The Gospel and the Beauty of God’s People

We have established that God in himself is uncreated and eternal beauty. Man made in his image is created beauty intended to reflect him. The image of God in man is essential to understanding the pinnacle of created beauty in the world. The whole of creation speaks to us about the glory and beauty of God. But none of this beauty is comparable to that of the human being.

This beauty, however, has been marred since the image of God within us has been fractured. As broken image bearers we stand in need of God’s mending work. The solution to our distorted image is found in Christ, the true image-bearer, who comes to restore us. There is a strand of New Testament thought that links together Christ, the image of God, and our salvation.

The apostle tells us explicitly that Jesus is “the image of God” (2 Cor 4:4, 1 Cor 15:49, Col 1:15, 2 Cor 3:18). Jesus was a perfect man who yielded to no temptation (Heb 4:15), never sinned (1 Pet 2:22) and lived a life of unbroken worship and obedience before the Father (Rom 5:18-20). This means that Jesus was and is the perfect image bearer. When we look at Jesus we see what a human being was intended to be.

His life of perfect image bearing was lived in our place as our representative. His perfect life and his sacrificial death are equally necessary for our salvation (Heb 2:5-18, Rom 5:17-21). His life and death are in fact a dual substitution. He lived as a blameless image bearer and died in the place of broken image bearers. In his death he received in himself the punishment due every fractured image bearer (Note the connection between Romans 1:18-32, Rom 3:23-25, and Rom 8:28-32).

The problem with a fractured image is that it no longer gives a true reflection of that which it was created to reveal. We tell horrendous lies about God with our lives though we were created to reveal the truth about him. Jesus, the true image bearer, lived a life that told nothing but the truth about God.

In his death, however, he died like the biggest liar in the world. God piled upon him all the sin of our broken imaging. Indeed, he became sin for us (2 Cor 5:21). He took this upon himself and the Father consumed him with wrath, punishing him in our stead. Then the Son rose from the grave with a glorified body (1 Cor 15: 42-48) to complete our justification (Rom 4:25).

The New Testament teaches that the Spirit of God regenerates men and creates faith in them in order to unite them to the Jesus (1 Jn 5:1, Eph 2:8-10). Once united to Christ all that is his becomes ours and all that is ours becomes his (Rom 6:1-12). His righteousness and perfection is now ours while our sin and filth is swallowed up in him (2 Cor 5:21). Through Christ we are considered perfect and blameless (Col 1:22). God sees us in Jesus as perfect image bearers once again.

The reality of our perfect standing before God progressively becomes a reality in our experience here and now. Paul tells us that this was God’s predetermined plan. “Those whom he foreknew he also predestined to become conformed to the image of his son” (Rom 8:29). Through the gospel and suffering the Spirit molds us into the image of Christ. As we behold the glory of the Lord in the gospel we are “transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor 3:18).

As we suffer hardship God works all these sufferings for our good that we might finally be molded in to Christ’s likeness (Rom 8:28-32). The Spirit labors within us aiding us in putting off the old man and putting on the new man, which is “being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator” (Col 3:10, Eph 4:23-24). At the final resurrection we will put off forever our mortal bodies and be clothed with immortality. It is here that the image of God within us will be fully and finally renewed. For it is at the resurrection that we will “bear the image of the man from heaven” (1 Cor 15:49, see the larger context of 1 Cor 15:42-58).

