The great concern of a good servant is that he should please his master. Even so, the anxiety of the genuine Christian is that he should please Christ. This concern is one of the evidences of true faith and is a fruit of regeneration. The formal Christian does not seriously doubt that his worship or his works will be acceptable to God. The unregenerate worshipper has a high opinion of himself and a low opinion of God. He seldom stops to think whether his prayers or his service are acceptable to his Maker. The graceless man has an eye to his own virtue in all his services in religion. To him it is a miracle that he gives up so much of his own time and money to the work of God. He takes it for granted that God will receive most gratefully whatever scraps of worship and service he is inclined to offer. God, so he fancies, is there at his beck and call.
But as soon as a man knows God truly, he begins to question with himself whether what he does is acceptable service or not. It is at this point that acceptable service begins. It must be so, because it is only in the act of doubting our own ability to do anything aright in God's sight that we begin to have the spirit of evangelical humility so pleasing to the Lord. 'Trembling at God's word' (Isaiah 66:5) is a form of spiritual shyness in God's presence by which a saved sinner is conscious of incompetence in all matters of religious worship. It has a language all of its own. It speaks eloquently to God and confesses that He is a free agent, at liberty to refuse our worship and to disdain our devotion. We are under every obligation to him; but he is under no obligation to us.
There is a privacy about all true worship. Christ teaches that this is so and experience verifies it. The instinct of a holy person is to want to be 'alone' with God when real acts of service are being performed. This is true not only of secret prayer (Matthew 6:5), but also of almsgiving (Matthew 6:1), fasting (Matthew 6:16) and outward expressions of service and obedience (Colossians 3:22). It is this privacy which renders our service pleasing to the eye of a holy, all-seeing God. He watches to observe, not so much what we do as how we do it — with what motive and with what reward in view.
The Lord Jesus Christ has informed us that a great deal that passes for devotion and service is worthless because the worshipper, though correct perhaps in the outward form of action, is under the power of a corrupt motive: 'that they may have glory of men' (Matthew 6:2), 'that they may be seen of men' (Matthew 6:51), 'that they may appear unto men' (Matthew 6:16). The fact that God does not accept his service probably does not worry the unregenerate worshipper in the least degree. He is more concerned about his own 'image' than about the secret blessing of the Father. He cares more about the good opinions of his fellow-worshippers than about 'the praise which comes from God only'. Unregenerate worship and service is little more than so much self-love. Oratories and monastic cells (as the Last Day will show) have often been but so many theatrical stages upon which pious and devout sinners have strutted up and down before the wondering admiration of imagined audiences. Sadly, the same sin of religious self-love is found in the lives of those who ought to know better.
Though the graceless worshipper does not much trouble himself with the question as to whether or not God accepts his service, yet he is highly offended when the worthlessness of his service is pointed out to him. It is this resentment on their part which explains the persecution of religious men by religious men in history. The first example in history is Cain, whose anger swiftly led to religious murder when God put a difference between his own service and his brother's. King Saul could forgive himself for his disobedience, provided Samuel honoured him still before the elders of the people and before Israel (1 Samuel 15:30). But Saul's resentment turned to a murderous frenzy against David when he realised the public and visible implications of his own rejection by God.
The unregenerate do not care if God is against their worship, so long as there is no loss to their self-esteem involved. But a pious sinner who is made to feel that all his endeavours in religion are but splendid sins will instantly boil with rage like a cauldron. The reaction of the unreformed church to the sixteenth-century Reformers illustrates this rage to perfection. No dungeon was deep enough, no noose tight enough, no fire hot enough, no sword sharp enough to avenge the quarrel of an offended religious consciousness. For centuries men had made their masses with a quiet mind. For centuries Mary had been hailed with an undisturbed conscience. But the instant God shone on the church with gospel light and exposed the iniquity of all such corrupt worship, men fumed and fretted. They breathed out slaughter against those preachers who proved their church to be in God's sight no better than a nest of scorpions. Self-esteem had received an intolerable blow.
Preachers, more than all other Christians, are to be concerned with faithfulness in their service. They are stewards of the gospel 'mysteries' (1 Corinthians 4:1) and hence they are to remember above all men that 'it is required in stewards that a man be found faithful' (1 Corinthians 4:2). To become a preacher is to become, at least in principle, a martyr. This must be so because the preacher's duty is to say to men what they most need to hear but least wish to hear. Men are intensely sensitive about their religious sins and they deeply resent exposure in those things in which they most flatter themselves that they are acceptable to God.
The preacher's task is to take the lion by the beard and the wolf by his ears. If the preacher is not courageous enough to do so, then he can hardly be said to render acceptable service to Christ, his Master. Shall Christ be faithful unto the death of the cross and yet his servants be too craven to annoy men's sleeping consciences? No preacher should let sleeping dogs lie nor sweep respectable religious sins under the carpet for others to deal with twenty years later. 'Fight the devil where you find him', is the motto of the true prophet.
It must be a sign that reformed preachers are rendering acceptable service when they are resented and resisted by the carnal in their congregation. This is not meant as a defence of ministerial indiscretion but as an encouragement to ministerial faithfulness. A young preacher is apt to blame it all on himself when the principal men and women of a congregation are aroused against him. It may indeed be that he is partly to blame. But the greatest sin might rather be in those who rise up against him because his application of God's word is all too true. Religious sinners, when cut close to the bone, can react with incredible fury and they can spit like fire at the hand which wields the sword in the pulpit.
When truth is applied faithfully, it is deemed by God to be acceptable service and a 'sweet savour of Christ' (2 Corinthians 2:15), even when — indeed especially when — it brings unjust wrath upon the head of the preacher.
Our Feeble Powers
Not only preachers, of course, wish to offer acceptable service to the Lord Jesus Christ. All who are born of God yearn to do so, the meanly-gifted no less than the highly-gifted. The meanly-gifted are open to the tempting suggestion that their service cannot be as acceptable to God because they are beneath their brethren in abilities and talents. Much needless unhappiness may result from the fear that our service cannot be acceptable because our powers are so feeble. When we fall prey to this fear we need to remind ourselves of certain comforting truths of scripture.
Acceptable service does not depend on our own powers or abilities. The widow's mite is more precious to God than the easy offerings of the wealthy. 'She hath done what she could' (Mark 14:8) is not said of great talent but of great love. The two-talent man will receive his 'Well done, good and faithful servant' (Matthew 25:23) just as much as the five-talent man. If the real desire of our heart is to give ourselves to God along with our service, it is acceptable. Our Master, Christ, has said that 'if there be first a willing mind, it is accepted according to that a man hath, and not according to that he hath not' (2 Corinthians 8:12).
There is a further aspect to this subject which is no less comforting. The Lord may praise what men may not praise. There are many acts of service to Christ done by his people for his sake which men, even good men, will not appreciate, either through ignorance of their worth, or through jealousy, or worse. But the servants of Christ must learn to look above men and to try to catch only the eye of Christ in what they do. It is a sublime comfort to know that He always recognises the motive of the heart and values the devotion, love and consecration in his people's misunderstood actions. It not this the meaning of a familiar passage: 'Why trouble ye the woman? for she hath wrought a good work upon me' (Matthew 26:10)?
'A good work' – what music that phrase is to sincere and humble believers! O! does our Master really refer to our service in those glowing and generous terms! The new-born Christian thrills to realise that he has a Saviour in heaven who now deems his life and service to be acceptable. No less, the mature saint melts into tears of pleasure to think that what he so unworthily presents to God is acceptable service.
Christ is the most terrible of enemies and yet the most tender of friends. Could we but win the smile of his approval, would we not suffer and serve him for ten thousand years, if need be?