Jesus Christ as Denouement in the Theater of God
Calvin and the Supremacy of Christ in All Things
Desiring God 2009 National Conference
My title is “Jesus Christ as Dénouement in the Theater of God: Calvin and the Supremacy of Christ in All Things.” The question I am trying to answer is how Jesus Christ relates to the ultimate purpose of God in the theater of God.
You can see that this question contains several sub-questions. What is the ultimate goal of God in the theater of God? How do the historical work and the eternal person of the Son of God relate to the ultimate goal of God in this theater? Is the created universe the theater of God? What difference does it make for us? And, of course, does John Calvin give us any help here?
I had the happy fortune of being a literature major in college, so the word dénouement is in my vocabulary. It may not be in yours. The dictionary says that the dénouement is “the final part of a play, movie, or narrative in which the strands of the plot are drawn together and matters are explained or resolved.” Or: “the climax of a chain of events, usually when something is decided or made clear.” So I am taking it to mean roughly the climactic point where the goal of the drama reaches its decisive, but not necessarily final, expression.
And, of course, you might think it doesn’t make sense to call a person the dénouement. The dénouement is an event. But what we are going to find out is that unlike everyone else in the universe, the work and the person of Jesus demand that we think of dénouement in unusual ways. More on that later.
A Word About Calvin
Just a word about Calvin. Since I am sure he would want us to end with a focus not on Calvin but on his Christ, my aim in this message is to be expository—to show from biblical texts a portrait of Christ that is true and wonderful. My aim is not to interpret Calvin, but to make much of Jesus Christ.
There are at least two things that have been burned on my mind with the help of John Calvin: the majesty of the word of God—the Bible—and the supreme worth of the glory of God manifest above all in Jesus Christ.
A Passion for the Glory of Christ
His passion for the glory of Christ began at his conversion and grew. When he was 30 years old, he hoped that in the end he would be able to say:
The thing [O God] at which I chiefly aimed, and for which I most diligently labored, was, that the glory of thy goodness and justice . . . might shine forth conspicuous, that the virtue and blessings of thy Christ . . . might be fully displayed.1
Here we have the language of God’s glory “shining forth” and the worth of Christ being “fully displayed.” This, he would say, is what the theater of God is for and therefore what his life was for: the shining forth of God’s glory and the full display of the greatness of Christ.
Glory to Christ—in Justification and Martyrdom
When he wrestled with the Roman church over the doctrine of justification, the main issue was: “Wherever the knowledge of it [justification by faith alone] is taken away, the glory of Christ is extinguished.”2 The main issue was not our conscience or assurance. The main issue was this: If the imputation of the righteousness of Christ is denied, the glory of Christ is cut in half in the work of salvation.3
The glory of Christ was central not only in the matter of justification but also in the matter of martyrdom. As he did so often, Calvin wrote a letter to a group of women who had been imprisoned in France for their Reformed convictions, and the note he struck pastorally was the same one he struck doctrinally: “For this we were brought into the world and enlightened by God's grace, that we should magnify him in our life and our death.”4 Magnifying, displaying, making conspicuous the glory of Christ—that is the issue from justification to martyrdom.
Glory, Glory, Glory to Christ
D’Aubigne, the great historian of the nineteenth century summed up Calvin’s passion like this:
All Calvin’s life proclaimed, glory, glory, glory to Christ, and to self confusion of face. Glory to his Word, glory to his person, glory to his grace, glory to his life. These are the four “glories” which both the Apostle and Reformer invite you to render to the Lord.5
The Majesty of God’s Word
Calvin would want me to join him in this at our last session, and he would want me to do it mainly with the word of God, which is the second thing burned on my mind by John Calvin—the majesty of God’s word. I know this because he said,
Let the pastors boldly dare all things by the word of God. . . . Let them constrain all the power, glory, and excellence of the world to give place to and to obey the divine majesty of this word. Let them enjoin everyone by it, from the highest to the lowest. Let them edify the body of Christ. Let them devastate Satan’s reign. Let them pasture the sheep, kill the wolves, instruct and exhort the rebellious. Let them bind and loose thunder and lightning, if necessary, but let them do all according to the word of God.6
So we turn to our questions. What is the ultimate goal of God in the theater of God? How do the historical work and the eternal person of the Son of God relate to that ultimate goal of God in this theater? Is the created universe the theater of God? What difference does it make?
