God Is Too Excellent to Need Servants

ACT 3 Reformation Conference | Wheaton, Illinois


The following is a lightly edited transcript.

I want to begin with reflections upon the title and this term the excellency of God. I want you to reflect with me for a moment on the term, and I want to do it by asking this particular question: Why do we, in conferences like this or in certain churches or sermons, put forward themes like this instead of just dealing with the simple gospel? Christ died for my sins according to the scriptures. He was buried. He rose again, triumphant over death and hell and Satan. Why don’t you just deal with the simple glorious facts of the gospel instead of these big, broad, overarching things like the excellency of God? What’s the reason for that?

Glory of Christ

Now there is a reason. And it’s very relevant to understanding the gospel. I confess that I cannot distinguish in my mind very clearly between the term the excellency God and the glory of God, and so I am taking them, biblically, as almost interchangeable. Read with me 2 Corinthians 4:3–6:

And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel . . .

Now these next words are some of the most important words in my estimation in all the Bible in understanding the nature of conversion and the nature of the gospel. And they recur again in verse 6, but let’s read them carefully and attend to every phrase:

. . . to keep them from seeing the gospel . . .

Now define it for us, Paul; tell us what you mean:

. . . of the glory of Christ.

That’s the gospel. The excellency of Christ is the gospel — or at least is a central component of the gospel. You see that. I’m not adding any words here, except replacing the word glory with excellency. This is the devil’s aim: that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ. The gospel is not preached where the glory of Christ is not exalted. And then it defines Christ, who is the image of God. So the glory of Christ is the glory of God, which is now spoken again in 2 Corinthians 4:5–6:

For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. 6 For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give . . .

And now he repeats these words in slightly different arrangement.

. . . the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

That corresponds with light in verse 4. That parallel is so rich it would keep you for days I believe reflecting, But here’s what I want you to see by way of introduction, as to why I love the theme of this conference, why the mission of Bethlehem Baptist Church is: We exist to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples. We’ve chosen the word supremacy. We could have chosen glory, could have chosen excellency. The reason for words like this is that in order to be faithful to a text like this and to really penetrate to the essence and bottom of the gospel that must shine in the heart of the person for them to be saved, there’s got to be glory.

Gospel Light

Now let me just draw out a couple of implications of this to lead into my theme. The gospel is the gospel of the glory of Christ. The glory of Christ shines out of the gospel. It stands forth from the gospel. When you see the gospel for what it really is, you see glory. You see the glory of Christ. You see excellency.

An Experience of Glory

Here’s an implication: to be saved, one must experience 2 Corinthians 4:4 and 4:6. That’s huge, because it means that the gospel has to be preached in such a way as to lift up the gloriousness of it, and the Holy Spirit has to work to illumine the heart. May the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ shine in your heart because there’s no life if it doesn’t shine there, and you’re not saved.

Now the reason I say the excellency of God is an important theme, is because I love the gospel. And this is the essence of the gospel: the excellency of Jesus radiating out through his work of a perfectly lived life, an atoning death, a triumphant resurrection is the revelation of the glory of Christ who is God. And if you don’t see it as glorious, you are not born again. That’s serious, and that’s the gospel. And there are a lot of non-born-again professing Christians in the church who have no taste for the glory of God — and that’s scary. No taste, no sight. But we are to taste and see, taste and see. We’re talking a spiritual seeing. Jesus said, “Seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear” (Matthew 13:13). There are two seeings folks, and there are two hearings: One is with these eyes and it saves nobody. One is with the eyes of the heart, as Paul called it in Ephesians 1:18, and it saves the soul. And you only can see with the eyes of the heart when 2 Corinthians 4:6 happens by grace, and you should plead with God to give it to you tonight if you don’t have it.

The glory of Christ in the gospel, in the cross, in the resurrection, in the perfect life of righteousness, in the ascension, in his reign and intercession for us in heaven — this story is glory. And you must taste it as glory, and that’s the evidence you’ve been wrought upon by the living God to make you his own. No taste for glory, no salvation. And you don’t make that happen; God makes that happen. The reason the gospel is so cheap today, and there are so many nominal believers in our churches is that people ask the question I began with: Why don’t you just preach the simple gospel and lay aside these big, high, heavy, weighty theological themes like the excellency of God?

Seeing and Savoring Glory

This is the last implication before I move to the theme. Faith is a seeing and savoring of the glory of God in the gospel. That’s the meaning of saving faith: a seeing and savoring of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. My whole enterprise of Christian Hedonism is an effort to make plain the spiritual seeing and savoring. And all I mean by savoring is seeing it as precious.

Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ. (Philippians 3:8)

That’s saving faith talking. That’s not any add-on to faith talking. Faith is a savoring, a treasuring, a leaning on, and loving, and delighting in what you’ve seen in the gospel. That’s why there’s no difficulty moving from the glorious, once-for-all-work of justification in the moment of the first twinkling of an eye of saving faith, to this process of sanctification, because the faith that justifies is that kind of faith, and it sanctifies. You can’t not be holy when you love God like that.

We have so gotten saving faith wrong by making it some kind of choice to believe a doctrine that people scratch their heads as to why they’re not being changed. They’re not born again. They’ve never seen glory as glory, glory as precious, glory as a treasure, glory as that for which you count everything as loss. They’ve never seen it. And therefore, we’re not on our faces as a church crying out, “O God, come with light. Do 2 Corinthians 4:6 in our churches because our people don’t see it.”

Do you wonder why the early saints died so easily? How could they sing on the way to the stake or the lion? How could they do that? Because to die is gain. That’s all introduction as to why I value the term and the reality of the excellency of God.

Debtor’s Ethic

And my question now is: How do you serve God so that his excellency is magnified and not compromised in your life? This room is filled with servants of the Lord, and I want to tell you not to be a servant tonight. And I’m basing it on Acts 17:25:

[God is not] served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.

Therefore, beware of serving God. Beware of serving God. You can dishonor God by serving God. That’s what that text says. Let me give you another one just to add on to it: Mark 10:45:

The Son of Man came not to be served.

Stop. You don’t need the rest of the verse to get the point. He came not to be served. Therefore, don’t compromise the meaning of the incarnation by serving Christ. He came not to be served; don’t serve him. So that needs to be heard; it needs to be wrestled with. Now this is a big issue to me. I wrote a whole book to try to explain what I mean called Future Grace. And what burdened me behind that book was an ethic out there of how to serve God that has a modicum of truth behind it that makes it almost the given way of articulating service to God today, which I think is not the most God-glorifying way — namely, what I like to call (I’ve got different names for it) the Tonto ethic.

But I realize I’m 53, and probably most young people in the room don’t know the Lone Ranger and Tonto and Hi-Yo Silver, and a white stallion and a black mask and a silver bullet. But I like it because the Lone Ranger got into this relationship with Tonto, this Indian who helped him out of so many scrapes by saving his life. And it was the ethic of the Indian tribe that he saved the life of that once a man saves your life, then you bind yourself to him and you follow him and you serve him the rest of your life, saving his life. And so the whole story, year after year, in the fifties was Tonto rescuing poor Lone Ranger from all of his scrapes as he was trying to do good around the world.

Three Reasons the Debtor’s Ethic Doesn’t Work

So you see where I’m heading: God has saved you and now your motivation is to serve him for the rest of your life and help him. Now nobody articulates their service of God that way, but I fear that it may come close: “He gave his life for me. What have I given for him?” Call it the debtor’s ethic. That’s probably the better term. “God has done so much for me, and now out of gratitude, I will do and do and do for him. So you look back to what he did for you, and as you turn to the future, what you see is a God whom you are to serve. There’s something profoundly wrong with that, at least in its tendency, and the way it’s lived out by many. And let me tell you three things that I find wrong with it and then give you an alternative.

1. Grace empowers every act of obedience.

The debtor’s ethic is impossible. It’s not just impossible because of human limitations. It’s impossible because of the way God has set up the world. What I mean is this: If you say, “God has been so gracious to me; he’s lavished me with grace. I will now take steps of obedience by which I will pay the debt of grace that I owe him. ‘Oh to grace how great a debtor, daily I’m constrained to be.’ So I will now take steps to repay my debt of grace.”

Do you know why that’s impossible? Because every step you take called obedience is totally dependent on more grace, and therefore, all you do with every step of obedience is go deeper into debt. And I’m not making this up; I’m basing it on 2 Corinthians 9:8, which says,

And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work.

How do you do a good work? Grace. You cannot pay one nickel back with obedience because, if it’s genuine evangelical obedience, it is depending on more grace, which is why I called the book Future Grace, because every step you take in the next five seconds worth of future is taken in the power of grace. The next one is in the power of grace. The next one is in the power of grace, and you are going down, down, down, down into glorious dependence upon more and more grace, and your debt is becoming bigger and bigger and bigger to the glory of God’s grace every second of your life.

So get out of your mind forever the payback mentality to God. It’s impossible. That’s reason number one.

