LUKE 17:10.—“When ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which it was our duty to do.”
IN this direction which our Lord gave his apostles, he announced a truth that is exceedingly comprehensive and far-reaching. It involves the whole subject of human agency as related to the Divine. It throws a flood of light upon the question whether a creature can perform good works in his own strength, and thereby bring God under obligation to him. Though a simple and unmetaphysical proposition, though so plain that a little child can understand it, this instruction of Christ to his disciples contains the key to the whole subject of human merit. It is the passage of Scripture which, perhaps more than any other, settles the dispute between the Protestant and the Papist; between the advocate of grace and the advocate of works.
Our Lord takes the ground that there can be no merit, in the absolute meaning of the word, in the creature before the Creator. No man can perform a service in such an independent, unassisted style and manner, as to make God his debtor. “Which of you,” he says, “having a servant ploughing, or feeding cattle, will say unto him immediately, when he is come from the field, Go and sit down to meat? and will not rather say unto him, Make ready wherewith I may sup, and gird thyself, and serve me, till I have eaten and drunken: and afterward thou shalt eat and drink. Doth he thank that servant because he did the things that were commanded him? I think not. So likewise ye, when ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done [only] that which was our duty to do.” The force of this illustration will not be completely felt, unless we call to mind the relation which an Oriental servant sustained to an Oriental master.
In this Western world, where democratic ideas prevail, and the extremes of human society are brought upon a level, it would not be regarded as singular, if a servant, in return for his service, should be addressed with the courteous phrase: “I thank you.” But in that despotic Oriental world, where distinctions were carefully kept up, and the relation of the servant to the master had been established from time immemorial, and no one thought of disputing it or of overleaping it, it would have seemed singular had the master expressed his thanks for services which, according to the whole theory and structure of Eastern society, were rigorously due from the inferior to the superior; and still more, if he had proposed to exchange places with his servant, girding himself in servile apparel, and waiting upon him at table. Our Lord spoke to Orientals, and all his illustrations, nay, even his cast of thought and modes of speech, issued from the Oriental intuition; and in order, therefore, to receive their full impression, we must divest ourselves of many of our Occidental ideas, and merge our individuality in that of the morning-land.
The servant is an absolute debtor to his master, and his master owes him nothing for his service. This is the theory of Oriental society and civilization. The creature is an absolute debtor to his Creator, and his Creator comes under no obligations to him by anything that he can do. This is the theory of morals and of merit, for the Orient and the Occident; for the angels in heaven and the devils in hell; for the whole rational universe of God. We find it woven into the whole warp and woof of Revelation.
In the very twilight of the Patriarchal Church, we hear Eliphaz the Temanite asking: “Can a man be profitable unto God, as he that is wise may be profitable unto himself? Is it any pleasure to the Almighty [any addition to his infinite blessedness], that thou art righteous? or is it gain to him that thou makest thy ways perfect?” (Job 22:2, 3).
Elihu repeats the thought in the inquiry: “If thou be righteous, what givest thou him? or what receiveth he of thine hand? Thy wickedness may hurt a man as thou art; and thy righteousness may profit the son of man” (Job 35:7, 8).
The Psalmist, bringing to mind the independence and infinitude of God, feelingly says in reference to his own graces and virtues: “My goodness extendeth not to thee, but to the saints that are in the earth, and to the excellent in whom is all my delight” (Ps. 16:2, 3).
St. Paul flings out his voice in that confident and challenging tone which accompanies the perception of indisputable truth, and asks: “Who hath first given to God, that it should be recompensed unto him again? For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things” (Rom. 11:35, 36). And with reference to the preaching of the gospel itself, and the long train of trials, and sorrows, and sufferings which it brought with it—even with reference to that wonderful self-dedication which St. Paul made of all that he had and all that he was, that whole burnt-offering of body, soul, and spirit, which he offered upon the altar of God—he says: “For though I preach the gospel, I have nothing to glory of: for necessity is laid upon me; yea, woe is unto me if I preach not the gospel” (1 Cor. 9:16).