Is the Universe the Theater of God?
I would assume immediately that the answer is yes to the question Is the universe the theater of God? God created the universe as the theater for putting his glory on display. However, it’s not that simple. Consider Ephesians 1:4–6. This is the first place I go every time I ask about the ultimate purpose of God in the universe. So here I expect to get help about what the theater of God is.
God chose us in him [that is, in Christ] before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love 5 he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, 6 to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.
Three Reasons God’s Theater Is Bigger
Here’s the catch. Three times in those verses Paul speaks of the glorious displays of Christ’s greatness before and outside this created universe. So it seems inadequate to say that this created universe is the extent of the theater of God.
1. Election “Before the Foundation of the World”
First, he says in verse 4, “God chose us in him before the foundation of the world.” So our election, before the creation of the world, took place “in Christ.” I take that to mean, “in relation to Christ,” as well as in Paul’s usual sense of union with Christ—not yet existing but known by God in advance. God elects sinners. And they are not contemplated in their election as his apart from their relationship to Christ. Christ is the gracious, undeserved ground of our election before we were created.
So it appears that the theater for displaying the greatness of Christ’s role in our salvation includes not just this universe but the eternal scope of God’s existence. The theater of God, for the display of the greatness of Christ and his work, is not just the creation of God but the mind of God.
2. Predestination “for Adoption as Sons”
Second, Paul says at the end of verse 4 and into verse 5, “In love 5 he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ.” Predestination happens outside this universe and before it. The predestination of the elect is that they be adopted into the family of God. As Paul said in Romans 8:29, “[We are] predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.”
And he makes clear in Ephesians 1:5 that this eternal decision happens “through Jesus Christ.” “He predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ.” In other words, when God considers making—the very words here are inadequate because there was no “when” before creation—when God decides to make sinners his own children, he only considers it “through Jesus Christ.” So already in eternity, the greatness of Christ as mediator is seen.
To be sure, we see it from inside the universe—from inside the created theater of God. But what we are being asked to see is outside of that created theater. The total theater for the greatness of Christ is the eternal intra-trinitarian actions of the Godhead.
3. Blessing “in the Beloved”
Third, Paul says in verse 6, that the aim of this election and predestination to adoption is “to the praise of the glory of his grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.” If God’s election unto holiness and blamelessness, and his predestination to adoption, lead to the praise of the glory of his grace, it is likely that this grace includes the grace of election and predestination, and not only the grace of atonement through Christ. And this grace, verse 6 says, is “in the Beloved”—that is, in the Son whom the Father loved from all eternity.
So all the grace that was being enacted for us before the theater of the universe was created was enacted “in the Beloved.” All God’s gracious plans that he conceived for us from eternity were conceived and planned in relation to Christ. And now in the Script for the drama of God’s revelation (the Bible), the Author (God) tells us about the glories of Christ as the mediator of grace before the theater was created.
Glory Before Calvary—Even Before Creation
Listen to the way Paul confirms this in 2 Timothy 1:9: “God saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began.” Grace—undeserved, blood-bought grace given to us “before the ages began.” And how did he give grace to us before the theater of the universe was created? He gave us grace in Christ Jesus before the ages began.
John the apostle adds his confirmation. He pictures this gracious, saving work of God before time and space as the writing of our names in a book. And the name of the book in Revelation 13:8 is “the book of life of the Lamb who was slain.” This gives a crimson color to all the glories of Christ before Calvary and even before creation.
