Book Review: The Call – By Os Guinness

Os Guiness The Call.png

Letter TThis book has been sitting on my shelf for about three or four years. I had expected it to be rather trite and boring fluff. I was glad to have been proven wrong.

Every person has the desire to know that they are fulfilling their purpose in life; The Call, as the subtitle suggests, is about finding and fulfilling that central purpose. ‘Calling’ – in the context used by Guinness – is the specific purpose for which we were created: “calling is the truth that God calls us to himself so decisively that everything we are, everything we do, and everything we have is invested with a special devotion and dynamism lived out as a response to his summons and service” (p4). It is in this calling, this purpose, that we find our identities.

Once the foundational idea of calling and its importance is laid Guinness proceeds to unpack the various aspects of calling: our primary calling is as followers of Christ, our secondary calling is to live, think, speak, and act for God as our sovereign. It is this secondary calling which – according to Guinness – comprises our specific ‘vocation’ (a teacher, lawyer, construction worker, etc), what Guinness calls “our personal answer to God’s address” (p31).

When viewed through this lens our calling gives us meaning, meaning which mere work or a mere job cannot. Despite referring to lines of work as ‘secondary callings’, Guinness pushes back against equating work with vocation, noting that “slowly such words as work, trade, employment, and occupation came to be used interchangeably with calling and vocation… The original demand that each Christian should have a calling was boiled down to the demand that each citizen should have a job” (p40). Guinness chief issue seems to be that secondary callings took center stage over the primary calling [to follow Christ]. He thereby seeks to counter the Protestant distortion of making the secondary calling primary and the Catholic distortion of confining calling only to the clergy.


It is all good and well to have this theory of calling, but how is one to discern their specific secondary calling? To this question Guinness answers that “God normally calls us along the lines of our giftedness, but the purpose of giftedness is stewardship and service, not selfishness” such that “the main way to discover calling is along the line of what we are each created and gifted to be… ‘Do what you are.'” (p46) 

In this way we are to discern our specific secondary callings based upon our respective gifts, all the while remembering that these gifts were given to us for the purpose of serving others. Not all will be able to make these two align – our gifts and our work – for as Guinness points out, “to find work now that perfectly fits our calling is not a right, but a blessing” (p51). This he largely attributes to the Fall.

Even still, Guinness again reinforces that we cannot intertwine our vocation so closely with our occupation that losing the occupation means losing the vocation; we can retire from jobs, but not from our calling, we can be unemployed but not uncalled and our careers cannot sustain our significance (p244).

With the notion of callings laid out and advice given on discerning them, Guinness proceeds to offer various angles of insight into how to live our lives in light of this: listening to God, living our lives with him as our audience, that our calling is a basis for responsibility and ethics, that we are not merely summoned individually but corporately, that we must avoid the temptation toward conceit and envy, toward commodification and putting a price tag on everything, that calling serves as an antidote toward sloth, that it flattens the distinctions between the sacred and the secular, between the public and the private, between privatization and politicization, and that it charges even the most menial tasks with the splendor of the ordinary.

A particularly interesting discussion in the book is Guinness point that our commitment to corporate calling means that we must honor the purpose of the church in all our individual callings as well. One way we fail at this – Guinness argues – is through the error of ‘particularism’, that is:

“the idea that there is only one particular Christian way to do a thing and, of course, that our way is ‘the Christian way. The fallacy of particularism stems from the fact that God has not spoken definitively to us about everything…. It is an error for Christians to make relative what God has made absolute. But it is equally an error for Christians to make absolute what God has left relative. As G.K. Chesterton once wrote, ‘If there is one thing worse than the modern weakening of major morals it is the modern strengthening of minor morals.’…

This point means that there is not one Christian form of politics any more than there is one Christian form of poetry, raising a family, running an economy, or planning a retirement. Many was are definitely not Christian, but no one way alone is.”-103

All in all, this is a thoroughly enjoyable read and a fairly good introduction to a more biblical notion of calling and vocation, one which avoids both the error of identifying calling with clergy and that of equating calling with occupation.

The text is inspiring and pleasant to read, if for no other reason than that Guinness loves to quote Chesterton, and more Chesterton is always a good thing.


Memorable Quotes:

“To think that it is ‘better to travel hopefully than to arrive’ is to forget that hopeful travel is travel that hopes to reach a goal or destination. Self-condemned to travel with no prospect of arriving anywhere is the modern thinker’s equivalent of the curse of the ‘flying Dutchman,’ condemned to perpetual wandering.”-11

“The legitimacy of the desire depends on the legitimacy of the object desired.”-13

“[T]here is not a single instance in the New Testament of God’s special call to anyone into a paid occupation or into the role of a religious professional.”-50

“Heroism, it is often said, has fallen on hard times in the modern world… One [reason] is the modern habit of debunking… As modern people, we look straightway for not for the golden aura but for the feet of clay, not for the stirring example but for the cynical motive, not for the ideal embodied but for the energetic press agent.”-82