From beginning to end, the teaching of Revelation is, that when the creature has done his whole duty perfectly and without a single slip or failure, if he boast, it must not be in the presence of God. Before creatures, and in reference to creatures, such a perfection might challenge admiration and lay under bonds; but not before the Great God and in reference to the Supreme Being. “If Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God” (Rom. 4:2).
We propose to mention the grounds and reasons of this. Why must every man, when he has done all those things which are commanded him, say, in reference to God, “I am an unprofitable servant; I have only done that which it was my duty to do?”
I. In the first place, he must so say, and so feel, because he is a created being.
If a man originated himself, sustained himself in existence, arranged and controlled all his circumstances, and then by his own independent power should perfectly obey the moral law, he would perform a service for which he could demand from God a suitable compensation. Having out of his own resources, and without any assistance from the Supreme Being, rendered unto him a perfect character and a perfect life, he would bring the Supreme Being under obligations corresponding to the worth and worthiness of such a character and such a life. In this case, man and God would stand in the same relation to each other that any two creatures do; and whatever one of the parties should do in accordance with the wish or will of the other, would be a “profitable” service, and would bring the other under bonds to him.
If one man, for example, complies with the desire of another man, and performs the service which he requests, the latter is a “profitable” servant to the former, and the former must “thank” the latter for it, and must render him an equivalent, unless he is willing to be under continual obligation to him. And this for the reason that men in relation to one another are independent agents. If I perform a service for a fellow creature, he is not upholding me in existence, ordering and controlling all my circumstances, and rendering me a continual assistance at the very time that I am at work for him. He had nothing to do with my origin, my continued existence, and the conditions under which I live and act. In relation to him, I am an independent agent; and therefore what I do for him I do of myself, and what I give to him I give out of my own resources; and therefore I am a “profitable” servant to him, and he must “thank” me for what I have done, and for what I have given.
But this is not the state of the case between man and God. He made us, and not we ourselves. We do not sufficiently consider what is implied in the stupendous fact of creation from nothing; and how utterly dependent a creature must be from the nature of the case. When an artisan manufactures a product of skill, say a watch or a plough, we call it his, because he fashioned the materials and put them together. A watch is very dependent upon its maker; and we cannot conceive of its bringing the watchmaker under obligations, or in any manner becoming a “profitable” servant to him deserving of thanks. But God does not merely fashion materials and put them together, in the act of creation. He calls the very elements themselves into being from nonentity. He originates the creature from nothing, by a miracle of omnipotence. How then can a creature bring the Creator under obligations? How can he from an absolutely independent position reach out to God a product, or a service, that merits the thanks of the Almighty? The very hand by which he reaches out the gift is the creation of the Being to whom the gift is offered. The very soul and body that stands up before God and proposes to bestow upon him a gift, is itself the pure make of God’s sheer fiat. Its very being is due to his omnipotent power.
The prophet Isaiah asks: “Shall the axe boast itself against him that heweth therewith? or shall the saw magnify itself against him that shaketh it? as if the rod should shake itself against them that lift it up, or as if the staff should lift itself, as if it were no wood” (Is. 10:15). Mere dead matter cannot exert any living functions. The saw cannot saw the sawyer. The axe cannot chop the chopper. They are lifeless instruments in a living hand, and must move as they are moved. It is impossible that by any independent agency of their own they should act upon man, and make him the passive subject of their operations.
But it is yet more impossible for a creature to establish himself upon an independent position in reference to the Creator. Every atom and element in his body and soul is originated, and kept in being, by the steady exertion of his Maker’s power. If this were relaxed for an instant, he would cease to be. Nothing, therefore, can be more helpless and dependent than a creature; and no relation so throws a man upon the bare power and support of God as the creaturely relation. A miracle might endow the saw with a power to saw the sawyer; and the axe with a power to cut the cutter. But no miracle could render the creature self-existent and self-sustaining, so that he could give to God something strictly from and of himself; something which he had not received; something whereby he could be “profitable” to God and merit his thanks.
II. In the second place, man cannot make himself “profitable” unto God, and lay him under obligation, because he is constantly sustained and upheld by God.
