The Divine Definition of Excellence

Andreas Kostenberger wrote a book on Excellence in scholarship. He argues that a theology of God’s excellence is the foundation of any practical theology of excellence. His thoughts are very helpful and challenging. I encourage you to take a moment and reflect on what he suggests here. A link to the first chapter of the book is included below.

God is the grounds of all true excellence. He is the one who fills any definition of excellence with meaning, and he is the reason why we cannot be content with lackluster mediocrity, halfhearted effort, or substandard scholarship. Excellence starts and ends with God and is first and foremost a hallmark and attribute of God. Without God as our starting point and continual frame of reference, our discussion of excellence would be hopelessly inadequate.

Systematic theologies generally do not list “excellence” as one of God’s attributes. For this reason it may appear at first glance that excellence is not all that important. This conclusion would be premature, however, for excellence can be viewed as an overarching divine attribute that encompasses all the others. Everything God is and does is marked by excellence. Wayne Grudem discusses God’s summary attributes of perfection, blessedness, beauty, and glory as “attributes that summarize his excellence.”

Perfection indicates that “God lacks nothing in his excellence.” Blessedness points to the fact that “God takes pleasure in everything in creation that mirrors his own excellence.” Beauty is a reflection of God’s excellence, and “God’s glory is something that belongs to him alone and is the appropriate outward expression of his own excellence.”6 Understanding excellence as an all-encompassing attribute of God also means that the concept is not exhausted by the word “excellence.” Other descriptions of the uniqueness, greatness, glory, or perfection of God are pertinent as well.

As we have seen, God truly excels in the sense that he stands out from all the rest. His excellence is evident in his unmatched superiority to everyone and everything else. Because God is the proper standard of excellence, we should not measure our achievements by comparing ourselves with others. Our pursuit of excellence should not take place in the kind of competitive spirit according to which only few can participate and where in the end there is only one winner. Since we are all created in God’s image, everyone can be truly excellent. God is unique, and we are made uniquely in his image as distinct creatures. We can each achieve excellence as we are increasingly fulfilling the potential God has built into us.

Since excellence, then, is an all-encompassing attribute of God, and since we are exhorted in Scripture to imitate God, having been made in his likeness, excellence should mark our lives as his children, extending both to who we are (our character and our relationships) and what we do (our work or vocation). Excellence should characterize every thought we have, every paper we write, every relationship we pursue, every assignment we undertake, and every word we speak (see, e.g., Matt. 12:36–37; Eph. 4:29; James 3:1–12). Excellence should describe our lives in their totality and encompass every area of our lives, no matter how large or small.




The Remedy for Fear

If there is one thing that should strike fear in a heart it is the certainty of divine judgment and the potential of eternal punishment. In a sane person every other fear bows to this great terror. Accountability in the face of omniscience and holiness is a sobering reality.

The gospel of God is tremendous news as it drives to the heart of this deep concern. Judgment day is ripped out of the future and brought into the present when Christ goes to the cross in our stead. The cross is the courtroom. The verdict is condemnation for Jesus and righteousness for us. This is the gospel. He was our substitute. Judgement has happened.

Love motivated this saving work. It is God’s love that dispels all fear and replaces it with joyful confidence. Hear what John says about the matter in his first letter.

“So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:16-19).

Fear is the prey of love. There is no peaceful co-existence between the two. Love attacks, fear runs. How mighty is the love of God! It assaults our fear and instills us with confidence for the day we fear most.

The love of God ensures that punishment is not in our future. His love is a static reality, it is fixed and unmoving. The cross stands as the objective reminder of God’s enduring love. Our grasp of that love, however, is often unstable and moving.

This is why John articulates the need to be “perfected” in our grasp of God’s love for us. The idea of perfection here is development, maturity or completion. As we grow into our grasp of God’s love in Christ our confidence also increases.

We must always distinguish between objective reality and our subjective experience. There is no condemnation present or future for those in Christ, judgement day has happened. That is a fixed reality, whether I feel like it or not.

I waiver in my faith. I doubt God’s promises. I question God’s love. My obedience is flawed. I do not always feel confident about judgement day. These are all part of my subjective experiences of faith. I waiver and how I feel about the gospel and judgement day moves. This does not change the settled reality, it simply speaks to my interaction with it.