Implications   

  • Jesus is the one in whom the beauty of God is deposited. Since Jesus is the perfect image bearer it follows that he is the fullest expression of God’s beauty. Once again we see that an accurate definition of beauty must be centered in Jesus.
  • Since Jesus is fully and perfectly human it follows that he shows us what human beauty genuinely looks like. What does this mean for beauty? It means it is not restricted to gender, it is not preoccupied with the physical (though it includes this), it is tied to character, it is not static but active, and at heart it is sacrificial service for another’s good.
  • The beauty of God in Jesus Christ saves the world. The place where beauty is most clearly displayed is the same place where God restores the beauty of this fallen world. Begbie puts it like this: “In Jesus Christ is the measure of divine beauty, so also of created beauty. In Jesus Christ, divine beauty has, so to speak, got to grips with the wounded and deformed beauty of the world; in the incarnate Son, crucified, risen, and now exalted, we witness God’s re-creation of the world’s beauty.”[1]
  • Jesus provides all that is necessary for broken image bearers to be restored. By faith in Christ we are reckoned righteous, clean, and whole before God. Jesus makes us beautiful by saving us. The beauty of humanity is once again a gift that comes from outside of us. The work of both creation and new creation are the work of God. God alone creates and recreates beauty.
  • Beauty is here connected to the saving work of God in our lives. The Spirit is laboring within us with the tools of gospel and suffering to make us more and more like Jesus. It is a beautiful thing to be regenerated, justified, sanctified, and ultimately glorified. We are God’s workmanship and we reflect the beauty of his handiwork. Beauty is not something we strive after it is something given us in Christ. In position, we are considered beautiful because we are united to Christ. In experience, we are progressively being conformed to the image of Christ. In other words, we reflect who we are in Christ more and more as we follow after God. The beauty of the Christian does not fluctuate. Gregory of Nyssa nailed it on this point. “He has transferred unto himself the filth of my sins, and communicated unto me his purity, and made me a partaker of his beauty.” We are participants in his beauty and this cannot be altered. As the Spirit sustains our faith in the gospel and produces the obedience of faith in us he works out the beauty that is already ours in Christ. We do not become more beautiful we simply manifest what we are in Jesus. Through Christ we hold the position of beautiful image bearers and it is this reality that works its way out in our practice.
  • Glorification is the final stage of restoring the image of God within us. This is significant for a few reasons. First, this confirms the fact that the image of God includes the whole person. It is not enough to be renewed within we must also be renewed from without. Apart from restored bodies the image of God would still be broken. Second, it follows that beauty is also external and physical. There is a unique beauty to the resurrected existence of Christ. Paul refers to his resurrected body as “glorious” (Phil 3:21). At his return our bodies will be conformed to the beauty and glory of his (Phil 3:21, 1 Jn 3:2). One day we will “shine like the sun” in the Kingdom of God (Matt 13:43). Just like the angels and Moses reflected the light of God’s beauty when coming from his presence so shall we. Our bodies will reflect the luminescence of Christ’s glorified body. Third, all of this points to the fact that even physical beauty is a reflective beauty that comes from God. There are three components to the physical beauty of glorification: conformity to the glorified body of Christ, the reflective radiance of seeing God and residing in his presence, and the restored cohesion of both internal and external elements of an individual.

This exploration into the theme of beauty has not been comprehensive. But it has provided us with the necessary anchor points for constructing a framework for a theology of beauty. We can identify these anchor points as the nature of the Triune God, the image of God, the person of Christ, the cross of Christ, union with Christ, the church and the doctrine of glorification.

We have viewed each of these doctrines under the umbrella of God’s nature, dwelling, and people. By taking this angle on the question of beauty we have learned some new and fresh things. It is my hope that your thinking on beauty has been challenged, shaped, and sharpened. Now we need to put this framework to action—hence the next posts on the theology of beauty in action.


[1] Jeremy Begbie in The Beauty of God: Theology and Arts, 27. Bruno Forte agrees. “Crucified beauty leads us back to Beauty at the end victorious.” The Portal of Beauty, 119.

 

The Beauty of God’s People

The Scriptures tell us that the created world is one of the most eloquent heralds of God’s beauty and glory (Ps 19:1, Rom 1:19-20). The reason creation is a testimony to the beauty of God is because it mirrors its Creator. This is especially true of humanity. If the heavens declare the glory of God then human beings shout it.

The creation account clearly climaxes in the formation of man and woman. They alone are fashioned in the image of God (Gen 1:26-28) and therefore invested with great value and purpose. If God is beautiful it follows that something created in his likeness would reflect that beauty. Human beings therefore mirror the beauty of God both individually and corporately.