The Universe Is Too Small and Too Short
So my conclusion from Ephesians 1:4–6—in answer to the question, “Is the created universe the theater of God?”—is that it is, but the universe is not large enough or long enough to display the fullness of the glories of Christ in the way he works to save sinners and fill the renewed theater of creation with his glory. The author of the drama of creation and the builder of the theater of the universe must direct our attention back to eternity and outside this universe to find ample scope for the revelation of the glory of Son.
So when Calvin says in the Institutes that “the greater part of mankind . . . walk blindfolded in this glorious theatre”7 this is true not only because people don’t see the sun and moon and galaxies displaying the glory of God (Psalm 19:1), but even more because they don’t look to the wider theater of eternity where God was forever at work electing and predestining and giving grace—all of it in Christ and through Christ and for Christ.
But now I have been assuming in what I said the answers to the questions we have not yet answered: What is the ultimate goal of God in the theater of God? How do the historical work and the eternal person of the Son of God relate to the ultimate goal of God in this theater? What difference does it make to us? Let’s take those one at a time.
What Is the Ultimate Goal of God in the Theater of God?
Ephesians 1:6 gives the answer.
God chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love 5 he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, 6 to the praise of the glory of his grace. [more literal than the ESV’s “praise of his glorious grace”]
This is the most ultimate statement of God’s purpose in the theater of God—the whole theater both before creation and in creation. The aim of election. The aim of holiness and blamelessness. The aim of predestination and adoption. The aim of bringing all this to pass “through Jesus Christ” is so that there would be everlasting, white-hot praise of God’s people for “the glory of his grace.”
The Glory of His Grace
God has done everything with a view to one great end—namely, that the glory of his grace should be praised by innumerable redeemed human beings. You and everybody you know are commanded to join this ultimate aim of all things in the theater of God (Psalm 96:1–3). You were made to see the glory of God and not feel lukewarm about it (because God spits lukewarmness out of his mouth), but to feel the greatest possible zeal for the glory of God—that is, the beauty of his manifold perfections. And that seeing of God’s glory and savoring of God’s glory are meant to overflow in expressions of praise for God’s glory from your heart and your mind and your voice and your body.
The Glory of Grace Is Ultimate
And, more specifically, Paul says in verse 6, the ultimate glory, the apex of God’s glory that you were made to praise, is the glory of his grace. All of his other glories—the glory of his justice and wrath and power and wisdom and truthfulness serve to make the glory of his grace more plain, more beautiful, and more precious. Here’s the way Paul says that in Romans 9:22–23.
What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory.
Notice carefully. The revelation of his wrath and his power are penultimate, and the revelation of the riches of his glory for the beneficiaries of mercy is ultimate. In other words, the glory of God’s wrath and the glory of God’s power ultimately serve in the theater of God to make the glory of his mercy and grace to shine the more brightly.
God has done everything—election, predestination, creation, adoption, manifestations of wrath and power and justice and wisdom—all of it, to solidify and intensify the praise of his people for the glory of this grace.
And what is that grace whose glory we were created to praise forever with ever-increasing intensity? Or to ask it another way: What is the love of God?
What Is the Love of God?
Paul answers later in Ephesians 2:4–7.
Because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ . . . 7 so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.
This word “show” (in “show [Greeek endeixsetai from endeiknumi] the immeasurable riches of his grace”) doesn’t merely mean to treat with grace and kindness. It means to manifest, display, put forth, demonstrate, prove. The point is that God does all things “for the praise of the glory of God’s grace” according to Ephesians 1:6, and therefore God is going to spend an eternity of ages showing us more and more of the riches of that glory to satisfy our ever-growing capacities to see it and savor it and praise it.
Giving His People Delight in Himself
And Paul calls this “the great love of God.” Verse 4: Because of “the great love with which he love us” he made us alive, and opened our eyes, and will be showing us more and more of himself forever in the coming ages. So what is the love of God? It’s God’s commitment to do whatever is necessary to give his people an endless display of himself and endless delight in himself.
