The Pursuit of Excellence In Our Work - by Dr. C. Matthew McMahonArticles on the Christian Walk, Systematic Theology and Practical Theology
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I preached this in Peru on a missions trip and turned it into an article. I think every Christian should be reminded of the way they work before the Lord.
2 Peter 1:3, “…as His divine power has given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us by glory and excellence…” (ESV)
Colossians 3:23-24, “And whatever you do, do it heartily, as to the Lord and not to men, 24 knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance; for you serve the Lord Christ.”
What does it mean to pursue excellence? Oftentimes we have a sense of bettering ourselves to become excellent at something, maybe even to impress others at what we do. Maybe we are trying to simply see how good we are at a given task. What does it really mean to be excellent? What does God mean when he tells us to be excellent?
What is “Excellence? We must understand this first before we every begin speaking about the excellence we are to have in our work. We must have a “working” definition of “excellence” in a manner that God defines it. In 2 Peter 1:3 we find an exhortation of Peter telling us that God has called us to His glory and His excellence. This kind of excellence is the excellence of God’s character or His moral perfection. We are called to be moral perfect. There is no greater question than this. How can we be excellent in God’s sight? God desires men to mirror His excellence. Men must be imitators of God (Eph. 5:1). Being like Him is our goal as Christian in our walk with Jesus. So being excellent before Him would mean being perfect like Him. It is a mirroring of His attributes and character.
Peter says He has called us to His own glory and excellence. When he speaks about His glory, he means His nearness, or weightiness. When he speaks about His excellence, he means His character and His perfection. Jesus said “Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect. He is near, and has His children near, but He is also drawing us near so we can reflect His perfection.
There is an essential connection of being “excellent” with God’s Law. We should remember that excellence is not something that can be defined by men. Men are not autonomously allowed to tell other men how they are to act or how they are to be. That is the evil and danger of relativism. Rather, God must define for us the manner in which we are to be excellent. It is a moral standing before God. So, God sets the standard for that which is excellent God’s Law, then, and all the extensions that come from it, defines that which is excellent. For instance, Jesus gave a number of examples in the Sermon on the Mount about conforming to God’s Law. He said that though adultery is an act, that lust is just as bad since adultery first begins in the mind. Lust revolved around the mind’s desire to think wickedly about another person. That is contrary to the Law of God as much as stabbing someone in the back is contrary to His Law. Both acts are infinitely heinous before Him and both acts will be punished according to their due weight. We may ask, then, “What is God’s Law?” God’s Law is the expression of moral excellence: It is the perfect expression of His character and will, that binds all rational creatures to perfect conformity in character and conduct.”
Men are inherently wicked and hate God’s Law. This is easily proven from the Bible from beginning to end. Some of the most famous passages are Genesis 6:5, Psalm 51:5, Jeremiah 17:9 and Romans 3:10. Genesis says men’s thoughts are “wicked” all the time. Psalm 51 mentions being “conceived in sin.” Jeremiah 17 says that the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked. Romans 3 tells us that there is “no one who does good, no not one.” And yet, though God commands men, and binds them to obedience by His Law, men are unable to comply with those commands. From the very beginning He has commanded men, “Do this and live.” Do this and be excellent. However, men cannot because every intention, every thought, every inclination of their heart is evil. They are bound. They are in bondage to sin; they are dead as a doornail spiritually and haters of God.
There is an essential connection of “excellence” and God’s Law to the knowledge of Jesus Christ. If we skip to verse 8 we find that Peter says, “…knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ.” Drawing near to God, imitating His excellence is only accomplished through the knowledge of Jesus Christ – the knowledge of Him. That is why Paul so eloquently says in Romans 8:29 that we are “…to be conformed to the image of His Son…” What did Jesus do for us that we should be like Him? He lived the perfect life, suffered as an obedient servant of the most High God and was rewarded with the power of the resurrection. The active obedience of Christ’s character to the moral Law of God is one of our most precious possessions. Without it, Christians do not go to heaven.
