We are here taught,
I. That the giving of offences is a great sin, and that which we should every one of us avoid and carefully watch against, Luke 17:1, 2. We can expect no other than that offences will come, considering the perverseness and frowardness that are in the nature of man, and the wise purpose and counsel of God, who will carry on his work even by those offences, and bring good out of evil. It is almost impossible but that offences will come, and therefore we are concerned to provide accordingly; but woe to him through whom they come, his doom will be heavy (Luke 17:2), more terrible than that of the worst of the malefactors who are condemned to be thrown into the sea, for they perish under a load of guilt more ponderous than that of millstones. This includes a woe, 1. To persecutors, who offer any injury to the least of Christ’s little ones, in word or deed, by which they are discouraged in serving Christ, and doing their duty, or in danger of being driven off from it. 2. To seducers, who corrupt the truths of Christ and his ordinances, and so trouble the minds of the disciples; for they are those by whom offences come. 3. To those who, under the profession of the Christian name, live scandalously, and thereby weaken the bands and sadden the hearts of God’s people; for by them the offence comes, and it is no abatement of their guilt, nor will be any of their punishment, that it is impossible but offences will come.
II. That the forgiving of offences is a great duty, and that which we should every one of us make conscience of (Luke 17:3): Take heed to yourselves. This may refer either to what goes before, or to what follows: Take heed that you offend not one of these little ones. Ministers must be very careful not to say or do any thing that may be a discouragement to weak Christians; there is need of great caution, and they ought to speak and act very considerately, for fear of this: or, “When your brother trespasses against you, does you any injury, puts any slight or affront upon you, if he be accessary to any damage done you in your property or reputation, take heed to yourselves at such a time, lest you be put into a passion; lest, when your spirits are provoked, you speak unadvisedly, and rashly vow to revenge (Prov. 24:29): I will do so to him as he hath done to me. Take heed what you say at such a time, lest you say amiss.”
1. If you are permitted to rebuke him, you are advised to do so. Smother not the resentment, but give it vent. Tell him his faults; show him wherein he has not done well nor fairly by you, and, it may be, you will perceive (and you must be very willing to perceive it) that you mistook him, that it was not a trespass against you, or not designed, but an oversight, and then you will beg his pardon for misunderstanding him; as Josh. 22:30, 31.
2. You are commanded, upon his repentance, to forgive him, and to be perfectly reconciled to him: If he repent, forgive him; forget the injury, never think of it again, much less upbraid him with it. Though he do not repent, you must not therefore bear malice to him, nor meditate revenge; but, it he do not at least say that he repents, you are not bound to be so free and familiar with him as you have been. If he be guilty of gross sin, to the offence of the Christian community he is a member of, let him be gravely and mildly reproved for his sin, and, upon his repentance, received into friendship and communion again. This the apostle calls forgiveness, 2 Cor. 2:7.
3. You are to repeat this every time he repeats his trespass, Luke 17:4. “If he could be supposed to be either so negligent, or so impudent, as to trespass against thee seven times in a day, and as often profess himself sorry for his fault, and promise not again to offend in like manner, continue to forgive him.” Humanum est errare—To ere is human. Note, Christians should be of a forgiving spirit, willing to make the best of every body, and to make all about them easy; forward to extenuate faults, and not to aggravate them; and they should contrive as much to show that they have forgiven an injury as others to show that they resent it.
III. That we have all need to get our faith strengthened, because, as that grace grows, all other graces grow. The more firmly we believe the doctrine of Christ, and the more confidently we rely upon the grace of Christ, the better it will be with us every way. Now observe here, 1. The address which the disciples made to Christ, for the strengthening of their faith, Luke 17:5. The apostles themselves, so they are here called, though they were prime ministers of state in Christ’s kingdom, yet acknowledged the weakness and deficiency of their faith, and saw their need of Christ’s grace for the improvement of it; they said unto the Lord, “Increase our faith, and perfect what is lacking in it.” Let the discoveries of faith be more clear, the desires of faith more strong, the dependences of faith more firm and fixed, the dedications of faith more entire and resolute, and the delights of faith more pleasing. Note, the increase of our faith is what we should earnestly desire, and we should offer up that desire to God in prayer. Some think that they put up this prayer to Christ upon occasion of his pressing upon them the duty of forgiving injuries: “Lord, increase our faith, or we shall never be able to practise such a difficult duty as this.” Faith in God’s pardoning mercy will enable us to get over the greatest difficulties that lie in the way of our forgiving our brother. Others think that it was upon some other occasion, when the apostles were run aground in working some miracle, and were reproved by Christ for the weakness of their faith, as Matt. 17:16 To him that blamed them they must apply themselves for grace to mend them; to him they cry, Lord, increase our faith. 2. The assurance Christ gave them of the wonderful efficacy of true faith (Luke 17:6): “If ye had faith as a grain of mustard-seed, so small as mustard-seed, but yours is yet less than the least; or so sharp as mustard-seed, so pungent, so exciting to all other graces, as mustard to the animal spirits,” and therefore used in palsies, “you might do wonders much beyond what you now do; nothing would be too hard for you, that was fit to be done for the glory of God, and the confirmation of the doctrine you preach, yea, though it were the transplanting of a tree from the earth to the sea.” See Matt. 17:20. As with God nothing is impossible, so are all things possible to him that can believe.
