What Does It Mean to Be an “Unprofitable Servant”?

by RC Sproul

…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.’” (Luke 17:5-10)

When Jesus said that we are unprofitable servants, He did not mean that our service is of no value. Jesus frequently called His disciples to be productive. Rather, He meant that we gain no “bonus points” or merit from our service.

In the Middle Ages, a pernicious view sprang up that held that Christians not only can gain a certain kind of merit by the works that they perform, but they can even perform “works of supererogation”—works that are so meritorious, so valuable, that they are above and beyond what God requires from His people. The church taught that the excess merit from these works of supererogation was deposited in what was known as “the treasury of merit,” and from there it could be distributed to people in purgatory who were lacking in merit. This idea was behind the whole controversy over indulgences in the 16th century, and it was a major point of dispute between Protestants and Roman Catholics. It all boiled down to the concept that it is possible for believers to perform works that are above and beyond the call of duty.

Jesus’ words here in Luke 17 surely put this idea in its proper place. What deed could I possibly do that was not something God required of me in the first place? Remember, He commands us to be perfect, and we can’t improve on perfection. We can’t even hope to reach that goal. I have no “profit” of my own because I earn nothing by doing what I am required to do. That’s why our redemption is by grace and grace alone. There is only one thing that I can place before God that is, properly speaking, my own—my sin. The only thing that can redeem me is not my work, but the work that Christ has performed on my behalf. He freely came to do the Father’s will and to submit Himself to the law for our sake. He, and He alone, is a profitable servant.

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Source: Church Leaders