2. Grace is not a mere business transaction.

If it were possible, grace would no longer be grace, but a business transaction. If you could successfully pay the mortgage in payments of obedience, grace would be nullified as Romans 4:4–5 makes very, very clear:

Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.

And therefore, just like Acts 17:25 warns you not to serve, Romans 4:5 warns you not to work. Rather, it is all dependence upon grace. And what I’m calling you to tonight, if you don’t know how to do it, is to find a way to serve wholly dependent on grace for every step you take. “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). And the giver gets the glory, and therefore, you must find a way to eat and drink so that you are a getter and not a giver. God’s got to be the giver of grace at every moment of your life. That’s reason number two: you nullify grace if you were to succeed at paying it back.

3. Our lives hang on future grace.

And the third is implicit in the first two. If you make an attempt to live your life by the debtor’s ethic — call it the gratitude ethic, call it the Tonto ethic, whatever you want; this payback mentality — you will make short shrift of future grace and think only in terms of past grace. And most of the grace on which your life hangs is in the future. Now that’s a dangerous statement because I love the cross. We sing a worship song written by Mark Altrogge in our church, “I Love the Cross.” “I love the cross where my savior died. I love the cross where I was justified. I love the cross.”

But the cross is where all my future enabling grace was bought, and I live in it for eternity by depending on it being poured out on the basis of that. So there are texts that capture this. One of them is Romans 8:32. Another is Romans 5:9 and another is Romans 5:10.

He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?

So you look back and you stand on that. “O God, thank you. Thank you that you didn’t spare your own Son. You gave him up for me. Like 2 Corinthians 5:21 says, ‘He made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.’ Yes, thank you. Thank you. Thank you. All my sins gone. All his righteousness mine.” But it also says, “How shall he not now with him freely give us all things for eternity?” And that’s where you live. Do you trust that promise? Do you trust that promise? Taking your stand on the finished work of Christ that purchased it all and fit you as a justified person to be changed and receive it? Do you trust? And that’s where you live. That’s where you serve: serving God so that the excellency of grace is magnified in your life, not so that God is put in the position of a mortgage payment receiver.

A God Who Works for You

Now what’s the alternative ethic that I would put in its place? And I would simply point you to a couple of texts. Psalm 50:12–15

If I were hungry, I would not tell you,
     for the world and its fullness are mine.
Do I eat the flesh of bulls
     or drink the blood of goats?
Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving,
     and perform your vows to the Most High,
and call upon me in the day of trouble;
     I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.

And here’s the alternative he gives: “Call on me.” Do you see the dynamic? Do you want to get glory for me. Do you want to glorify me? Do you want to make my excellency shine in your life? Do you want to lift up and honor my excellency? Call on me to work. Call on me to work.

The eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to give strong support to those whose heart is blameless toward him. (2 Chronicles 16:9)

From of old no one has heard
     or perceived by the ear,
no eye has seen a God besides you,
     who acts for those who wait for him. (Isaiah 64:4)

Bel bows down; Nebo stoops;
     their idols are on beasts and livestock;
these things you carry are borne
     as burdens on weary beasts.
They stoop; they bow down together;
     they cannot save the burden,
     but themselves go into captivity.

Listen to me, O house of Jacob,
     all the remnant of the house of Israel,
who have been borne by me from before your birth,
     carried from the womb;
even to your old age I am he,
     and to gray hairs I will carry you.
I have made, and I will bear;
     I will carry and will save. (Isaiah 46:1–4)

All the religions of the world have gods that need to be carried by human labor, slave labor. There’s no grace — free, sovereign grace — in any religion but Christianity. Our God glorifies himself by working for us, not by our working for him. When I run my jogging route down Franklin, up Cedar Avenue, across Washington Avenue, down 11th, my two mile thing, there’s a foundry that I run by. They have a permanent “Help Wanted” sign. It’s been there for years. Only sometimes there’s a big diagonal, red No plastered right on the front of it. “No Help Wanted.” And every time I run by it, when the red sign is up, I say, “Yes, this is God’s sign.” This is the gospel. This is the gospel. No help wanted.

“I’m here to help you. You come broken, empty, hungry, thirsty, weak, tired.” “Come to me, all you self-sufficient and work for me, and I will pay you wages” is not the gospel. But “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28) — that’s the gospel. “I will flex my arms like I did at the Red Sea, and you will praise me for the Exodus forever and ever and ever, and learn to trust me from manna in the wilderness. What made God so upset about the wilderness is that they didn’t get it. Murmur, murmur, murmur. Do you ever murmur? Philippians 2:14–15 says,

Do all things without grumbling or disputing, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world.

