(This article is excerpted from God Is the Gospel, pages 155-162)
The way God has made much of us is by creating us in his image and calling this creation “very good.” Then, after the fall, he pursues the restoration of that fallen image. But he goes beyond restoration to a new level of transformation, namely, conformity to the incarnate Son of God. “Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven” (1 Corinthians 15:49). Our transformation into Christ’s image proceeds progressively in this life, and is perfected at the resurrection. The glory of God that we obtain in this way results in our receiving praise from God.
There are clear biblical pointers to this remarkable dignity that God freely and graciously bestows on us in spite of our sinfulness. “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. . . . And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” (Genesis 1:27, 31). Then, in our conversion to Christ, God starts over again, as it were: “If anyone is in Christ, He is a new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17 ). “We are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works” (Ephesians 2:10). “We have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its Creator” (Colossians 3:10)
The aim of God’s creative work in his people is to conform us to the image of Christ. “Those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Romans 8:29). “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18).
This conformity to Christ means that we share in the glory of God—both spiritually and physically. It includes our bodies. When Christ comes again he “will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body” (Philippians 3:21). Paul calls what will happen to us “glorification”: “Those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified” (Romans 8:30). The glory will be intolerably bright, and we will need new eyes to look on each other with pleasure, because “the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (Matthew 13:43).
We will be like a bride prepared for her immaculate husband: “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her . . . so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:25-27). This glorification of Christ’s bride—God’s children—will be so central to what happens in the new creation that Paul says the rest of creation will obtain its transformation from ours: “The creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:21).
The upshot of this amazing transformation will be that God himself will look upon us with delight and praise. “The Lord your God is in your midst . . . he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing” (Zephaniah 3:17). Peter says that the tested and refined faith of believers will “be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:7). And Paul says of the true Christian: “His praise is not from man but from God” (Romans 2:29) and at the judgment “each one will receive his commendation (literally, his praise) from God” (1 Corinthians 4:5). Knowing this, Paul tells us, that “by patience in well-doing [we should] seek for glory and honor and immortality” (Romans 2:7). And says of the Thessalonians that, because of what God has done in their lives through his ministry, they will be his hope and joy and “crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming” (1 Thessalonians 2:19).
We Will See Glory and We Will Be Glorious
In this sense, then, we may speak of God making much of us. We will see the beauty of God and we will reflect the beauty of God. We will see glory and we will be glorious. Jonathan Edwards put it like this:
How happy is that love in which there is an eternal progress in all these things, wherein new beauties are continually discovered, and more and more loveliness, and in which we shall forever increase in beauty ourselves. When we shall be made capable of finding out, and giving, and shall receive more and more endearing expressions of love forever, our union will become more close and communion more intimate.1
Both seeing and being will increase forever: “New beauties are continually discovered” in God, and “we shall forever increase in beauty ourselves.” A finite mind cannot fully know an infinite mind. Our finite capacities for pleasure cannot fully know all the joy there is to be had in an infinite fountain. Therefore, the age to come will be an eternal increase of learning and loving.2 This means that the truth of 2 Corinthians 3:18 never ceases. “Beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” The better we see him the better we will reflect him—to all eternity.
We Must Be Like Christ in Order to See the Fullness of His Glory
The final question then is this: Is the greatest good purchased and promised in the gospel becoming like the glorious Christ, or seeing the glory of Christ? That is, How does Romans 8:29 (“predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son”) relate to John 17:24 (“Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory”)?
There is a clue in Romans 8:29 and its connection with Colossians 1:18. Paul says, “Those whom [God] foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Romans 8:29). What is the significance of Paul saying “. . . in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers”? The word “first born” (prwto,tokon) is important. It is used again in Colossians 1:18, “He is the beginning, the firstborn (prwto,tokoj) from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything.” In the most ultimate sense, Christ died and rose from the dead as the firstborn of many brothers so that he would be seen and enjoyed as preeminent, superior, gloriously great.
In other words, our destiny to be like Christ is ultimately about being prepared and enabled to see and savor the glory of his superiority. We must have his character and likeness in order to know him and see him and love him and admire him the way we ought. By adding the words, “in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers,” Paul makes plain that Christ is ever and always supreme above his brothers. We become like him not merely to be his brothers—which is true and wonderful—but mainly to have a nature which is fully able to be in awe of him as the one who “has first place in everything.”
Without words like those at the end of Romans 8:29 and Colossians 1:18, how easily we would slip into a man-centered view of human transformation. We would tend to make our likeness to Christ the ultimate goal of the gospel. It is a goal. A glorious goal. But it is not the ultimate goal. Seeing and savoring and showing the supremacy of Christ is the ultimate goal.
A Personal Test for What is Ultimate in Our Hearts
We should test ourselves with some questions. It is right to pursue likeness to Christ. But the question is why? What is the root of our motivation? Consider some attributes of Christ that we might pursue and ask these questions:
- Do I want to be strong like Christ, so I will be admired as strong, or so that I can defeat every adversary that would entice me to settle for any pleasure less than admiring the strongest person in the universe, Christ?
- Do I want to be wise like Christ, so I will be admired as wise and intelligent, or so that I can discern and admire the One who is most truly wise?
- Do I want to be holy like Christ, so that I can be admired as holy, or so that I can be free from all unholy inhibitions that keep me from seeing and savoring the holiness of Christ?
- Do I want to be loving like Christ, so that I will be admired as a loving person, or so that I will enjoy extending to others, even in sufferings, the all-satisfying love of Christ?
