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See Glory, Be Glorious

How Our Holiness Honors God

Article by

Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

ABSTRACT: The glory of God is God’s ultimate purpose in all he does, including the sanctification of his people. But God glorifies himself in sanctification’s process as well as its result. Holiness in us happens only as the Spirit enables Christians to behold the glory of Christ as supremely beautiful and valuable. Beholding glory leads to becoming glorious — and even deeper than that, beholding Christ as glorious is the very essence of our glory. The heart of Christian holiness is a heart that sees Christ as a treasure beyond all treasures.

The apostle Paul seems to delight in repeatedly expressing the glory of God as the ultimate purpose of all God does. From predestination to incarnation to sanctification to consummation — the ultimate purpose is the same: that God in Christ be magnified as supremely glorious.1

Not only does Paul regularly overflow with doxologies that ascribe all glory to God (Romans 11:36; 16:27; Ephesians 3:21; Philippians 4:20; 2 Timothy 4:18), but he also includes many explicit statements of purpose to show, for example, that God’s glory is the end of predestination (Ephesians 1:4–6), providence (Ephesians 1:11), the sealing of the Spirit (Ephesians 1:13–14), Paul’s apostolic ministry (2 Corinthians 4:15), Christian welcome (Romans 15:7), the worldwide confession of Christ as Lord (Philippians 2:11), and the second coming (2 Thessalonians 1:10).

Paul leaves us with little doubt that our sanctification also fits with this purpose — that God glorifies his people (incrementally now, fully later) for the sake of his own glorification (Philippians 1:9–11). The ultimate end of our salvation resides in God, not in us. In fact, part of what it means to be glorified is to have the kind of heart that is glad about that.

But how does God fulfill this purpose? How does God bring about our sanctification in such a way that he is glorified? As we consider three different ways Paul answers this question, the most practical implications for life and ministry emerge.

Beholding Glory Is a Means of Glorification

First, Paul shows that an essential means of our glorification is beholding the glory of God in Christ. If we are made incrementally glorious with the glory of Christ by means of looking upon Christ,2 then it is the glory of Christ that is magnified. Ours is reflective.

Paul describes this particular means of transformation only once in his writings, in 2 Corinthians 3:18. “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. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” According to this verse, we become glorious by beholding glory.

Old Testament Backdrop

From 2 Corinthians 3:7 to 4:6, Paul is unfolding the superior glory of the new covenant over the Mosaic covenant. From the allusions he makes, we can tell that Paul was reading, at least, Exodus 34:29, 33–35.

When Moses came down from Mount Sinai, with the two tablets of the testimony in his hand as he came down from the mountain, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. . . . And when Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil over his face. Whenever Moses went in before the Lord to speak with him, he would remove the veil, until he came out. And when he came out and told the people of Israel what he was commanded, the people of Israel would see the face of Moses, that the skin of Moses’ face was shining. And Moses would put the veil over his face again, until he went in to speak with him.

Paul adapts the Sinai situation to his own situation in two different ways. On the one hand, Paul compares the bulk of Jewish readers in his day to the people at Sinai who were kept from seeing the glory: “To this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted” (2 Corinthians 3:14). But on the other hand, these same readers are also compared to Moses, who lifted the veil when he turned to the Lord in the Tent of Meeting. “When one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed” (2 Corinthians 3:15–16).

So, Paul is showing us that there is an analogy between Moses’s removing the veil and turning to Yahweh, and the Christian’s turning to the Lord and, “with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord” (2 Corinthians 3:18). The result in both cases is that the beholder becomes glorious with the glory of the Lord.3

Veil Lifted for Believers

Paul’s point, therefore, is that in the new covenant God has lifted the veil so that believers can see the glory of Yahweh in the face of Christ (2 Corinthians 4:6), or the glory of Christ, who is the image of Yahweh (2 Corinthians 4:4). This is not essentially a seeing with the physical eyes. It is a seeing with the eyes of the heart (Ephesians 1:18). And the effect of this seeing is that we are “being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.”4

Therefore, it is plain not only that the glory into which we are being changed is the glory of Christ, but also that this transformation happens by means of focusing our gaze on him. He is the origin and source of our glory not impersonally or mechanically — as if we might attain his glory with no knowledge of him or attention to him — but only by a face-to-face beholding. In this way, he is made even more central in this transaction than if he were only the source of the glory without our knowing it. Thus, our glorification glorifies God because seeing God’s glory in Christ is the necessary means of it.