IV. That, whatever we do in the service of Christ, we must be very humble, and not imagine that we can merit any favour at his hand, or claim it as a debt; even the apostles themselves, who did so much more for Christ than others, must not think that they had thereby made him their debtor. 1. We are all God’s servants (his apostles and ministers are in a special manner so), and, as servants, are bound to do all we can for his honour. Our whole strength and our whole time are to be employed for him; for we are not our own, nor at our own disposal, but at our Master’s. 2. As God’s servants, it becomes us to fill up our time with duty, and we have a variety of work appointed us to do; we ought to make the end of one service the beginning of another. The servant that has been ploughing, or feeding cattle, in the field, when he comes home at night has work to do still; he must wait at table, Luke 17:7, 8. When we have been employed in the duties of a religious conversation, that will not excuse us from the exercises of devotion; when we have been working for God, still we must be waiting on God, waiting on him continually. 3. Our principal care here must be to do the duty of our relation, and leave it to our Master to give us the comfort of it, when and how he thinks fit. No servant expects that his master should say to him, Go and sit down to meat; it is time enough to do that when we have done our day’s work. Let us be in care to finish our work, and to do that well, and then the reward will come in due time. 4. It is fit that Christ should be served before us: Make ready wherewith I may sup, and afterwards thou shalt eat and drink. Doubting Christians say that they cannot give to Christ the glory of his love as they should, because they have not yet obtained the comfort of it; but this is wrong. First let Christ have the glory of it, let us attend him with our praises, and then we shall eat and drink in the comfort of that love, and in this there is a feast. 5. Christ’s servants, when they are to wait upon him, must gird themselves, must free themselves from every thing that is entangling and encumbering, and fit themselves with a close application of mind to go on, and go through, with their work; they must gird up the loins of their mind. When we have prepared for Christ’s entertainment, have made ready wherewith he may sup, we must then gird ourselves, to attend him. This is expected from servants, and Christ might require it from us, but he does not insist upon it. He was among his disciples as one that served, and came not, as other masters, to take state, and to be ministered unto, but to minister; witness his washing his disciples’ feet. 6. Christ’s servants do not so much as merit his thanks for any service they do him: “Does he thank that servant? Does he reckon himself indebted to him for it? No, by no means.” No good works of ours can merit any thing at the hand of God. We expect God’s favour, not because we have by our services made him a debtor to us, but because he has by his promises made himself a debtor to his own honour, and this we may plead with him, but cannot sue for a quantum meruit—according to merit. 7. Whatever we do for Christ, though it should be more perhaps than some others do, yet it is no more than is our duty to do. Though we should do all things that are commanded us, and alas! in many things we come short of this, yet there is no work of supererogation; it is but what we are bound to by that first and great commandment of loving God with all our heart and soul, which includes the utmost. 8. The best servants of Christ, even when they do the best services, must humbly acknowledge that they are unprofitable servants; though they are not those unprofitable servants that bury their talents, and shall be cast into utter darkness, yet as to Christ, and any advantage that can accrue to him by their services, they are unprofitable; our goodness extendeth not unto God, nor if we are righteous is he the better, Ps. 16:2; Job 22:2; 35:7. God cannot be a gainer by our services, and therefore cannot be made a debtor by them. He has no need of us, nor can our services make any addition to his perfections. It becomes us therefore to call ourselves unprofitable servants, but to call his service a profitable service, for God is happy without us, but we are undone without him.