The goal: move the subjective experience closer and closer to the objective reality. Confidence in coming day of judgement is an indicator that the objective and subjective are converging.

Locating Joy: Fellowship with God

In the previous posts on joy we looked at the Triune God as the true source of all joy and the biblical theme of joy in God’s presence. The New Testament pushes us one more step in understanding the dynamic of joy. Take a look at 1 John 1:3-4.

That which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.

The good news that John proclaims is the message that links people to the Triune God. Gospel trust leads to Triune fellowship. This is where joy is made complete. Of note, it is fellowship with the Father and the Son that completes our joy.

In other words, joy is experienced as we know relationship with the distinct persons of the Trinity. The ultimate gift of the gospel is God himself—he gives the fulness of himself to us. That means the Father gives himself, the Son gives himself, the Spirit gives himself.

When acted upon by God we experience the grace of the entire Trinity. The relationship that God creates through our redemption is marked by communion with the entire Trinity. As we engage all three persons, joy awaits.


Locating Joy: God’s Presence

The Trinity is the source of all joy, it follows that nearness to him correlates to our experience of joy. If you read through the storyline of Scripture with an eye to the theme of joy there is a discernible pattern that will emerge—joy and celebration are consistently experienced in the presence of God.

The symbol of God’s presence in the Old Testament was the tabernacle and temple. In the stories where the tabernacle and temple are built there is great joy. We see this in every tabernacle/temple building or re-building narrative.

The book of Psalms, likely the book with the most references to joy, is focused on the the worship of God in the temple. The destruction of the temple is the occasion for the book Lamentations, clearly showing that sorrow is directly connected to distance from God’s presence.

This theme carries through to the New Testament where Jesus tabernacles among us (Jn 1:14). We become the temple of the Holy Spirit. And we await the time when the entire earth will become his temple. Every time God takes up residence with his people joy is the response. The Psalmist could not be more clear: “In Your Presence is fullness of joy” (Ps 16:11).

Circumstances do not dictate joy, presence does. You see, for the Christian there are two constants in life: pain and presence. We live in a world wracked by the curse and faltering under the weight of sin. It is our reality and it causes us great sorrow in our souls.

Yet, we who have trusted in Jesus Christ have the Holy Spirit residing in us and the promise that God will never leave us, which means he is always Immanuel. He is God with us! His presence is connected to joy, hence the possibility of rejoicing in the midst of sorrow. It is his presence that enables us to know joy in impossible situations.

Christmas & Unexpected Majesty

The Christmas story is filled with all kinds of unlikely, unexpected twists and turns. The sleepy town of Bethlehem, a teenage virgin, a stable, a crowd of animals and shepherds, a crib—are we sure the one promised to reign and rule, the one coming in might and majesty, the one promised to save and shepherd his people has chosen such a strange entrance?

Yes! We must step back and realize that Christmas is as much about God’s showing work as it is about his saving work. The nativity story is a divine autobiography. God is telling us about himself. He is revealing to the world just who He is and what He is like. The reason the story is so unexpected is because the majesty of our God is unexpected.

The nativity helps us recognize that the glory of God is seen in humility, passion and generosity. It is glimpsed in the paradox of the “Ancient of Days” taking his first breath as a new born baby. Augustine in one of his Christmas homilies beautifully captures the majesty of God in the paradox of the incarnation as he explores the Creator of all knit together in Mary’s womb.

The Word of the Father, by whom all time was created, was made flesh and was born In time for us. He, without whose divine permission no day completes its course, wished to have one day [set aside] for His human birth. In the bosom of His Father, He existed before all the cycles of ages; born of an earthly Mother, He entered upon the course of the years on this day. The Maker of man became Man that He, Ruler of the stars, might be nourished at the breast; that He, the Bread, might be hungry; that He, the Fountain, might thirst; that He, the Light, might sleep; that He, the Way, might be wearied by the journey; that He, the Truth, might be accused by false witnesses; that He, the Judge of the living and the dead, might be brought to trial by a mortal judge; that He, Justice, might be condemned by the unjust; that He, Discipline, might be scourged with whips; that He, the Grape, might be crowned with thorns; that He, the Foundation, might be suspended upon a cross; that Courage might be weakened; that Security might be wounded; that Life might die. To endure these and similar indignities for us, to free us, unworthy creatures, He who ‘existed as the Son of God before all ages, without a beginning, deigned to become the Son of Man in these recent years. He did this although He who submitted to such great evils for our sake had done no evil and although we, who were the recipients of so much good at His hands, had done nothing to merit these benefits. Begotten by the Father, He was not made by the Father; He was made Man in the Mother whom He Himself had made, so that He might exist here for a while, sprung from her who could never and nowhere have existed except through His power.