“O Lord,” says the Psalmist, “how manifold are thy works! in wisdom hast thou made them all: the earth is full of thy glory. So is this great and wide sea wherein are things creeping innumerable, both small and great beasts. These wait all upon thee, that thou mayest give them their meat in due season. That thou givest them, they gather; thou openest thine hand, they are filled with good. Thou hidest thy face, they are troubled; thou takest away their breath, they die and return to their dust. Thou sendest forth thy spirit, they are created; and thou renewest the face of the earth” (Ps. 104:24–30). This is an accurate and beautiful description of the great process that is continually going on in the universe of God. Creation, preservation, and, when it pleases Him, destruction—these are the functions which the Supreme Ruler is unceasingly exerting in his boundless kingdom.
The same power that calls the creature into existence from nothing is employed in keeping him in existence. It requires omnipotence to preserve the creature and provide for his constant wants, as much as it requires omnipotence to speak it into being in the outset; and some theologians have therefore defined preservation to be a constant creation. The divine energy that produced that leviathan which swims the ocean stream must be perpetually exerted, in order that he may not fall back into the abyss of non-entity from which he came. Wherever that sea-monster goes; whether he rushes league after league through the waters of the Atlantic or Pacific; whether he is skimming the seas in pursuit of his food, or whether like Milton’s Satan he lies “prone on the flood, extended long and large, floating many a rood”—in every inch of space, and at every point of time, he is upheld by creative power. And so it is with the billions of billions of creatures of all ranks and sizes, that crowd the material universe. Each and every one of them is just as truly supported as if a material hand were placed beneath it, and we could see the exertion of the upholding force. “The young lions roar after their prey, and seek their meat from God.”
This is true of man. He goeth forth unto his work, and to his labor until the evening. But wherever he goes, and whatever he does, he stands, in Banquo’s phrase, in the great hand of God. He draws every breath by a Divine volition; he takes every step by a Divine permission; he lives, moves, and has his being in his Creator. What an impression would this truth make upon us, did we but comprehend its significance and realize it. Should we see a superhuman hand suddenly reach down from the sky, and pick up a sinking sailor in the middle of the ocean from the engulfing billows, or snatch a little infant from the sea of flame in a great conflagration, we should believe that neither of them saved himself, but that God saved him. We should understand what is meant by preservation by the hand and power of the Almighty. We could not refer it to a law of nature, nor to the operation of chance. By the supposition, we saw the very hand that grasped the sinking sailor, or the burning infant, and no reasoning whatever could deaden the impression which that miraculous occurrence would make upon our minds.
Now, similar ought to be the impression made by the whole daily course of Divine Providence. Though constant and unceasing; though new every morning, fresh every evening, and repeated every moment; noiseless as the light, and ever-present as the atmosphere; yet if man were what he should be, he would be unceasingly conscious of God’s supporting presence and power. He would not, as he now does, place something between God and his works so that God cannot be seen. He would not refer his own health, strength, wealth, poverty, sickness, weakness, happiness, sorrow, to the operation of merely natural causes, but ultimately to the direct will and power of his Maker. He would say and feel that when God sends forth his spirit, creatures are created; and that when he taketh away their breath, they die and return to their dust. This is the Biblical view of Divine Providence.
In the Bible everything is very close to God. Not only the miracle, but the ordinary occurrences and operations of nature are referred immediately to him. God thunders in the heavens. God lightens along the sky. “The voice of the Lord is upon the waters: the God of glory thundereth; the Lord is upon many waters. The voice of the Lord is powerful; the voice of the Lord is full of majesty. The voice of the Lord breaketh the cedars” (Ps. 29:3–5). This is the inspired description of an ordinary thunderstorm. And it is the truest statement that can be made. For if the man of science tells me that the lightning and the thunder are the result of electricty, I must complete his statement by telling him that electricty itself is a creation of God. If he tells me that two clouds, each charged with its own positive or negative electricity, when meeting together produce the detonation that shakes the heavens and the earth, I must add to his explanation the still further statement, that these two clouds, and everything in or about them, are formed, and are made to sail together, by God’s will. By everything in this thunderstorm, we are causally and ultimately carried back to the Divine decision. For why should the two clouds meet together just at this particular moment, and not a half hour later? Because of the will of Him who “maketh a decree for the rain, and a way for the lightning of the thunder” (Job. 28:26). Why at any spot in the greensward do just so many spires of grass shoot up—no more and no fewer? Because of the will of Him who numbers the hairs of the human head, and makes one hair black and another white.