Jesus offered Himself as a perfect sacrifice to God as an offering “without spot or blemish.” He made atonement on behalf of men who are averse to excellence, and create their own moral standards without God. You see, the men of the world, those who rejected Jesus Christ, and the Law of God, are unable to pursue excellence of any kind. Only through the work of Jesus Christ and his atonement for sin, are men able to receive grace. And by grace, Christ working in and through them, can they have any hope whatsoever at pursuing the excellence of God’s character. Without Jesus Christ’s righteousness freely given to them, through faith, can they ever hope to attain a right moral standing before a Holy God.
This right moral standing comes through knowledge. Knowledge – saving knowledge – of Jesus Christ is essential in order to be morally justified in God’s sight. Saving faith believes the propositions of the Bible through a regenerate heart. Christians must have this knowledge, and this faith, if they are ever going to attain an “excellence” before God. If you are not a Christian, no matter how hard you try, you can never attain excellence in anything before the face of God. Only Jesus Christ’s power, His excellence credited or reckoned to our account, grants us title to moral excellence before the judgment seat of God. As the text says, He grants us all things pertaining to life and godliness.
In terms of combining this “excellent moral standing” to our work, we turn to Colossians 3:23-24. Here we are to work heartily as unto the Lord. This means we work with all our might, and heart: our whole being. The entirety of our redeemed humanity should be engaged in our work. We were created for work. Did you ever stop to think about that? In America we like to wait for the weekends when we will do no work. However, in reality, weekends are a result of the fall of Adam. We were created to work for God. Even the sabbath day is a time to put down our work and pick up God’s work. Why do we do this? Because we are “serving the Lord Christ.” We are to pursue moral excellence and perfection in all our work, serving the Lord Christ. “Whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” It is to be done as if Jesus Christ was standing beside you.
If you work as a pastor, a merchant, a farmer, and administrator, a government official – all work is to be given up to God by the Christian as a spiritual sacrifice of excellence. Do you clean toilets? Yes, even the one who cleans toilets should be working towards excellence. God’s providence has determined where you should live, how long you should live, and the work you should do throughout your life. It is by God’s appointment that you engage in any vocation. Pastors are not the only men who’s work falls under the critical eye of God’s excellence. Everything you do is to be done as unto the Lord Christ. The throne, the Lord, judges every minute of your work.
What are some ways that men may be more excellent in their work before the Lord Christ? They must be born again. This seems trite, but it is inescapable if one desires to pursue true excellence in their work. Without being converted, no man will ever pursue moral excellence before God: they must work within the righteousness of Jesus Christ given to them by grace, through faith.
They must take their eyes of men and focus on God. You may work for a very mean man. At every turn he is looking down on you. But work as unto the Lord. There was an old “Chic” tract about a soldier called “Holy Joe.” Chic tracts are usually heretical and theologically deviant. But in the beginning of this tract the soldier was constantly badgered by the officers and other privates in his barracks. Whatever they gave him to do (especially in pealing lots of potatoes) he whistled while he worked as unto the Lord. No matter that workload was given, he worked as unto the Lord, and with joy. Remember that Christ’s providence has placed you in whatever vocation you are. Work unto Him.
Work heartily, not lazily. Proverbs 6:6-11 tells us that most ants are more productive than most people! Every time a Christian is lazy in his work, every time he is not pursuing excellence, he becomes a thief. Does God really mean, “Thou shalt not steal?” Yes. Stealing in laziness is just as offensive as a pickpocket. Laziness in your vocation is stealing from those who are paying you for your labor, and it brings a reproach to God. If God commands us to pursue excellence, if he commands us to work heartily, if he commands us to serve Christ, less than this would be sin.
Always remember that to pursue excellence in your work, is to rely on the grace of God’s hand in all you do. Prayer is an important part of pursing excellence – you cannot do it on your own. Excellence cannot be achieved by personal merit, but only through divine grace. His divine power has granted this to us, but we must come to Him in prayer.
In following these simple exhortations from Peter and Paul, the excellence of Jesus Christ in our work can be a true reality.