And the person that we will see and savor and praise forever is a person whose attributes exist in such a way that the apex of his glory is grace.
So, as strange as it sounds, God’s grace is what enables us to see his glory; and is itself the apex of the glory we see. God has done all things in the theater of God “to the praise of the glory of his grace.” And the doing of all things to that end is the revelation of grace.
Now we are on the brink of the answer to the next question.
How Do the Historical Work and the Eternal Person of the Son of God Relate to the God’s Ultimate Goal in the Theater of God?
How do the person and work of Christ relate to God’s display of the glory of his grace for the praise of his people? And the answer is: The historical work of Christ is the action of God’s grace, and the eternal person of Christ is the gift of God’s grace. The grace of his work on the cross makes it possible for sinners to enjoy the grace of his person forever.
Jesus is the embodiment of the glory of God’s grace, and Jesus is the means of attaining the glory of that grace. God glorifies his grace through the work of Jesus, and Jesus himself is the radiance of that glory (Hebrews 1:3). The grace of Christ purchases the ultimately satisfying gift. And the glory of that grace is the gift. Jesus is the way God gives, as well as what God gives. He’s the price, and he’s the pearl.
Jesus: Both Purchase and Prize
And when you pause to think about it, it must be this way, because for Jesus to be either of these two, he must also be the other. To be either, he must be both. If he is to be the glorious Redeemer who bears our sins and provides our righteousness and purchases our everlasting enjoyment of himself, then he must be the infinitely valuable, all-satisfying revelation of the glory of God. No lesser Redeemer will do.
And turn it around: If he is to be the all-satisfying revelation of the glory of God’s grace, then he must be the one who goes to Calvary and performs the greatest work of grace there ever was. So for him to be either the purchase of grace or the prize of grace, he must be both.
The implication of what I am saying is that “the glory of the grace of God” that we are destined to praise forever, according to Ephesians 1:6, is the glory of Christ. That is, the glory of God the Father and the glory of God the Son are one glory. And that glory is the glory of his historical work and the glory of his eternal person.
Confirmation and Illustration
Consider these confirming and illustrating texts:
2 Corinthians 4:4. When God opens our eyes, we see “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” Or as verse 6 says, we “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” In the gospel, we see the glory of Christ’s work, and we inherit the glory of Christ’s person. And this glory is the glory of God.
Ephesians 3:21. “To God be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations.” The glory that we see in God and render to him is “in Christ Jesus.”
Philippians 4:19. “My God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” The riches of the glory of God are in Christ.
John 12:41. John takes our breath away after quoting Isaiah 6:10 from that famous passage where the prophet says, “Holy, holy, holy . . . the whole earth is full of his glory” (Isaiah 6:3). He adds, “Isaiah said these things because he saw his [that is, Christ’s] glory and spoke of him.” How much more plain could John make it that the glory of Yahweh is the glory of Christ.
Which is why James simply calls him “our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory” (James 2:1); and why Paul calls our blessed hope the “appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13). Jesus is the Lord of glory because he is the “great God and Savior.”
So when Ephesians 1:6 says that the entire drama in the entire theater of God has this one great end—“the praise of the glory of the grace of God” through Christ and in the beloved—he means that the historical work of Christ reveals the glory of God’s grace as our all-sufficient purchase, and the eternal person of Christ reveals the glory of God’s grace as our all-satisfying prize. His work is our glorious redemption. His person is our glorious reward.
His role in the theater of God is to display the apex of God’s glory in history for our perfect salvation, and in eternity for our perfect satisfaction.
Which leaves us with one last question.
What Difference Does It Make for Us?
We conclude with five practical effects.
1. Admiration: The Highest of Pleasures
The highest pleasure of the human being is the pleasure of admiration. Salvation is ultimately the revelation of the glory of Christ in such a way that we can enjoy his greatness and are not destroyed. “Father,” Jesus prayed, “I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.”
