Unworthy Servants

February 16, 2009

Christians have long wrestled with the relationship between our deeds and our salvation. Do our deeds save us? Or does salvation cause us to do good deeds? Can we be saved without the deeds? Do our actions have any bearing, either good or bad, on whether we will be saved?

These questions are as old as Christianity itself. Paul wrote extensively about these issues in Romans and Galatians. James addressed them in chapter two of his letter. Fifteen hundred years later, Martin Luther and John Calvin took issue with the Catholic church over related questions. Today, Christian theology is divided into Calvinist and Arminian / Wesleyan camps over these very matters.

Jesus taught a short parable in Luke 17 that sheds light on the question:

Luk 17:7 “Suppose one of you had a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Would he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, ‘Come along now and sit down to eat’?
Luk 17:8 Would he not rather say, ‘Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink’?
Luk 17:9 Would he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do?
Luk 17:10 So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’ “

Jesus used a familiar metaphor to describe how a servant of God should view himself and his service. The servant was expected to perform certain duties in the field, then to prepare his master’s supper, and to wait until his master was finished before he could begin his own supper.

The servant in Jesus’ parable had to do some things. Before, during, and after doing all those things, he was still his master’s servant. He could not eat his own supper until after he had done what was expected. Fulfilling his duties did not earn him any special rights.

Jesus taught that, after doing everything, we should say “We are unworthy servants.” Americans often have a hard time embracing the “unworthy” part. From childhood we’ve been stroked and encouraged to view ourselves as very “worthy.” We expect to be compensated for our efforts. We have our rights. But a servant does not have rights. God does not owe us a single thing for our service. It is impossible for a mortal to make God indebted to him or her.

Instead, we owe God. God created us, and God owns us. We owe God a perfect, sinless life from beginning to end. We owe Him a life in which we complete every task God has given us to do. We have already blown it. If we were to live a perfect life from today onward, there would be no surplus goodness in that with which to pay off our past debt. Nothing we do can make up for our failures. We can never even begin to pay off our debt.

Salvation is a gift of God, given on his terms. We cannot earn it. But there are terms, and those terms include service. Our deeds of service are not optional! The irony is that God chooses to reward our service (Matt 25:21,23). But remember also, God will not reward us if we refuse to serve (Matt 25:24-30).

The message of Jesus’ parable is that we should remember who we are. We are servants, not employees. We have no rights. We are expected to serve.

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