This, we say, is the doctrine of the Bible concerning the preserving and sustaining providence of God. According to the Scriptures, no being is so close to man, and so close to nature, as the Author of man, and the Author of nature. One man may come very near to his fellow man. He may hear his words, feel his breath, touch his hand. But God is nearer to him than this. Every man is very close to himself. There are thoughts and emotions which no creature knows but himself. But the Searcher of the heart is closer to him than this. The forces of nature are very near to the objects of the natural world. The principle of vegetable life is inside of the tree and the flower; the principle of gravitation operates within the mass of rock or the planetary orb. Nothing, it would seem, could be nearer to nature than the life of nature. But God is nearer than this; because he is the maker and upholder of these very invisible principles, and this very indwelling life itself.
Returning now to the course of our argument, we say that the fact that man is so utterly and wholly dependent upon the immediate presence and unceasing support of God, renders it impossible that he should ever bring God under bonds to him, and merit his thanks, by anything that he can do. He is a receiver at every point, and at every instant. He cannot give out a thing that has not first come into him. “What hast thou,” says St. Paul, “that thou hast not received?”
There is therefore no starting point in the attempt of man to be a “profitable” servant unto God, and to merit his thanks. He cannot take the first step. Before he can make a beginning, he must get outside of the providence of God; he must take his stand upon some position where he is no longer preserved and upheld by his Creator. So long as he occupies his present position, and all his powers and faculties are maintained in existence and operation by the power of God, so long he owes to God all that he is, and all that he can do; and, therefore, when he has done all things that are commanded him, there must not be the faintest rising of pride in his heart, and he must say, “I am an unprofitable servant, I have done [only] that which it was my duty to do.”
III. In the third place, man cannot be “profitable” to God, and merit his thanks, because all his good works depend upon the operation and assistance of the Holy Spirit. Our Lord’s doctrine of human merit is cognate with the doctrine of Divine grace.
Says the prophet Isaiah: “Lord, thou wilt ordain peace for us: for thou also hast wrought all our works in us” (Isaiah 26:12). The original Hebrew here does not permit us to affirm that the prophet spake these words primarily with reference to spiritual exercises. He had in view providential dispensations; the protection which God had granted his people in the days that were past, and which was a pledge of favor in the future. At the same time, however, these words are applicable to the inward agency of God in the human soul, and they have been so generally applied to this agency, that probably this is the reference that comes first into the mind of the mass of readers. This text is understood to teach the same that St. Paul teaches, when he says that it is “God that worketh in us to will and to do.”
Now, we find in the fact that all good works are the product of the Holy Spirit in the human heart, a strong reason why the renewed man, though a faithful servant, is not a “profitable” one. It is because God works all our good works in us, that after we have done all things which are commanded us, we must say: “We are unprofitable servants; we have by God’s grace done that which it was our duty to do.”
When a man does wrong, he receives no assistance from God. A wicked person cannot say, “By the grace of God I am what I am.” A sinful man cannot adopt Paul’s words and affirm, “I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me.” Sin in all its forms, be it original or actual, be it the inclination of the heart or the single act, is not the product of God “working” in the creature “to will and to do.” On the contrary, it is a self-willed and hostile action on the part of man. When you think an evil thought, you may be certain that your Maker did not inspire it in your mind. When your heart swells with pride, malice or envy, you may know infallibly that God did not infuse it into your heart. When your will is determined to selfish and disobedient purposes, it is impossible that the Holy Ghost should have impulsed such a purpose. No sinful creature can look into the face of his Creator and say with Isaiah, “O Lord, thou hast wrought all our works in us.”