“Modern responsibility, contradicting its origins, is all ‘responsibility for’ and no ‘responsibility to… But when we are called to be responsible for too much and responsible to no one, then responsibility itself collapses'”-91

“The rise of voluntary associations shifted the emphasis of moral agency in public life from local churches as institutions to individual Christians acting as individuals in public life – in association.”-100

“Clearly there is a direct link between the profession of faith, the practice of faith, and the plausibility of faith. Practice what you preach and you commend your faith; don’t and you contradict it.”-108

“[C]alling reminds us that, recognizing all the different stages people are at, there are many more who are followers of Jesus and on the Way than we realize. To forget this and insist that everyone be as we are, at the same stage and with the same stories as ours, is to be a Christian Pharisee.”-113

“When Jesus calls, he calls us one by one. Comparisons are idle, speculations about others a waste of time, and envy as silly as it is evil. We are each called individually, accountable to God alone, to please him alone, and eventually to be approved by him alone. If ever we are tempted to look around, compare notes, and use the progress of others to judge the success of our own calling, we will hear what Peter heard: ‘What is that to you? Follow me!'”-133

“Equally ironically, we eventually cannot afford what we most desire – deep relationships. For if ‘time is money’ and people take time, then the ‘opportunity costs’ of relationships will be prohibitive and intimate friendships will be few. ‘Spending’ time with friends is costly; we could ‘invest’ it better elsewhere.”-141

“[N]othing in the modern church is more anti-Christian than those Christians and Christian leaders in public life who play the politics of resentment and pass their followers off as ‘a small, persecuted minority’ when they are not… Suddenly such Christians have gone from portraying themselves as ‘the sleeping giant’ of public life to ‘the poor little whipping boy’ of hostile secular forces arrayed against them.”-222


Specific Criticisms

While I did thoroughly enjoy this book, it is not perfect.

My biggest issue with Guinness’ work is a waffling in the way he employs his ideas and his terminology. In this case, while Guinness makes a distinction between the primary call (to salvation and following Christ) and secondary call (toward serving God and one another in particular ways), I find that Guinness tends lack consistency in the way he describes this secondary calling.

Thus on the one hand towards the beginning of the book Guinness describes this secondary calling being “called to homemaking or to the practice of law or to art history” (p31) and uses our gifting as a means of discerning this calling (pointing out that we all might not be able to get a job that lines up with our calling). This implies that our secondary calling is a specific thing that we do. Yet on the other hand, Guinness pushes back against an identification of calling and occupation in reference to the ‘Protestant distortion’, and again at the end of the book pointing out how our vocation cannot be too intertwined with our occupation such that “calling should not only precede career but outlast it too” (p243). 

That we shouldn’t confuse primary and secondary calling is straightforward enough, but Guinness also seems to be both advocating for and objecting to the notion of secondary calling being identified with occupation. He states that our secondary calling is the specific occupation we are called to do, but then also states that we shouldn’t identify it with our occupation. Perhaps this could be remedied by an appeal to the idea that we can have multiple or successive secondary callings, but that’s not what he says.

With this contradiction in his thought the question might be asked why Guinness bothers with specific secondary callings at all. As he himself points out, [T]here is not a single instance in the New Testament of God’s special call to anyone into a paid occupation or into the role of a religious professional” (p50).

Unfortunately Guinness never follows through with this thought. If the New Testament never uses the term that way, then why use the word that way?!

In my opinion, it would be more consistent to identify our primary calling as the call to salvation in following Christ – as Guinness does – and to identify our secondary calling as doing everything we do for the glory of God and in service to him (with emphatically no specifics to it). This secondary calling emphatically cannot be identified with any one thing. It is not something we discern based on our gifts, it is not anything specific at all.

It would be more consistent to identify our secondary calling as expressing itself in whatever we do without the need to appeal to anything specific.

This is why both the Protestant distortion and Catholic distortion are wrong. The Catholic distortion is wrong because it defines vocation as something specific that is done and then limits that specific thing to the ministry of the clergy. The Protestant distortion is wrong not merely because it prioritizes secondary calling over primary calling, but because it keeps the specificity at all.

The reason vocation can’t be confined to the clergy is because vocation is expressed in whatever you do, without qualification. It doesn’t matter what you do, if you’re doing it to the glory of God and in service to him and others, then you’re fulfilling your vocation. This is why vocation outlives any career, because as long as you’re still doing things, any things, then you are still living out your vocation. Occupation, then, is merely one expression of vocation, one area where we live out our calling.

This, then, is my primary issue with Guinness’ idea of calling; namely, that he waffles with his ideas such as to produce contradictions and ambiguity, and that he vaguely limits vocation to something that we do rather than how we do anything and everything.

For a more biblical approach to calling, check out Kevin DeYoung‘s book Just Do Something.



A member of the Society of Christian Philosophers and the American Chesterton Society. Ordained PCA. MDiv.

May or may not be a Time Lord.


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