The question is not whether we will have all this glorious likeness to Christ. We will. The question is: To what end? Everything in Romans 8:29-30—all of God’s work, his choosing us, predestining us, calling us, justifying us, bringing us to final glory—is designed by God not ultimately to make much of us, but to free us and fit us to enjoy seeing and making much of Christ forever.
Not Finally Being and Seeing, but Delighting and Displaying
Perhaps we have not posed the question in the best way. In asking whether seeing God or being like God is the greatest good of the gospel, we may have stopped short of what being and seeing are for. Perhaps neither is ultimate. Would it not be better to say that the ultimate benefit of the gospel that makes all its other parts good news, is neither being nor seeing, but delighting and displaying—that is, delighting in and displaying “the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6). In other words, is it not the case that we behold and thus become (2 Corinthians 3:18; 1 John 3:2), or we become and thus behold (Matthew 5:8; 2 Corinthians 4:6) ultimately that we might delight in and display God?
Jesus points in this direction by the way he finishes his prayer in John 17. In verse 24 he prays that we may be with him where he is, to see his glory. The emphasis falls on the great gospel gift of seeing the divine glory. But the final statement of Jesus’ prayer in verse 26 is a promise that calls attention to the delight we will take in seeing this glory: “I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”
This is an awesome promise. He is not merely saying that we will see his glory, but that when we see him, we will love him with the very love that the Father has for the Son—“. . . that the love with which you have loved me may be in them.” This is a love that consist of supreme delight. The Father has infinite joy in the glory of his Son. We are promised a share in that joy. This means that seeing and being, by themselves, are not the ultimate benefit of the gospel. Seeing leads to savoring or it is not good news at all.
The Displaying of God’s Glory Will Be Spiritual and Physical
And then, by means of this savoring or delighting in the glory of God, comes the displaying. It happens internally and externally. Internally the affection of delight itself magnifies the worth of God as our supreme treasure. God is glorified in us when we are satisfied in him. Externally, Christ-exalting deeds flow from this enjoyment of Christ. Everything we said in the previous chapter about the importance of the material creation becomes crucial at this point. All creation, but especially redeemed humankind, will visibly and materially reflect and display the glory of God. It will be spiritual and physical. Both the Christ-exalting joy of our heart, and the Christ-exalting deeds of our resurrection bodies will make known the glory God.3
How then should we speak of our future being and seeing, if they are not the ultimate gift of the gospel? How shall we speak of “sharing God’s nature” (1 Peter 1:4) and being “conformed to his Son” (Romans 8:29) and beholding his glory (John 17:24)? How shall we finally talk of being made much of by God?
An Endless Wave of Increasing Revelation of Divine Glory
Woe to us if we speak of our existence, or our being, for its own sake. God has given us existence. It is a great wonder, full of trembling and awe. We exist by him, through him, and for him (Romans 11:36). The ultimate and greatest good of the gospel is not self-admiration or self-exaltation, but being able to see the glory of God without disintegrating, and being able to delight in the glory of Christ with the very delight of God the Father for his own Son, and being able to do visible Christ-exalting deeds that flow from this delight. So being like God is the ground of seeing God for who he is, and this seeing is the ground of savoring and delighting in the glory of God with the very delight of God, which then overflows with visible displays of God’s glory.
In this way the gospel of God reaches its final goal in a universal and corporate reality, not just an individual one. A wave of revelation of divine glory in the saints and in creation is set in motion that goes on and on, and grows for all eternity. As each of us sees Christ and delights in Christ with the delight of the Father, mediated by the Spirit, we will overflow with visible actions of love and creativity on the new earth. In this way we will see the revelation of God’s glory in each other’s lives in ever new ways. New dimensions of the riches of the glory of God in Christ will shine forth every day from our new delights and new deeds. And these in turn will become new ways of showing and seeing Christ which will elicit new delights and new doings. And so the ever-growing wave of the revelation of the riches of the glory of God will role on for ever and ever. And it will be made plain that the great and final good of the gospel is God.4
1 Jonathan Edwards, The “Miscellanies” in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 13, ed. by Thomas A. Schaefer (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994), pp. 336-337. (Miscellany #198)
2 “If there be any change, it will be from its increase; because of better intellectual perception and knowledge of God, and of divine things; because of a constantly and increasingly endearing communion with God in Christ; because of an increased capacity to behold the glory of Christ; and because of a greater exaltation of the spiritual nation in the worship and service of the Lord.” James Petigru Boyce, Abstract of Systematic Theology (Escondido, CA: Dulk Christian Foundation, nd, orig. 1887), pp. 475-476.
3 Jonathan Edwards described the relationship between the physical perception and pleasures and the spiritual delights in God in the age to come after we have our resurrection bodies: “This pleasure from external perception will, in a sense, have God for its object, it will be in a sight of Christ’s external glory, and it will be so ordered in its degree and circumstances as to be wholly and absolutely subservient to a spiritual sight of that divine spiritual glory, of which this will be a semblance, as eternal representation, and subservient to the superior spiritual delights of the saints. This is as the body will in all respects be a spiritual body, and subservient to the happiness of the spirit, and there will be no tendency to, or danger of, inordinacy, or predominance. This visible glory will be subservient to a sense of spiritual glory, as the music of God’s praises is to the holy sense and pleasure of the mind, and more immediately so, because this that will be seen by the bodily eye will be God’s glory, but that music will not be so immediately God’s harmony.” The “Miscellanies” in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 18 ed. by Ava Chamberlain (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), p. 351.
4 These final thoughts are also found in slightly different form in Contending for Our All (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2005). I owe a debt to St. Athanasius for stirring up these thoughts and I try to pay the debt in the chapter called “Contending for Christ Contra Mundum: Exile and Incarnation in the Life of Athanasius.”