The Excellencies of God - Part I
In my previous discussion of Jonathan Edwards’ sermon, “Youth and the Pleasures of Piety”, I argued that the strategy for dissuading people from sinning that relies largely on religious intimidation, threats, fear, and shame-based appeals is seriously flawed. People are far more likely to forsake one pleasure when they are assured that another is sweeter and more satisfying. The basis of David’s utterance in Psalm 16:11 is not that your desire for joy and pleasure is inherently evil but that it is horribly misdirected. God is to be heartily pursued because he alone provides joy that fills and pleasures that last.
As I finished reflecting on Edwards’ message, it dawned on me that we face an even greater problem than a flawed strategy for dealing with sin’s allure. I hope this doesn’t sound too condemning or cynical, but perhaps our most daunting obstacle is the paucity of preachers and teachers who have the time, commitment, desire, and skill to dig deeply into Scripture and mine those exegetical and theological nuggets that will persuade wandering souls to abandon the “fool’s gold” of immorality and worldliness. It’s one thing to expose the inadequacies of a standard approach to dealing with temptation; it’s another thing entirely for people to accurately and appealingly portray the beauty of God as he is revealed in the face of Jesus Christ.
I’ve actually written on this point before (see my three articles entitled, “An Appeal to Pastors”), but it bears repeating, if only briefly. Evangelical preachers, dare I say the majority of them (I warned you this might sound cynical), are either ill-equipped for the task or so burdened with the “business” of “running” a church that they simply lack the time and energy to study, think, pray, and prepare an exegetically sound, theologically robust, and aesthetically appealing image of who God is and why the knowledge of him is infinitely superior in its capacity to satisfy than all rival pleasures.
My purpose in this study isn’t to provide an immediate and sure-fire solution to the problem. What I’d rather do is give you an example of what “an exegetically sound, theologically robust, and aesthetically appealing” portrait of God looks like. So I turn again to Jonathan Edwards. I’m not doing this to puff Edwards, but to encourage preachers and pastors and teachers of the Word, and yes, all Christians, concerning what is possible when we saturate our souls in Scripture and petition our heavenly Father to “open our eyes that we might behold wondrous things” in his Word (Psalm 119:18). Such “things” have a Spirit-empowered capacity to turn sin sour in our souls and break the vice-grip of lust, greed, sensuality, and worldliness.
Edwards preached his sermon, “God’s Excellencies,” in the summer of 1722. It was based on his meditations on Psalm 89:6, “For who in the heaven can be compared unto the Lord, and who among the sons of the mighty can be likened unto the Lord?” Edwards decided to take up the challenge and do precisely that: compare things in heaven and earth with the Lord, thereby demonstrating the inferiority of the former and the foolishness of yielding our hearts to them.
He begins by highlighting the exceeding importance of our having “right notions and conceptions of the nature, attributes, and perfections of God. It is the very foundation of all religion, both doctrinal and practical; it is to no purpose to worship God, except we know what we worship” (416). It’s useless to exhort people to be passionate or to call them to a higher commitment unless we know what it is about God that renders “him lovely and worthy to be feared and obeyed” (417).
I must confess I’ve grown a bit weary of the sermon series that repeatedly exhorts people to pursue God and be committed to God and make a choice to serve God rather than the flesh but never proceeds to tell us what it is about God that makes him worthy of this devotion. Exhortation to pursue God that is not grounded in instruction about God eventually wears people out and leaves them grasping for something solid and substantive to lay hold of. Well, in this sermon Edwards gives us something gloriously solid and eternally substantive: the excellencies of God.
Don’t be afraid of diving into the deep end of the knowledge of God. It is, says Edwards, “a bottomless ocean of wonders that we can never comprehend, but yet may with great pleasure and profit dive further into” (417). Although we are profoundly unworthy of such knowledge (Edwards describes us as “worms and insects, less than insects, nothing at all, yea, less than nothing,” but I’m trying to be a bit more politically correct about it), yet “so has God dignified us, that he has made [us] for this very end: to think and be astonished [at] his glorious perfections” (417).
Let’s stop right there for a moment. Go back and read again that last statement. God has made us for this very end, this ultimate goal, this all-consuming purpose: “To think and be astonished at his glorious perfections.” We’re not talking about a religious hobby or a casual affair or a token glance God’s way on a Sunday morning. We’re talking about the consummate reason why we are, why we live and breathe and continue to exist. God made you primarily and principally for this: to think about him and his excellencies and be astonished at his glory! That applies to lawyers and lumberjacks, housewives and hurricane victims, carpenters and chiropractors. Everything else you are and do and achieve in life must be subordinate to and serve this one chief end: to think about and be astonished by the glorious perfections of God!
And not just for this life, but “this is what we hope will be our business to all eternity: to think on, to delight [in], to speak of, and sing forth, the infinite excellencies of the Deity” (417). Let us not undertake this life-long task flippantly or presumptuously, said Edwards, but rather acknowledge that “such a glorious, amazing, and astonishing and awful theme ought to be entered upon by mortals, by dust and ashes, with the greatest awe and reverence; [and] with the deepest humility and fear” (418).
