From Glory to Glory
Most of us understand the concept but have a hard time envisioning anything truly perfect. Everything in our earthly experience is flawed, imperfect.
And for those who know and love the Lord, the imperfections we are most deeply aware of often tend to be our own. I’m not speaking of the frailties of our bodies—though we feel those all too well. But the imperfections that trouble us most are not that superficial. The real problem is a sinfulness that comes straight from the heart (cf. Mark 7:21-23).
Of course, we have a tendency to be more tolerant of our own imperfections than of the failings of others. We try to cover for ourselves, but in our hearts we know all too well that we are woefully and sinfully imperfect. What Christian cannot echo the sentiment Paul expresses in Romans 7:24: “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”
We’re not alone in this. The entire universe suffers the effects of human sin. Paul also writes, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now” (Romans 8:22). That’s why all we can know on earth is imperfection. All creation agonizes under the cruel effect of sin’s curse, waiting for the consummation of all things, when the curse will be finally removed.
At that time, everything will be perfect. Pain, sorrow, and the groaning of creation will finally be no more. “The ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away” (Isaiah 35:10).
Not only that, but we shall be gloriously perfected. The whole person—body and soul—will be made completely new, flawless. As the apostle John wrote, “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).
We can’t envision it now—“what we will be has not yet appeared”—but we will finally be wholly and completely Christlike. This is the very purpose for which God chose us in eternity past: “to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers” (Romans 8:29). “He chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him” (Ephesians 1:4). He has already begun this good work in us, and he will faithfully “bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6). And when we see Christ, we will instantly and summarily be made utterly perfect, because we shall see him as he is.
Heaven is a perfect place for people made perfect. Perfection is the goal of God’s sanctifying work in us. He’s not merely making us better than we are; he is conforming us to the image of his Son. He is making us fit to dwell in his presence forever. The utter perfection of heaven is the consummation of our salvation. It is the purpose for which he chose us before the foundation of the world.
Changed from the Inside Out
God begins the process of perfecting us from the moment we are converted from unbelief to faith in Christ. The Holy Spirit regenerates us. He gives us a new heart with a new set of holy desires (Ezekiel 36:26). He transforms our stubborn wills. He opens our hearts to embrace the truth rather than reject it. He enables us to believe rather than doubt. He gives us a hunger for righteousness and a desire for him. And thus the new birth transforms the inner person. From that point on, everything that occurs in our lives—good or bad—God uses to make us like Christ (Romans 8:28-30).
In terms of our moral and legal status, believers are judged perfect immediately—not on the basis of who we are or what we have done, but because of what Christ has done for us. We are fully justified the moment we believe. We are forgiven of all our sin. We are clothed with a perfect righteousness (Isaiah 61:10; Romans 4:5), which instantly gives us a standing before God without any fear of condemnation (Romans 5:1; Romans 8:1). This is the great position of privilege Scripture refers to when it says God has “blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 1:3). And when Paul writes that God has “raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:6), he is again speaking of this position of favor with God that we have been granted by grace alone. We are not literally, physically seated with Christ in the heavenlies, of course. We are not mystically present there through some kind of spiritual telepathy. But legally, in the eternal court of God, we have been granted full rights to heaven. That is the high legal standing we enjoy even now.
But God does not stop there. Having judicially declared us righteous (Scripture calls that justification) God never stops conforming us to the image of his Son (that is sanctification). Although our legal standing is already perfect, God is also making us perfect. Heaven is a place of perfect holiness, and we would not be fit to live there unless we too could be made holy. In a sense, then, the blessing of justification is God’s guarantee that he will ultimately conform us to the image of his Son. “Those whom he justified he also glorified” (Romans 8:30).
The seeds of Christlikeness are planted at the moment of conversion. Colossians 2:9-10 says that in Christ “the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him”—filled up with all the fullness of God. Peter adds that believers have been granted “all things that pertain to life and godliness” (2 Peter 1:3). If you are a Christian, the life of God dwells in your soul, and with it all that you need for heaven. The principle of eternal life is already in you, meaning you have title to heaven as a present possession. You have already passed from death to life (John 5:24). You are a new person (2 Corinthians 5:17). Whereas you were once enslaved to sin, you have now become a slave of righteousness (Romans 6:18). Instead of receiving the wages of sin—death—you have received God’s gift of eternal life (Romans 6:23). And eternal life means abundant life (John 10:10). It is like an artesian well of spiritual power within us, satisfying and enabling us to live the life we are called to (John 7:38). That is what Paul means when he writes, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17).
Now let’s be honest. Even for the most committed Christian, it doesn’t always seem like “the new has come.” We don’t always feel like a “new creation.” Usually we are more keenly aware of the sin that oozes from within us than we are of the rivers of living water Christ spoke of. Although we “have the firstfruits of the Spirit, [we] groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:23). And we groan this way all our lives. Remember that it was a mature apostle, not a fragile new Christian, who cried out in Romans 7:24, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”
Here’s the problem: Like Lazarus, we came forth from the grave still bound in grave clothes. We are incarcerated in human flesh. “Flesh” in the biblical sense refers not just to the physical body, but to the sinful thoughts and habits that remain with us until our bodies are finally glorified. When Paul speaks of “flesh” and “spirit” he is not contrasting the material body and the immaterial spirit—setting up a kind of dualism, the way gnostic and New Age doctrines do. He uses the word flesh to speak of a tendency to sin—a sin principle—that remains even in the redeemed person.
