The Beauty of God’s Holiness

What is beauty?

This is an important question and one that Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758) addresses in his classic book Religious Affections. There in his third point on the nature of holy affections he argues that personal delight in God’s holiness is the evidence of God’s active grace. This point, and how it connects to beauty, is one that needs to be unpacked.

To set up this point Edwards contrasts God’s natural attributes and his moral attributes. God’s (so called) natural attributes are his grandeur, strength, and power. It is entirely possible, Edwards writes, to stand amazed by these natural attributes and yet remain unconverted. “’Tis possible that those who are wholly without grace, should have a clear sight, and a very great and affecting sense of God’s greatness, his mighty power, and awful majesty; for this is what the devils have … [yet] they are perfectly destitute of any sense of relish of that kind of [his] beauty.”

He continues.

A sight of the awful greatness of God, may overpower men’s strength, and be more than they can endure; but if the moral beauty of God be hid, the enmity of the heart will remain in its full strength, no love will be enkindled, all will not be effectual to gain the will … whereas the first glimpse of the moral and spiritual glory of God shining into the heart, produces all these effects, as it were with omnipotent power, which nothing can withstand (2:264­–265).

For Edwards, genuine conversion is marked by something deeper than reverence for God’s natural attributes. A believer will actually find what no non-believer will find—delight in God’s moral attributes, namely his perfect holiness.

God’s holy beauty is where all genuine and saving Theology begins.

Edwards further develops his argument by revealing how holiness and beauty are inseparable. For example:

  • The Savior is altogether lovely because he is altogether holy (Rev. 3:7). “All the spiritual beauty of his human nature, consisting in his meekness, lowliness, patience, heavenliness, love to God, love to men, condescension to the mean and vile, and compassion to the miserable, etc. all is summed up in his holiness.”
  • Heaven is sweet because it is the holy Jerusalem where the holiness of Christ is celebrated (Isa. 63:15, Rev. 4:8, 21:2, 10–11).
  • God’s word is sweet because the doctrines are holy doctrines. This explains the Psalmist’s delight (Pss. 19:7-10; 119:140).
  • The gospel is a sweet because it is a holy gospel.

These themes merge even closer in three Old Testament passages that highlight the beauty, splendor, and attractiveness of God’s holiness (1 Chr. 16:29, Pss 29:2, 96:9):

Worship the LORD in the splendor of holiness

These passages seem to rest at the core of Edwards’ argument. Divine holiness is the very definition of supreme beauty. And once the heart is given a sweet taste of God’s moral perfections, the redeemed heart cannot but be attracted to the beauty of God’s holiness.

As Gerald R. McDermott writes [Reformation and Revival, vol. 6:1, 109-10]:

This is what sets the saint apart from all others. Others may also see divine things, but they don’t see their beauty or glory. … The unregenerate may see or know divine things (some don’t ever see divine things at all) but they never see their beauty—which is the beauty of holiness. According to Edwards, this is the glory that the Bible says is the central thing that makes God and His ways attractive—that lures humans in love to Him. This is the light that makes the person of Jesus so ravishingly beautiful, that has drawn the hearts of millions to Himself for the last two millennia. This is the brightness that all saints see in comparison to which their own hearts appear filthy.

In our visually-driven world, where beauty is measured by a worldly fad or by some subjective visual response, these theological ideas carry enormous consequences.

For example, we learn that standards of aesthetic beauty in art and literature cannot ever be divorced from God’s moral holiness: holiness is beautiful. Sin cannot be anything other than ugliness. Or consider personal renewal. What we so often mistake as drudgery when we think about battling sin is actually our personal participation in God’s own striking holiness (1 Pet. 1:16). Which is why it’s not surprising that feminine beauty is shaped and defined by God’s holiness (1 Pet. 3:1–6). The implications to this beauty-holiness connection are nearly endless.