Edwards’ approach is “to show how vastly God is exalted above all the highest and most perfect of created being” (418) in regard to seven things. Needless to say, I will only be giving you summary statements of these comparative analyses. I hope you will read the sermon for yourself and relish the full extent of who God is.
First, “God is infinitely exalted above all creatures in duration” (418). If we were to run back in our thoughts forever, to regress into eternity past, we would never come to the beginning of God. Indeed, “all that we have thought of, is but as a moment to that which yet remains behind unthought of” (418). To think that God always is, and has been, and will be is beyond the ken of human imagination. Thus he neither thanks anyone for his being nor thanks anyone for anything he enjoys. He has everything of himself, and that for eternity.
Second, “God is infinitely exalted above all created beings in greatness” (419), whether that be countries and continents, oceans and seas, or anything that we dare compare with him. This especially applies to the whole of the universe “to which, without doubt, this vast earth, as we call it, is less than any mote or dust that ever we saw . . . to the whole earth; but how shall we be surprised when we think that all this vast creation, making the most of it we can, is infinitely less, when compared with the greatness of God, than the least discernible atom is to the whole creation!” (419). Big God!
And “if God is so great and the universe so little, what are our little, swelling kings, princes, and emperors [and presidents!]; what is become of our great and mighty men, that scare all the world with their greatness and pride; where will our bold and impudent blasphemers, and common swearers that take God’s name in vain so merrily, appear?” (420).
Third, “God is infinitely exalted above all created beings in excellency and loveliness” (420). How could it be otherwise, given the fact that nothing on earth is excellent except by derivation from him who is its creator? All other excellencies “proceed from him as the fountain” (420). We express admiration for the sun, moon, and stars. We stand in awe of trees, plants, and flowers. But “it is all deformity and darkness in comparison [with] the brighter glories and beauties of the Creator of all” (421).
Fourth, “God infinitely exceeds all created beings in power” (421). Indeed, “where can we find another being that can cause a great world to be or not to be, at a word, when he will; that can do everything that he pleases with infinite ease; that can manage a world, and keep all the various parts of it in such orderly and harmonious motion, who can manage such great bodies as the sun, moon, and stars, and can give what laws to them he pleases?” (421)
Yes, earthly rulers have great power. They wield irresistible authority. They hold human life in their hands. But “what are these to him who is king of the whole earth, who is King of Kings and Lord of Lords; who rules over kings and emperors, and has them as much in his power as he has the ants and flies, pulls down one and sets up another at his pleasure; who oversees all the kingdoms and governments in the world, and manages the affairs of them just as he pleases. When he pleases, one king must die, and who he pleases must reign in his room; armies conquer or are conquered according as he will have it” (421-22).
Fifth, “God is infinitely exalted above all created beings in wisdom” (422). We have all seen wise and prudent and efficient men and women and have marveled at their skills. But “how frequently are they deceived and frustrated, and their wisdom turned to foolishness, their politic[al] designs undermined; but when was that time that God’s wisdom failed, that he did not obtain his end, although all the bleak army of hell are continually endeavoring to counterwork him” (422).
Yes, Solomon was wise, “but what wisdom, what vast knowledge and infinite penetration must he have, who has every being in the world to rule and govern; who rules every thought, and every purpose, every motion and action, not only of angels and men, but of every creature, great and small, even to every little atom in the whole creation, and that forever and ever?” (422). Were that not enough, “all the changes and alterations that happen in all the world, heaven and earth, whether great or never so small, he knows it altogether, even to the least insect that crawls upon the earth, or dust that flies in the air, and it is all from his disposal, and according to his eternal determination” (422-23).
Sixth, “God is infinitely exalted above all created beings in holiness” (423) and, seventh, in his “goodness” (424).
I’ve been necessarily brief in my summation of Edwards. I agree with him that “all that we can say is but clouds and darkness to the reality: the attributes of God, these infinite perfections, cannot be set forth by the eloquence of an angel, much less by mortal tongue. How much too little is the space of one sermon, to speak of that which angels spend an eternity in! . . . So glorious and so excellent is our God; such a being is he that made us, that made these bodies and these souls, and continually upholds us, that keeps us alive, keeps our breath playing in our nostrils; that continually sees us, is present everywhere, is present here now, and sees all our thoughts and knows whether we have any fear of him or love to him, and how we are affected by the consideration of his glorious perfections and wondrous works, and whether or not we regard his holy commands, or are moved by his gracious promises, or terrified by his dreadful threatenings” (424-25).
Ah, but Edwards is far from finished. The application of these glorious truths about God is yet to come. That is what I will address in Part Two of this study.
Until then, may I with all humility say to those who lead our churches: Stop preaching about commitment to God and talk about God! Stop preaching about passion for Jesus and talk about Jesus! Mere passion, no matter how intense, mere commitment, no matter how sincere, mere devotion, no matter how loyal, is nothing but religious air unless there be biblical reasons in the minds and hearts of people why this great Triune God, and not another earthly or heavenly pretender, is worthy of it and the object of its focus. When our great God is preached and proclaimed and portrayed in all his glory, and known and seen for who he is, commitment and passion and devotion will flow inexorably and irresistibly from the human heart. Give them someone to be passionate about. They can’t savor God until they see him. They can’t relish God until he be revealed.
To be continued . . .