Can We Give God Glory?

Michael S. Horton
Tuesday, November 6th 2007
Nov/Dec 2007

The Jewish historian Josephus recounts the sight of Herod’s temple before its destruction. As the sun rose, its gilded surface became so brilliant that pilgrims could see it from miles away as they approached the city. Isaiah 60 envisions a still more remarkable scene. The context is the Babylonian exile. Here Zion is lying in sackcloth and ashes, mourning her exile, longing for redemption and restoration. The Spirit of Glory having evacuated the sanc-tuary, Solomon’s great temple itself lies in ruins, claimed (like Eden) by weeds and thorns. In chapter 59, the people had pre-sumed to put God on trial, but as covenant attorney the prophet reverses the charges presenting the people’s own eyes, ears, hands, tongues, and feet as evidence of their disloyalty to the covenant. The people finally confess their sins and that unfaithfulness lies with them rather than with their Covenant Lord. It is because of their sins that they are “like blind men groping in the dark” (Isa. 59:9).

However, as often happens in Isaiah (and in the prophetic writings generally), after law there is always gospel. Where the people finally realize their guilt and the Judge becomes the Redeemer, there is the marvelous prophecy of a great sunrise. The prophet declares, “Arise, shine; for your light has come! And the glory of the Lord is risen upon you.” Just as in Ezekiel 37, where the prophet preaches to the dry bones in the valley and they come to life, here God speaks through the prophet and there appears the reality of which he speaks. The condition is like that of the first creation. Darkness and void cover the whole earth, not just Jerusalem, and God declares, “Let there be light!”

God is not asking the light to appear or fanning existing embers into a brilliant flame. Nor is he giving Israel the conditions it must meet in order for God’s light to dawn. God said “Let there be light” when there was only darkness; he spoke life into Sarah’s barren womb, and his Word became flesh in the womb of a Jewish virgin above all natural processes of conception. It is this divine speech that declares the wicked to be just and then makes them so, the declaration that transfers us from lo-ammi (not-my-people) to the chosen people of God (1 Pet. 2:9-10). In fact, Paul compared God’s declaration in justification to God’s “Let there be light!” In both cases, God “gives life to the dead and calls those things which do not exist as though they did.” He “was strengthened in faith, giving glory to God and being fully convinced that what he [God] had promised he was also able to perform. And therefore ‘it was accounted to him for righteousness.’ Now it was not written for his sake alone that it was imputed to him, but also for us” (Rom. 4:17-23).

Israel Is the Moon, Not the Sun

Back to Isaiah 60. “Arise, shine; for your light has come! And the glory of the Lord is risen upon you.” But not quite yet: “For behold, the darkness shall cover the earth, and deep darkness the people; but the Lord will arise over you, and his glory will be seen upon you” (v. 1). Zion has no resources for “rising” and “shining,” yet she does arise and shine because her light has come. Zion is the moon, reflecting the radiance of the sun. She has no inherent radiance; she is in no sense a source of light, even a lesser source. The glory of the one is qualitatively, not just quantitatively, different. Only when the sun rises upon her, declaring the darkness to be over and the morning to dawn, does God’s holy people begin to reflect his glory. Nevertheless, the glory that shines upon Zion is not something creaturely; it is the very glory of God himself. The sunrise reveals a remarkable scene: Gentiles streaming into the light, kings into its brightness.

God is the light; his people are reflectors. God is the Redeemer; we are the redeemed. The church is always on the receiving end of God’s activity. “The Lord will arise over you and his glory will be seen upon you.” Zion, the ruined city, the mother now barren and bereaved of her children, the desolate city, is a ghost town now, but in this new creation she will be a glorious city, inhabited not only by a returning remnant of Israelites consecrated to the Lord, but by a remnant from all the nations of the earth-including the ones that have oppressed her (see also Isa. 19). New creation language converges with new exodus language, as we see repeatedly in the Servant Songs of Isaiah (see especially Isa. 48:12-16, 20-22; 49:1-7, 11-13).

Zion’s radiant face, beaming with excitement at hosting this global festival with kings and their people bringing treasures makes her heart pound with joy and amazement at what the Lord has done. The kings are coming not to Zion itself, but to the Messiah, the source of Zion’s light: “You are my Servant … a light to the Gentiles” (Isa. 42:6). Their sacrifices of praise are now accepted (v. 7). Zechariah 1:7 similarly declares, “Be silent in the presence of God. For the day of the Lord is at hand. For the Lord has prepared a sacrifice, he has invited his guests.” Isaiah 60 prophesies nothing less than a new creation, with the procession of the creature-kings before the Great King who is enthroned in his Sabbath splendor (vv. 13-16). At the heart of this Sabbath-life is righteousness, both in relation to God and neighbor (vv. 17-18). God will finally dwell forever in the midst of his people, as their light and their righteousness (vv. 19-22).

