[God] will render to each person according to his deeds: to those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, [he will render] eternal life; but to those who are selfishly ambitious and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, [he will render] wrath and indignation. There will be tribulation and distress for every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first and also of the Greek, but glory and honor and peace to everyone who does good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.
I could not bring myself to leave this passage behind with so little said about one of the central assertions, namely that eternal life is given to those who “seek glory and honor and immortality.” Notice verses 6–7: “[God] will render to each person according to his deeds: to those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, [he will render] eternal life.” Shorten that down to this: “To those who seek for glory and honor and immortality, God will render eternal life.” Now let’s clarify from last week so as to get the misunderstandings out of the way.
1. Yes, the point is made here that glory and honor and immortality are sought in a certain way, namely “by perseverance in doing good.” Or literally, “in accord with the endurance of good work.” So you can’t just go about seeking glory and honor and immortality any way you wish. How you do it matters. The judgment will be “according to deeds,” as verse 6 says. So we must seek the glory of eternal life “according to the endurance in good work.” That’s the first clarification.
2. The second one is that this judgment according to deeds is not judgment on the basis of the merit of good deeds. That is, the deeds do not earn eternal life. Rather, the basis of our eternal life and of our right standing with God is the death of Christ, atoning for all our sin, and the righteousness of Christ, fulfilling all our failed obedience. Romans 3:24–25 says, “[We are] justified as a gift by his grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood.” So the death of Christ, absorbing the wrath of God against our sins, is the foundation of our justification, our right standing with God.
But Paul also puts it positively. Not only does Christ take on our sin and absorb the punishment of it, but we take on his righteousness and receive the reward of it. 2 Corinthians 5:21 says, “[God] made him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.” And in Philippians 3:9 Paul says “I aim to be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith.”
According to Our Deeds
The point here is this: Eternal life is not earned by the merit of our good deeds. It is obtained for us by the death of Christ and based on the righteousness that we have by faith in him. When verse 6 says, there will be a judgment “according to deeds” and verse 7 says that eternal life is given to those who persevere in good deeds, the meaning is that the faith that justifies always sanctifies. A changed life — not a perfect life — always comes as the fruit of being united to Christ. So a transformed life is a necessary condition of eternal life, but does not earn or merit eternal life.
“A changed life — not a perfect life — always comes as the fruit of being united to Christ.”
Or, as Jesus said, in Matthew 7:16–17, “You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they? So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit.” The appearance of fruit does not make a tree a fruit tree. But it shows that it is a fruit tree. So a transformed life does not make a person a Christian. But a transformed life shows that a person is a Christian.
In summary then: In the last day, there will be a judgment. It will settle finally and publicly who enters eternal life and who doesn’t. The verdict, “not guilty,” at this judgment will be based on the work of Christ on the cross. The guilt of all true believers was carried by Jesus: “the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6). But that verdict will “accord with our deeds” — our daily lives will give evidence that we trusted Christ more than money and that we loved him more than the praise of men.
Seek Glory and Honor and Immortality
Now, when all that clarifying is done, we should go back and not miss the force of these words in verse seven: God will give eternal life to those who “seek for glory and honor and immortality.” Yes, seek it by perseverance in good deeds. And yes, these good deeds are the fruit of being justified by faith in Christ. Yes and Amen and Praise the Lord to that. But don’t miss what it is saying: there is a seeking of glory and honor and immortality. I stress it for three reasons:
First, a lot of people think this is a low and sub-Christian motive. Christians don’t seek glory and honor and immortality. That would be selfish. This was what C.S. Lewis reacted against so vigorously in The Weight of Glory.
The New Testament has lots to say about self-denial, but not about self-denial as an end in itself. We are told to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses in order that we may follow Christ; and nearly every description of what we shall ultimately find if we do so contains an appeal to desire.
If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith. Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the gospels, it would seem that our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.
The second reason I stress this is that a lot of people don’t seek anything with eagerness, especially not spiritual life. They amble through life. They float. They coast. They are spiritually listless. They are captive to spiritual apathy. Do you remember that rare word I taught you more than a year ago when we were in the book of Hebrews? Acedia. It means boredom or apathy. This is deadly. Because Paul says that eternal life is given to those who seek, not those who dawdle. In 1 Timothy 6:12 he says, “Fight the good fight of faith; take hold of the eternal life to which you were called.”
