The Myth of the Protestant Work Ethic

As Christians who want to think biblically and theologically about the workplace, we can always rely on the media to make us say, “Well, at least I know that’s not what I had in mind.” Science journalist Matthew Hutson, writing an article “Still Puritan After All These Years” for The New York Times, provides that service for us. In it, he attempts to summarize the “Protestant work ethic”:

Martin Luther and John Calvin argued that work was a calling from God. They also believed in predestination and viewed success as a sign of salvation. This led to belief in success as a path to salvation: hard work and good deeds would bring rewards, in life and after.

Where is the intern fact-checker when you need him? Later in the article, Hutson writes, “Calvin argued that socializing while on the job was a distraction from the assignment God gave you.” I’d love to see that source in context. Nevertheless, Hutson gives us opportunity to say more than simply boo! to poor caricatures of the Protestant work ethic.

God’s Work and Our Work

Hutson starts off in short-lived agreement with Protestants: “Martin Luther and John Calvin argued that work was a calling from God.” True, indeed. Calvin remarked that each individual has his own kind of living assigned to him by the Lord as a “sort of sentry post so that he may not heedlessly wanter about throughout life,” and that “the Lord’s calling is the beginning and foundation of well-being” (Institutes, 3.X.6). Similarly, Martin Luther remarks in his Appeal to the German Ruling Class that unless our work is from God and by his power, then “the greater the power we employ, the greater the disaster we suffer.”

And that’s about where the agreement ends and the funny business begins. From there Hutson writes, “They [Luther and Calvin] also believe in predestination and viewed success as a sign of salvation.” True, they believed in predestination, but how that relates to “success as a sign of salvation,” I’m not sure. For Calvin (and any other Protestant), it’s likely to be the opposite. In fact, it was a great comfort to know that when success is far away from a Christian, “God is his guide in all these things.”

The magistrate will discharge his functions more willingly; the head of the household will confine himself to his duty; each man will bear and swallow the discomforts, vexations, weariness, and anxieties in his way of life, when he has been persuaded that the burden was laid upon him by God (emphasis mine).

We should be gentle, though, with Hutson and others who so twist the understanding of the Protestant work ethic. He’s following in the prominent footsteps of Max Weber, who in 1904 wrote his famous work, The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Weber’s book unfortunately multiplied myths about Protestantism, Calvinism, vocation, and capitalism. To this day, many believe Protestants work hard so as to build evidence for salvation.

Calvin taught that there is comfort in knowing “that no task will be so sordid and base, provided you obey your calling in it, that it will not shine and be reckoned very precious in God’s sight.” The greater comfort, however, comes from the gospel, where Calvin says, “we are apprehended by God’s goodness and sealed by his promises.”

The Protestant understanding of vocation emerged from this already accomplished salvation. For Luther, the doctrine of justification by faith alone had everything to do with our status and place as workers. He complained in the Appeal to the German Ruling Class that Roman Catholics have created a false hierarchy of a spirituality of work, separating the “spiritual” from the “profane”—or to put it in modern terms, the “sacred” and the “secular.” Somehow, the priest and the bishop are more spiritual than the baker and the brick layer. But Luther, never to pull a punch, calls this sort of thing “guiles of the devil.”

“Those who exercise authority,” Luther says, “have been baptized like the rest of us, and have the same faith and the same gospel; therefore we must admit that they are priests and bishops.” We should be careful here. Luther doesn’t want to flatten all occupations, but to lift up all believers to “the priesthood of believers,” since all have spiritual status.

The doctrine of justification by faith and the forgiveness of our sins redirects the aim of our vocation. In receiving a righteousness that is not from our works or successes, we are free to serve our neighbor and benefit society and our community. This is why Lutheran theologian Gene Veith can say in God at Work:

[A]ll vocations are equal before God. Pastors, monks, nuns, and popes are no holier than farmers, shopkeepers, dairy maids, or latrine diggers. In the spiritual kingdom, in divine egalitarianism (which would also come to have cultural implications) peasants are equal to kings. All are sinful beings who have been loved and redeemed by Christ.

The purpose of vocation then, Veith says, “is to love and serve one’s neighbor.” But the Christian is only free to love and serve one’s neighbor when he is not working to justify himself before God. Justification by faith changes everything.

Vocation Explained

In this video, Tim Keller—author of the forthcoming book Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work—gives a good explanation of the Protestant view of vocation and answers the two questions: (1) Why your work matters to God and (2) Why God matters to your work.