Your Light Has Come!

Reminiscent of Genesis 1 as well as Isaiah 60, John begins his Gospel with the announcement, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. And without him nothing was made that is made.” Just at the time when God’s people, like the world generally, was stumbling around in the dark, John announces, “In him was life and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it…. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:4, 14). He is the Sun. He is the Word spoken by the Father that creates a world out of nothing but sin and death.

Commenting on Isaiah 60, Calvin writes, “Isaiah alludes to the dawn; for, as the morning star begins the day in one quarter of heaven, and immediately the sun enlightens the whole world, so the daybreak was first in Judea, from which the light arose, and then was diffused throughout the whole world; for there is no corner of the earth which the Lord has not enlightened by this light.” The Puritan Thomas Goodwin put it in these terms: “God hath made a new world, whereof Jesus Christ is its Sun.”

He is the temple, the high priest, and the sacrifice; but we are his living stones, reflecting his light. If Israel had no inherent light to offer the world, how much less do we who are Gentiles have a cause to boast?

Coming to him as to a living stone, rejected indeed by men, but chosen by God and precious, you also, as living stones, are being built up into a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ . . . that you may proclaim the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. You once were not a people, but are now the people of God; you had once not received mercy, but now have obtained mercy. (1 Pet. 2:4-10)

Because the light has shone upon Zion, adds Peter, “I beg you as sojourners and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts that war against the soul, maintaining honorable conduct among the Gentiles, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may, by your good works which they observe, glorify God in the day of visitation” (vv. 11-12).

Christ is the Sun; we are the moon, lying in darkness until he rises upon us. By virtue of our union with him, we are called the “children of light,” living stones that, far more than the golden surface of the earthly temple, collectively yield a glow to the ships of distant shores, beckoning them to the feast on God’s holy hill. Finally, in Revelation 21:22-25, there is the vision of the end-time sanctuary, with no temple, sun or moon, because “the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple [and] the Lamb is its light….And the nations [of those who are saved] shall walk in its light, and the kings of the earth bring their glory [and honor] into it. Its gates shall not be shut at all by day (there shall be no night there).”

Reflecting God’s Glory in Our High Calling in Christ

So what do you give someone who already has everything? No one can give God a gift. Even if we did everything he commanded, it would still not constitute anything over and beyond the call of duty. Unlike the gods of the nations (including our own) that can be manipulated, nothing we do can put God in our debt. “For who has ever given him anything that he should repay him? For of him and through him and to him are all things, to whom be the glory forever” (Rom. 11:35-36). Not a single ray of God’s glory would be diminished without us.

Nevertheless, God has created a choir for his praise-image-bearers who are being re-created in Christ, who is “the image of the invisible God” in whom “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (Col. 1:15, 19). God has chosen us in Christ, redeemed us by Christ, and called us into union with Christ, so that, in Calvin’s words, “in a certain sense, God has bound up his own glory with the church’s salvation.” God’s Word alone brings salvation (sola scriptura), a salvation that is by God’s grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide), in Christ alone (solus Christus), so that God may receive all the glory (soli Deo gloria). Idolaters lay their works and goods at the feet of their speechless idols and many professing Christians around the world turn God into an idol that they think they can pacify and control; but as Paul announced to the Athenians, “God, who made the world and everything in it, since he is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands. Nor is he worshiped with human hands, as though he needed anything, since he is the one who gives life, breath, and all things.” In fact, it is this God who raised his Son, Jesus Christ, from the dead (Acts 17:22-31). This is bad news for the human ego, but great news for image-bearers who are weary of trying to make themselves suns.

Although we cannot give God anything that would improve his lot or make him indebted to us, God has given us everything necessary for life and salvation, and he makes us means through whom he gives temporal blessings to our neighbors. If we give God glory and praise, it is only as a mirror reflecting his face, a moon reflecting his light. Therefore, we no longer serve God as debtors but glorify God as witnesses. Witnesses are not the main story; they only report it. They give public testimony to what they have seen and heard. The mirror does not make the image, but only reflects it. It tells the truth, but doesn’t create it.

This is what it means to belong to that great cast of characters or “cloud of witnesses” that Isaiah prophesied. That is what it means to give God glory. Not giving him our good works as a bribe to justice, but “letting [our] light so shine before men that they may see [our] good works and glorify [our] Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:16). Notice the difference between the reflection and the Light itself, as John the Baptist realized when he pointed away from himself to the Lamb. “This man came for a witness,” says the evangelist, “to bear witness of the Light, that all through him might believe. He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness to that Light. That was the true Light which gives light to everyone coming into the world” (John 1:6-9). John gave his witness to the Pharisees, announcing that he was simply the one who was preparing the way for the Christ. “It is he who, coming after me, is preferred before me, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to loose” (v. 27). As the story unfolds, the witnesses multiply.

