The Beauty of Duty

Duty is defined as “that which one is morally or legally bound to do.” That defines duty in an absolute sense. Another definition is “action or conduct required by one’s profession or position.” That might, often does, involve absolutes, but the particular actions required are relative to the skill, qualification, interpersonal relations, and professional office of a person. My duties to my children are different from my duties to the children of others but are not on that account less than absolute.

On occasion, public speakers, including preachers of the gospel, will belittle “duty” as if it is an inferior motivation for action or compliance to standards. Delight is seen as a superior motivation while duty is—Well, if I have to do it, OK—synonymous with begrudging action. One brings his wife flowers because it is his delight to do so, for he is delighted with her. If he gives her flowers presenting them to her out of a sense of duty, this is connoted as a lackluster action deserving scorn. But this tendency to diminish the excellence of a sense of duty is misguided. It is a moral error. The husband’s duty is to love his wife as his own body, for he who loves his wife loves himself (Ephesians 5:28; Genesis 2:22, 23). To treat one’s wife tenderly, to look to her desires and happiness, to bring her flowers, to live with her according to knowledge is to love her, to delight in her, and at the same time to do one’s duty.

The bifurcation between duty and delight is one of the sinister results of the fall. That one can feel duty to be a burden is one evidence of how the flesh lusts against the Spirit. In Galatians 5, Paul investigates the relationship of the law to love and the operations of the Spirit. Through love, we serve one another (13). By the flesh, we “bite and devout one another” (15). The whole law, that is, the whole duty of one person to another, is fulfilled in this, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” So how does one overcome the antipathy of the flesh to the law of love? “Walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh” (16). The Spirit, law, and love unite in giving expression to human duty. When one walks by the Spirit and bears the fruit that the Spirit produces (5:22, 23), he does nothing contrary to law but walks aligned with the law. God’s law constitutes the duty of man and at the same time is the perfect expression of love.

The bifurcation between duty and delight is one of the sinister results of the fall.

I will not seek to investigate vigorously the relation between benevolent love and complacent love but only this.  God loves sinners out of benevolent love as far as his knowledge of their sin and rebellion is concerned and their consequent worthiness of eternal wrath. There is nothing lovely in us that would give God pleasure in loving us.  He does nurture, however, a complacency in his unmerited favor toward sinners, for he does this to the praise of his glorious grace and the demonstration of the “depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God” (Ephesians 1:6; Romans 11:33). His benevolence toward us, therefore, finds it foundation in true complacence toward himself. On our part, both benevolent love and complacent love is due to God, first, foremost, and unstinted and then to all other things on his account. He has the most of being and is in fact the only thing that has being in and of himself, the only self-existent entity, and infinitely so, in all of reality—so benevolence is due him above all things. In addition, his being not only is large and indestructible but is beautiful, the sum of all goodness. Jonathan Edwards argues, “For as God is infinitely the greatest Being, so he is allowed to be infinitely the most beautiful and excellent.” Real virtue then, the faithful expression of duty, “must necessarily have a supreme love to God both of benevolence and complacence” at its core. All is derived from him and is absolutely dependent on him and his “being and beauty are, as it were, the sum and comprehension of all existence and excellence” [Works, BOT 1:125]. God’s comprehensive and infinite excellence, therefore, establishes the consuming duty of all intelligent creatures to love him in seamless devotion of all our parts.

Resistance to duty is resistance to moral perfection and resistance to love—both for God and man, neighbor and family. Nurturing selfishness and personal pleasure at the cost of loving service equals lawlessness rather than obedience, flesh-following rather than Spirit-walking, irregularity rather than duty. In the unfallen state of man, obedience to the law written on the heart was the supreme delight of Adam and Eve. To expand their vision of God’s attributes and to be more maturely conformed to his beautiful perfection was the goal that drove their obedience. This moral propensity was used perversely by Satan to entice them to disobedience—“His mercy is greater than his law and this act is the very path to be like him.” Such reasoning deceived Eve to take an independent path to these goals and brought about the fall. As uncorrupted image-bearers, however, their duty was their delight and the prospect of unwavering obedience their true happiness. Andrew Fuller stated in his confession of faith, “I believe if Adam or any holy being had had the making of a law for himself, he would have made just such an one as God’s law is; for it would be the greatest of hardships to a holy being not to be allowed to love God with all his heart.” In the unfallen state, they loved the duty that was theirs; the obligation that was perfectly commensurate with the righteousness set before them was no burden but their holy hope.

Presently, fallen creatures have no regard for God. Instead, they shut off from their contemplation the power and perfection that should be obvious from the witness of every created thing around them. Duty is reprehensible because the concept of divine beauty, power, and prerogative conflicts with the corrupt mind in its self-centered, rather than God-centered, goals. If any sinners are to be converted, each must come to grips with the distance between their affections and their duties. 

The new birth involves a reconciliation of affections with duties. The faith that adheres to justifying righteousness approves God’s righteous law, righteous judgment, righteous atonement, and righteous reconciliation. Saving faith admits that our duty toward such righteous expressions of divine goodness infinitely transcends and is radically other than our pursuit. Sanctification progresses in proportion to the affections’ realignment with intrinsic duties. Again, Andrew Fuller presses this truth into a confessional article: “I believe that such is the excellence of this way of salvation, that every one who hears or has opportunity to hear it proclaimed in the gospel is bound [italics mine] to repent of his sin, believe, approve, and embrace it with all his heart; to consider himself, as he really is, a vile lost sinner; to reject all pretensions to life in any other way; and to cast himself upon Christ, that he may be saved in this way of God’s devising. This I think to be true faith, which whoever have, I believe will certainly be saved.” One’s being “bound” to these responses mean that every stage and trait of justifying faith arises from duty. Reconciliation with God necessarily involves reconciliation of our highest desire with our highest duty.

