The Excellency of God

Serving in the Strength He Supplies

Reformation 99 | Wheaton

I want to begin with reflections on the title and this term the excellency of God. I was reflecting on the word excellency. This is by way of introduction to my particular topic about God being too excellent to need servants. I want you to reflect with me for a moment on the term the excellency of God, 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 dealing with the simple gospel? Why don’t we just talk about how Christ died for my sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, and that he rose again triumphant over death, 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?

The Excellency of God

Now, there is a reason. It’s very relevant to understanding the gospel and I would invite you to open your Bible, by way of introduction, to 2 Corinthians 4:3–6. I confess that I cannot distinguish in my mind very clearly between the term the excellency of God and the glory of God, so I’m taking them biblically as almost interchangeable. Read with me 2 Corinthians 4:3–6. It says:

And even if our gospel is veiled (we’re talking about the gospel here), 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 . . .

Now, these next words are some of the most important words, in my estimation, of all the Bible in understanding the nature of conversion and the nature of the gospel. They occur again in 2 Corinthians 4:6, but let’s read them carefully and attend to every phrase:

. . . to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.

That’s the gospel. The excellency of Christ is the gospel, or at least it is an essential component of the gospel. Do you see that? I’m not adding any words here except replacing the word glory with excellency. The devil’s aim is to keep people from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ. The gospel is not preached where the glory of Christ is not exalted. Then he defines Christ, saying, “who is the image of God” (2 Corinthians 4:4). The glory of Christ is the glory of God, which is now spoken again in 2 Corinthians 4:5–6. It says:

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

Now, he repeats these words in a slightly different arrangement. He has shown in our hearts to give what? The “light” corresponds with “light” in 2 Corinthians 4:4. If you can read vertically here, you should let your eyes run up and down to link the words “light” in 2 Corinthians 4:4 with “light” in 2 Corinthians 4:6. Do you get that? And then he says “of the knowledge,” which replaces “of the gospel.” He says “of the glory of God” instead of “the glory of Christ.” And he says “in the face of Christ” instead of “who is the image of God.” 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 and why the mission of our church is that 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 but we could have chosen glory, or we 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 has to be glory.

The Eye-Opening Work of Conversion

Now, let me draw out a couple of implications of this to lead into my theme. The gospel is the gospel of the glory of Christ. That’s not an implication, that’s a quotation. 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.

Here’s an implication. To be saved one must experience 2 Corinthians 4:4 and 2 Corinthians 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 illuminate 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 that I love the gospel. If you say, “Why don’t you just preach the simple gospel?” I would say, this is the essence of the gospel. The excellency of Jesus radiating out through his work of a perfectly lived life, an atoning death, and a triumphant resurrection is the revelation of the glory of Christ, who is God.

If you don’t see it as glorious you are not born again. That’s serious and that’s the gospel. There are a lot of non-born-again professing Christians in the churches who have no taste for the glory of God. That’s scary. They have no taste and no sight. 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 kinds of seeing, folks, and there are two kinds of hearing. One is with these eyes, and it saves nobody. One is with the eyes of the heart, as Paul said in Ephesians 1:18, and it saves the soul. You only can see with the eyes of the heart when 2 Corinthians 4:6 happens by grace. 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 in his intercession for us in heaven — this story — is glory. You must taste it as glory. That’s the evidence you’ve been wrought upon by the living God to make you his own. No taste for glory, no salvation. 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, namely, “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 Christ

Here’s 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. It’s 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. All I mean by savoring is seeing it as precious. Paul said:

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, a loving, and a 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. The faith that justifies is that kind of faith that 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 is that for which you count everything as loss. They’ve never seen it. Therefore, we’re not on our faces as a church crying out, “Oh 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 the introduction as to why I value the term and the reality of the excellency of God.

Avoiding the Debtor’s Ethic

My question now, which I’ll attempt to tackle in maybe 10 or 15 minutes, 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. I’m basing it on chapter Acts 17:25. It says:

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

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. That needs to be heard. It needs to be wrestled with.