Gospel and Culture Lecture Series: Tim Keller from Redeemer Video on Vimeo.

Keller’s lecture was delivered in the Gospel and Culture lectures series with Redeemer’s Center for Faith and Work, who held their first conference in November 2011. The Center for Faith and Work works to mobilize Christians in their professional and industry spheres as Protestant and Reformed Christians. Their second annual conference this fall features a number of insightful thinkers, including James Davison Hunter.

The Protestant work ethic needs to be demythologized and put back into its rightful place: after a sustained reflection of justification by faith alone.

  • John Carpenter

    To understand the true Protestant work ethic, first one needs to understand the medieval Catholic ethic against which it was developed. In that ethic, only holy orders were true “vocations” — callings from God. The rests were just tasks of necessity.

    Then, as the article rightly points out, the Protestants said that all legitimate tasks were “callings” and should be pursued as means to serve God. They did not teach that success at those callings was necessarily a mark of election or moral superiority. The Reformers were far too sophisticated to make such a claim. But, if one pursues a job as a “calling” and works diligently at it as a way to serve God, then they are much more likely to be successful at it and even to get wealthy. To that wealth, the Puritans said Christians should have “weaned affections”: not derive our pleasure or satisfaction from the material success of our jobs.

  • Austin

    Yeah, here’s Luther on poor being reckoned rich before God, even as the rich are reckoned poor. A Christian is equal with all other Christians before God, presumably because we all share the same righteousness.

    “This means: It is the same for God whether you are free or in bondage, just as circumcision and uncircumcision are the same; neither hinders faith and salvation. It is the same as when I say: It makes no difference to faith whether you are poor or rich, young or old, beautiful or ugly, learned or ignorant, layman or priest. For he who is called in poverty is rich before God. He who is called in riches is poor before God. He who is called in youth is old before God. He who is called in age is young before God. He who is called in ugliness is beautiful before God. And again: He who is called in ignorance is learned before God. He who is called as a layman is a priest before God. All this is true because faith makes us all equal before God and no difference of person or status will count.”

    Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 28: 1 Corinthians 7, 1 Corinthians 15, Lectures on 1 Timothy, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald and Helmut T. Lehmann (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999), 1 Co 7:22.

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  • Tony

    I am not an “expert” sociologist or Calvinist theologian, however I think I can shed some light on why there is seen a necessary connection between Calvinism and capitalism’s work ethic by historians.

    1. When the Medieval church (Catholic and Orthodox) disparaged as less holy, work outside of the purpose of the church what they were disparaging was profit-driven work. Essentially the church was not saying baking is bad and conducting a mass is good but that baking for the monastery (or in modern terms the local ministry) is God’s work and holy but baking for private sale is not because the later is profit driven (ie. selfish). Calvinism allowed private enterprise to be seen as equally vocational along with the work for the church and establishes that a profit-orientated business can be seen as holy.

    2. As this article ( shows Jean Calvin was not an unconditional endorser of usury however it was forbidden among Christians from earliest record until Calvin’s Geneva. We couldn’t have gotten to our current economies where loaning money at interest is almost all we seem to do without this first baby step. Blaming Calvin for this is like blaming someone for a bear wandering in because they forgot to lock the back door. Historically its accurate but 100% not what Calvin intended. Once again it allowed people to sanctify the profit motive.

    3. Once both profit making work and the crap shoot of banking are not considered fundamentally sinful then Calvins’ absolute sovereignty of God and Protestantisms individual rather than collective salvation allowed the precursors to the protestant work ethic to be taken into the field of economics.
    That’s right though, it was already there in the medieval church as it was in Christs time, and is in ours, that success is a mark of election and suffering a mark of God’s disapproval. That isn’t Calvinism. It’s much more perennial than that. You see it in the idea that the blind man that Jesus heals in the gospels must be a sinner, you see it in the idea that a duel is a proper way to resolve an argument (a sovereign god wont let the wrong guy die), you see it in the theologies of nations and empires like manifest destiny, you see it in the quiverfull movement, heck its even there in the belief that the Bible we have must be the one God wants us to have (because it succeeded against all others). It’s really a core idea of Judeo-Christianity that despite having no suppport from Jesus at all (or his life) keeps being repoured in.

    The Protestant work ethic is just shorthand for the application of “success equals blessedness” to an economy where one’s work for individual success can be seen as holy.

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