The Lord Himself Transforms Us

The second way Paul shows that our glorification is a means of God’s ultimate glorification is by revealing that Christ himself is the one doing the transforming — Christ the Lord, who is the Spirit.

There are two agencies of transformation mentioned in 2 Corinthians 3:18. One is our beholding the glory of the Lord. The other appears in Paul’s statement “this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.”5 This statement means, first, that our transformation from glory to glory is from the Lord, in the sense that we are beholding his glory as we change, and, second, it is from the Spirit, who actually causes the spiritual and moral changes in us as we look to Christ.

“We become glorious by beholding glory.”

And these two agencies of our transformation are united. It is “the Lord who is the Spirit.”6 Therefore, Paul teaches us here in 2 Corinthians 3:18 that Christ himself is not only the template of our glorification — the one we behold — but also the One who enters us and, by the Spirit, works the changes from one degree of glory to another. This would involve at least three actions.

Blind Eyes Opened

First, the Lord, the Spirit, opens the eyes of our heart, which are blind apart from this miracle of spiritual sight. “The god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Corinthians 4:4). We cannot be transformed from glory to glory by seeing Christ if we remain blind to Christ. Therefore, when Paul says this seeing “comes from the Lord who is the Spirit,” he implies that what the Lord does is enable us to see glory.

Before this miracle, we saw Christ, as Paul said, “according to the flesh” (2 Corinthians 5:16). He was a mere man — or worse, an imposter. He was not compellingly glorious in our eyes. We were like “the rulers of this age,” who Paul says did not see the glory of Jesus, “for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Corinthians 2:8). So, the first action of the Spirit in the transaction of 2 Corinthians 3:18 is to open the eyes of the spiritually blind, who cannot see Christ as compellingly glorious.

Sight of Glory

Second, the Spirit presents to the newly opened eyes the sight of the glory of Christ. No one will be changed from glory to glory if his eyes are opened and there is no Christ to see. The Christ we see by this miracle of spiritual sight is “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Corinthians 4:4). We do not see a vision. We do not see a dream. We see the light of Christ’s glory shining through the gospel — that is, through the story of Christ’s death and resurrection and what it means.

Therefore, when Paul says that “this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit,” I take him to mean that the Lord has done what needs to be done so that Christ is there to see when the eyes are opened. This would include both the great work of the cross itself, and the providential acts to bring the gospel into our awareness.

Glorifier Gets the Glory

Third, there is one more achievement included in the words, “this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18). Why is it that seeing the glory of the Lord transforms us from glory to glory? How does that work? Whatever the answer to that is, Paul says that it “comes from the Lord.” This is so significant and so full of practical implications that we will do well to treat it as a separate means (the third one) by which Paul shows that our glorification is a means of God’s glorification. But before we turn to that third and final point, I will sum up the second one we have just discussed.

I am assuming here on this second point that the one who works the wonder gets the glory. This principle is expressed in 1 Peter 4:11: “Whoever serves, [let it be] as one who serves by the strength that God supplies — in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ.” In other words, the giver of power gets the glory. So it is in 2 Corinthians 3:18: the giver of change gets the glory for the transformation. When Paul says, “This [transformation] comes from the Lord who is the Spirit,” we are to infer that the Lord who makes our glorification work is the one who gets the glory.

Beholding Produces Becoming

The third means by which God gets the glory for our present and final glorification is from the way seeing produces being — from the way beholding produces becoming. Why is it that seeing the glory of the Lord transforms us from glory to glory? How does that work? The fact that it does work, and that it “comes from the Lord,” means that the Lord gets the glory. But that is not the point here. The point now is, How does the process actually work? How does beholding produce becoming? And does the very nature of the process itself — the process of our becoming glorious by seeing glory — glorify God?

