Serving God

Thousands of books have been written on the topic of serving God. Those who seem to be doing something in some ministries believe that they’re serving God. Those who write books on serving God believe that they served God. What about the rest of those who are at the receiving ends of the various teachings, how do they know what to do?

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So how do you serve God? Just the word "serve" itself implies something to do with spiritual things, or something in service of others, something that demands selfless devotion, that requires a certain level of personal sacrifice. When we talk about someone serving God, we imply that their act of service is something self initiated. It is initiated by self because it requires some personal sacrifice. Most biographies are about people who engaged in these noble acts of serving God at great personal cost. The implication also is these folks deserve some types of rewards for their sacrifices.

But is this concept of serving God consistence with what the Bible writes about the work done toward the Kingdom of God?

The Biblical meaning of serving God

Let’s take a look at Luke 17:7-10:

7“Would any one of you say to your slave who comes in from the field after plowing or shepherding sheep, ‘Come at once and sit down for a meal’? 8Won’t the master instead say to him, ‘Get my dinner ready, and make yourself ready to serve me while I eat and drink. Then you may eat and drink’? 9He won’t thank the slave because he did what he was told, will he? 10So you too, when you have done everything you were commanded to do, should say, ‘We are slaves undeserving of special praise; we have only done what was our duty.’” (Luke 17:7-10)

Normally we think of serving God as a voluntary and optional action. like serving a community by volunteering to work at a local food bank, or other non-profit organization. But here it appears the work involved is not the same, it’s neither voluntary nor optional, but it’s from a sense of duty, from a slave to his master. The work is expected of the slave. Therefore he’s not entitled to a reward, and of course not even a single praise. And since this work is required of the slave, it is not the same thing as a noble act of service we commonly refer to in church teaching.

Let’s study another example of service in the parable of the vineyard workers.

1“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. 2And after agreeing with the workers for the standard wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3When it was about nine o’clock in the morning, he went out again and saw others standing around in the marketplace without work. 4He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and I will give you whatever is right.’ 5So they went. When he went out again about noon and three o’clock that afternoon, he did the same thing. 6And about five o’clock that afternoon he went out and found others standing around, and said to them, ‘Why are you standing here all day without work?’ 7They said to him, ‘Because no one hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go and work in the vineyard too.’ 8When it was evening the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the workers and give the pay starting with the last hired until the first.’ 9When those hired about five o’clock came, each received a full day’s pay. 10And when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more. But each one also received the standard wage. 11When they received it, they began to complain against the landowner, 12saying, ‘These last fellows worked one hour, and you have made them equal to us who bore the hardship and burning heat of the day.’ 13And the landowner replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am not treating you unfairly. Didn’t you agree with me to work for the standard wage? 14Take what is yours and go. I want to give to this last man the same as I gave to you. 15Am I not permitted to do what I want with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16So the last will be first, and the first last.” (Matthew 20:1-16)

Since it is the same Jesus who told this parable as the one who told the story in Luke 17, we must think of these works as the same type: work a slave performed for his master. The way the vineyard owner pays the workers shows a consistency in this master/slave relationship. Equal pays mean neither rewards or praises toward the slaves. It’s probably not even a salary, because if it were, it would have been proportional to the amount of work performed. Then what is this payment for if it is none of these: reward, or salary? It’s probably for what they need for food, clothing, etc.

If we were to combine both these stories into one, the meaning of serving God might be like this: there is no voluntary or optional service—because of the slave/master relationship, but there is one assigned to each according to the will of the Lord, and since it’s is not voluntary, there is no reward, or praise, or even a salary.

A little clarification is needed here. Though we now relate to God through Christ as sons and daughters, the meaning of service remains the same if grace is the foundation of all areas of the Christian life. In order for the work or service to be grace based, it can neither be voluntary nor optional, but it is something God has already prepared for each person according to the riches of His grace. This puts all who might be in the service of the King, or even those who might not appear to be in any kind of service, to be on an equal footing. God will assign each one according to his great wisdom. This also make irrelevant the exhortation to serve God, because if God pre-ordain, and “impose” the work on his slave—a figure of speech, what need is there for exhortation? Can you not do the work that God has pre-ordained for you? Could Moses, Jonah, or Paul resist the work that God had planned for them?

Might we then venture to say that voluntary, self-initiated work is not accepted at all in the kingdom of God? The answer to this question is key to understanding service, or ministries, or anything done in the name of Christ.

Work, or service, explained through grace

Let us review the familiar passage of Ephesians 2:8-10.

8For by grace you are saved through faith, and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God; 9it is not from works, so that no one can boast. 10For we are his workmanship, having been created in Christ Jesus for good works that God prepared beforehand so we may do them (Ephesians 2:8-10).