With all due respect to Sunday school teachers everywhere, Jesus does not want you “for a sunbeam”; he wants you for a moon. He wants witnesses who point away from themselves to him and to his achievements for the redemption of the ungodly and the restoration of creation at the end of the age. It is not surprising, then, that the Great Commission, like the Great Mandate of our creation-but even greater-is to be made Christ’s witnesses to the end of the earth (Matt. 24:14; Acts 22:15).

“Who will go for us?” God asks the heavenly court in Isaiah 6. No wonder Isaiah, after being faced with his sinfulness and then assured of pardon, responded, “Here I am, Lord. Send me!” “How blessed on the hills are the feet of those who bring good news!” When Jesus commissions his disciples to go as reflectors reaching outward to the ends of the earth, he bases this imperative on the prior declaration, “Let there be light!” First drawing them into the light of his gospel, he made them a light to the nations. Therefore, this mission is assured of its success. For it was he who declared, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” “Arise, shine; for your light has come!”

Reflecting God’s Glory in Our Secular Callings

In Romans 4, Paul tells us that we are justified through faith alone so that it may be by grace alone so that, finally, we may “give glory to God” alone (v. 20). Historians have frequently observed that the Reformation brought enormous vitality for ordinary life in its wake. It did not set out to transform culture but to bear witness to the light of the gospel that had been eclipsed in the dark night of superstition and ignorance. Nevertheless, it liberated believers to pursue their callings in the world. Instead of putting the monk, nun, or priest on the pedestal, it celebrated family life. It called saints into the world, not away from it, as light in the darkness. Think of J. S. Bach, who signed his compositions-both secular and ecclesiastical-with the Reformation slogan, soli Deo gloria, and even had it carved into the organ at Leipzig. I was struck, in visiting the old sections of Heidelberg and Amsterdam, to see this slogan carved even above taverns. Wherever the Reformation gathered support, there was a disproportionate influence on every area of culture. Not only families, but guilds, universities, societies for the promotion of the arts and sciences, hospitals, and missions flourished.

Gustav Wingren nicely summarizes Luther’s concern with the neighbor as the recipient of the believer’s good works. Instead of living in monasteries, committing their lives in service to themselves and their own salvation, Luther argues believers should love and serve their neighbors through their vocations in the world, where their neighbors need them. “God does not need our good works, but our neighbor does.” (1) “When one presents works before God in the kingdom of heaven, God’s order is disrupted in both realms,” Wingren summarizes. Offering our own works to God is in effect to try to “depose Christ from his throne,” while it also deprives our neighbors of good works since they are done “not for the sake of one’s neighbor, but to parade before God.” (2) In this way, no one is actually served.

“Every good and perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, in whom there is no variation or shadow of turning. He brought us forth by the word of truth, to be a kind of firstfruits of creation” (James 1:17-18). On the basis of this indicative (the vertical line pointing downward from God), James follows with the imperative (horizontal line) to be doers as well as hearers of the Word, caring for our neighbors (vv. 21-27). God descends to serve humanity through our vocations, so instead of seeing good works as our works for God, they are now to be seen as God’s work for our neighbor, which God performs through us. In this way, God is the only true giver of gifts and therefore only he deserves all the glory. Once we receive the Gift of all gifts-Jesus Christ-we find our neighbors a delightful treasure. No longer is the neighbor seen as an opportunity for us to score points, but as the object of our love. It is the gospel that motivates this love. Because the Light has arisen upon us, we can begin to reflect that light as his moon.

We do not “live the gospel.” The gospel is good news because it’s about Christ and his work, not about us and our work. If Christians and churches want to create “buzz” in the culture and generate conversation, they should stop talking about themselves. God is far more interesting. This, in fact, was God’s rebuke to Israel in its proud harlotry: “Your fame went out among the nations because of your beauty, but it was perfect through my splendor which I had bestowed on you” (Ezek. 16:14).

Under the law, in Adam, one is trapped in the cycle of sin and death, resentment and despair, self-righteousness and self-condemnation. Yet under grace, in Christ, one is not only justified apart from the law but is able for the first time to respond to that law of love that calls from the deepest recesses of our being as covenantally constituted creatures. It is not the law itself that changes, but our relation to it that makes all the difference. A new day has dawned on this side of the resurrection, and through faith in Christ the law no longer takes on an awful specter, exciting sin and leading to judgment. Notice how John speaks of the law here as the same, yet because of Christ, in a sense, new:

Beloved, I am writing you no new commandment, but an old commandment that you have had from the beginning; the old commandment is the word that you have heard. Yet I am writing you a new commandment that is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining. Whoever says, “I am in the light,” while hating a brother or sister, is still in the darkness. Whoever loves a brother or sister lives in the light, and in such a person there is no cause for stumbling….I am writing to you, little children, because your sins are forgiven on account of his name. I am writing to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning. I am writing to you, young people, because you have conquered the evil one. I write to you, children, because you know the Father….I write to you, young people, because you are strong and the word of God abides in you, and you have overcome the evil one. (1 John 2:7-14)

The grand indicatives here propel the imperatives, liberating us from being turned in on ourselves.

Freedom, in the economy of this fading age, means self-possession and self-determination: the ability to choose for oneself apart from any external constraints. God’s Word, by contrast, exposes this autonomous freedom as the original bondage of humanity as, in Augustine’s apt phrase, “curved in on itself,” as the gospel frees us to look up to the Sun of mercy in faith and out to our neighbor in love. “But what is this strange gift of evangelical freedom?” asks John Webster.

It is a strange gift because it can only be known and exercised as we are converted from a lie-the lie that liberty is unformed and unconstrained self-actualization. It is evangelical because it is grounded in the joyful reversal and reconstitution of the human situation of which the gospel speaks. We may define it thus: In evangelical freedom I am so bound to God’s grace and God’s call that I am liberated from all other bonds and set free to live in the truth. “The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and death.” (Rom. 8:2) (3)

Yet in the context of American religion, which Dietrich Bonhoeffer described as “Protestantism without the Reformation,” these insights are often muted at best. (4)

Justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone is not only the basis for our salvation; it is the motive for glorifying God and enjoying him forever-in fulfillment of the whole purpose for which we were created. As G. C. Berkouwer once quipped, “Grace is the essence of theology and gratitude is the essence of ethics.” Interpreting Lutheran ethicist Paul Lehmann, Philip G. Ziegler adds,

An ethic of justification will be one that “takes seriously the activity of the God who acts,” since the advent of justification establishes the reality-the moral field-within which the question of ethics is to be firmly set. Justification, says Lehmann following Calvin closely at this point, is that act of God by which our “true position in the world-as a pilgrim between creation and redemption-is put within the orbit of [human] knowledge and behaviour in the world.” It is the task of Christian ethics therefore to raise the question of the good and the right in light of the “disconcerting consequences” of God’s gracious action for the human creature in Jesus Christ. The repentance that flows from faith in this regard, transforms worry about virtue into desire for obedience, the strictures of duty into the gift of vocation. (5)

Do you see how God’s unilateral gift sets into motion gift-giving between human beings? We do not serve God (Acts 17:25), but God serves us and, through us, our neighbors. We have no debts to God that he has not already paid. In this scheme, our praise is directed upward, exclusively to God, but there is literally nowhere for our works to go but outward to the world. God’s works come down to us, and our works go out to our neighbor in need.

Apart from the gospel, when we hear that “the chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever,” our consciences are overwhelmed with dread. Yet when in Christ we are liberated from trying to give something to God rather than reflect his lavish benevolence, it becomes our heart’s delight. We can at last glorify and enjoy God in our praise of his grace and in our love for our neighbors. God declares to you even now, in your native darkness, “Arise, shine; for your light has come! And the glory of the Lord is risen upon you.”

1 [ Back ] Gustav Wingren, Luther on Vocation, trans. Carl C. Rasmussen (Evansville, Ind.: Ballast Press, 1994; reprinted from Augsburg-Fortress edition), p. 10.
2 [ Back ] Wingren, pp. 13, 31.
3 [ Back ] John Webster, Holiness (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), pp. 92-93.
4 [ Back ] Philip G. Ziegler, "Justification and Justice" in Justification: What's at Stake in the Current Debates, eds. Mark Husbands and Daniel J. Treier (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2004), p. 119, citing "Protestantism without the Reformation" in Dietrich Bonhoeffer, No Rusty Swords: Letters, Lectures and Notes, 1928-1936, ed. Edwin H. Robertson, trans. Edwin H. Robertson and John Bowden (London: Collins, 1965), pp. 92-118.
5 [ Back ] Ziegler, p. 128. The author also recommends Gene Edward Veith, God at Work: Your Christian Vocation in All of Life (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2002).
Photo of Michael S. Horton
Michael S. Horton
Michael Horton is editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation and the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido.
Tuesday, November 6th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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