Willing to Serve God
Paul described himself to Titus as ‘a servant of God’. And that was how he imagined himself in his pre-conversion days. He was, so he thought, blameless as ‘touching the righteousness which is in the law’ (Phil. 3:6); he was, in his own eyes, a marvellously-faithful servant of God. But when he met the risen Lord on the way to Damascus, he was quickly disillusioned and, years later, he confessed to Titus that at one time ‘we ourselves also were… foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving divers lusts and pleasures’.
On the morning of the momentous day when he set out for Damascus, Saul of Tarsus was completely unwilling to obey Christ’s call to believe: ‘Come unto Me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest’ (Matt. 11:28). His disobedience was linked to the fact that, deceived by the devil and his own darkened understanding, he did not think of himself as labouring or heavy laden; he felt completely self-sufficient in spiritual things. Yet he no doubt imagined that the God of his fathers would, if his spiritual position became really desperate, give him the little help he needed. Thus deceived, he refused to look on Jesus of Nazareth as Israel’s promised Messiah; he was unwilling to receive the testimony borne by the Saviour’s miracles ““ and by his wonderful words and his resurrection from the dead. Saul of Tarsus was unwilling to accept Jesus as his Master although he had fulfilled all that was written of him in the Old Testament Scriptures, which ““ so Saul must have told himself ““ he accepted without reservation.
Yet in spite of all this, a time came when Saul began to act as the obedient servant of a new Master; he asked: ‘Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?”‘(Acts 9:6). How did this tremendous change come about in someone who had been so violently opposed to Jesus? How was it possible to submit to him instantly and express his willingness to do whatever he was directed to do? The answer lies in the unlimited power of the Holy Spirit to bring sinners effectively to Christ. Years later, Paul the Apostle was inspired to describe to Timothy ‘the power of God; who hath saved us, and called us with an holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace, which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began’ (2 Tim. 1:8, 9). This effectual calling includes, in the words of the Shorter Catechism, ‘renewing the will’. Apart from this renewing of his will, Saul would have continued a persecutor; he would never have joined the despised flock of Christ; he would never have submitted to Christ as his Master.
What happened was completely beyond human power. Saul of Tarsus was perhaps the most unlikely of all the Pharisees in Jerusalem to become a follower of the Saviour ““ perhaps the most unlikely of all those living in the city at that time; such was his devotion to the Jewish faith. But nothing is too hard for the Lord ““ then or now. No one is too fanatically devoted to his beliefs, or too hardened in sin, to become the subject of the Spirit’s work. No one is so militantly opposed to true religion ““ so supportive of secularism, or a false religion, or some heretical version of Christianity ““ that he is beyond the reach of the Holy Spirit. Because God’s providence is all-reaching and his Spirit is all-powerful, any sinner ““ whatever his attitudes or his circumstances ““ may be transformed into a sincere servant of God.
Christ’s particular will for Saul was that he would take the gospel to the Gentiles. He was ‘to open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them which are sanctified’ (Acts 26:18). These were to be the results of his work ““ not that he could accomplish them by his own power but, through the Holy Spirit applying his preaching, sinners would be brought into the kingdom of God.
This was Paul’s commission, and his was the response of an obedient servant. He went wherever his Master sent him. So he obeyed immediately when, one night in Troas, he understood that the vision he saw was a message from the Lord ““ when the man from Macedonia pleaded: ‘Come over… and help us’. Paul was careful to keep to what God directed him to proclaim; no preacher has the freedom to alter his message to suit the spirit of the age. We can assume that, in whatever city or district Paul was sent to, he was, more consistently than Jonah, obedient to the call: ‘Preach unto it the preaching that I bid thee’. But central to all Paul’s preaching was the message of reconciliation: ‘God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto Himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them’ (2 Cor. 5:19). And when Paul, as God’s servant, went out with this message, the Holy Spirit was again and again powerfully present to make sinners willing to follow Christ.
All such believers ““ not only apostles, not only ministers ““ are servants of God. They have been made willing to ‘serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear’. They are to live holy lives, not only outwardly but inwardly. Accordingly their aim ought to be like that of Paul, who made every effort ‘to have always a conscience void of offence toward God, and toward men’ (Acts 24:16). In Paul’s words again, they are to deny ‘ungodliness and worldly lusts’, to ‘live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world… zealous of good works’ (Titus 2:12-14).
There is a sense in which we ought to consider them as not merely servants; they are slaves, for they ‘are bought with a price’ (1 Cor. 6:20). And their Master, we can be perfectly sure, will always take full responsibility for their welfare. In absolutely explicit terms, he has promised them: ‘I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee’ (Heb. 13:5). And Paul, on his Master’s behalf, was able to assure all believers: ‘My God shall supply all your need according to His riches in glory by Christ Jesus’ (Phil. 4:19). God’s servants are to recognise this aspect of their relationship to their Master; they are to go through life ““ as they face the difficulties and trials and temptations that confront them on the way to heaven ““ looking trustfully to the One who has undertaken to bring them all safely through this world and to take them at last to the glory and blessedness of the paradise above.
There their Master will meet each of them with the words: ‘Well done, thou good and faithful servant… enter thou into the joy of thy Lord’ (Matt. 25:21, 23) ““ no matter whether, in their trading, they have earned five more talents or two. But the man, in the same parable, who did not trade with his talent was not a genuine servant; he was not willing to follow the Master’s directions. Whatever his professions of proper conduct ““ he claimed, for instance to have kept his talent safely ““ he was still the devil’s servant, for he had not traded with the talent he had been given. Here is one of the characteristics of God’s servants: however limited their talents may be, they do make use of them. For instance, they all have the talent of prayer. Some servants will be more active in prayer than others, but they will all have, more or less, answers to prayer. In particular, they will all, in answer to their petitions, be made perfectly holy at last and brought home to heaven.
But how can another generation of men and women be raised up to act as God’s servants? Only by the powerful, irresistible work of the Holy Spirit. Yet He works by means. ‘It pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe’ (1 Cor. 1:21). Those who are already God’s servants should therefore be pleading earnestly for an outpouring of the Spirit, so that many sinners would be made truly willing to trust in Christ as they hear the gospel preached to them. But God’s servants should plead also that, from among those who are brought to faith, some would be fitted with the necessary gifts and grace to follow Paul as preachers of the gospel, to serve God faithfully in spreading to the ends of the earth the biblical message of sin and salvation. This is the special means which God has appointed to make sinners willing to serve him, to follow him wherever he may place them.
Rev Kenneth D Macleod is minister of the Free Presbyterian Church of Leverburgh, Isle of Harris, and Editor of The Free Presbyterian Magazine, from the November 2007 issue of which this Editorial is taken, with kind permission.
On Doctrine and Practice July 16, 2019
A charge that is made repeatedly against historic Christianity is that its stress on doctrine makes it authoritarian, theoretical, and cold. The Christian religion is a practical affair; putting the faith in terms of truth to be believed alienates or repels many who would otherwise be sympathetic. As John Robinson puts it, ‘the effect of […]
Christianity and Culture July 12, 2019
One of the greatest of the problems that have agitated the Church is the problem of the relation between knowledge and piety, between culture and Christianity. This problem has appeared first of all in the presence of two tendencies in the Church — the scientific or academic tendency, and what may be called the practical […]