Now, this is a big issue for me. I wrote a whole book to try to explain what I mean called Future Grace. 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. I have different names for it. I like the term the Tonto ethic, but I realize that I’m 53, and probably most young people in the room don’t know the Lone Ranger, Tonto, Hi-Ho Silver, the white stallion, the black mask, and the silver bullet. It’s from the 1950s, sorry.

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. It was the ethic of the Indian tribe that once a man saves your life then you bind yourself to him, you follow him, and you serve him the rest of your life, saving his life. The whole story year after year in the 50s was Tonto rescuing poor Lone Ranger from all of his scrapes as he was trying to do good around the world. You see where I’m heading. The thought is, “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 to God that way, but I fear that it may come close. It goes along with the song:

Thy life was given for me, What have I given for thee?

Call it the debtor’s ethic. That’s probably the better term. The thought is, “God has done so much for me, and now, out of gratitude, I will do for him.” People say that you should 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. Let me tell you three things that I find wrong with it and then give you an alternative.

1. Going Deeper Into Debt

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 so that I will now take steps of obedience by which I will pay the debt of grace that I owe him, as the song says, ‘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. Therefore, all you do with every step of obedience is go deeper into debt.

I’m not making this up. I’m basing it on 2 Corinthians 9:8, which says:

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. This is why I called the book Future Grace. It’s because every step you take in the next five seconds worth of the future is taken in the power of grace, and the next one is in the power of grace. You are going down into glorious dependence upon more grace, and your debt is becoming 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. Never Paying God Back

The second reason is that if that 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 clear. It says:

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 . . .

Therefore, just like Act 17:25 warns you not to serve, Romans 4:5 warns you not to work. Rather, it is all dependence upon grace. What I’m calling you to tonight, if you don’t know how to do it, is to find a way to serve that is 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, therefore, you must find a way to eat and drink so that you are a getter and not a giver. God has 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. Minimizing Future Grace

The third is implicit in the first two. If you make an attempt to live your life by the debtor’s ethic — or you can call it the gratitude ethic, the Tonto ethic, or the payback mentality, whatever you want — you will make short shrift of future grace and think only in terms of past grace. 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 that says:

I love the place where my Savior died I love the place 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. There are texts that capture this. One of them is Romans 8:32. You know it. Another is Romans 5:9, and another is Romans 5:10.

He who did not spare his own Son (past tense) but gave him up for us all . . . (Romans 8:32).

You look back and you stand on that. You say, “Oh God, thank you. Thank you that you didn’t spare your own Son. You gave him up for me so that, like 2 Corinthians 5:21 says, he who knew no sin took my sin, became sin for me, that I might have his righteousness. Yes, thank You. All my sins are gone. All his righteousness is mine.” And then it continues:

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? (Romans 8:32).

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? That’s where you live. That’s where you serve. You are 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.

The Ethic of Abundant Grace

Now, what’s the alternative ethic that I would put in its place? I would simply point you to a couple of texts. One is Psalm 50:12–15. Instead of meeting God’s needs, he says, “If I were hungry, I would not tell you.” The psalm says, “The cattle on a thousand hills are mine” (Psalm 50:10). Here’s the alternative he gives:

Call upon me in the day of trouble;
     I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me (Psalm 50:15).

Do you see the dynamic? God is saying, “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.”

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 (Isaiah 46:1).

But God carries you (Isaiah 46:4). All the religions of the world have gods that need to be carried by human labor, slave labor. There’s no free, sovereign grace in any religion but Christianity. Our God glorifies himself by working for us, not by our working for him.

No Help Wanted

When I run my jogging route down Franklin, up Cedar Avenue, across Washington Avenue, and down 11th (a two-mile run) 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, so it says, “NO Help Wanted.” Every time I run by it, when the red sign is up, I say, “Yes, this is God’s sign. This is the gospel — No help wanted. I’m here to help you. You come broken, empty, hungry, thirsty, weak, and tired.” It’s not, “Come to me all you self-sufficient and work for me and I will pay you wages.” That’s not the gospel. Rather, it’s, “Come to me all you who are weak and heavy laden and I will give you rest.” That’s the gospel.

