Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 32: Matthew, Mark and Luke, Part II, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
7. But which of you that hath a servant ploughing or feeding, when he hath returned from the field, will immediately say to him, Come 314 and sit down at table? 8. And doth not rather say to him, Prepare supper for me, and gird thyself, and serve me, till I have eaten and drunk, and, after that, eat and drink thou. 315 9. Doth he thank that servant, 316 because he did the things which were commanded him? I suppose not. 10. So likewise, when you shall have done those things which were commanded you, do you say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done what we were bound to do.
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. 317 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. 318 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, (Ro 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 319 , 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. 320 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. 321 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.
10. We have done what we were bound to do. That is, “we have brought nothing of our own, but have only done what we were bound by the law to do ” Christ speaks here of an entire observance of the law, which is nowhere to be found; for the most perfect of all men is still at a great distance from that righteousness which the law demands. The present question is not, Are we justified by works? but, Is the observance of the law meritorious of any reward from God? This latter question is answered in the negative; for God holds us for his slaves, and therefore reckons all that can proceed from us to be his just right. Nay, though it were true, that a reward is due to the observance of the law in respect of merit, it will not therefore follow that any man is justified by the merits of works; for we all fail: and not only is our obedience imperfect, but there is not a single part of it that corresponds exactly to the judgment of God.
“Avance-toy incontinent;” — “come forward immediately.”
“Et apres cela tu mangeras et boiras;” — “and after that thou shalt eat and drink.”
“Scait-il gre a ce serviteur-la?” — “does he feel obliged to that servant?”
“Il ne pent pas estre nostre deteur;” — “he cannot be our debtor.”
“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.”
“Selon les conventions contenus en la Loy;” — “according to the engagements contained in the Law.”
“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.”
“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: