The Discipline of Serving
Thus far this year in Tabletalk, I have focused on the gospel and the personal spiritual disciplines of the Christian life. the discipline of serving comes next, and I know Most other disciplines sound much more interesting. Meditation on Scripture appeals to our desire for spiritual depth. Fasting can strike us as a challenge to a rugged, self-denying discipleship. But serving? It sounds so mundane, even demeaning.
Enter Jesus and the gospel. Jesus declared, “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28). God works through the gospel of Jesus in part to make people like Jesus. As Jesus came not to be served but instead had the heart of a servant, so those who believe the gospel of Jesus are given Christlike hearts of servants.
The gospel of Jesus Christ transforms enemies of God into servants of God. The Holy Spirit still works through the gospel to turn those who serve their idols (such as wealth, career, sports, sex, house, land, and so on) into servants of God, just as He did in the apostle Paul’s day, when the missionary wrote to some relatively new Christians: “You turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God” (1 Thess. 1:9).
One way the gospel turns sinners into servants is by humbling their pride. Through the gospel, people see that God is holy and that each of us deserves His wrath for breaking His law an infinite number of times. The gospel shows us what Christ did for sinners and how blessed we are to be received into His kingdom and family. As a result of understanding this incomparable message and experiencing God through it, people willingly serve Him and His gospel.
So one of the clearest indications that a person has believed the gospel of Jesus is that his selfish desire to be served begins to be overcome by a Christlike desire to serve. He starts looking for ways to do something for Christ’s church, especially in ways that will serve the gospel.
The transformation in a person’s nature that God effects through the gospel also turns selfish people — interested only in serving themselves and being served by others — into people who, in the words of the apostle Peter, want to “serve one another” (1 Peter 4:10). The gospel opens believers’ eyes to see needs they never saw before and changes their hearts to have a new compassion and willingness to meet those needs.
As the Holy Spirit permeates people’s character with the effects of the gospel, they increasingly develop a mindset of serving in every part of life. They begin to consider their daily occupation in terms of how useful it should be in the service of others instead of simply how it enlarges their wealth or reputation. They give more thought to serving the members of their families. They want to know that their churches are stronger because of their service.
It has been said that everyone wants to be a servant, but no one wants to be treated like one. Through the gospel, however, the Spirit of Christ enables believers to endure ill treatment and to continue serving, because ultimately they serve others not for human recognition but out of love for God and a desire to glorify Him with their service.
Serving is one of those practices — perhaps like giving — that we intend to do but which, without discipline and intentionality, we do much less than we propose. Because service is often “work” (see Eph. 4:12), our flesh remains prone to avoiding it even after we embrace the gospel.
The gospel change in a believer’s heart is instant, but not complete. Although our souls are redeemed and our sins forgiven, the final change — in which even the presence of sin is removed — doesn’t occur until we see the Lord (1 John 3:2–3). Until then, the development of a servant’s heart, which was created by grace, must be cultivated by Spirit-filled discipline lest our growth in grace become stunted.
Before concluding, let’s be reminded that serving God or His people is not a substitute for knowing and believing the gospel. While it’s true that Jesus is our great example of servanthood, He did not come to earth, live, and die just to teach us to be more servanthearted. No one makes himself or herself acceptable to God by trying to emulate Jesus’ example of service. No one can serve so much or so well as to be sufficiently righteous before God. We must understand and believe the gospel of God to be right with God.
Has the gospel you believed given you a servant’s heart? Is your service rooted in the gospel?