Remember, the greatest gift of Christmas is always getting more of God. It is about glimpsing more of his majesty and wonder. May he grant us the joy of the angels on that first Christmas day, the gratitude of the Shepherds who welcomed into the world and the persistence and wisdom of the Magi to seek him with our whole hearts. Merry Christmas!

Locating Joy: The Triune God

Joy in this world must always be explored against the backdrop of sorrow. In 2 Corinthians 6:10, Paul describes the Christian journey with the striking phrase: “we are sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.” The true surprise in this paradox is that joy can be present at all in a world so wracked with pain. How can it be? Where does joy come from? How can it stand alongside sorrow?

Joy is not rooted in circumstance…if it were it would not exist alongside sorrow. Take a look at these texts.

  1. “The joy of the Lord is your strength.” (Neh 8:10)
  2. “Well done good and faithful servant enter into the joy of your Master.” (Matt 25:23)
  3. “That my joy may be made full in you.” (John 15:11)
  4. “The Fruit of the Holy Spirit is…joy.”(Gal 5:22)

In each of these texts there is a joy that belongs to God. Did you notice that each text also describes the joy of each of the Triune Persons. We see joy belonging to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The joy of the Lord is always the joy of the Trinity. Our God is the Triune God—one eternal God existing in three persons. God is perfect community, perfect unity, the perfect experience and expression of emotion, the perfection of relationship. It is in the Triune community that joy exists in its purest form.

The joy of God first and foremost takes shape in mutual delight. Before creation, God was fully satisfied and fulfilled in his Triune existence. The three persons delighted in one another, loved one another and shared true joy. It was out of the overflow of their love and joy that creation came to be. We see this joy in one another bursting forth in the storyline of Scripture: the Father delighting in the Son, the Son delighting in the Spirit and the Father, the Spirit delighting in the Father and the Son.

The paradoxical overlap of sorrow and joy is also rooted in the experience of God. In Christ we see the fulness of God. In him we see the God of joy and yet, he is the “man of sorrows” (Is 53:3). We see rejoicing and we see weeping. We see celebration and we see lament. He perfectly embodied the journey of being “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Cor 6:10).

Joy is located in the Triune God. He is truly the taproot, the fountainhead, the source of all joy. It only makes sense that the closer we get to the source of joy the more joy we will know. Proximity to God is the same as distance to joy. In the next post we will pick up and explore this dynamic.

The Lesser Known Reformers

You know Luther and Calvin, but are you familiar with John Knox or Heinrich Bullinger?  How about Jan Hus, Theodore Beza or Martin Bucer? Luther and Calvin are the most well known reformers, but there were other champions of the gospel during that time frame pushing for reform and return to the cardinal truths of Christianity.

Here are a few insights from these gentlemen.

“A man with God is always in the majority.” -John Knox

“For the Lord hath in no place forbidden mirth.” -Heinrich Bullinger

“Rejoice, that the immortal God is born, so that mortal man may live in eternity.” -Jan Hus

“What I have taught with my lips I now seal with my blood.” – Jan Hus

“Christ was anointed, so that he might be our king, teacher, and priest for ever. He will govern us, lest we lack any good thing or be oppressed by any ill; he will teach us the whole truth; and he will reconcile us to the Father eternally.” -Martin Bucer

“Does the corruption of your nature astonish you? The Son of God making himself man has fully sanctified it for you. Do your sins make you afraid, which be fruits of this corruption? He has borne them all upon the tree, and has paid for your discharge. Which more is, his righteousness is yours, if he himself is yours. Are you afraid of men, if God is for you? Does death make you afraid? It is vanquished and turned into an entry of life. Behold then all your enemies scattered, behold quite under foot, all such as afflicted you within and without, because the Lord allows you for one of his servants and household.      -Theodore Beza