I am sure there are depths of miraculous connections between beholding and becoming that I am not aware of. But there is one connection that seems plain in Paul’s writings, and it goes a long way toward answering why beholding glory in Christ produces glory in us, and why that actual process glorifies the Lord of glory.

Supremely Beautiful and Valuable

Clearly, when Paul refers to “beholding the glory of the Lord” in 2 Corinthians 3:18, he is speaking of a beholding that is different from the way a natural man beholds Christ. Unbelievers, Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:4, are blind to the glory of Christ. So, they can study him and “behold” him (as the Pharisees did), but not see his glory. They might see him as a deluded fanatic, or a devious imposter, or an innocent peasant, or a moral teacher, or a merciful humanitarian. But they do not see him as the supremely glorious and worthy Son of God.

But when Paul refers to “beholding the glory of the Lord” in 2 Corinthians 3:18, he is referring to the kind of seeing that God makes possible in 2 Corinthians 4:6: “God . . . has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” This beholding is a seeing of Christ for who and what he really is. He is the Messiah, the Son of God. And he is supremely beautiful and more valuable than anything in the world.

This means that “beholding the glory of the Lord” involves a change of heart, a change of desires and preferences, so that the Lord is seen not just as true, but also as precious, beautiful, valuable, desirable, satisfying — the greatest treasure one could ever want. If the eyes of our heart still see him as boring, inferior, unattractive, or unreal, we are not beholding the glory of the Lord as Paul means it.

Once we realize that beholding the glory of the Lord means seeing him as beautiful, seeing him as valuable, seeing him as desirable and supremely satisfying — a treasure beyond all treasures — then we can see why it is that such a beholding of glory creates glory. For what is the glory of holiness, what is the glory of sanctification, if not a heart whose desires and preferences are so transformed that Christ is its supreme treasure?

Beholding as Beautiful Is the Transformation

So, my answer to why beholding glory creates glory is that the beholding that Paul intends involves the miracle of a heart transformation that sees and savors the glory of Christ as the supreme treasure of life. It is significant that when Paul says, “Beholding the glory of the Lord, [we] are being transformed from glory to glory [tēn doxan kyriou katoptrizomenoi tēn autēn eikona metamorphoumetha apo doxēs eis doxan]” (2 Corinthians 3:18, author’s translation), he does not say that “being transformed from glory to glory” is subsequent to “beholding the glory.” He does not say that we first behold glory, and then as a consequence we are transformed. The way he expresses himself, it is possible that the very beholding of glory is the first experience of the transformation from glory to glory. That is, in fact, what I think is necessarily the case. It is precisely the new capacity to behold the Lord as glorious — as supremely beautiful and valuable — that is the essence of the transformation.

This implies that there is no temporal sequence between seeing the Lord as all-glorious and experiencing the beginnings of our transformation. They are simultaneous. Even if we ascribe to the glory of the Lord the awakening of our desire and preference for him above all others, that does not imply a temporal sequence: first see; then savor. No. Seeing Christ as preferable and the preferring of Christ are simultaneous. The opening of the eye and the streaming in of light are simultaneous; the burning of a flame and the heat and light are simultaneous. So, I say again, it is precisely our new capacity to behold the Lord as glorious — as supremely beautiful and valuable — that is the beginning and essence of the transformation.

“Our new capacity to behold the Lord as glorious is the beginning and essence of the transformation.”

Which means that beholding the glory of the Lord transforms us by satisfying us with his beauty and worth. Once the heart’s preferences and desires are so revolutionized that Christ is its supreme treasure, all our desires and preferences are affected. This is the essence of sanctification and the beginning of glorification — we cease to prefer the world, and now we prefer God.

We can confirm that we are on the right track here by noticing in Romans how Paul understands sin, and in Philippians how he understands contentment.

Sin in Romans

In Romans 3:23, Paul says, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God [hysterountai tēs doxēs tou theou].” Literally, “All have sinned and lack the glory of God.” This lacking the glory of God is most naturally explained by Romans 1:22–23: “Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images.” Lacking the glory of God is owing to exchanging the glory of God for what is not God.

