[NOTE: This devotional was originally given at the 2012 Southeast ETS regional meeting.]
My topic for our devotional today is excellence: excellence in general and scholarly excellence in particular. Some of you may have seen my recent book on the subject, Excellence: The Character of God and the Pursuit of Scholarly Virtue, so I’ve recently had the chance to reflect extensively on the subject and would like to share some of the insights I gained from my study with you. My hope is that by looking at what Scripture has to do say about our need to pursue excellence we will be challenged and encouraged to do what it takes to glorify our Lord in this important area of our lives.
To begin with, let me ask the question: Why is our need to pursue excellence, and the lack of such a pursuit in many cases, even an issue? You’d think that Christians would widely embrace the fact that because God is excellent, he has called us to excellence as well, and so we ought to strive to be excellent in everything we are and do. But you only have to look at people in our churches and our seminaries to know that this is not necessarily the case. One obvious example is church bulletins and PowerPoints that are filled with typos. I shudder when I remember the many grammatical errors, some of them embarrassing, that I’ve spotted over the years, like the one where a church announced a yard sale. The church bulletin read, “Yard sale in front of our church next Saturday. Great chance to get rid of things you don’t need any more around the house. Bring your husband.” Or to give another example, just this morning I got a submission for the journal addressed to a “Dr. Andrea Köstenberger.” I don’t know who that person is, do you? Not the way you want to start out with a journal submission.
So why is the notion of excellence often neglected in our circles? I believe the first major problem we run into with regard to excellence is a theological problem bound up with the idea of cheap grace. People like to embrace the notion that because we are saved by grace, we can just sort of kick back and relax and not get too uptight about anything. There is a lot of laziness and complacency, I believe, people not even trying very hard, because somehow they think the pursuit of excellence is incompatible with salvation by grace. My response to this first problem is that a deep-felt conviction of God’s grace ought to spur us on to grateful service and a pursuit of true personal excellence. As Christians saved by grace, we ought to try harder, because we want to bring honor and glory to God as people who are publicly identified with him. As we’ll see in a moment, Scripture teaches that God has in fact called us to pursue excellence and a series of Christian virtues in order to supplement our faith. That may surprise some people, but as we’ll see, it’s right there in the Bible.
The second problem is a practical one. More often than not, we seem to struggle just to scrape by and to make it through the day. For those of us who have families and children, we desperately juggle being a good dad and husband with demands placed upon us in seminary or at work. We’d settle for just getting all our readings done, and all our assignments in on time, whether or not our work is characterized by excellence. For many of us, it seems that excellence is an elusive goal way beyond the reach of the average person. What can we do?
I’ll share a few practical suggestions in just a moment, but before we go any further, let’s see what the Bible has to say on the topic of excellence. Our passage today is 2 Peter 1:3–11, which says: His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to [or by] his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins. Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall. For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
I don’t have time for a full-fledged exposition of these powerful verses right now. If you’re interested, you can read the second chapter of my book on excellence where I methodically go through the passage verse by verse. In many ways, the passage I just read speaks for itself, so let me just highlight a few salient points.
Verse 3 says, “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness.” The first thing Peter says is that we don’t have to manufacture excellence out of our own resources—God himself has given us what we need to pursue excellence and a godly life. Unlike some approaches in the area of spiritual disciplines, Scripture does not promote self-reliance but God-reliance.
But what are those resources God has given us? Verse 3 continues that God has given us all things that pertain to life and godliness “through the knowledge of him who called us to [or by] his own glory and excellence,” that is, the Lord Jesus Christ. If you and I are in a relationship with Him, if we are “in Christ,” then we have in Him all that we need to pursue excellence. Our main assignment is to grow in that relationship with Christ each and every day as we go through the various challenges which life throws at us and which God allows to enter our lives to purify and mature our faith. To me, that’s hugely encouraging, to know that in my relationship with Christ, God has given me everything I need to live my life in a way that is pleasing to Him and that glorifies the Lord.
Verse 4 then continues to talk about the fact that, in Christ, God has granted to us “his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.” I don’t have time to wade through the complexities of the theology of this passage in detail, so let me just focus on the last phrase, “having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.” If you and I want to pursue excellence, we must be willing to deal with sin in our lives in a decisive, even radical, way. We need to be passionate about pursuing God and a relationship with Christ, and we need to allow this passion for God to fuel our refusal to engage in sin or, at occasions when we do sin, to continue in it. If you and I indulge in sin, sin will sap us of our energy. It will gradually erode our love for Christ and distract us from our pursuit of Him. It will stand in the way between us and God and between us and the pursuit of true personal excellence.
In verses 5–7, Peter then follows up his introductory remarks with his primary exhortation: “For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love.” Here is the reference I was talking about earlier where Peter calls on us to “make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue.” Does that mean faith is not enough? Well, yes and no. Salvation is by grace through faith, so in one sense faith is enough for salvation. In another sense, however, Peter tells us that we must supplement our faith with a series of Christian virtues. In my book, I have sought to identify virtues that Christian scholars, in particular, ought to pursue, and have devoted a chapter each to a given virtue, such as diligence, courage, passion, restraint, integrity, wisdom, grace, humility, love, and so on. Aided by grace, we should aspire to be scholars who are diligent, courageous, passionate, people who show restraint, integrity, wisdom, grace, humility, and love in our work. Let’s just think for a moment: When you look at a paper or article you or I have recently written, or perhaps better, when someone else were to look at our work, would they agree that it is characterized by these virtues? Or would they find us to be combative, competitive, and arrogant? Sometimes, I find, we can be sweet and agreeable in our churches but downright nasty in our writing. We shouldn’t accept this double standard. We should be the same person at home, at church, and in our scholarly work. On a practical note, set your priorities and evaluate your current level of commitments. Most of us are trying to do too much. No wonder we have a hard time attaining to excellence. Commit yourself to doing a few things well. Even Jesus focused on training the Twelve and kept the cross firmly in view as he went about his ministry. What makes us think we can do it all, and do it with excellence?
For the sake of time, we must move on. As Peter tells us, the rewards for pursuing excellence are great and the price we pay for inaction is great as well. He writes, “For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins.” I don’t know about you, but I don’t want my knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ to be ineffective or unfruitful. What Peter is saying here is that anyone who neglects to pursue Christian virtue is not properly following through on his cleansing from his former sins. If you and I are saved, it should inexorably follow that we progress on a path toward greater excellence in the service of God.
Finally, Peter writes, “Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall. For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” What a great encouragement! If we are diligent to confirm our calling and election, and if we practice these Christian virtues—if we practice them, just like you practice an instrument or try to perfect your golf swing—we will never fall and we will gloriously and triumphantly enter into God’s eternal kingdom. In this spirit, let us proceed to gather for this conference as scholars who have dedicated themselves to the pursuit of personal and scholarly excellence, for the glory of God. Thank you very much.