the gifts that we are to use, but although different, they are all used in service to God, under His authority.
As the saying goes, with great power comes great responsibility. We aren’t given a great mantle of authority and sent out to be Christ’s representatives without the heavy responsibility that comes with such a directive of staying aligned with God and His Word with how we use our gifts and live out our call.
This also means we don’t just preach the message of the Gospel and know it to tell others. We have to live it out. In Galatians 1:12-24, Paul points to his own conversion story to show his 180 degree turn from his former life. He urges other Christians to consider how he has lived out the Christian life. I love what the IVP Commentary says on this point:
He [Paul] does not call on his readers [the church members of Galatia] to do anything he has not done himself. He does not simply point to the way; he has lived out the way of faithfulness to the Gospel of Christ. We might well learn from Paul that the best way to challenge others to live for Christ is by our own example.
Conclusion: Our Calling Always Points Back to God
As I mentioned previously, some dictionaries do not reference God when it comes to the definition of calling, simply stating that calling is more about our own impulse toward a certain direction. The difference in a secular definition of calling and a biblical definition challenges us because the definition of pursuing a course of action without divine influence is how many live out their lives.
As Christians, even as we know that calling comes from God, there is always going to be the temptation to define our own calling and use our gifts the way we see fit, as the world does. Yet, as we see with Paul’s discussion of calling and apostleship, which can very much be applied to our lives as Christians as well, walking in our calling is that which is not only initiated and sustained by God — it is that which points back to God.
Acts 17:28 tells us, “For in him we live and move and have our being.” Similarly, we are told in John 15:5 that it is by remaining in Him that we accomplish what we were designed to accomplish. Apart from Him we can do nothing.
In Hebrews 3:1 Christ is referred to as an apostle because He was “sent” by the Father to complete a specific mission. As Baker’s observes, just as Christ was sent, He sent out disciples — “thus, all apostleship finds its meaning in Jesus the Apostle, sent by God to be the Savior of the world” (1 John 4:14).” Even if we don’t know what that our specific calling is yet, we continue to walk in God’s will and use our gifts to serve others and allow God to show us our purposes in Him.
If we do know our calling, we may be excited by the great assignment God has given us, but with that assignment comes the task of remembering we have been called because of God’s grace and not our own ability. Our message is not our own and must adhere to the Gospel, and lastly, we must preach this Gospel message not just with our words but with our lives.
Though we have been given the awesome task of acting as those “sent” and chosen by God to fulfill whatever task He has called us to fulfill, we are never outside of the boundaries of the Gospel or God’s hand — and this keeps us humble in the process of carrying out our call.
This is the second episode in our series “Staying True to Your Calling.” Check out Part 1: Being Bold in Our God-Given Calling last week where we explored what it means to boldly declare your identity in Christ and what He is doing in your life and not hide who you are to please others or fit in.
Podcast Notes and Corrections:
1. The use of word “apostle” in the Bible that denoted a person authorized to fulfill certain function that emphasized one who sends, not one sent — taken from Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary (as cited above in the article).
2. Correction: The Galatians 6:15 reference in the podcast (when Paul says he only boasts in the cross) can actually be found in Galatians 6:14.
*Updated March 16, 2019.