From this I infer that the essence of sin is preferring anything above the glory of God. Sin is, at root, the desire for anything more than God. Sin is the disposition to dethrone God from his position in the heart as supreme treasure.

What then would sanctification be? It would be the miracle of seeing the glory of the Lord as supremely valuable — more to be preferred, more to be desired than anything. Sin is overcome by seeing the glory of the Lord as more desirable than the promise of sin. Therefore, I think we are on the right track when we interpret the dynamics of transformation in 2 Corinthians 3:18 as owing to the heart’s awakening to the supreme desirability of the glory of the Lord over all things.

Contentment in Philippians

A second confirmation is how Paul understands contentment in Philippians 3 and 4. Paul sees his contentment in Philippians 4 as a holy disposition protecting him from the sin of greed (just as the writer of Hebrews 13:5–6 does). In other words, it is key to his sanctification. He is thanking the Philippians for their financial support, and he senses that they might hear his gratitude as an evidence of the love of money. So, he says, “Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content” (Philippians 4:11). His contentment is a protection against unduly desiring money and so sinning.

In the verse we just cited, Paul refers to learning “to be content,” and in Philippians 4:12 he says, “I have learned the secret” of contentment in good times and hard times. What is this “secret”? How did he “learn” this? I think Paul would direct us back to Philippians 3:7–8 for his answer. There he said, “Whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” In other words, the reason Paul can be content with little or much is that Christ is so satisfying to him that worldly losses and gains do not control his affections. His desires and preferences have been so transformed by the superior beauty and worth of Christ that nothing is more desirable to him than Christ.

“The heart of holiness is a heart that sees the Lord as supremely beautiful.”

So again, it appears that Paul’s view of sanctification — how we are transformed from glory to glory — is that we are transformed by beholding the glory of the Lord as supremely beautiful and valuable, more to be desired and preferred than anything else. This comes from beholding the glory of the Lord for what it really is — the greatest treasure in the universe.

The Lord Glorified in Our Being Satisfied in Him

Which leaves one last question to answer: Does this dynamic of sanctification glorify the Lord? If so, how? My answer is that it does, and how it does is shown in Philippians 1:20–23.

It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.

The reason this text is relevant to our question is that it describes how Christ is “magnified” (Philippians 1:20). Paul says that he expects Christ to be magnified in his body “whether by life or by death.” Then he explains how that comes about in the next clause, which begins with “for” (gar): “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). Notice that “by life or by death” in verse 20 corresponds with “to live . . . and to die” in verse 21. Paul is explaining how it is that he expects his death to magnify Christ. His answer is “because to me to die is gain.”

The logic goes like this: “I expect Christ to be magnified in my death because I will experience death as gain.” To make that logic work, we need to see why death would be gain for Paul. He answers that question in verse 23: “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.” The reason death will be gain for Paul is that it means being “with Christ,” which is an experience of immediate joy unparalleled by anything in this world. Thus, back in verse 21, the gain referred to is the satisfaction of being with Christ after death.

So, we can restate the logic of verses 20–21 more fully: “I expect Christ to be magnified in my death because I will experience death as the door to an immediate joy that is greater than anything I could experience here — namely, the joy of being with Christ.”

Now, what does that Pauline logic tell us about how Christ is magnified? It tells us that Christ is magnified in Paul when Paul is satisfied in Christ, especially in a situation where most of the world would regard his death as a reason not to be satisfied. From this I infer that the same applies to all of life: if we gain life and find Christ more satisfying than what life gives (Philippians 3:8), or if we lose the world and find Christ more satisfying than what death takes (Philippians 1:21–23), then in both cases Christ is wonderfully magnified. He is shown to be supremely beautiful and valuable.

Heart of Holiness

Our sanctification, then, glorifies God not only because the Lord himself performs it, and because it happens as we behold the glory of the Lord, and because our own glory is a derivative of God’s. Even more fundamentally, our transformation glorifies God because the heart of holiness is a heart that sees the Lord as supremely beautiful, and supremely valuable, and is therefore satisfied in him as its greatest treasure in life and death. God is glorified by every deed that expresses the heart’s satisfaction in God above all else.

