Interview with

Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

Audio transcript

We have a trio of episodes recently on Jonathan Edwards, in episodes #554 and #556. And to finish it out, Jaeden, from Gold Coast, Australia, writes in: “Hi, Pastor John! I was reading Jonathan Edwards’s sermon ‘The Pure in Heart Blessed’ and came across the word ‘excellency.’ In context, it read: ‘Man’s true happiness is his perfection and true excellency.’ What does Edwards mean when he uses the word ‘excellent,’ or ‘excellency,’ in his writings?”

It is a very, very common word in Edwards. He loves to apply it to God. He loves to apply it to Christ. He sometimes applies it to us in our sanctified growth.

It is built, of course, on the term excel which means surpass and refers to that which surpasses other pretenders. “Surpasses them in what?” we should ask. Not in sin, of course, not in evil. God is not surpassing in evil. He is surpassing, he is exceeding, he is excelling in every right way, which raises the question, “Of what definition of right should we use in God since God is not measured by anything outside of God?” He doesn’t conform to a standard of rightness outside of God. That would be God if he did.

God is right because he feels and thinks and acts in perfect accord with his own infinite self or his own infinite worth. It is right to value infinitely what is infinitely valuable in God. It is right to think in perfect accord with the infinite knowledge of what is true; namely, God’s knowledge. It is right to act perfectly to reflect and display the fullness of God’s person.

So God’s excellency is his perfect feeling, thinking, and acting in harmony with himself. He excels all others in this. God’s excellency is his perfectly felt, perfectly thought, perfectly acted God-centeredness. And so to fill it out, God is supremely happy in this way of feeling and thinking and acting. He is happy in this way of being. And this infinite happiness is part of his excellency. His excellency includes the surpassing happiness that he has in feeling, thinking, and acting in perfect accord with his infinite worth.

And just to complete the picture, this divine happiness has the tendency to overflow so that God’s creation of the world is the sharing of his happiness in feeling and thinking and acting in accord with his infinite worth. In other words, God’s creation and redemption is for man’s enjoyment and praise and reflection of this happiness and this excellency. That is man’s excellency. When man joyfully feels and thinks and acts in accord with the infinite worth of God, this is man’s true excellency. If man is supremely happy in bringing all of his life into accord with what shows God as his supreme treasure, this is the man’s excellency, because it shows God’s true excellency.

Now Edwards sometimes uses the word glory in place of excellency and sometimes uses the word beauty in place of excellency. For example, he has a sermon called Safety, Fullness and Sweet Refreshment in Christ. And in it he says this: “The excellency of Christ is an infinite excellency, such a one as the mind desires in which it can find no bounds. Every new discovery makes this beauty appear more ravishing and the mind sees no end.” So he has replaced the word excellency with beauty and that tips you off. Beauty is what Edwards means by excellency — infinite beauty. And that can, then, in sentences replace excellency.

There is one more sermon that I want to refer to that helps. This is the essence of the matter, I think, very practically for the excellency of Christ or of God. He preached a sermon one time called — and I recommend it to everybody — The Excellency of Christ, based on Revelation 5:5–6 where Christ is described as both the lion of the tribe of Judah and the lamb standing as though it had been slain. And Edwards draws magnificently out of that juxtaposition — lion, lamb, lion, lamb — he draws out of that, Christ’s true excellency and beauty consists in the coming together in one person of beauties that seem contrary to each other — characteristics of a lamb and characteristics of a lion that seem contrary to each other, but cohere harmoniously and perfectly in one person.

That is his understanding of beauty. Things that seem to be opposites cohering in beautiful, perfect harmony in oneness. And here is the quote that I love. “Infinite highness and infinite condescension.” These are descriptions of the contraries that unite in Christ. “Infinite justice and infinite grace, infinite glory and lowest humility, infinite majesty and transcendent meekness, deepest reverence towards God and equality with God, infinite worthiness of good and the greatest patience under suffering evil, an exceeding spirit of obedience with supreme dominion over heaven and earth, absolute sovereignty and perfect resignation, self-sufficiency and an entire trust and reliance on God.”

That is what he means by the excellency of Christ. To the degree that we feel and think and act in ways that show that is our supreme treasure, that is our excellency.