Because the world is full of murmurers, and it’s a rare thing to find a person whose faith in future grace is so profoundly rooted in Jesus Christ’s work, that come what horrible circumstances may — whether it’s leukemia, taking your 23 year old boy away like happened in our church two weeks ago; whether it’s like my dad at eighty having hip surgery yesterday; whether it’s like some of you in this room, walking through the most horrible divorces you can imagine; whether it’s wayward kids that are breaking your heart — know the promises of God are totally sufficient to turn every circumstance for good so that you rest in him, and you don’t have to work for him. You know he’s going to work for you.

What God Supplies

This text is a verse that I think kind of seals the biblical reality of what I’m saying. If you’re wondering, “Hmm, that sounds sort of right, but it sounds like it might be kind of a logical deduction from what the Bible says rather than what the Bible actually says. And John tried to warn us this morning against doing theology that way, spinning out logical deductions instead of sticking with biblical vocabulary. So let me give you some biblical vocabulary to restate my point. It’s 1 Peter 4:11, and it goes like this:

Whoever serves, [let him serve] as one who serves by the strength that God supplies — in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.

What a verse. It’s all there. So let us serve. But watch it, lest you dishonor the excellency of God. Let him who serves serve in the strength that God supplies. The giver gets the glory that God supplies, so that in everything God might get the glory through Jesus Christ. To him belongs the dominion forever and ever.

How to Serve

Now here’s my practical nitty-gritty, rubber-meets-the-road suggestion. It’s A.P.T.A.T. It’s an acronym. And I wrote The Supremacy of God in Preaching ten years ago or so, and I said in it that I do A.P.T.A.T. every time I preach. I’ve now been preaching for twenty years, and I do it every time I preach. Nothing’s changed — not one letter. So let me just close by telling you what A.P.T.A.T. is. I’m sitting over there beside Scott, bowing my head two minutes or three minutes, before I’m supposed to come up here, and I’m walking through A.P.T.A.T, and I’ll just relive those minutes with you now.

A — Admit: “Jesus, I’ve got to go up there now and I admit that without you I can do nothing.” John 15:5: “Apart from me, you can do nothing.”

P — Pray: “Father, help me. Please give me memory. Give me liberty. Give me passion. Give me yourself. Give me light. Give me hope. Give me joy. Give me humility. Give me love. Give me fresh, prophetic insights into what these folks need. You know them. I don’t know them. “Call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me” (Psalm 50:15) John, I’ll deliver you from vanity and the love of the praise of men here.

T — Trust: Trust him as you go up to that pulpit. We’re talking future grace now. I’m almost at the end of 35 minutes of future grace, which is 33 minutes of past grace now, and the rest of tonight is future grace. Tomorrow will be future. I wake up in the morning, it’ll be future grace. So on the front end of it, it’s still future. And so I trust him. And I mean something very specific. I mean, go into the memory bank of your mind. If you don’t have a memory bank in your mind, go into the Bible and find a specific word for this moment. Take it, say it, and believe it. Say to Jesus, “I believe it. You said it. I believe it.”

And here’s the verse I used: “Whoever believes in me, . . . ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water’” (John 7:38). That’s my goal. That was what God pressed on me in the last couple of days: “When you get up there, may living water flow. I will do it. I will do it. Trust me. Trust me. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths” (Proverbs 3:5–6). So there’s a text for that point.

A — Act: Get up there and preach, man. It won’t get said if you don’t say it. Go up there. Get up there. If you stay sitting over there, this word’s not going to get spoken. Act. Philippians 2:12–13: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” Work. Do it. Use your will to do it. Use your mind to do it. Use your arms to do it. T — Thank: I’m almost ready. I’m already doing it inside. “Thank you for helping me. Thank you for letting me go fifteen minutes over time.”

If you want to know, How does John Piper attempt to serve in the strength that God supplies so that in everything God gets the glory? it’s A.P.T.A.T. And if you can help me do it better, man, I am ready to get your emails because this is the goal of my life: to figure out how to exercise mind, heart, muscles, hands, eyes, intellect, so that I don’t get the glory; God gets the glory. That’s the goal of my life. And if you can help me do it better, if you’ve seen anything in my demeanor tonight, anything in my words tonight, or anything you see on our website, or anything that you think is compromising the glory of God, and calling excessive attention to me or whatever, you will do me and God a great honor and great service (in the right way I hope) if let me know.