  1. A previous version of this article was published as “Sanctification for the Magnifying of God in Christ: How God Glorifies His Children for His Own Glory,” in God’s Glory Revealed in Christ, ed. Denny Burk, James M. Hamilton Jr., and Bryan Vickers (Nashville, TN: B&H, 2019), 77–98. 

  2. Some have argued that the “Lord” in 2 Corinthians 3:18 refers only to Yahweh: “We all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord [Yahweh], are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” For example, Scott Hafemann, 2 Corinthians: The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 2000), 160–62. His point is a valid one, in that Paul is at pains to show the experience of the Christian in the new covenant is a fulfillment of Moses’s experience of turning to Yahweh unveiled in the Tent of Meeting (Exodus 34:34). But the problem is that, as Paul unfolds this Christian experience in the following six verses, he refers to the glory that we behold in 2 Corinthians 3:18 as “the glory of Christ, who is the image of God,” and “the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:4, 6). So, it seems better to say that the “Lord” whom we behold in 3:18 is “Yahweh in the face of Christ,” or is “Christ, the image of Yahweh.” Moreover, between these two verses (4 and 6) Paul explicitly says, “We proclaim . . . Jesus Christ as Lord” (2 Corinthians 4:5). 

  3. Even though the immediate context of Exodus 34:29–35 does not say that Moses beheld “the glory of God,” but only that he spoke with him (Exodus 34:34), the wider context makes plain that the speaking together included a seeing of God’s glory. For example, just before Moses’s transforming encounter with God on Sinai, he prayed, “Show me your glory” (Exodus 33:18). And later, in Numbers 12:8, God says, “With [Moses] I speak mouth to mouth, clearly, and not in riddles, and he beholds the form of the Lord.” 

  4. Numerous commentators point out that the grammatical possibility exists that “from glory to glory” (apo doxēs eis doxan) could mean, not incremental process, but “from the divine glory beheld to the final glory experienced in the age to come,” thus implying only origin and goal, not process. See the examples of this kind of interpretation in Murray J. Harris, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005), 317. Most commentators, however, reject this view and affirm that Paul means incremental glorification in this life leading to final glorification in the age to come. The main reason is that the present tense verbs (katoptrizomenoi and metamorphoumetha) most naturally point in this direction. 

  5. Not all agree that kathaper apo kyriou pneumatos at the end of verse 18 should be translated this way — identifying the Lord and the Spirit. On the face of it, their case is good. They would rightly point out that the related thought in verse 17 is surely the key to how these words are to be taken. Second Corinthians 3:17 says, “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” This verse seems most likely to be Paul’s comment on the reference to Moses’s turning to the “Lord” in 2 Corinthians 3:16: “But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed.” In following this verse with “the Lord is the Spirit,” Paul seems to say, “I am now connecting the Old Testament sight of Yahweh with the new-covenant work of the Spirit.” When he says, “The Lord is the Spirit,” the word is probably means “corresponds to.”

    But having acknowledged that “the Lord is the Spirit” is not a direct affirmation of the identity of two members of the Trinity, nevertheless, we must come to terms with the next phrase, “the Spirit of the Lord”: “And where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Corinthians 3:17). The phrase “the Spirit of the Lord” (to pneuma kyriou) brings Yahweh and the Spirit into the closest relationship. The Spirit is Yahweh’s Spirit. This is more than a typological correspondence (“Yahweh corresponds to the Spirit”).

    We ask then, Is Yahweh’s Spirit Christ’s Spirit? When 2 Corinthians 3:18 ends by saying our glorification comes “from the Lord who is the Spirit [apo kyriou pneumatos],” two factors point to identifying the Spirit as the Spirit of Christ. One is that “the Lord” has already taken on the meaning of Yahweh as we see him in Christ (see footnote 2). And the other is that the unusual anarthrous and reversed word order, kyriou pneumatos, as opposed to the order in verse 17 (to pneuma kyriou), suggests that this is not a mere repetition of “the Spirit of the Lord.” Rather, it is a clarification that two agencies are at work in the glorification of the believers. 

  6. This is not the only place where Paul treats the Spirit as identified with Christ. For example, in Romans 8:9–10, he says, “Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you . . .”