Getting the biblical balance right on a whole range of issues is essential if we are to live the normal Christian life. Oftentimes various unhelpful and unbiblical extremes are pushed, resulting in a lopsided, distorted and skewed Christianity.
At different times and different places there can be wild and dangerous pendulum swings that are in evidence. Christians can go off on a tangent and steer away from a sound and fully biblical course. Let me refer to one such example of this today in the Western church.
If we had to describe in a broad-brush way where much of the church is at today in terms of our understanding of who God is, and how we relate to him, it would be something like this: God is our buddy and Jesus is our pal. Me and Jesus are good mates, and God exists mainly to ensure that I am happy and having a good time.
God is more often than not seen as a benevolent grandpa in the sky who looks down on us with a big smile; never is disappointed with us; and acts as sort of our own personal heavenly butler. He exists to serve us and make sure we are having our best life now.
Lost in so much of contemporary Christianity is the biblical conception of the one true God as one who is wholly other, separate from his creation, majestic, transcendent, awe-inspiring, and the holy king of the universe, who is too pure to look upon evil and too holy to wink at sin. He is a just and holy God who must judge sin and must uphold the moral structure of the universe.
Now if this idea of God as our best buddy is an unhelpful extreme, then yes, we can take the biblical notion of God and push that to an unbiblical extreme, wherein God is a stern judge only, and not a heavenly father; where God is just waiting to pounce upon us and punish us if we are being too happy.
So the majestic and holy God I just talked about is not a celestial killjoy whose only mission in life is to keep us miserable and cringing in fear. He is both transcendent yet immanent; both stern yet gracious; both holy yet forgiving. As always, we must hold all of God’s attributes together simultaneously. All the attributes must be fully affirmed and rejoiced in.
But the rather carefree, cavalier and flippant attitude many Christians have of God certainly has to be challenged – and must be abandoned. Yes, we can call God father, and yes, we are adopted into his family, and yes, we can know the wonderful forgiveness of sins. But he remains God. He never stops being God. He never ceases to be fully holy, majestic, pure and righteous.
So we must reject any idea that Jesus is just my chum and buddy, and that I have no obligations or duties concerning him. While Jesus extended open arms of love and compassion to the lost, he never for a moment lowered his divine standards.
He never gave the impression that he was someone to just hang around with and have a good time. He expects certain things of his followers. He commands his disciples to be obedient, faithful, persevering, and loyal. And as the king of the universe he has every right to demand this of us, and to expect this of us.
I say all this in light of my daily reading, this time in Luke. In chapter 17 we find some rather stern and uncompromising words of Jesus in this regard – words we often tend to forget about or dismiss out of hand. In verses 7-10 he speaks about ‘unworthy servants’:
“Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’? Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’? Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’”
Those words certainly offer a different take on how the disciple relates to his Lord. It is not all about buddy-buddy but servant-master. Even though we are “accepted in the beloved” and called children of God, we are still the servants and he is still the master.
Yes, John 15:15 certainly can be appealed to here: “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.”
That is wonderful news indeed, but recall that just a few verses later he again puts things in perspective: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ So we need to balance verses like John 15:15 with what we find in Luke 17. Let me speak a bit more to that latter passage.
In one sense, all our obedience and dedication and devotion is simply what we expect of a servant. Indeed, the ability to serve and obey and love God is really a gift from him to begin with. So we really have no boasting rights here. We have no right to say, “Look at what a terrific disciple I am, Jesus”.
All that we do is what is expected of us – it is our duty. So we have no place to gloat and take pride in simply doing our duty, in doing what we should be doing. As Darrell Bock reminds us, “A disciple should never forget one’s position before God. Obedience does not obligate God to the disciple. God does not owe the disciple anything for faithfulness.”
But he also makes this helpful point: “The text is not describing inherent worth, but function. Slaves bring nothing ‘worthy’ to their tasks as servants, especially with regard to where they stand before God.” And the Greek term translated here as “unworthy” can also be translated “useless”.
This makes things even more clear. As James Edwards comments, “A ‘useless slave’ is an oxymoron, for the purpose of a slave was to be useful…. All true service of Christ inculcates such humility in disciples, for whatever disciples render Christ is not to their merit, but simply their duty (1 Cor. 9:16-18).”
There is no place for boasting when we merely do our duty. An arrogant attitude is what is being focused on here. We must remain humble, and not brag about how great we are in our obedience and devotion. Yes, there will one day be a heavenly reward for faithful service, but our motivation must not be about rewards, but our obligation to Christ.
We owe him big time. Yes we can never repay the debt we owe to him, and that is why salvation is all of grace. But the rest of our life as believers should be one of faithful service and cheerful obedience. We seek to serve and obey him because He is worthy.
Philip Graham Ryken nicely makes all this clear:
When it comes to our service, God never gets a positive return on his investment. He is our Creator and Redeemer in Christ; therefore he already has a right to all our allegiance. Even if we gave God perfect service, we would only be giving him what he demands and deserves; it would profit God nothing. But in fact we often fail to serve him well, so he actually gets a negative return on his investment.
Once again, it is all a matter of biblical balance. God owes us nothing, yet lavishes his love on us. God demands everything of us, yet he is merciful, patient and gracious with us, even despite our woeful, half-hearted obedience and service. In a different commentary Bock says this:
A “servant” (cf. Rom. 11) responds to God without question as a matter of duty. This text, however, should not be left by itself when it comes to the theme of service, for God does honor faithful service (see 12:37). The balance is important, because the servant needs to appreciate what his duty is, while God is clear that service well done is honored. God rewards those who serve without thought of reward.
So away with all flippancy, irreverence, and silliness when it comes to the God with whom we have to do. He is the almighty and holy creator of the universe who deserves our full obedience, love and service. But the good news is, what we cannot provide in ourselves, he graciously gifts to us, endowing us with even the ability to please and serve him.
As we simply do that which is our duty to do – cheerfully and willingly – then one day we will hear those amazing words, “Well done, good and faithful servant”.