The third reason I focus on this matter is that what it means to “seek glory and honor and immortality” needs explaining. And so to that we turn now.
Seek, Want, Pursue, Crave, Love
The point this morning is that it is a good thing, indeed it is a necessary thing, to “seek glory and honor and immortality.” Seek it. Want it. Pursue it. Crave it. Love it. Desire it more than you desire any earthly thing. That is the point. Don’t be a listless, apathetic, sluggish person when it comes to spiritual things. And if you are like that, then intensify your prayers that God would ignite your heart with the preciousness of glory and honor and immortality.
Are you fascinated by the impeachment hearings? Then ask God to help you transpose that fascination into glory and honor and immortality. Are you eager to have kids home for Christmas? Then ask God to help you transpose that eagerness into glory and honor and immortality. Do you watch the stock market to see how your investments are doing? Then ask God to help you transpose that desire for money into desire for glory and honor and immortality.
That’s the point: Seek it. Eternal life is given to those who seek glory and honor and immortality. Not to the spiritually indifferent. But what does that mean?
Defining Glory, Honor and Immortality
Let me get at it with three “E’s.” I use these three “E’s” to define glory and honor and immortality because I think glory is the main thing to seek and honor and immortality are simply aspects of it. The three “E’s” are excellence, echo, and extension. I’m going to define “glory” as a kind of divine excellence. I think “honor” is the echo of that excellence in the regard of God and angels and saints. And “immortality” is the extension of that excellence forever into the future.
So picture a great and excellent person moving into eternity with no death. The extension of his movement forever and ever without death or any decay or corruption or diminishing is his immortality. And as he moves through eternity forever and ever, his excellence is seen by other excellent persons and is echoed back to him in honor and praise. So what I hope you can see is that the excellence itself is the main thing and that immortality is simply that it lasts forever and honor is simply that it is recognized and approved for what it is in the minds and hearts of other excellent persons, especially God.
So I want to focus on the meaning of “seeking glory.” That is the central thing. But there is something about “seeking honor” that begs for comment before I take up “seeking glory.”
Whose approval and whose regard and whose praise should we be seeking? The answer is given in two places: Romans 2:29 and 1 Corinthians 4:5. In Romans 2:29 Paul says, “He is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God.” A genuine Christian is not pursuing praise from men, but praise from God. That is the honor he wants. In 1 Corinthians 4:5, Paul says that at the judgment God will “bring to light the things hidden in the darkness and disclose the motives of men’s hearts; and then each man’s praise will come to him from God.”
“A genuine Christian is not pursuing praise from men, but praise from God.”
Now, this raises the question of what God would praise in man. Is this idolatry on God’s part? Is he putting man above his own glory? Is he implying that there is a value or a beauty or a virtue that comes from outside God himself that constrains God, as it were, to worship something about man? The answer lies in the meaning of the glory we seek.
That leads us to the final and main issue: What does it mean for us to “seek glory”? Whose glory? And if we say, God’s glory, do we mean that we are seeking to see it or that we are seeking to share in it? And if we say, “see it and share in it,” do we mean share in it the way Satan wanted Eve to share in it in Genesis 3:5? “God knows that in the day you eat from [the tree] your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God.” Is that the way we should want to share in God’s glory? Absolutely not. So we have to be careful here. Huge things are at stake in the way we think about this, and the way we seek glory.
I think Paul’s answers to our questions go like this: We are to seek God’s glory. And seek it first in the sense of wanting to see it and enjoy it for what it is as we see it in God revealed in his word and works. Romans 1:23 says that the folly of ungodliness is that people “exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image.” This is a failure to seek the glory of God. We are to seek it as the highest treasure of our worship — our admiration and delight and reverence — and not exchange it for anything.
Romans 5:2 says “Through [Christ] we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand; and we exult in hope of the glory of God.” And verse 11 shortens it down to the absolute essence of our desire: “Not only this, but we also exult in God.” Not mainly the glory of God that we might share, but God himself, period. That is the essence of our seeking. We long for God. Or which is the same thing, God in his glory or God in his excellence.
So yes, seeking the glory of God means seeking to see it and know it and enjoy it as it is in God. But that is not all that is meant here, in view of what Paul says in Romans 8. Look at Romans 8:17. “If [we are] children [of God, then we are], heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.” So here, our seeking is not just to see the glory of God, but to share in the glory of God.