God is saying, “I will flex my arms as I did at the Red Sea, and you will praise me for the Exodus forever and ever, and learn to trust me for manna in the wilderness.” What made God so upset about the wilderness is that they didn’t get it. They would murmur. Do you ever murmur? Philippians 2:14 says, “Do all things without grumbling or disputing,” and if you do, you’ll shine like lights in the midst of a dark, corrupted world, because the world is full of murmurers.

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 may with horrible circumstances may, whether it’s leukemia taking your 23-year-old boy away — like what happened in our church two weeks ago — or like my dad at 80 having hip surgery yesterday, or whether it’s like some of you in this room who have walked through the most horrible divorces that you can imagine, or whether it’s wayward kids that are breaking your heart, they know that the promises of God are totally sufficient to turn every circumstance for good so that they rest in him and don’t have to work for him. They know he’s going to work for them.

The Giver Gets the Glory

Well, how shall I wrap this up? Maybe by giving you the most practical thing I can think to say on all these pages here. Here’s one more text and then a practical suggestion. The text is a verse that I think seals the biblical reality of what I’m saying. If you’re wondering, “Hm, that’s sort of right, but it sounds like it might be a logical deduction from what the Bible says rather than what the Bible says. John was trying to warn us this morning against doing theology that way — spinning out logical deductions instead of sticking with biblical vocabulary.” Let me give you some biblical vocabulary to restate my point.

It’s 1 Peter 4:11, and it goes like this:

[Let him who] serves . . .

So now you can all relax because I believe in service. All right. But, I really don’t, except in Peter’s sense. He says:

[Let him who serves] serve 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.

What a verse. It’s all there. Maybe you’re thinking, “Why have you been talking for 35 minutes, holding back when the whole thing is in one verse?” I’ll say it again. He says, “Let him who serves . . .” So let us serve, but watch it lest you dishonor the excellency of God. He continues:

[Let him who serves] serve by the strength that God supplies (the giver gets the glory) — in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever.

Serving in His Strength

Now, here’s my practical, nitty-gritty, rubber-meets-the-road suggestion. If you read The Supremacy of God in Preaching, you know this. It’s called APTAT. It’s an acronym. I wrote that book about 10 years ago or so. I said in it that I do it every time I preach. I’ve now been preaching for 20 years, and I do it every time I preach. Nothing has changed — not one letter. Let me just close by telling you what APTAT is. I was sitting over there beside Scott, bowing my head two or three minutes before I was supposed to come up here, and I was walking through APTAT, and it went like this. I’ll just relive those minutes from about 40 minutes ago.

A — Admit

I say, “Jesus, I have to go up there now, and I admit that without you I can do nothing.” John 15:5 says, “Without me, you can do nothing.”

P — Pray

I 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 and I don’t know them.”

I don’t need you to give you verses for prayer, do I? He says:

Call upon me in the day of trouble;
     I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me (Psalm 50:15).

He’s saying, “John. I’ll deliver you from vanity, the love of the praise of men, and fear.”

T — Trust

Trust him as you go up to that pulpit. We’re talking about 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. If I wake up in the morning, it’ll be future grace. But, on the front end, it’s still future, so I trust him. What I mean is 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.” Here’s the verse I used today:

Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, “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, saying, “When you get up there may living water flow. I will do it. 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).

There are two more points.

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 says:

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.

God is bubbling up in you to be a river of life for the people. Work. Do it. He calls you to do it. Use your will to do it. Use your mind to do it. Use your arms to do it.

T — Thank

Some of you read the book, but you know what it is without the book. The final one is thank. Thank him. I’m almost ready, and I’m already doing it inside. I’m saying, “Thank you for helping me. Thank you for letting me go for 15 minutes overtime.”

I really am done. That’s it. If you want to know how John Piper attempts to serve in the strength that God supplies so that in everything God gets the glory, it’s APTAT. 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 my mind, heart, muscles, hands, eyes, and intellect, so that I don’t get the glory God gets the glory. That’s the goal of my life.

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 anger to me, or whatever, you will do me and God a great honor, a great service — in the right way, I hope — if you let me know. He knows.