Even if we had kept all of God’s commandments, we could do nothing of merit before Him. In this sermon, R.C. Sproul continues his series in the gospel of Luke by examining a parable that helps us better understand our good works and our absolute need for the saving merit of Christ.
We are in the seventeenth chapter of Luke, and this morning I will read Luke 17:1–10. I would ask the congregation to stand for the reading of the Word of God:
Then He said to the disciples, “It is impossible that no offenses should come, but woe to him through whom they do come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones. Take heed to yourselves. If your brother sins against you, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times in a day returns to you, saying, ‘I repent,’ you shall forgive him.”
And the apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith.”
So the Lord said, “If you have faith as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be pulled up by the roots and be planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you. And which of you, having a servant plowing or tending sheep, will say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and sit down to eat’? But will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare something for my supper, and gird yourself and serve me till I have eaten and drunk, and afterward you will eat and drink’? Does he thank that servant because he did the things that were commanded him? I think not. So likewise you, when you have done all those things which you are commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants. We have done what was our duty to do.’”
This day we have had the unspeakable privilege of hearing a word from God Himself, from the lips of His only begotten Son, whose people we are and whose bride we are. Please receive this word this morning as from your Savior. Be seated. Let us pray.
Our Father and our God, we ask You to send help, that we might come to a deeper understanding of the things revealed to us from the lips of Your Son and transferred to us through the supervision and inspiration of Your Holy Spirit, for whose presence we ask today. Through Your Word, we ask that You prepare our hearts for coming to Your table for the most intimate fellowship we enjoy with You in this lifetime. For we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Sin and Temptation
Chapter seventeen of Luke begins with a word from Christ given to His disciples, saying, “It is impossible that no offenses should come.” Some of you may have a different translation that reads, “It is impossible that no temptations should come, but woe to him through whom they do come.” Our Lord was acknowledging that in this world, until the kingdom of God is fully consummated, we still struggle with sin. We still struggle with offenses that we commit against God. We still have temptations with which we must wrestle. Jesus acknowledged to His disciples that this is the way things are.
Having acknowledged our temptations, Jesus then pronounced an oracle of doom, in which He said: “But woe to him through whom they do come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones.” Jesus made a tremendously important point when He pronounced this ghastly oracle of judgment. It is one thing, He said, for you to sin, but the judgment of God will come even greater on those who tempt others to sin.
In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he gave a list of the most egregious offenses against God at the end of the first chapter. He said that people, knowing God hates these things and will condemn those who do them, not only do them but encourage others to do them as well.
Woe to Those Who Encourage Sin
I do not know for sure, but my guess would be that there are probably one hundred churches or pastors in metropolitan Orlando who tell their people that premarital sex is part of normal puberty and growth, extramarital sex is acceptable to God, same-sex marriage has His approval, and God is not offended by abortion on demand. Many mainline churches have adopted these positions as part of their official sanctions. Woe to people who encourage others to commit such egregious sins against God. It would be better for that person if they had a millstone hung around their neck.
In mentioning a millstone, Jesus referred to the agrarian society in which the people lived. On the threshing floor, for grinding grain, there were two large circular stones on the ground, one on top of the other with a space between them. The top stone had a hole in the center where they poured the grain, and the ox would move around the stone in a circle so the larger stone would grind the grain against the bottom stone.
A human person was not able to do the task of grinding the grain using a millstone, unless it was Samson, as he was forced to do in the Old Testament to replace the work of an ox. The weight of the stone was so great that if you had it put around your neck as a collar and were thrown into the depth of the sea, you could only have one possible destiny. You would surely perish.
Forgive the Repentant
After Jesus gave this great warning, He went on to say, “At the same time, take heed if your brother sins against you.” It is not if he just simply encourages you to sin with him, but: “If your brother sins against you, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times in a day returns to you, saying, ‘I repent,’ you shall forgive him.” There is a point in this text that I do not want us to miss.
There is a widespread misconception among Christians that if somebody sins against us, we are duty-bound to give them unilateral forgiveness whether they repent or not. After all, Jesus gave us the example of forgiveness when He prayed for the forgiveness of His executioners while He hung on the cross. But the Bible does not teach that we are required before God to give automatic unilateral forgiveness to anyone who sins against us. That is why there is a structure for church discipline set forth in the New Testament.
Jesus said that if we are sinned against, we are to rebuke the person who sins against us. If they repent, then forgiveness is not an option. If a person offends us, says they are sorry, and acknowledges their sin against us, it is not only that we may forgive them; we must forgive them, no matter how difficult it may be.
