When We Become Beautiful

Michael S. Horton
Wednesday, March 1st 2023
Mar/Apr 2023

Although all of God’s revelation sparkles with truth, goodness, and beauty, I often find that certain doctrines give off a peculiar flash. From the beginning, Christians have wondered at the doctrine of glorification from the vantage point of our participation in the Truth and Goodness of Christ. We hear a lot today about “my truth and your truth,” with exhortations to “live your truth” and “you do you.” Yet this is an oxymoron. My feelings and evaluations are obviously mine and not yours, but to speak of truth along these lines cannot mean any more than the hedonist creed of “whatever makes you happy.” But Christians believe that God is Truth, incarnate in Christ, and this grounds the possibility of finite truths that we can know in our creaturely way. One day, though, that relative knowledge will be a fully consistent approximation of God’s revelation.

Goodness, too, exists in the world and in all people because the fall could not eradicate our participation in the Good. As Pseudo-Dionysius emphasized, goodness is synonymous with existence. To the extent that we are turned toward the Good, like a sunflower, we receive the rays of goodness and life; turning away, we wither. When we are glorified, we will never be capable again of turning back into ourselves; we will have being, life, and goodness to the fullest extent possible for a creature.

But glorification especially highlights our participation in the Beautiful. Some, perhaps many, of us catch daily glimpses of fading youth, wrinkles of time and stress, sagging faces and torsos. We are encouraged by the present reality of sanctification: “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day” (2 Cor. 4:16). Yet even this inward beauty is sullied and incomplete, and the wasting away of the body is an alien feature of human existence since the fall. Glorification promises us so much more than we can even imagine.

First, it is not just “paradise regained,” restored youth. This would merely return us to the beginning. We are not going to have another run at fulfilling the mission that our first parents squandered; and if we did, we would forfeit the prize as well. The image of God, which pertains to the whole person—body as well as soul—is natural, while glorification is supernatural. No human except Jesus has ever experienced this kind of glory. Irenaeus, the great anti-gnostic apologist of the second century, likened our first parents to children:

It was necessary for man to be first created; and having been created, to grow; and having grown, to become mature; and having become mature, to multiply; and having multiplied, to grow strong; and having grown strong, to be glorified; and having been glorified, to see his Lord.[1]

Yet because of their disobedience, they were like children who met an untimely death. Humanity was created with all the natural gifts needed for the mission, but was in a sense an unfinished work of divine art. The royal couple was true, good, and beautiful, but not yet glorified.

Created like the moon to reflect the sun’s rays, these image-bearers shone brightly. Yet even in its pristine state, human nature was not yet united to God in glory, sharing in his Sabbath reign. Adam and Eve wanted to “be like god,” but by following “their truth” instead of God’s word. “Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet” (Ps. 8:5–6). It is just this glory, honor, and dominion that constituted the image of God in the beginning and that our first parents surrendered willingly. The same was true for Israel’s corrupt judges: “I said, ‘You are gods, sons of the Most High, all of you; nevertheless, like men you shall die, and fall like any prince’” (Ps. 82:6–7).

Recognizing the incongruity of this dignity in Psalm 8 with our current condition, the writer to the Hebrews comments,

At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. (Heb. 2:8–9)

Wanting to circumvent the trial and acquire his own glory here and now, Adam surrendered the crown, and his glory turned to shame. But Christ has fulfilled the trial in our nature and name. Consequently, the tarnished glory we have by nature will not only be restored but will be transcended by that magnificent beauty that the exalted Christ already enjoys.

Second, glorification satisfies our craving for respect, dignity, and honor. If someone were to ask me what I most deeply wanted, I’d probably reply with a list of negatives: I want to be free from the effects of the fall like sin (both the condition and actions), from sickness, from being distracted from the Lord, and from dying. Although all of these blessings are promised, glorification is not only about being liberated from guilt and corruption but about overflowing with glory.

Jesus craved glory. However, his natural passion was turned upward, while Adam’s was turned inward. “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:5). There is nothing wrong with wanting to be like God; in fact, that was God’s plan all along. They were like God and would be even more like God upon fulfillment of the trial. The problem was that they wanted to be like God in the sense of actually knowing good and evil for themselves, as they really are, without depending on God’s commands and promises. They were already enlightened, because their ears were open. Then after they sinned, their spiritual sight grew dim and they could not be like God but like the clever beast who purported to be a liberator but became a severe master.

Adam wanted to glorify himself by a shortcut, circumventing the trial. Instead of heeding God’s external word, he turned to his inner voice and chose what was, in his judgment, “pleasing to the eye and desirable to make one wise.” By contrast, Jesus laid aside the glory he had with the Father before creation existed, humbled himself by becoming one of us, and endured the trial—which this time included a crucifixion. Though one with the Father, as one with us he did not decide for himself what is desirable but heeded “every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4). Jesus set his eyes on glory, to be sure, but refused to circumvent the trial and glorify himself, as Satan tempted him to do (v. 7). His hunger for fulfilling the mission was greater than his craving for food. “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work,” he said (John 4:34). Jesus did not glorify himself. Rather, he prayed, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him” (John 17:1–2). And he craved this glory only to share it with his brothers and sisters: “The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one” (v. 22). This high priestly petition of the eternal Son cannot fail to be granted.

