“Well done, good and faithful servant”
Many of us love to cite this when somebody dies. Particularly when a seemingly godly saint or a church leader who has been greatly used by the Lord ascends to glory. I have absolutely no doubt such people do hear these words from the Lord Jesus.
But there is sometimes a subtext behind these words. A subtext that makes us wonder whether we will hear such words. Have we been good and faithful servants? Have we done enough to get this commendation from Jesus? The worry for many of us is that we don’t consider ourselves to be as godly as the people to whom we typically apply this. Some of us definitely aren’t considered as godly as them by other onlookers either. Perhaps this commendation isn’t for us? The subtext is that only those who have been good and faithful servants will hear these words.
The problem with this mode of thinking is that even the most godly of people we think will get that commendation have almost certainly not been all that good and faithful really either. Sure, they may have been good and faithful by our standards. Placed next to, say, me. By that relative standard, yes, they have been good and faithful. But stood next to the Lord Jesus, how good and faithful have they been? Of course, only the Lord and those people know the whole truth, but scripture seems pretty clear about the answer. None of us are so faithful.
A closely related concern is whether we can possibly please God. Aren’t all our righteous deeds like filthy rags? Doesn’t sin so stain everything that, though we are accepted by God in Christ, pleasing him as sinners is a nice but wholly impossible matter? Isn’t it the case that God accepts us despite our sin? We are recipients of God’s grace, not people able to please him. Certainly not able to please him to any extent that it might work as merit.
Whilst I understand where these concerns come from, and the biblical theology that gets people there, they go awry by forgetting another key theological matter: union with Christ. The reason why I am sure all those dead people we say will hear ‘well done good and faithful servant’ have actually heard it is not because they have been especially great or faithful. The reason they will hear it is the same reason every Christian will hear it. They will hear it because Jesus has been faithful and, by their union with him, his perfectly faithful life becomes theirs. They are clothed in Christ’s righteousness and considered perfectly faithful by the Father. It is why even those of us who don’t feel all that faithful will still hear that commendation from Jesus, if our faith in him is genuine.
By the same token, we can really please God. When Jesus was baptised, God said ‘this is my Son with whom I am well pleased’. By our union with Christ, we know that we become sons of God (even female believers – we are not sons and daughters but all of us are specifically sons). This matters because we become sons of God because we are adopted into the Son’s sonship. We are, then, united to Christ. If the Father can look at Jesus and say ‘this is my son with whom I am well pleased’, and we become sons of God adopted into the Son’s sonship, what is he likely to say of every one of us? We become sons with whom he is already well pleased. Indeed, because of God’s perfect good pleasure in Jesus, by our union with Christ, God can be no more pleased with us than he already is. We are truly and properly adopted by God and have his pleasure upon us because of all that Jesus achieved on our behalf.
This means the commendation of good and faithful servant is not saved for only those A-grade super-Christians, great and godly as they may seem to us. It is a commendation that belongs to all of God’s people because of Christ. Similarly, we can actually please God. He is already pleased with us because of Christ. Just as with our own children, we can do things that grieve him and we can do things that particularly please him. Nevertheless, just as I take pleasure in my own children without them having to do anything to earn my good pleasure, so God takes pleasure in his children without us having to do anything particularly to earn it. Indeed, it is because of Christ and our union with him that he takes delight in us. We are all considered good and faithful servants and all people in whom God takes pleasure – not because of our astounding faithfulness – but because of Jesus, our union with him and his perfect, faithful life that is properly and completely applied to all those whose faith is in him alone.