Q235 : Sons or Unprofitable Servants?

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Q235 : Sons or Unprofitable Servants?

A have a question concerning the following passage from the book of Luke:

And which of you, having a servant plowing or tending sheep, will say to him when he has come in from the field, 'Come at once and sit down to eat'? But will he not rather say to him, 'Prepare something for my supper, and gird yourself and serve me till I have eaten and drunk, and afterward you will eat and drink'? Does he thank that servant because he did the things that were commanded him? I think not. So likewise you, when you have done all those things which you are commanded, say, 'We are unprofitable servants. We have done what was our duty to do.' (Luke 17:7-10)1

These verses of the Lord are a direct, plain teaching that we are to consider ourselves only as “unprofitable servants.” But New Testament elsewhere teaches us that we are sons of God through Christ.

Therefore you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ. (Gal. 4:7)2

We see a tension between these two teachings. Is it that the Lord was only explaining the undeserved grace poured on us? But that does not really solve the tension.

In New Testament times servants were mostly bonded slaves. Our Lord clearly teaches that we should humble ourselves before God with the attitude of “unprofitable servants” or bonded slaves. But the Apostle very clearly teaches we are not slaves, but sons and heirs (Gal. 4:7), even adopted into God's family:

For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, “Abba, Father.”3

What is your approach to this problem? Could you please explain.


1.NKJV, Luke 17:7-10
2.Gal. 4:7, NKJV
3.Rom. 8:14-15, NKJV


NKJVUnless indicated otherwise, all Scripture references are from the New King James Version, copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

A235 : by Tony Garland

As with many “tensions” we find within the teaching of Scripture, both perspectives are true. These are complementary teachings which balance one another. The context of each passage provides helpful clues to help us understand there is no real tension.

Unprofitable Servants

In Luke's passage, Jesus has just responded to a request by the apostles to “Increase our faith!” He responds, with the right kind of faith—even little faith—a tree “could be uprooted and planted in the sea, and it would obey you” (Luke 17:6). The example Jesus gave emphasized the power of faith in God and what could potentially be achieved by it. This could have easily been misinterpreted as an endorsement of the use of impressive acts of power: it [the tree] would obey you! The next verse (Luke 17:7) opens with the Greek post-positive, adversative particle, δὲ [de], which can be translated as “and, a marker of an addition, sometimes implying a contrast (Tit 1:1) . . . then, a marker of closely related events (Mt 1:2) . . . but, a marker of contrast.”1 Although several translations ignore this particle completely, providing no equivalent word in the English, the particle in the original implies that what Jesus said in Luke 17:7-10 was connected to the teaching that went before (Luke 17:5-6). It would seem that the passage where Jesus emphasizes that believers are “unprofitable servants” is intended to balance their tendency toward prideful ministry.

A similar concept was conveyed by Jesus when He washed the feet of the disciples in the upper room:

So when He had washed their feet, taken His garments, and sat down again, He said to them, "Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you say well, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you. Most assuredly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him. (John 13:12-16)2

True Sons

Next, let's look at the context of the Galatians passage. In Galatians 3, Paul is building upon the idea that “only those who are of faith are sons of Abraham” (Gal. 3:7). Paul is contrasting our relationship to God under the law with our relationship to God by faith. The law served as a tutor, παιδαγωγὸς [paidagōgos], a guardian or supervisor, often in charge of an underage son until he comes to maturity (Gal. 3:24). While under the authority of the pedagogue, the true son is treated much like a lowly servant within the household.

Now I say that the heir, as long as he is a child, does not differ at all from a slave, though he is master of all, but is under guardians and stewards until the time appointed by the father. Even so we, when we were children, were in bondage under the elements of the world. (Gal. 4:1–3)3

When the son matured, he no longer occupied a position similar to that of a servant (Gal. 3:25). He then was eligible for the full inheritance.

But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying out, “Abba, Father!” Therefore you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ. (Gal. 4:4-7) 4

Paul's contrasting use of servanthood and sonship needs to be seen in context. He is contrasting true sonship (walking by faith after Jesus) with being under a guardian, which was similar to being a servant in the household (under law prior to Jesus). Even so, the son was at all times eligible to receive the inheritance upon maturity.

In conclusion, in the Luke passage, Jesus balances His previous teaching concerning the power of faith with the need for humility. In Galatians, Paul wants believers to see their position, by faith like that of Abraham, as true sons of God wherein they inherit everything that Jesus has earned on their behalf.

Believers are both servants and sons. We are called to humble service, yet we also inherit greater riches than this world will ever know. In both passages believers should understand their need for humility since they themselves are not the source of the riches they receive as sons:

Now these things, brethren, I have figuratively transferred to myself and Apollos for your sakes, that you may learn in us not to think beyond what is written, that none of you may be puffed up on behalf of one against the other. For who makes you differ from another? And what do you have that you did not receive? Now if you did indeed receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it? (1Cor. 4:6–7)5


1.Ref-0617, #1254
2.John 13:12-16, NKJV
3.Gal. 4:1-3, NKJV
4.Gal. 4:4–7, NKVJ
5.1Cor. 4:6-7, NKJV


Ref-0617James Swanson, Dictionary of Biblical Languages With Semantic Domains : Greek (New Testament), electronic ed. (Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997).

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