Sin is differentiated from holiness by this, among other modes, that it is purely the work of man. God is not the author of sin. It is true that the sinner is created and upheld by God, as entirely as is the saint. In respect to the great functions of creation and providence, all mankind, the good and the bad, stand upon the same level, and there is no difference among them. But when we pass to the use and operation of these created powers and faculties, we discover a heaven-wide difference. Some men lean upon God, ask for his inward presence and assistance, and in reliance upon his grace, think their thoughts, form their purposes, and perform their actions. They work good works, because their deeds, in our Savior’s phrase, “are wrought in God.” But other men, and at present they are the majority, think their own thoughts, form their own selfish and independent purposes, and perform corresponding outward actions, with no reliance upon God’s assistance, and no prayer for his indwelling presence. And all such thoughts, purposes, and actions are evil.
You cannot define sin any better than to say that it is the creature’s sole work; the creature’s self-will. It is a species of moral agency that is not exercised in humble dependence upon God, but in opposition to him. It is an attempt to be wholly independent of the Almighty. The sinner works his own wicked works without any influence, impulse, or assistance from his holy Maker. It is true, that in the very act of sinning, God sustains in existence the faculties themselves—the very mind, the very heart, the very will by which the sinner sins—but he does not prompt the wicked thought in the mind; he does not produce the wicked feeling in the heart; he does not inspire the wicked purpose in the will. The faculty by which a man sins is created and every instant upheld by the Creator, but the sinning itself is the work of the faculty itself. Hence, sin cannot be charged upon God. We cannot impute our transgressions to him.
But it is not so with holiness. When we pass over to this side, and consider the relation which God sustains to righteousness, we find that he is not only the creator and preserver of our powers and faculties, but he also influences, prompts, inspires, and actuates them. He does not merely create a human will and maintain it in existence, and then leave it to itself to work out righteousness. He does not dismiss his people to their own independent and unassisted efforts. He well knows how weak and mutable the strongest human will is in reference to holiness; how liable it is to fall, even under the most favorable circumstances, as Adam fell in paradise; and how constantly it needs his almighty power, his eternal and self-subsistent goodness, to rest upon. And therefore it is, that while the shame and guilt of sin must be referred to the creature always and alone, the glory and honor of holiness must be referred to the Creator always and alone. When I have done wrong, I must say: “I am the guilty author of this sin; to me, and to me only, does the guilt and condemnation attach.” But when I have done right, I spontaneously cry: “O Lord, thou hast wrought all my good works in me; the glory and the honor of this righteousness belongeth unto thee. Not unto man, not unto the creature, do I give the glory.”
Now, is it not plain that if these representations are correct; if this is the relation which all holiness in the creature sustains to the Creator; if God really does work in every good man or good angel to will and to do; that man or that angel cannot bring God under obligations to him by any or all of his righteousness? The same principle of reasoning applies here that applies in the case of creation and providence. Create yourself and sustain yourself, and then do something which God requires, and you become a “profitable” servant. Perform a single good act without any assistance from God; think a single holy thought, feel a single holy emotion, without any influence or impulse from the Holy Comforter; and then you may demand a reward from your Sovereign upon the principle of abstract right. But so long as you are what you are, by the grace of God; so long as he enables you to keep his commandments; say unto him from the depths of a humble and a filial heart: “I am an unprofitable servant. I have done that which it was my duty to do; but I have done it in thy strength, and by thy gracious assistance.”
The subject is fertile in inferences and practical conclusions, and to some of these we now devote the remainder of the discourse.
1. In the first place, we see in the light of our Lord’s theory of human merit, why it is impossible for a creature to make atonement for sin.
There are only two classes of actions possible to man. He must either do right or do wrong. That the performance of sinful works will atone for sin, has never entered the head of the wildest visionary that ever rejected the evangelical method of forgiveness, and invented a theory for himself. No, men propose to satisfy Divine justice for the sins that are past, by good works. They have done wrong, and they would set themselves right with their reproaching consciences, and their holy Sovereign, by henceforth doing right. In this very attempt, so natural and spontaneous to man, we find an evidence of the rationality of the doctrine of atonement. The fact that a transgressor feels himself bound to do something to make amends for having heretofore done nothing, or for having done wrong, is proof that the idea of satisfying for sin is not so foreign and alien to the human reason as some theorists assert.