Like “your truth” and “my truth,” “Live your passion!” is an exhortation to pick an idol. Everyone becomes like the god he or she worships. Those who worship beasts become beastly and that god becomes the soul’s prison guard. If your passion is your family, at some point they will fail to live up to your ideals; if sports on Sunday morning, it will drive out the means of grace and fellowship of Christ’s body. Give your allegiance to your work and it will starve your soul and perhaps ruin your family; to sex, and it will reduce you to animal existence. The person who yields his or her passion to physical beauty or strength is already in Hades with Sisyphus, trying in vain to roll the rock back to the top. Give your heart to entertainment, and it will deaden your pleasure, numb your mind, steal your life; to affirmation, justification, and acclaim from other sinners, and you will feel condemned.

Tragic as it is ironic, the idols we choose destroy precisely what we came to them to heal. Like the dealer in Vegas, the idol will let you win just enough to draw you in and then take all you’ve got. To “live your passion” for anyone or anything but the glory that God gives as a free gift is to foolishly surrender your very existence and the beauty that surpasses anything we have ever seen. When perfect conformity to Christ’s glorified humanity is felt as the aim of our existence, we become what—or rather, whom—we worship. And then, when sharing in Christ’s glorified humanity is our passion we see sports, sex, entertainment, family, work, and the rest as gifts rather than the giver.

The doctrine of election touches us deep down in our longing for being known, loved, and included. Adoption assures us of the deepest relationship with the Father, in the Son, and by the Spirit, and the security of our final redemption. Forgiveness and justification address our thirst for approval; sanctification, our longing for renewal, and so forth. The doctrine of glorification is the satisfaction of that hunger for glory that we seek in all the wrong places. But we have to see it not only as true and good but as beautiful if our hearts are going to be dislodged from life-stealing idols.

Third, the greatest blessing of glorification is being deified. Or as Peter says, God “has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire” (1 Pet. 1:4; italics mine). Calvin has no scruples calling this “deification,” a gift “than which nothing greater can be conceived.” Following the early Christian writers, Calvin points out that to be deified is not to become God himself but is to partake of his nature “as much as is possible for a creature.”[2] It is to share in a creaturely manner by grace that righteousness, holiness, goodness, love, wisdom, power, and freedom that is God’s by nature.

In his humanity, Christ too has been made a partaker of the divine nature by glorification, even though he is, according to his divinity, of the same essence as the Father eternally. Jesus is the restored and glorified Imago Dei and united to him we must be as well. It is therefore not merely about what we lose but what we gain. Every human receives goodness and therefore being from the Triune God, but all who are united to Christ will receive unimaginable glory in body and soul. “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).

God as the Beautiful is not only revealed clearly in the doctrine of glorification, but the two are interdependent themes. When the latter is pushed into the background, so too is the former. This doctrine speaks to our heart, our deepest longings and loves. As C. S. Lewis wrote,

We do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words—to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it. . . . At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendours we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumour that it will not always be so. Someday, God willing, we shall get in.[3]

I conclude with a gentle challenge. In recent years, we have seen a marvelous renaissance of the doctrines of election, justification, and sanctification that will be celebrated in coming generations. However, for some time I have been concerned about the TULIP acronym being used as a summary of the entire Reformed confession. This was never the case prior to the early twentieth century, when these five points were formulated. By starting with total depravity and ending with the preservation of the saints, the arc of God’s plan for the ages from creation to glorification is narrowed. What is the nature that has fallen, and what is the hope for its restoration?

Upon this doctrine, a rich vein of Christocentric mysticism runs from Irenaeus, Athanasius, Chrysostom and Augustine, Pseudo-Dionysius and Maximus to Bernard of Clairvaux and Luther, Calvin, and the other Reformers. The architects of Reformed orthodoxy and the English Puritans made glorification a staple of tomes and sermons, and all of the Reformation confessions and catechisms bear witness to it.

Perhaps my favorite Pauline summary of the gospel is in his second letter to Timothy, where he speaks of “the gospel” of God,

who 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, and which now has been manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. . . . I am convinced that he is able to guard until that day what has been entrusted to me. (2 Tim. 1:8–10, 12)

Election, calling, the incarnation, and the perseverance of the saints find a footing. Yet so does glorification. All around us is death and dying, but Christ’s triumph has “brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.” Mortal by nature, we are made immortal like God by his grace.

In creation, we are “crowned with glory” by nature but not yet glorified by grace. In justification, we are given an external glory—the beauty of Christ as our righteousness. In sanctification, the Spirit begins to conform us to the image of Christ. But in glorification, we will be made inwardly and outwardly, in soul and in body, the most beautiful creatures in the universe.

If truth is not good and beautiful, it cannot lure us from idols. We must present the gospel in such a way that even if one is not persuaded of its truth, he might wish that it were true. One such truth is glorification, stated in just these startling words of Irenaeus: “The glory of God is man fully alive, but the life of man is the vision of God.”[4] Not a dreary afterlife of disembodied souls playing harps for eternity but “man fully alive.” Now, that is beautiful! “Let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us” (Ps. 90:17).

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.

1. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 4.38.3.
2. Calvin, The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews and the First and Second Epistles of St. Peter, trans. William B. Johnston (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1963), 330. The phrase “than which nothing greater can be conceived” [quo nihil maius cogitari potest] is taken from the second chapter of Anselm’s Proslogion.
3. C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory (London: SPCK, 1942), 32.
4. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 4.20.5.
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.
Wednesday, March 1st 2023

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

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