To see and savor the glory of Christ—that is, to admire him—is why we were created. Make it your greatest ambition and vocation to see the glory of Christ and say with the apostle Paul, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philippians 3:8).
2. New Creation as Nothing Compared to Christ
When the theater of God is totally renewed and we dwell in a new heaven and a new earth, the dazzling creation, ten thousand times more glorious than the sun, will be as nothing compared to Christ himself. Indeed John says, “The city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb” (Revelation 21:23). The glory of God through the lamp of the crucified Lamb will be the radiance of the beauty of all things. We will not be pantheists, but we will see Christ in all things, and will see all things by the light of Christ. His beauty will have no competitor.
3. Being Loved by God: Rescued from Self and Enabled to Make Much of Him
Now we understand that to be loved by God is not to be made much of, but to be rescued from that craving and that bondage, and to be enabled, at great cost, to enjoy making much of God. As Peter said, “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18). This is God’s love: God’s bringing us to God. Opening our eyes to God. Awakening our affections for God. The apex of God’s love is to give us himself for our everlasting enjoyment—and to do it by displaying the glory of Christ as our all-sufficient Rescue and our all-satisfying Reward.
4. Our Glory Reflecting the Glory of Christ
To be sure, we ourselves will be glorified. We will shine like the sun in the kingdom of our Father (Matthew 13:43). But when we do, our glory will be the reflected glory of Christ, not our own. “To this he called you,” Paul wrote, “through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Thessalonians 2:14).
We will be glorious. But the glory will be his. And what will be most glorious about us is that we will be able to see and savor his glory with the very passion that the Father himself has for his Son, as Jesus prays in John 17:26, “May the love with which you [Father] have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”
5. Being Changed by Seeing His Glory in the Gospel
When God gives us eyes to see the glory of God in the gospel of Christ, we are gradually changed into the likeness of Christ. “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).
So already now, the age to come—the age of glory—has begun. Redemption is accomplished in Christ. By the Holy Spirit, our eyes are opened to see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ. And beholding it, we are being changed—a down payment on our final glorification. And we know that when he comes, our transformation will be complete, and we will be like him for we will see him as he is (1 John 3:2).
Stand in Awe of Christ
Therefore, when you get up in the morning and before you go to bed at night, and all day long, with “one foot raised,” stand in awe of Christ the dénouement in the theater of God. Amen.
1 John Dillenberger, John Calvin, Selections from His Writings, p. 110.
2 John Dillenberger, John Calvin, Selections from His Writings, p. 95.
3 Calvin writes, “[W]e simply interpret justification, as the acceptance with which God receives us into his favor as if we were righteous; and we say that this justification consists in the forgiveness of sins and the imputation of the righteousness of Christ.” Institutes, III, 11, 2. He continues, “[I]t is proved, that it is entirely by the intervention of Christ's righteousness that we obtain justification before God. This is equivalent to saying that man is not just in himself, but that the righteousness of Christ is communicated to him by imputation, while he is strictly deserving of punishment. Thus vanishes the absurd dogma, that man is justified by faith, inasmuch as it brings him under the influence of the Spirit of God by whom he is rendered righteous. . . . You see that our righteousness is not in ourselves, but in Christ; that the only way in which we become possessed of it is by being made partakers with Christ, since with him we possess all riches. . . . To declare that we are deemed righteous, solely because the obedience of Christ is imputed to us as if it were our own, is just to place our righteousness in the obedience of Christ.” Ibid., III, 11, 23.
4 J. H. Merle D’Aubigne, Let Christ Be Magnified: Calvin’s Teaching for Today (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2007), p. 9.
5 D’Aubigne, p. 9
6 John Calvin, Sermons on the Epistle to the Ephesians, p. xii (emphasis added).
7 Institutes, I, 5, 8