Paul clearly spells out the problem from his own experience in Romans 7. Here Paul writes,
For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. (Romans 7:15-21)
If you are struggling to understand how the apostle Paul employs the term flesh, this last phrase can virtually be taken as his definition: The flesh is “a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand” (Romans 7:21). Paul goes on to say that this law is embedded in him—“in my members” (Romans 7:23), “waging war against” his desire to obey the righteousness of the law, thus “making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.” That indwelling principle of sin includes all the wicked habits and thought patterns that we acquired in our lives before being born again. These fleshly influences have yet to be done away with, and we are severely troubled by them all our lives. Christians spend their lives mortifying the deeds of the flesh (Romans 8:13), but the sin principle will never be fully eliminated until we are glorified.
As believers we are new creatures—reborn souls—vested with everything necessary for life and godliness, but we cannot appreciate fully the newness of our position in Christ because of the persisting presence of sin in us.
Like Paul, we “delight in the law of God, in [our] inner being” (Romans 7:22). Only the principle of eternal life in us can explain such love for the law of God. But at the same time, the flesh constricts and fetters us, like tightly-bound grave clothes on someone just up out of the grave. This flesh principle is at war against the principle of new life in Christ. So we feel like captives to the law of sin in our own members (Romans 7:23).
How can this be? After all, Paul earlier wrote in this very epistle that our bondage to sin is broken. We are supposed to “have been set free from sin” (Romans 6:22). How is it that just one scant chapter later, he says we are “captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members” (Romans 7:23)?
But being a captive is not quite the same thing as being enslaved. As unredeemed sinners, we were full-time slaves of sin—willing servants, in fact. As Christians who are not yet glorified, we are “captives,” unwilling prisoners of an already-defeated enemy. Although sin can buffet and abuse us, it does not own us, and it cannot ultimately destroy us. Sin’s authority and dominion are broken. It “lies close at hand” in the believer’s life (Romans 7:21), but it is no longer our master. Our real allegiance is now to the principle of righteousness (Romans 7:22). It is in this sense that “the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). Even though we still fall into old patterns of sinful thinking and behavior, those things no longer define who we are. Sin is now an anomaly and an intruder, not the sum and substance of our character.
God is changing us from the inside out. He has planted the incorruptible seed of eternal life deep in the believer’s soul. We have a new desire and a new power to please God. We have a new heart and a whole new love for God. And all those are factors that contribute to our ultimate growth in grace.
Paul makes a fascinating point about the inside-out transformation of believers. In 2 Corinthians 3:1-24, he contrasts the effects of our salvation with what happened to Moses when he encountered God’s glory on Sinai. Remember that when Moses came down from the mountain after the giving of the law, the glow on his face was so terrifying that he had to put a veil over his face (Exodus 34:29-33). Yet that was a relatively weak and diminishing glory (2 Corinthians 3:7). It was also a reflected glory.
In contrast, “the glory which shall be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18) is an ever-growing glory that is not reflected, but comes straight from within. Paul writes, “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” (2 Corinthians 3:18). In other words, the indwelling Spirit of God personally conveys us from one level of glory to another.
The Greek word translated “beholding” means “looking at a reflection.” In the familiar King James Version, it says “beholding as in a glass” (or “mirror”). Unlike the Israelites, we require no veil to shield us from the reflection of glory. (“Not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face so that the Israelites might not gaze at the outcome of what was being brought to an end”—2 Corinthians 3:13.) We get a full-on look at undiluted glory: “God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6).
We don’t literally look directly at the face of Christ, of course. The glory we see is a reflection of “Christ in [us], the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27). As we fix our hearts and aspirations on his glory, the glow of Christlikeness grows brighter in us. One day we shall see literally him—not merely as a dim reflection. We will stand bodily in his presence: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face” (1 Corinthians 13:12). And with one face-to-face glance at the person of Christ, we will be instantly transformed into his likeness. “We shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).
Meanwhile, his glory is transforming us from the inside out. That’s why (unlike the reflected glow on Moses’ face) the glory doesn’t fade; it grows “from one degree of glory to another.”
Although sin has crippled our souls and marred our spirits—though it has scarred our thoughts, wills, and emotions—we who know Christ have already had a taste of redemption. As we set our hearts on heaven and mortify the remaining sin in our members, we can experience the transforming power of Christ’s glory on a daily basis. And we long for that day when we will be completely redeemed. We yearn to reach that place where the seed of perfection that has been planted within us will bloom into fullness and we will be completely redeemed, finally made perfect (Hebrews 12:13). That is exactly what heaven is all about.
Taken from The Glory of Heaven: The Truth about Heaven, Angels, and Eternal Life, by John MacArthur. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, Il 60187, www.crossway.org.
Our pictures of heaven range from comical to curious, mystical to fictitious, with bits of biblical truth thrown in. In this newly updated and expanded edition, pastor John MacArthur takes us through the pages of Scripture, exploring the wonders of heaven and the truth about angels and eternal life while addressing current debates and issues. Come along with this best-selling author for an in-depth look at every Christian’s future—heaven, our eternal home.