2 Cor. 3:18
There are times when I worry if I’m making progress in the Christian life. Honestly, there are times when I’m quite sure I’m not. I’m not talking about overt backsliding or moral regression, but a feeling of spiritual inertia that causes me to wonder if I’m moving forward toward greater conformity to Christ.
Of course, if I weren’t making progress I probably wouldn’t be worried about whether I am or not! In other words, I take comfort from the fact that I’m bothered (the more spiritual word is “convicted”) about those seasons when I don’t seem to be living as I ought. It angers me not to see or sense an increase in holiness. There’s a sense in which that itself is holiness, or at least the presence of a longing for it and a keen awareness of how far short I am of the righteousness of God.
I say all this as a way of highlighting the encouragement that is found in 2 Corinthians 3:18. For here I’m reassured that I’m not standing still, that the Spirit is at work within me, if only, at times, in small and often imperceptible ways. In the inner core of every Christian, in the depths of the heart, there is movement, as Paul says, “from one degree of glory to another” (v. 18). Literally, he writes that we are being transformed “from glory unto glory.” The preposition “from” points to source and “unto” highlights the ultimate goal in view. In other words, God began a work of grace in us at regeneration or the new birth that consisted of the experience of his glory that is building momentum and progressively moving toward the final experience of the fullness of that glory at the return of Jesus Christ.
The ultimate glory in view here is described in other texts as follows:
“But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself” (Phil. 3:20-21).
“When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory” (Col. 3:4).
“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; cf. 1 Thess. 5:23).
Murray Harris put it best when he described this phenomenon as “a body suffused with the divine glory and perfectly adapted to the ecology of heaven” (317). I like that!
But there’s so much more in this passage that must be noted. Paul writes:
“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” (2 Cor. 3:18).
Perhaps the best way to mine this text for all its treasure is to make a series of observations.
First, Paul describes us, all Christians, as those who are “beholding the glory of the Lord” and doing so, unlike the Israelites of old, “with unveiled face.” It was the distinct privilege of Moses alone to glimpse the “glory” of God when he saw his “form” (Numbers 12:8) and his “back” (Exodus 33:23). But now in the New Covenant “all Christians without distinction are privileged to witness that glory” (Harris, 313). And unlike the people of Israel who looked upon the glory as reflected in Moses’ veiled face, we see with permanently uncovered faces.
Second, Paul’s mirror analogy suggests that we see the “glory of the Lord” indirectly, “mirrored”, as it were, in “the face of Jesus” who is “the image of God.” But where exactly do we “see” or “behold” that glory? Paul saw the glory of God on the road to Damascus (cf. Acts 22:11 – “the brightness [lit., “glory”] of that light”; see also Acts 26:13). In 2 Corinthians 4:3-6 he suggests that God shines the glory of that light “in our hearts” through “the gospel.” Thus as Barnett explains, “paradoxically, therefore, Paul’s readers see the glory of Christ as they hear the gospel, which in turn gives the knowledge of God” (206).
It is important to point out that Paul’s “mirror analogy” is not meant to suggest that we see the glory of Christ indistinctly or in a distorted way, but indirectly “as over against our eschatologically seeing him ‘face to face.’ The imagery, therefore, is something quite positive, and it worked for Paul precisely because it allowed him to postulate a real ‘seeing,’ yet one that in the present age falls short of actually seeing the Lord ‘face to face’ as it were” (Fee, God’s Empowering Presence, 317). Or again, the apostle’s point is that although our vision of this glory is mediated it is inescapably clear, because the person of Christ who is revealed in the gospel is the exact and altogether perfect representation of God.
Third, the process that we call sanctification comes only as or because we behold the glory of God. Apart from beholding there is no becoming. The more we know him and behold him (cf. Ps. 27:4) in the splendor of his glory, the more we are changed into the very image of Jesus himself, in whose face God’s glory has shined or is reflected (2 Cor. 4:4,6). Sanctification, therefore, is the fruit of seeing and savoring. Ignorance, on the other hand, breeds moral paralysis (if not regression).
Fourth, Paul is clearly talking about the transformation of the inner person. “When Jesus was transfigured, the change was outwardly visible (Matt. 17:2), but when Christians are transformed, the change is essentially inward, the renewing of the mind (Rom. 12:2), and becomes visible only in their Christ-like behavior” (Harris, 316). Of course, as we saw in several texts above the inner change will consummate in an outward transformation at the time of Christ’s return. Until then, as Paul says later in 2 Corinthians 4:16, “though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.”
Fifth, as much as we all might wish otherwise, sanctification is progressive, not instantaneous. As noted earlier, we are gradually moving by the power of the Spirit from one stage or degree of glory (first “seen” in the gospel when we turn to Christ) to another (that of the glorified Jesus, whose glory we will not only see on that day but in which we will also participate).
Sixth, sanctification is by grace (we “are being transformed”), the agent of which is the Spirit of Christ. This doesn’t eliminate human effort but rather makes it possible. We act because acted upon. We work out our salvation with fear and trembling because God, who is always antecedent, is at work in us to will and to do for his good pleasure (cf. Phil. 2:12-13)!
Seventh, and finally, we see here that “beholding is a way of becoming” (Piper, The Pleasures of God, 17). That is to say, we always tend to become like or take on the characteristics and qualities of whatever it is we admire and enjoy and cherish most. Fixing the eyes of our faith on Jesus is transformative. Gazing on his glory as seen in the gospel and now preserved for us in Scripture has the power to bump us along, as it were, whether minimally or maximally, whether in short spurts of sanctification or great and notable triumphs, toward the fullness that is found in Christ alone but will one day be found in us, by grace, as well!
So, be encouraged! Be strengthened! Be reassured! For he “who began a good work in you [‘from glory’] will bring it to completion [‘unto glory’] at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6).
– Sam Storms