Keep on Going in Romans 8
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us. [Yes, glory will be revealed to us, but it goes on to say that it will also transform us and make us glorious with the same glory.] For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. (Romans 8:18–21)
This is what Paul means in Romans 8:30 when he says, “These whom [God] justified, he also glorified.” So seeking glory means both seeking to see it and to share it. So that leaves us with the question: If we are to share in the very glory of God and seek this as part of eternal life, what does it mean, and how can we keep it from being what Satan wanted Eve to do in trying to be like God?
I would put it like this: To be glorified, or to share in the glory of God, and yet not be God is to be fitted by God in mind and spirit and body to know the glory of God and enjoy the glory of God and thus display the glory of God with the very energy of God. What this does is keep the meaning of glorification radically God-centered. Even though we are being glorified, every aspect of our sharing in his glory is a fitting of us to know or enjoy or display his glory. Which is the same as to say: Our glory is to know his glory. Our glory is to enjoy his glory. Our glory is to display his glory. And our glory is to do all of that not in our own strength, but in the strength that God himself supplies so that our joy may be full and his glory fully shown.
So I exhort you and urge you to seek glory and honor and immortality. Seek the excellence of God — to see it and to share in it — to know it and enjoy it and display it. Seek the echo of that excellence in the praise of God himself. And seek the everlasting extension of that excellence into all eternity.
How Do I Seek Glory and Honor and Immortality?
First, look to Christ and the glory of his finished work on the cross for sinners. This is what we stressed at the beginning. Justification and eternal life are not earned by our deeds. They are freely given to those who look to Christ in faith. So if we are going to obtain the glory of God and be glorified, we must trust Christ. We are justified by faith (Romans 5:1) and those who are justified will be glorified (Romans 8:30). Therefore, faith is the first and indispensable key to seeking the glory of God.
But don’t treat Christ or faith as less than they are. When I say “look to Christ” I mean look steadfastly to the glory of Christ as your greatest treasure. I mean what Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:4; 3:18. In 2 Corinthians 4:4, Paul says that the gospel of Christ is “the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” So to look to Christ for justification is to seek the glory of God in Christ. It is not something separate. This is what faith does. It receives Christ in the gospel as the glory of God. This is what faith feeds on in the gospel.
Four verses earlier, in 2 Corinthians 3:18, Paul says, “We all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit.” In other words, looking to Christ in the gospel is a beholding of the glory of the Lord, which changes us from one degree of glory to the next into his image.
This is where good deeds come in. Our good deeds are part of the likeness to Christ. And this likeness to Christ comes from seeing and savoring the glory of Christ in the gospel. This is why Paul says in Romans 2:7 that those who seek glory by perseverance in “good deeds” will receive eternal life. The likeness to Christ is evidence that we already now being “glorified” — not by works, but by looking to Christ in the gospel. To see is to become. To look is to become like.
The second instruction I would give in answer to the question how we seek the glory of God comes from realizing that there are many sufferings on the path that leads to glory. How shall we respond to them? And how will they help us on to the glory we seek. The answer of 2 Corinthians 4:16–18 is this:
“If we are going to obtain the glory of God and be glorified, we must trust Christ.”
We do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.
Here again, the key is: Where are we looking? We should be looking to eternal things gained, not temporal things lost (Philippians 1:21). This is the pathway to “an eternal weight of glory far beyond comparison.” Suffering is not incidental to our quest for glory. It is an essential part of it. And this suffering is not just persecution. It is “the decaying” of our bodies. Romans 8:17–18 says the same thing, even more forcefully, as part of how we seek glory: “If [we are] children [of God, then we are], heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”
That suffering includes the groaning of verse 23 as we wait for the redemption of our bodies. It is not just suffering that comes from persecution, but all the futilities and miseries of this life. If we look to Christ in them, and suffer with him and not against him, then verse 17 says we will be glorified with him — now and forever.
So my answer to the question of how we seek the glory and honor and immortality of God is: Look to Christ. Look to him for the glory that he is in the gospel of his death and resurrection. See him and savor him as the image of the glory of God. And look to him in your suffering. Look to the things that are eternal. Look to Christ. Look to the glory of God. Taste him. Trust him. Be transformed by him.