But the good works of a creature cannot be an atonement, because they are not his own independent and self-sustained agency. If God works these holy works in my soul, how can I offer them to him as a satisfaction to his justice for my sin in the past? How can I take money out of the purse of my creditor, to pay my debt to him? An atonement, from the nature of the case, must be an original and self-sufficient performance. Whoever makes one, must be able to furnish entirely from himself, and wholly out of his own resources, a full equivalent for the penalty that is due to sin. He must be a “profitable” servant, in reference to the great Divine attribute of justice. Little does that man understand the nature of an atonement, who supposes that he himself can make it. None but a Divine Being—a Being of creative energy, and self-subsistent position—can reach out to the eternal nemesis of God, a good work that is purely his own, because performed by an independent and self-sustaining power.
But, returning to the good works of the creature, let us see beyond all dispute that they cannot discharge the office of a satisfaction, and make him “perfect in things pertaining to conscience.” We have observed that every good work in man or angel, is the effect of a Divine influence and impulse. Take the instance of an imperfectly-sanctified man, and see what you find. He puts up to God a prayer that is earnest and sincere, though mixed with sin—sinful unbelief, and sinful references to self. What of good there is in this “good work,” as it is denominated, is due to the influence of the Holy Spirit. The warmth, the fervor, the importunity, and the spirituality in this exercise, are all owing—and the praying person is the first to say so—to the gracious impulses and promptings of God in the soul.
Now, supposing that there were the inclination to do so, how could this prayer be employed as an offset for any past imperfection or sin of the soul? It is God’s work in the Christian heart; how, then, can the creature arrogate it as his own, and claim to be a “profitable” servant thereby, and bring the everlasting justice of God under bonds to him by it? And so it is with every service or work of man, that is worthy of the epithet “good.” All this portion of human agency is rooted and grounded in the Divine agency, in the most thorough manner conceivable. It is dependent not only by reason of creation and preservation, but of direct and immediate influence.
The powers and faculties of a Christian are not only originated and upheld by their Creator, but they are directed, actuated, and assisted by Him, at every instant, and in every experience and action. Never, therefore, was there a greater contradiction and absurdity than that involved in the theory of justification by good works. If the good works were absolutely perfect works, and were performed by the creature by his own independent and unassisted agency, there might be some color of reason for the theory. But the good works are not perfect. The best of men confess that their best experiences are mixed with remaining corruption; that they never did a single deed which they dare to say was absolutely sinless; and that, more than all, what of goodness there is in these imperfectly sanctified souls and lives is due wholly to the energy and grace of God. And therefore it is, that they never adopt the theory of justification by works. They are, indeed, liable to this legality and self-righteousness; and they hate it, and struggle against it. But they never make it a dogma, and insert it in their theological system.
Now, surely, the natural man is not better than they. The sinful secular world, to say the very least, is no better qualified to furnish its own atonement than is the Christian Church. The doctrine of justification by good works will no more prove a solid foundation, in the day of adjudication, for the worlding or the moralist, than for the self-denying and struggling Christian. If the disciple of Christ did not create and sustain himself, and cannot perform good works in his own strength, neither did the man of the world create himself, or sustain himself; and neither can he perform good works without the same inward grace and assistance. All men, without exception, are shut up to the atonement of the God-man, if any atonement for sin is to be made and accepted.
There is no other being but the Eternal Son of God who can stand up, having life in himself, having power to lay down his life and power to take it again, and from this self-existent and self-sustaining position can reach out to the triune Godhead an oblation for human guilt that is really and truly meritorious and cancelling. No being except one of the three Divine Persons can be “profitable” unto God. And He can. When the Son of God in human nature suffers for sin, then he strictly earns remission of sins for those who believe in him; he absolutely merits the acquittal at the bar of justice of all guilty sinners who trust in his sacrifice.
