God’s Call to Excellence: A Challenge
Today, I want to invite you to think with me a bit about excellence, a strangely neglected topic in Christian circles. When was the last time you heard someone talk about excellence? Why is this topic neglected?
My thesis today is this: God has called every one of us to excellence, simply defined as being a person that is above reproach and that is doing their work diligently and with distinction. Yet defining excellence is not the main problem: we all know excellence when we see it.
Too often, we focus primarily on doing and neglect being. But doing is rooted in being! Jesus: asked, “Can a bad tree bear good fruit?” Therefore, in my book on excellence, before turning to specific virtues, I have chapters on holiness and sanctification as well as spirituality.
When I talk about excellence today, I do so as a matter of aspiration, not reality. As Vince Lombardi said, “If you pursue perfection, you may be able to catch excellence.” Aspirations are very powerful. As Paul wrote, “Not I’ve already obtained perfection, but I press on.”
Why Write on Excellence?
In my work on excellence, I’ve had various impetuses:
1. Reading: Years ago, I read Addicted to Mediocrity by Frankie Schaeffer, son of Francis, who noted that Christians are not known for their excellence. Why? As a business student, I also read In Search of Excellence by Thomas Peters and Robert Waterman, and later Good to Great by Jim Collins. Is excellence only relevant in the business world?
In seminary, I read Between Faith & Criticism by Mark Noll. Evangelical scholarship since 1950s has come a long way. As a teacher, I’ve used scholarly biographies such as A Place at the Table on the life of George Ladd: a great scholar, but lacking as a father, husband, and churchman. Deeply stung by a negative review, he started drinking; some sobering lessons can be learned.
2. Quest for own identity: My ongoing quest to refine my understanding of my own identity contributed as well: What does it mean for me to be a Christian scholar? How is that different from being a non-Christian scholar?
In an SBL Forum, former SBL president Michael Fox contended that faith and scholarship cannot coexist. He promoted the ideal (some might say “myth”) of neutral, scientific, unbiased scholarship; faith = bias. Do you agree? Disagree? Why or why not?
3. Survey of the market regarding books on excellence: Most books are anthologies of quotes by famous people (celebrities, philosophers, poets, thinkers, etc.) or humanistic success stories with a veneer of religion or ethics by the likes of Dale Carnegie or Robert Schuller.
What Would a Christian View of Excellence Look Like?
Answer: it would be grounded in the character of God and in our creation in his image. God is the epitome of excellence. He is excellent in his character and in everything he does (such as his works of creation).
Such a call to excellence grounded in the character of God is consistent with Owen Strachan’s call for “Big God theology.” Standard Systematic Theology treatments by Grudem and Erickson speak of the magnificence of God, the holiness of God, and occasionally of his excellence.
What about the Bible? The Greek word is arētē, which occurs 5 times in the NT:
- Phil 4:8: Whatever is excellent, whatever is worthy of praise, let your mind dwell on these things (part of longer list of excellent attributes); the context there is prayer and putting into practice what believers have observed in Paul’s exemplary life.
- 1 Peter 2:9 (quoting Isa 43:20-21): Our purpose as God’s people is for us to proclaim the praises (or excellencies) of God who has called us out of darkness into his marvelous light.
- 3 times in 2 Peter 1:3, 5: Translated as (moral) excellence (NASB) or virtue (ESV).
- Assumption: We are created in God’s image and we have a relationship with him through Jesus Christ.
- We are called by (and to) God’s own glory and excellence (v. 3).
- We have everything we need for the pursuit of excellence in and through our relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ (v. 3).
- We are also the recipients of God’s precious promises and partakers of the divine nature through God’s Spirit, having escaped corruption and lust (v. 4).
- We are to make every effort to pursue a series of Christian virtues, the head team being arētē, “excellence” (v. 5): “add to your faith.”
- The staircase of 7 virtues (Peter’s answer to Paul’s 7 fruit of the Spirit): (moral) excellence, knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, brotherly kindness, love (vv. 5-7): cf. Greco-Roman catalogues of virtues.
- If growing in these virtues, we will be neither useless nor unfruitful in our knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ (v. 8).
- If we fail to pursue these virtues, we will be blind and short-sighted, having forgotten our purification from former sins (v. 9).
- If we pursue them, we will confirm our calling and election, and entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ will be wide open (vv. 10-11).
- Not a salvation truth but a sanctification and discipleship truth: in your mentoring, and as you disciple others, as well as in your own life, is the concept of growing in Christian virtues sufficiently on your radar?
- John 15:8: “By this is my Father glorified, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be my disciples.” John 15:16: “You didn’t choose me, but I chose you, and appointed you, that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain.”
Q.E.D.: Every Christian is called to the pursuit of excellence.
Then Why Aren’t We Doing It?
There are several possible reasons why Christians don’t pursue excellence:
- We think excellence is for the select few (No – for everyone)
- We think excellence is unattainable (No – attainable; focus, do few things well)
- We think excellence is self-effort (No – grace-based, Spirit-empowered)
- We think excellence is perfectionism (No – striving to maximize created potential)
Embrace excellence as an overarching, all-encompassing pursuit! Let me challenge you:
- Pursue excellence as a person
- Pursue excellence as a husband
- Pursue excellence as a parent
- Encourage our children to pursue excellence in their character and in everything they do (see Equipping for Life: A Guide for New, Aspiring & Struggling Parents)
- Pursue excellence as a student
- Pursue excellence as a scholar
In my book, I divide excellence into three realms: moral, vocational, and relational excellence. I also talk about virtues such as diligence, fidelity, creativity, eloquence, interdependence, and love. If you’re interested in this subject (and you should be!), please get a copy of my book on excellence and work through it thoroughly.
Note that Christians don’t have the luxury to pick 1 or 2 out of 3 categories of virtue; we must pursue all 3 kinds of excellence. We can all think of examples of famous athletes, movie stars, etc., who excel in vocational excellence but fail in moral excellence. Even though this is often hypocritical, the culture upholds the ideal of moral, vocational, and relational excellence.
Something to Think About
What does excellence look like? How is excellence achieved? Let me close with a few practical suggestions:
- Streamline, whittle down, prioritize, learn to say no
- Do a few things well, focus
- Determine unique personal calling
- Be yourself: Assess strengths and weaknesses
- Don’t duplicate efforts of others
- Don’t succumb to the tyranny of the urgent
- Plan: if you fail to plan, you plan to fail
Note: For a fuller treatment on the topic, you can read Excellence: The Character of God and the Pursuit of Scholarly Virtue. This talk was originally given to the Ph.D. residency students at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in October 2018 in Kansas City, MO. Photo by WarpandWoof.org.