At its root, the point Jonathan Edwards makes in Religious Affections is an important one: the splendor of God’s holiness is the pinnacle of all beauty. And it is a beauty that should tug at the strings of our affections.

Faith in Jesus. Sight of Jesus.

Through his works, Puritan John Owen has become for me a reminder of the glorious person of Jesus Christ. Whatever we comprehend of Christ by faith now is but a mere outline of the glory of His person. Owen’s subtle reminders—and sometimes not-so-subtle reminders—turn my eyes to gaze upon the glorious person of Jesus Christ and to anticipate the day I’ll see him face-to-face. In other words, the cross should point our gaze heavenward, to set our minds above, where Christ is.

In the 12th chapter of Meditations and Discourses on the Glory of Christ, Owen argues that the gospel message is a telescope that makes Christ visible, but provides us only with an imperfect outline of the glory of the person of Christ. This obscurity is due, not to the gospel’s lack of clarity, but due to the limits of faith and due to our personal sin and weakness. Owen uses this to stoke anticipation in us for the day when our faith in Jesus will be replaced by the sight of Jesus’ pure glory.

If I understand him correctly, Owen is telling us that to if we rightly understand the gospel, it will fuel in us a heartfelt desire to see Jesus. Owen seems to be saying to me, “Tony, don’t merely rejoice in justification and the wonderful doctrines of the gospel and all the benefits of Christ’s death. Look in closer. Look for Jesus. Rejoice in Him, and anticipate the day you will see Him with your own eyes.”

Hear directly from Owen:

———-

John Owen:

The view which we have of the glory of Christ by faith in this world is obscure, dark, and reflexive. So the apostle says in 1 Corinthians 13:12, “now we see in a mirror dimly,”—“through” or by “a glass, in a riddle,” a parable, a dark saying. …

The shadow or image of this glory of Christ is drawn in the gospel, and therein we behold it as the likeness of a man represented unto us in a glass; and although it be obscure and imperfect in comparison of his own real, substantial glory, which is the object of vision in heaven, yet is it the only image and representation of himself which he has left, and given unto us in this world. But by this figurative expression of seeing in a glass, the apostle declares the comparative imperfection of our present view of the glory of Christ.

But the allusion may be taken from a telescope, whereby the sight of the eye is helped in beholding things at a great distance. By the aid of such glasses, men will discover stars or heavenly lights, which, by reason of their distance from us, the eye of itself is no way able to discern.

And those which we do see are more fully represented, though remote enough from being so perfectly. Such a glass is the gospel, without which we can make no discovery of Christ at all; but in the use of it we are far enough from beholding him in the just dimensions of his glory. …

But here it must be observed, that the description and representation of the Lord Christ and his glory in the gospel is not absolutely or in itself either dark or obscure; yea, it is perspicuous, plain, and direct. Christ is therein evidently set forth crucified, exalted, glorified. But the apostle does not here discourse concerning the way or means of the revelation of it unto us, but of the means or instrument whereby we comprehend that revelation. This is our faith, which, as it is in us, being weak and imperfect, we comprehend the representation that is made unto us of the glory of Christ as men do the sense of a dark saying, a riddle, a parable; that is imperfectly, and with difficulty.

On the account hereof we may say at present, how little a portion is it that we know of him! How imperfect are our conceptions of him! How weak are our minds in their management! There is no part of his glory that we can fully comprehend. And what we do comprehend,—there is a comprehension in faith, Ephesians 3:18,—we cannot abide in the steady contemplation of. For ever blessed be that sovereign grace, whence it is that He who “commanded light to shine out of darkness has shined into our hearts, to give us the light of the knowledge of his own glory in the face of Jesus Christ,” and therein of the glory of Christ himself;—that he has so revealed him unto us, as that we may love him, admire him, and obey him: but constantly, steadily, and clearly to behold his glory in this life we are not able; “for we walk by faith, and not by sight.”

