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The object of this parable is to show that God claims all that belongs to us as his property, and possesses an entire control over our persons and services; and, therefore, that all the zeal that may be manifested by us in discharging our duty does not lay him under obligation to us by any sort of merit; for, as we are his property, so he on his part can owe us nothing. 317317 “Il ne pent pas estre nostre deteur;” — “he cannot be our debtor.” He adduces the comparison of a servant, who, after having spent the day in severe toil, returns home in the evening, and continues his labors till his master is pleased to relieve him. 318318 “Iusqu’a ce qu’il se soit acquitte au bon plaisir du maistre; et qu’on luy dise, C’est assez;” — “till he is discharged at the good pleasure of the master; and till he is told, It is enough.” Christ speaks not of such servants as we have in the present day, who work for hire, but of the slaves that lived in ancient times, whose condition in society was such, that they gained nothing for themselves, but all that belonged to them—their toil, and application, and industry, even to their very blood—was the property of their masters. Christ now shows that a bond of servitude not less rigorous binds and obliges us to serve God; from which he infers, that we have no means of laying Him under obligations to us.
It is an argument drawn from the less to the greater; for if a mortal man is permitted to hold such power over another man, as to enjoin upon him uninterrupted services by night and by day, and yet contract no sort of mutual obligation, as if he were that man’s debtor, how much more shall God have a right to demand the services of our whole life, to the utmost extent that our ability allows, and yet be in no degree indebted to us? We see then that all are held guilty of wicked arrogance who imagine that they deserve any thing from God, or that he is bound to them in any way. And yet no crime is more generally practiced than this kind of arrogance; for there is no man that would not willingly call God to account, and hence the notion of merits has prevailed in almost every age.
But we must attend more closely to the statement made by Christ, that we render nothing to God beyond what he has a right to claim, but are so strongly bound to his service, that we owe him every thing that lies in our power. It consists of two clauses. First, our life, even to the very end of our course, belongs entirely to God; so that, if a person were to spend a part of it in obedience to God, he would have no right to bargain that he should rest for the remainder of the time; as a considerable number of men, after serving as soldiers for ten years, would gladly apply for a discharge. Then follows the second clause, on which we have already touched, that God is not bound to pay us hire for any of our services. Let each of us remember, that he has been created by God for the purpose of laboring, and of being vigorously employed in his work; and that not only for a limited time, but till death itself, and, what is more, that he shall not only live, but die, to God, (Romans 14:8.)
With respect to merit, we must remove the difficulty by which many are perplexed; for Scripture so frequently promises a reward to our works, that they think it allows them some merit. The reply is easy. A reward is promised, not as a debt, but from the mere good pleasure of God. It is a great mistake to suppose that there is a mutual relation between Reward and Merit; for it is by his own undeserved favor, and not by the value of our works, that God is induced to reward them. By the engagements of the Law 319319 “Selon les conventions contenus en la Loy;” — “according to the engagements contained in the Law.” , I readily acknowledge, God is bound to men, if they were to discharge fully all that is required from them; but still, as this is a voluntary obligation, it remains a fixed principle, that man can demand nothing from God, as if he had merited any thing. And thus the arrogance of the flesh falls to the ground; for, granting that any man fulfilled the Law, he cannot plead that he has any claims on God, having done no more than he was bound to do. When he says that we are unprofitable servants, his meaning is, that God receives from us nothing beyond what is justly due but only collects the lawful revenues of his dominion.
There are two principles, therefore, that must be maintained: first, that God naturally owes us nothing, and that all the services which we render to him are not worth a single straw; secondly, that, according to the engagements of the Law, a reward is attached to works, not on account of their value, but because God is graciously pleased to become our debtor. 320320 “Mais en telle sorte que Dieu se rend volontairement deteur, sans qu’il y soit tenu;” — “but in such a manner that God voluntarily becomes our debtor, though he is under no obligation to do so.” It would evince intolerable ingratitude, if on such a ground any person should indulge in proud vaunting. The kindness and liberality which God exercises towards us are so far from giving us a right to swell with foolish confidence, that we are only laid under deeper obligations to Him. Whenever we meet with the word reward, or whenever it occurs to our recollection, let us look upon this as the crowning act of the goodness of God to us, that, though we are completely in his debt, he condescends to enter into a bargain with us. So much the more detestable is the invention of the Sophists, who have had the effrontery to forge a kind of merit, which professes to be founded on a just claim. 321321 “Et d’antant plus est detestable la sophisterie des Theologiens Scho- lastiques, ou Sorbonnistes, lesquels ont ose forger leur merite, qu’ils appellent De condigno;” — “And so much the more detestable is the sophistry of the Scholastic Theologians, or Sorbonnists, (see p. 142, n. 2, of this volume,) who have dared to forge their merit, which they call De condigno.” The reader will find not only the general doctrine of merit, but this particular aspect of it, fully treated by our Author in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book III. ch. 15: The word merit, taken by itself, was sufficiently profane and inconsistent with the standard of piety; but to intoxicate men with diabolical pride, as if they could merit any thing by a just claim, is far worse.