Nurturing selfishness and personal pleasure at the cost of loving service equals lawlessness rather than obedience.

When one grasps accurately the moral loveliness that requires the devotion of all moral beings, it is impossible to dismiss duty as an inferior motivation for action; rather one sees duty as a moral disposition, an aesthetic judgment, a true perception of fitness, a consent to perfect being, and a joyful submission to expressions of order, law, love, moral symmetry, infallible purpose, transcendent wisdom, and divine revelation. Duty permeates the entire calling of the minister of the gospel and the message that he preaches. Again, listen to the confession of Andrew Fuller:

I believe it is the duty of every minister of Christ plainly and faithfully to preach the gospel to all who will hear it; and as I believe the inability of men to spiritual things to be wholly of the moral, and therefore of the criminal kind, and that it is their duty to love the Lord Jesus Christ and trust in him for salvation though they do not; I therefore believe free and solemn addresses, invitations, calls, and warning to them to be not only consistent, but directly adapted, as means, in the hand of the Spirit of God, to bring them to Christ. I consider it as a part of my duty which I could not omit without being guilty of the blood of souls.

Why does Fuller say that it is the sinner’s “duty to love the Lord Jesus Christ and trust in him for salvation.” The first concerns the fullness of the law; before all things and with all the energy of the mind, the will, the understanding, and the affections the Lord Jesus, in whom the fullness of the Godhead dwells, is to be loved. Having fallen short of that in Adam and in personal transgression, sinners need a path to righteousness and thus life. In Jesus that righteousness has been perfected and the merit of eternal life is found in him alone. A complete resting of the soul on his work (trust) as alone worthy unites the soul to him. He is the Lord, and, also, he has loved the Lord his Father with all his heart, mind, soul, and strength. He is the goal of the law and he is the perfect doer of the law. The duty, therefore, to love him absolutely and to trust him for salvation is based on the same moral excellence involved in both. 

Duty, in reality, as indicated above is prior to love. The focus of love is determined by the duty implied in the excellence of the object. The greater the excellence, the greater the duty; the greater the duty, the higher and more focused the love. The infinitely perfect being calls forth our devotion and admiration; the law of such a being establishes our duty. That all things exist by his will and serve his purpose gives us varying degrees of duty toward all that he made and sustains. “You are worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honor and power; for you created all things, and by your will they exist and were created” (Revelation 4:11). Though varied in degree, all duty is absolute. We have a duty to our pets as well as our parents, but the latter is of a higher degree of duty that the former. How the glory of God is manifest in each thing and in each relationship determines the intensity of duty involved. Food and drink are good and are partaken with gratitude and to God’s glory and with a fully-approving conscience, but may be omitted for the sake of the conscience of a brother (1 Corinthians 10:29-33). Fundamental to love, therefore, is the level of duty that defines each relation.

Articles in this edition of The Founders Journal treat those areas of duty that are of the highest order. The first is from the opening chapter of John L. Dagg’s Manual of Theology and explores the duty to love God. On this duty hang the reality and peculiar relevance of all other duties. 

Another article by Paul Taylor deals with the duties of church membership. Christ has died for the church, has called and gifted every member and united all these members in one common goal to achieve the “measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” {Ephesians 4:13). There is a duty, therefore, that each part of  this body do its work which “causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love” (Ephesians 4:16). 

Another article, by Ryan Denton, concerns the ongoing witness of the church, corporately and individually, with a view to the conversion of sinners. This is to occur until the final elect one is called. Benjamin Keach stated that the “task and calling of the minister as an ambassador” is “to persuade sinners to receive and embrace the Lord Jesus.” The truths of Christ’s seeking and finding all of his people should stir up ministers “to do their utmost in order to the conversion of sinners.” They should not be weary, nor faint, nor be discouraged even when reproached by men and Satan for “God has appointed preaching as his great ordinance, for the … conversion of lost sinners.”[i]  And though the minister has no power either of virtue or persuasion to change a heart and bring a sinner home, but only Christ alone by his Spirit can do that, nevertheless,  ministers “are to do what they can, they are to invite them, press, them, entreat and persuade them to come.”[ii]  A faithful ministry “will do what the Lord commands them to do” with the confidence that “in God’s heart is room enough for millions of souls; and in God’s house there is not only bread enough, and to spare, but room enough also.”[iii]  A minister of Christ, in order “to accomplish his Ambassy, and to bring the King’s Enemies to accept of Peace,” must pray, entreat,  and “beseech Sinners to be reconciled to God.”  In fact, like the apostle who cried tears over the lost, “Faithful Ministers art willing to spend their Lives to win Souls to Christ, yea, to die upon the spot to save one poor Sinner.” Ryan Denton reminds us, in Keach-like fashion, that this duty cannot be transcended in demonstrating love to God and man.

Concluding this edition of the Founders Journal is a brief resume of the Nature of True Virtue by Jonathan Edwards. This work is perhaps the most profound discussion on duty—its true beauty and its intrinsic ethical absoluteness—in American evangelical literature. We pray that each of these articles and the impact of the whole will give unction for holiness and faithful service.

[i] Benjamin Keach, Parables., 368-370.

[ii] Keach., 546.

[iii] Keach, 546.

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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