Hence our sight of him here is as it were by glances, liable to be clouded and blocked. “Behold, there he stands behind our wall, gazing through the windows, looking through the lattice” (Song of Solomon 2:9). There is a great interposition between him and us, as a wall; and the means of the discovery of himself unto us, as through a window and lattice, include a great instability and imperfection in our view and apprehension of him. There is a wall between him and us, which yet he standeth behind. Our present mortal state is this wall, which must be demolished before we can see him as he is.

In the meantime he looketh through the windows of the ordinances of the Gospel. He gives us sometimes, when he is pleased to stand in those windows, a view of himself; but it is imperfect, as is our sight of a man through a window. The appearances of him at these windows are full of refreshment unto the souls of them that do believe. But our view of them is imperfect, transient, and does not abide—we are for the most part quickly left to bemoan what we have lost. And then our best is but to cry, “the heart panteth after the waterbrooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God. My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God: when shall I come and appear before thee?” When wilt thou again give me to see thee, though but as through the windows alas! What distress do we ofttimes sit down in, after these views of Christ and his glory! But he proceeds farther yet; and flourishes himself through the lattices. This displaying of the glory of Christ, called the flourishing of himself, is by the promises of the Gospel, as they are explained in the ministry of the Word. In them are represented unto us the desirable beauties and glories of Christ. How precious, how amiable is he, as represented in them! How are the souls of believers ravished with the views of them! Yet is this discovery of him also but as through a lattice. We see him but by parts, unsteadily and unevenly.

Such, I say, is the sight of the glory of Christ which we have in this world by faith. It is dark, it is but in part. It is but weak, transient, imperfect, partial.

—John Owen, Meditations and Discourses on the Glory of Christ. Chapter 12. Works 1:374-389.

Don’t Waste Your Sports

Sunday at Covenant Life Church, C.J. Mahaney delivered the sermon Don’t Waste Your Sports from 1 Corinthians 10:31. I highly recommend the message for athletes, fans, and parents.

Early in the message, C.J. made the following point:

“Participation in sports must be informed by the knowledge of God. We have a tendency, when considering the topic of glorifying God in sports, to proceed immediately to practical application and to prematurely consider specific ways we are called to glorify God in sports. But any practical consideration must first proceed from a theologically informed understanding of the character of God as revealed in Scripture and the person and work of Christ. We must begin our consideration of this topic—of every topic!—with God. Until we behold the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ we cannot accurately or authentically glorify God (2 Cor. 4:6). Before we play sports for the glory of God we must behold the glory of God. … And this morning I have asked Puritan theologian John Owen to assist me:

Because he is—that is, an infinitely glorious, good, wise, holy, powerful, righteous, self-subsisting, self-sufficient, all-sufficient Being, the fountain, cause, and author of life and being to all things, and of all that is good in every kind, the first cause, last end, and absolute sovereign Lord of all, the rest and all-satisfactory reward of all other beings—therefore he is to be adored and worshipped. Hence are we in our hearts, minds, and souls, to admire, adore, and love him. His praises are we to celebrate. In him we are to trust and fear, and so to resign ourselves and all our concerns unto his will and disposal, to regard him with all the acts of our minds and persons, answerable to the holy properties and excellencies of his nature. This is to glorify him as God.

No doubt some are asking, ‘What does a 17th-century Puritan (who didn’t have game) have to say to the modern athlete? How does this relate to my soccer game or cross-country meet?’ Here’s why: When I behold the glory of God prior to playing sports, my heart is affected and transformed. This makes all the difference when I step out onto the field or court. This knowledge of God positions me to glorify Him and not myself. Our participation in sports must be informed by the knowledge of God in order to keep us from turning sports into something ugly, rather than beautiful. This knowledge of God’s glory will keep us from wasting our sports.”

More information and MP3 download here.

Also, Stephen Altrogge, in attendance at Covenant Life Church for the message, just published the book, Game Day for the Glory of God: A Guide for Athletes, Fans, and Wannabes (Crossway, 2008). An excellent book on this topic!