Welcome back to the podcast today. We have a trio of interesting emails to work through in the next three weeks, Pastor John, as I look ahead on the calendar of questions on the table. What does it mean to serve God? That’s today. Next week: As we serve God, what do we give him? Are we giving him anything that he doesn’t already have? Does he need us? That’s APJ 1957. And then a week after that: What does it mean to be spiritual? Spirituality is a squishy concept in the world today, and we’re going to work toward a definition in APJ 1960. It’s an interesting trio of topics, all at the foundations of what it means to be a successful Christian living out the Christian life.
So, today: What does it mean to serve God? The question is from a listener named Amy. “Pastor John, hello. I was discussing the phrase ‘serve the Lord’ with a fellow believer the other day, and I was wondering if you could clarify something for us. All over Scripture, we are told to ‘serve the Lord.’ In Psalm 100:2, it says to ‘serve the Lord with gladness.’ Deuteronomy 10:12 says, ‘Serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.’ Joshua says, ‘As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord’ (Joshua 24:15). And Paul in Romans 12:11 also tells us to ‘serve the Lord.’ But then, in Mark 10:45, Jesus says, ‘The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.’ Christians throw around the phrase ‘serve the Lord’ so often, but I’m not sure I know what that phrase means. Can you clarify this for me?”
I think this is one of the most important questions a Christian can ask about living the Christian life in a way that glorifies God and does good to other people. It gets at the utterly crucial issue of a right way of serving God that honors him and blesses people, and a wrong way of serving God that dishonors him and doesn’t help people. This is not a marginal issue. We’re talking about what it means to be a Christian moment by moment in real life.
Let’s make it crystal clear that Amy is right that the Bible teaches almost everywhere that human beings are to serve God, and when the Son of God comes into the world, we are to serve him. In the Old Testament, Joshua says, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15). And then Paul celebrates the Thessalonian converts because “you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God” (1 Thessalonians 1:9).
Over and over again, Paul calls himself and he calls Christians “servants” — literally, “slaves” — of Christ and of God (Romans 1:1; Ephesians 6:6). Peter does the same in 1 Peter 2:16 and 2 Peter 1:1. It is unmistakable. One biblical way of speaking rightly about the relationship to God that we have is to call ourselves servants or slaves of God and of Christ. That’s right. She’s drawing attention to that, and she should.
Now, as soon as we say that, we must ask really pointedly what’s involved in serving God and what’s not involved in serving God. If we start serving God as though we could earn wages from him, or as though we could meet his needs, or as though we could put him in our debt and make him our beneficiary, red biblical lights start flashing very brightly. For example, in John 15:15, Jesus says to his disciples, “No longer do I call you servants [or slaves], for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.” And yet in John 15:14, the preceding verse, he says, “You are my friends if you do what I command you.” Whoa. What kind of a friend is that?
So, the meaning of “slave” or “servant” is qualified. And the meaning of “friend” is qualified. We can’t just assume that what we mean by servant or friend is what Jesus means by servant or friend. We have to listen.
Or here’s another bright, flashing red light: “[God is not] served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything” (Acts 17:25). So yes, serve him, but not that way — not as though he needed your service.
“Serve God, but not by presuming to meet his need. He owns everything. He doesn’t need your supply.”
Or here’s another red flashing light. God says, “If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the world and its fullness are mine. . . . [You] call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me” (Psalm 50:12, 15). That was one of Spurgeon’s favorite verses. He called it Robinson Crusoe’s text, because that’s what he quotes in the book. Yes, serve God, but not by presuming to meet his need. He owns everything. He doesn’t need your supply. We call on him in need, not the other way around.
Here’s another red flashing light. Amy quoted it. “The Son of Man came not to be served” — that’s a pretty clear warning — “but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). He saves us; we don’t save him. He meets our need; we don’t meet his need.
Here’s one more flashing red light of warning about serving God in any old way that we think might be right. In Romans 4:4–5 — you can’t get much more basic than this — Paul describes how the Christian life begins. Are we justified and put right with God by working for God — earning a wage — or by trusting him to work for us in our utter helplessness? Here’s the quote: “To the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.” We did not get right with God in the beginning of our Christian life by serving him for a wage of salvation. He worked for us, he served us, not us him. He did the humanly impossible on the cross.
So, with all those red warning lights flashing in our face, we better not serve God that way — as though we could earn wages, as though we could meet his needs, as though we could put him in our debt or make him our beneficiary.
Here’s what we need to ask. Well, how should we serve him? You keep telling us all the bad ways. What is right service?
Every Step a Gift of Grace
Maybe the deepest and clearest answer is 1 Peter 4:11. This got prayed over me every time I preached at Bethlehem. For years and years, this was our go-to verse just before walking upstairs to preach: “Whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies — in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever.”
So, every effort expended in the service of God is a God-given effort. That may be the most important sentence. Let me say it again: Every effort expended in the service of God, the right service of God, is a God-given effort. That’s what must absolutely sink into our souls. Otherwise, we will always think of ourselves as bringing to God things that he doesn’t have, as though we could meet his needs, when he doesn’t have any. He’s not served as though he needed anything.
The conception of service that dishonors God and will not help people — because it points them away from God’s all-supplying grace toward our own supposed self-produced moral efforts — is serving without relying upon him to serve us in our serving. All God-pleasing service is done in the moment-by-moment reliance upon God’s service-enabling power. Or to say it another way, the only service of God that pleases God is done through the glad acceptance of his undeserved service toward us and in us. We see this in 1 Corinthians 15:10: “By the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked” — you could say, “I served” — “harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.”
“All God-pleasing service is done in the moment-by-moment reliance upon God’s service-enabling power.”
So yes, we work; yes, we serve. We have a master; we obey. But every baby step we take in obedience to our Master is a gift of grace from him to us. Therefore, we should never think of our service to God as a way to repay him in gratitude for his goodness to us, because every step we take in that so-called payback is another gift from him, and it takes us deeper into debt to grace, which is a glorious place to be forever and ever and ever. We will never not be debtors to God’s grace. For all eternity, with every act of glad obedience, we will go deeper and happier into debt to the praise of the glory of his grace.
Life Under the Waterfall
Here’s one last picture of this peculiar kind of service to God. Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money” (Matthew 6:24). So, the question is, How do you serve money? That would be a clue. Serving money doesn’t mean doing things to meet money’s need. You serve money by calculating all your plans, your efforts, to benefit from what money promises you. You calculate your whole life to benefit from what money promises you. Your life revolves around trying to put yourself in the position of the greatest benefit from money.
That’s also what it means to serve God. You serve God by calculating all your plans and all your efforts to benefit from all that God promises to be for you. Your life revolves around trying to put yourself under the waterfall of God’s greatest blessing, positioning yourself for the greatest benefit God has to give — namely, himself.
So, I conclude, yes, God enlists us into his service, which means he calls us to have a part in accomplishing his purposes, not meeting his needs. And he accomplishes his purposes precisely by supplying the grace to do our work, because the giver gets the glory; the servant gets the joy. That’s God’s purpose for his world: his glory and the joy of his people in him.