Jesus went on to say that if the same person commits the same sin fifteen minutes later against you and says, “I’m sorry,” you must forgive him again. If he does it a third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh time, and he comes and repents, you cannot say to him, “No, that’s number seven, too late, you’re done.” It does not matter how many times you have been offended. If the offender repents, then we forgive, and we must stand ready to forgive at any time at a moment’s notice.
Jesus’ Strange Servant Story
Following this admonition to forgive those who repent, Jesus gave something of a strange and unexpected story in response to something the disciples said. They told Him, “To forgive seven times, Lord, we need more faith than we have, so please increase our faith.”
Jesus said: “You do not need a lot of faith to forgive. If you had the faith of the grain of a mustard seed, you could talk to a mulberry tree, pluck it up out of the ground, and plant it in the ocean.” I do not know too many of us who can actually do that, but Jesus was saying, it does not take a world of faith to forgive somebody who sins against you.
Then comes the unexpected story. Jesus said: “And which of you, having a servant plowing or tending sheep, will say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and sit down to eat’? But will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare something for my supper, and gird yourself and serve me till I have eaten and drunk, and afterward you will eat and drink’?” That sounds odd coming from the lips of Jesus, who told us that we are to be servants, who washed His disciples’ feet on the night on which He was betrayed, who said, “I did not come to be served, but to serve, and give My life as a ransom for many.”
You would expect that when Jesus told of a man with a small farm, tended by a single servant who labors all day in the hot sun hoeing the crops and feeding the livestock, who then comes in exhausted at the end of the day, Jesus would have said: “If that is your servant, tell him to sit down and take a break. Say to him, ‘I’ll go and prepare your meal for you after all you’ve done in the heat of the sun today.’” But that is not what He said.
There are other occasions and situations where Jesus told stories to inculcate within us the idea of servanthood, but that was not His point in this parable. In this text, He was addressing something else. He was addressing the situation where a man does what he is commanded to do. The servant does all that he is responsible to do, and when he comes in at the end of the day, he still has further duties to perform in addition to those done during the day. It is now time for him to prepare his master’s dinner.
The master is not going to say to the servant: “Hey, sit down. Put your legs up. I’m going to cook you some food, pop a cork of our best wine, and treat you to a lavish dinner.” He is not going to say to him, “Thank you so very much for doing what you’ve been commanded to do.” Jesus said: “Does he thank that servant? I think not.”
Here is the point of the parable: “So likewise you.” He was speaking to us: “So likewise you, when you have done all those things which you are commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants. We have done what was our duty to do.’” We have added nothing to the assets side of the ledger.
We Add No Profit
If you lived a life of perfect righteousness, if you obeyed every commandment God has ever given—which you have not—but if you had, Jesus was saying: “So what? All you’ve done is what you were supposed to do. Didn’t your Creator make you in His own image? Didn’t He call you to mirror and reflect His own character? Didn’t He say to you, ‘Be ye holy because I am holy’?”
Do you understand? If I live a life of perfect holiness, I have done nothing of merit. I have added nothing to the weights and measures of the kingdom of God because I have simply done what was my duty to do.
We have millions of people in the church who still hold on to the idea that what they have accomplished in this life will get them into the kingdom of God. The Muslims have a view that if your good deeds outweigh your bad deeds, you will go to heaven, but if your bad deeds outweigh your good deeds, you will go to hell. Christianity says that if your whole life has nothing but good deeds and no bad deeds, without the righteousness of Christ, you will go to hell forever.
There is nothing that you could possibly do to earn your way into the kingdom of God. You cannot go to the judgment seat of Christ and say: “I went to church every Sunday for thirty years. I was an elder. I was a minister. I was a deacon. I tithed my money. I fed the poor. I ministered to the sick.” God will say: “That’s what you were supposed to do. Why should I give you a reward for doing your duty?”
Only His Righteousness
One of my favorite hymns ever written was by Augustus Toplady. You know the hymn: “Rock of Ages cleft for me, let me hide myself in Thee.” In that hymn, there is a line that gets me every time I hear it. The line goes like this: “Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to the cross I cling.” Nothing in my hand. The hand is empty. It is a vacuum. It can put nothing on the table. The only thing I bring to the table is my shame, my guilt, and my need. So, when you come to the table this morning, you bring nothing in your hand.
“Foul, I to the fountain fly, wash me, Savior, or I die.” All that has been done to get me into the kingdom of God is done by Christ. He and He alone is the profitable servant. We reap the benefits of His profit. He takes the profit He has achieved and pours it into my hands. Now, when I stand before God, I have everything. I have the whole world. I have perfect righteousness in my hand, but it is His. It is not mine.
I do not add a cent to the profit won for me by Christ. What do we have to boast of before God? Let him who boasts, boast of the Lord, we are told, who fills us hand and foot with the righteousness of Jesus. We bring nothing to this table of our own, except our need.
This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.