When the elders of the Jews came to Jesus beseeching him that he would come and heal the servant of a certain centurion, they added “that he was worthy for whose sake he should do this, for he loveth our nation, and hath built us a synagogue.” This Roman officer had brought the Jewish people under obligations to him, by the favor which he had extended to them from his purely independent position as a Roman citizen, and an agent of the Roman emperor. As a Roman, he was under no obligation to build a Jewish synagogue.
Thus is it in respect to the Lord Jesus Christ, and his relations to God and man. He is an independent Being. He owes nothing to eternal justice, and sinful man, certainly, has no claims upon him. When, therefore, such a Being voluntarily takes man’s place, and suffers in his stead, and endures the full penalty which eternal justice demands, he becomes meritorious for man’s salvation; he becomes a “profitable” servant, because he has done more than it was his duty to do; he gives to the Eternal Godhead something out of his own resources which he was not obliged to give, and which is, therefore, canceling; and every guilty and lost sinner, as he comes before the bar of justice, may ask for the forgiveness of his sins and plead as a sufficient and all-prevalent reason, the argument employed by the Jewish elders: “For He is worthy for whose sake this should be done.”
2. In the second place, we see in the light of this subject why the creature, even though he be sinlessly perfect, must be humble.
Our Lord said to his disciples, “When ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, we are unprofitable servants.” Even supposing that there has been an absolute conformity to the Divine command, there must not be egotism and pride in a creature’s heart. For there has been no independent and self-supporting agency. Everything that the pure and perfect archangel does, is done in reliance and dependence upon the infinite and adorable Jehovah. And there is no humility in the universe of God deeper than that which dwells in the heart of the seraph before the throne. He possesses a virtue which, if compared with that of the holiest man that ever lived, is ethereal, sky-tempered, and able to resist the severest assaults of temptation and of Satan.
Milton represents the ruined archangel as starting back abashed, at the sight of the pure and stainless cherubs whom God had placed to guard our first parents from the wiles of their adversary. “Abashed the devil stood, and felt how awful goodness is.” These cherubim before a fellow-creature, and in relation to a fellow-creature, were indeed strong and mighty. But in relation to the infinite and eternal God, they were nothing. Their ethereal and wondrous virtue, in comparison with the ineffable and transcendent excellence of the Supreme, was vanity. “He chargeth his angels with folly.” This, these holy and blessed spirits feel; and they too, like the weakest man upon earth struggling with temptation and faint with fatigue, humbly adore that God only wise, and only good, and only mighty, “of whom, and through whom, and to whom are all things.”
But how slight is our humility, in comparison with that of these high and blessed spirits before the throne of God! Pride is continually rising in our hearts over a holiness that is exceedingly imperfect, being mixed with sin; over a holiness that from beginning to end is the product of God’s grace within our souls. How elated we sometimes are over one meagre, shrivelled excellence! If we perfectly obeyed the mandate of our Lord in the text, such an emotion as vain-glory would never be experienced by us.
Let us then ponder our Savior’s theory of creature-merit more than ever. We are “unprofitable,” servants, even if we should render a perfect obedience. If our faith in Christ’s atonement were so perfect that it should consume us with zeal for him and his cause, we should be unprofitable servants, and bring him under no obligations to us. If our dependence upon the grace of his Holy Spirit were so implicit and entire, that it should enable us to keep perfectly all his statutes and commandments, we should still be unprofitable servants. We should still be under an infinite obligation to him for his life-blood poured out for the expiation of our guilt, and for the gracious influence of the Holy Spirit by which our sanctification is effected.
But we have not done all that is commanded us. Our faith in our Redeemer is very weak and imperfect. We know comparatively little, of the virtue there is in his blood to cleanse the guilty soul, and to impart to it the calm confidence of justification before God. We know little, comparatively, of the power of the Divine Comforter to strengthen the will, to sanctify the heart, and to bring the whole soul into captivity to the obedience of Christ. Our experience of the gospel is very stinted and meagre, in comparison with the fulness, richness, and freeness of its provisions. Such servants as we, so far from being “profitable,” can with difficulty be called “faithful.” Suppose that the Master should address us with the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant,” should we not feel like saying to him, “Lord, when have we been faithful; what hast thou seen in us that renders us worthy of such an address?”
