In Luke 17:10 Jesus commends to his disciples the attitude of bondservants, or slaves, who confess after completing all their work, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty’ (or ‘what we owed’).
This does not sound very much; we would like to think we do far more than our duty to God. Surely it is more honouring to do all we do for God from the freedom of love, from Spirit-inspired delight in him? ‘Duty’ sounds rather a meagre offering.
Yet it is ‘what we owe’. If we owe it to God to love him with all our heart and mind and strength, as well as our neighbour as ourselves, perhaps duty is not such a small thing after all. Maybe it is our concept of duty which needs to be revised. It is a bigger thing than we may think.
From Creation onwards
To begin with, duty is what we owe to God as his creatures. By virtue of being alive in his world we owe him lifelong perfect obedience and worship. We owe it to him as Creator. Our chief end is to glorify him and enjoy him forever.
Our duty was augmented when God made a covenant with Adam. On Adam’s continued obedience he would, it is implied, attain eternal life that could not be lost. God was not bound to do that. Such reward is by covenant, not by the relationship between Creator and creature. The prohibition (not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil , Gen. 2:16,17) is also over and above Adam’s duty as a creature; covenant augmented the basic creaturely duty and added the promise of reward; but it was still duty, albeit now a further covenantal duty, that Adam owed to God.
It is duty that is contradicted by sin, by which man does what is the opposite of his duty. As a result he became a bondservant to Satan and is now a slave of sin. The sin that he now cannot help doing is the payment of a false debt to a false master, a service without rewards though with all sorts of empty promises attached.
It is duty that was re-presented, expressed and itemised in the law given at Sinai.
Servanthood and Sonship
Duty, offered to God, is the expression of servanthood.
Duty is reinforced, not cancelled out, by adoption as a son. The idea that a son does not owe duty is a strange one. Sonship changes the relationship and the motivation of service but strengthens the bond of duty. Love becomes the motive and gives power to obey but does not remove the obligation nor alter the terms of the duty.
Grace and Duty
It is the antinomian error to believe that grace and duty are not compatible. Grace is God’s undeserved goodness to his creatures and in particular to his sinful creatures. Why should such grace dissolve the obligation the creature owes? In the sphere of redemption why should reinstatement to the life of the Spirit that was lost by sin, remove the saved sinner from the realm of obligation to God? Why should God’s law no longer apply? Why should its terms be changed? The relationship within which the sinner obeys the law – the covenant of grace rather than the covenant of works – has changed, but not the law itself nor the fact of owing obedience to God. The inner attitude to the law becomes one of love and delight (Pss. 19:10; 119:97) rather than of hatred and fear; but this does not mean that law is any the less binding on him. Antinomianism is sub-Biblical and sub-Christian in this regard. Its hidden presupposition is that law, obligation and duty are un-Spiritual things. But redemption is in fact liberation from the bondage of law-breaking to the liberty of law-keeping.
The place of blessing
Duty is the basis of human dignity. It means I have a responsibility to God. It is where God addresses me not as a recipient of blessing or as a victim of wrong or suffering, but as a responsible creature.
Duty is where I have a choice – to obey or not. At this point I am a moral creature.
Duty is where I exercise power. This sounds paradoxical but it is true. If I see my life through the lens of ‘rights’ I am a claimant but not an actor. In the exercise of duty I act – I do. Doing the will of God is the place of only real power because it is where God blesses. When I am weak then I am strong.
Duty is the place of blessing – it is in my doing of the law that God blesses me (Jas. 1:25).
In the public sphere
In the public sphere, duty is the basis of civil obedience. It is my duty to God that is the basis of my obedience to the state.
Duty is the basis of human rights. For it is my performance of my duty to God that a government should protect, and it is my duty to God that it is my right to perform without hindrance from the state. No government has a right to prevent a human being performing his duty to God and this creates human rights in me. At the point where a government fails in its duty here, I must obey God rather than man.
And so, duty is also the basis of civil disobedience, as well as of civil obedience. It is at the point of duty to God conflicting with my duty to the state that I must disobey the state.
Duty is the basis of Christian freedom – only God can bind the conscience.
Duty is the guiding principle for Christian behaviour in society. We may exercise, and do all we can do protect, such rights as we enjoy in a democratic society. But ultimately they are vulnerable and frail things. They are a poor and unreliable guide to what I should do and what I should insist on. They change with the cultures and mores of a given age. They reflect the culture and the more influenced by Christianity a culture is, the more rights a Christian will have. But if we keep our eye on ‘rights’ we shall be led astray. We shall reflect our culture rather than reflecting God. My duty to God, however, does not change. Difficult decisions will be made as to how to exercise it in a given situation but duty, not rights, remains the surest guide to ethical living.
The spirituality of duty
Duty is summed up in love to God and my neighbour.
Duty is the source of pure motivation – that God commands it. To do something because it is commanded is the purest love to God. Never dream that to do something other than our duty, to act from something called ‘freedom’ as if we could by so doing offer God more than he requires, is ever more than a vain conceit.
Failure in duty (and only failure in duty) requires forgiveness.
Duty is what Christ came to do. He delighted in doing his Father’s will (Jn. 4:34; Heb. 10:7 [Ps. 40:8]). That was why he came (Jn. 17:4). The psalmist (who ultimately is Christ) delighted in doing the will of God (Ps. 119:14-16). Shall we do more than Christ? He was the most free of men – no-one could even take his life from him (Jn. 10:17,18) – yet how did he use his authority and his freedom? In obeying his Father – in doing his duty.
To be able to say ‘ we have only done our duty’ is no little thing. It is what the only Son, and the humblest and greatest of all Servants, did. We can never do more than our duty. We cannot even do our duty. All that we do is our duty, but we never do all that is our duty. Only Christ has done that; it is his righteousness, his freely accepted duty done for us, that is ours by grace and is our hope in the judgement. We are unworthy servants; he alone was worthy.