We often stop short at verse 9, but verse 10 gives is a definition of service that comes as a result of God’s grace. The good works are prepared ahead of time by God to those are called on the basis of His grace. As it is said earlier, in order for the works to be grace based, it can neither be voluntary nor optional, so therefore there will be neither reward nor praises. This takes a way all reason for boasting of personal piety. The “imposing” of pre-ordained work on a believer is actually an amazing act of God’s grace, because it takes away the confusion of trying to figure out what one must do to serve God, but instead it gives one the peace of mind to wait upon God until He revealed to them what they must do. No exhortation needed.

Slave to righteousness

There is an amazing passage in Romans 6 where Paul used the imagery of slavery to show the transition from sin to righteousness which we may use to further explain that serving God is neither voluntary nor optional.

17But thanks be to God that though you were slaves to sin, you obeyed from the heart that pattern of teaching you were entrusted to, 18and having been freed from sin, you became enslaved to righteousness (Romans 6:17-18).

Notice the transition from slavery to sin to slavery to righteousness.

Let us talk about slavery to sin. Paul stated it as a matter of fact, that we were slaves to sin. In the slave/master relationship there is nothing optional, but everything is forcefully compelled upon the one at the receiving end, the slaves. Can a slave defy his master? No. Can a slave say to his master: Look, I’m serving you from the goodness of my heart, from my freedom to serve, not because I have to, but because I want to? No. Death will be the ultimate consequence if he does not do what is required of him.

Paul must have use the term “slavery” to show the irresistibility of good works that result from slavery to righteouness. Just as irresistible as sin is to the one enslaved to it, so is good works to the one who is enslaved to righteousness. We must understand that Paul is using this analogy to explain the irresistible power of grace in the lives of those who are in Christ to do good work. All this again removes the idea that good works done in the name of Christ are something initiated by self on a voluntary basis, where each person decides for himself what, where, when, and how to serve God. Absolutely not, the works are already prepared ahead of time by God from everlasting. No encouragement, nor any exhortation, needed. As a matter of fact, encouragement or exhortation from men may actually interfere or confuse the minds of the ones that God already had a plan for.

Paul expressed this slave/master relationship in another way in Romans

“For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do–this I keep on doing.” (Romans 7:19)

The question of free will

Someone may raise the issue of free will, to counter the argument raised by this writing, that the service unto God must be volitional and self-initiated for it to have any value. At first glance this appears to be a proper motivation to serve God, to serve Him from the freedom of grace instead of the conditional requirement of the law.

This is where things get very interesting. At this point we can define not two, but three, types of service: one based on free will, one based on the requirement of a law, and one proposed by this article that it is predetermined and ordained by God ahead of time.

The service that almost everyone embraces here is one that is volitional and self-initiated, it appears to be most noble and seems to be in accordance with the principle of salvation by grace and through faith. But is such service, though volitional, pure in motivation? Isn’t there the slightest hint of desire for praise or rewards?

No one’s good work is completely free from even the slightest hint of selfish motivation. Jeremiah 17:9 says that the human heart is deceitful above all things. Isaiah spoke these words from God: “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away (Isaiah 64:6).”

Therefore the only way for a service to count toward God’s kingdom is it must come from outside the person who performs the service so that rewards or praises on the basis of merit can be ruled out.


8For by grace you are saved through faith, and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God; 9it is not from works, so that no one can boast. 10For we are his workmanship, having been created in Christ Jesus for good works that God prepared beforehand so we may do them (Ephesians 2:8-10).

Romans 11:6 says that if any aspect of our relationship with God is by works then grace is no longer grace. Therefore boasting has no place in a grace-based relationship. No one works more than others because it is God who prepared the task for each person before hand. The “slave to righteousness (Romans 6:18)” concept though appears negative but it is the marvelous thing from the mind of God as part of the whole grace package. People are set free from the nagging question of whether they have done all they could to serve God. They rest in the all sufficiency of the Cross of Christ and trust that God already has a plan for each one to serve Him. In this sense, there is no need for “Serving God” as a topic for any book or sermon, except for one like this article which attempts to show that such topic is not needed at all.

External motivation, through liturature of exhortation, urging the reader or listener concerning serving God, may cause someone to leave their current station in life thinking that it is not considered an act of service to God. Furthermore if God has already prepared a work in advance for someone, will He not reveal to them so they have to try to figure out His mind like superstitious people? The way God revealed His plan to Moses, Jonah, and Paul is the same way He will also reveal it to us. The work of God is the task that someone is currently engaged in, their position in society, in their family, in a body of Christ. There is no need for anyone to tell them otherwise. If there is an encouragement or exhortation, it is for those who may be facing challenges in whatever task they’re currently undertaking.

He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all–how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? (Romans 8:32)

All things. Including serving God.

Nghi Nguyen

- Scripture quoted by permission. All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2006 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. All rights reserved.

Disclaimer: This is my own opinion on the topic, which does not necessarily reflect the church's theology, or beliefs of the individuals in it — Nghi Nguyen

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