3. And this leads to a third and final inference from the subject, namely, that God does not require man to be a “profitable” servant, but to be a faithful servant.
In the last great day, Christ will say to his true disciples, “Well done, good and faithful servant, enter thou into the joy of thy Lord.” God does not demand from his creatures a service that must be rendered from an independent position, that must be performed by a self-subsistent power, and that will bring him under obligation to the person so rendering it. Everywhere his command to the creature is: “Be strong in the Lord, and the power of his might. Trust in the Lord, and do good. Work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God that worketh in you both to will and to do. He that trusteth in his own heart is a fool. Cursed is the man that trusteth in man, and maketh flesh his arm.”
Such injunctions and declarations as these imply that man must serve God by leaning upon him; and that he must give back to God that which God has first given to him. The servants, in the parable, did not first create the five talents, or the ten talents, independently of their lord, and then make them over to him. He gave them the talents, and required simply a right use and improvement of them. Thus is it, in a still higher sense, in reference to man and his Maker. Not only are the talents created and bestowed, but, as we have seen, the very inclination and ability to make a right employment of them issues from the same boundless source. “We are not sufficient of ourselves to think anything as of ourselves; all our sufficiency is of God.”
It is, therefore, a true and proper supplication that Augustine puts up, when he says to God: “Give what thou commandest, and command what thou wilt.” This corresponds with the Psalmist’s promise: “I will run in the way of thy commandments when thou shalt enlarge my heart.” The “faithful” servant is one who, feeling his entire dependence and helplessness, does not propose to labor in his own strength, and to proudly offer to God something from his own independent resources, but simply desires to lean upon God continually, to take hold of his strength, and thereby keep all his commandments, and glorify him in his body and spirit which are His.
And what an easy task is this. The yoke is easy, and the burden is light. Our Maker does not command us to be strong in ourselves; but to be strong in Him. He does not require us to originate our own existence, to maintain ourselves in being, to labor upon an isolated and independent position, and to give unto him something that shall add to his essential happiness and essential glory. He furnishes everything, and only requires that we be faithful in employing his gifts. We are stewards of the manifold gifts of God; and it is required of a steward, simply and only, that he be found faithful.
Are we “faithful” servants? Since we cannot be “profitable” servants, the only thing that remains for us is to employ the innumerable gifts and bounties of God with fidelity. Our time, faculties of mind and body, wealth, opportunities of influence—everything that goes to make up our personality, and everything that is connected with our existence here upon earth—the whole man, body, soul, spirit, possessions, and influence in every direction, must be conscientiously used to honor God and benefit man. This, too, in reliance upon God.
Whoever is thus faithful, will be rewarded with as great a reward as if he were an independent and self-sustaining agent. Nay, even if man could be a “profitable” servant, and could bring God under obligation to him, his happiness in receiving a recompense under such circumstances would not compare with that under the present arrangement. It would be a purely mercantile transaction between the parties. There would be no love in the service, or in the recompense. The creature would calmly, proudly, do his work, and the Creator would calmly pay him his wages. And the transaction would end there, like any other bargain. But now, there is affection between the parties—filial love on one side, and paternal love on the other; dependence, and weakness, and clinging trust, on one side, and grace, and almighty power, and infinite fulness on the other.
God rewards by promise and by covenant, and not because of an absolute and original indebtedness to the creature of his power. And the creature feels that he is what he is, because of the grace of God. There is no pride or boasting of heart, on his side. And the infinite Creator, who needs nothing, and cannot be brought under bonds by any of the works of his hands, pours out the infinite fulness of his being and his blessedness upon a creature who rejoices in the thought that all that he is, is the work of Divine providence and grace, and all that he has accomplished, is the effect of God “working in him to will and to do of his good pleasure.”
William G. T. Shedd, Sermons to the Spiritual Man, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1884), 129–152.