There are a few texts that make this point explicit. God looks upon humanity and declares it “very good” (Gen 1:31). The Psalmist tells us that God created man “a little lower than the angels and crowned him with glory and honor” (Ps 8:5, cf. Heb 2:6-8). Paul tells us that man is the “image and glory of God” (1 Cor 11:7). This text clearly ties the image of God in man to the reflection of God’s beauty and glory.

The image of God in man suffered severe damage from the fall into sin. Individually and relationally human beings no longer function the way intended and therefore do not properly reflect the beauty of God. It is the rupture of the garden disobedience that introduces ugliness to the planet. All distortion of beauty is rooted in Genesis 3. Our confusion and misunderstanding of beauty begins here.

Ironically, the heart of the first transgression was the rejection of God’s definition of what was good and desirable. Eve dismissed God’s word and established her own word as the final authority. God declared the tree “not good” or desirable. Eve determined the tree to be “good for food and a delight to the eyes” (Gen 3:6).[1]

In essence Eve said: “That definition you have about what is good and desirable is interesting, but I believe I am more capable of determining what is really desirable and good for me. Thanks for the recommendation. I will be just fine ruling the universe, determining right from wrong, and defining reality.”

The knowledge of good and evil was not intended for creatures. The vocation of the creature is to submit to and obey God’s knowledge and determination of what is good and evil. By partaking of this tree, humanity grasped for moral autonomy and self-legislation.[2] By reaching after forbidden fruit Adam and Eve were grasping for divinity.

They rejected their place as creatures and joined Satan in his heavenly coup. This one act of rebellion rippled through the whole of the human race. We have all been guilty of the vain pursuit of becoming deity. Since the fall we’ve been trying to determine for ourselves what’s right and wrong, good and bad, beautiful and ugly. Rather than reflecting our Creator, we attempt to annihilate him and usurp his throne.[3]

One cannot overstate the devastating consequences of our sin and rebellion. We are deeply fractured people. Though the residue of original beauty and glory is still with us the dark cloak of sin has greatly covered its luster. We stand in need of mending and restoration. Just as we were dependent upon God to create us in his image so we are dependent upon him to restore that image within us.

Implications   

  • The image of God is one of the most important doctrines and themes running through Scripture for thinking about the issue of beauty in mankind. It is like a roadmap on the journey toward beauty. It points us back to the Triune God as the source of beauty. It directs us to understand the original intention, design, and beauty of humanity. It shows us the true north of being human and thus reveals how far we’ve gone astray. It leads us forward to the Triune project for restoring the image in us and takes us all the way home to our final glorification. The image of God is a doctrinal workhorse for constructing a theology of beauty.
  • Beauty is extrinsic to human beings. That is, our beauty does not originate from within us, it is not intrinsic to us, but it comes to us from outside. Our beauty is located in the one true Beauty whom we reflect.[4] Our beauty is therefore secondary, it comes from and points back to the primary beauty, which belongs to God alone. To put it another way, our beauty is a borrowed beauty. It does not belong to us and we cannot take credit for it.
  • Beauty is a gift from God that cannot be earned or attained. God created humans and he created them in his image thus endowing them with beauty and glory. The ability, power, and determination to create something or someone beautiful belong to God alone. Determining and attaining beauty is beyond the capacity of a human being. We are simply recipients of God’s initiative in this regard.
  • The image of God in man is an all-encompassing human reality. Many theologians have attempted to locate the image of God in certain parts or actions of man.[5] I believe there is little warrant for trying to define the image of God by dividing up man into different parts or actions. The whole of man in his being, relationships, and activity is a reflection of God.[6] If this is the case, we must affirm that our body and physical makeup are included in the image of God.[7] Internal and external beauty are therefore linked to the image of God in man. The upshot of all this is that the image of God is not only concerned with the internal character and unseen beauty of an individual. It also has something to say to external appearance.
  • If the essence of beauty is found in the sum total of God’s perfections expressed in his eternal tri-unity and his action in the world, then ugliness finds its definition in that which is contrary to this beauty. Sin, which is a falling short of the glory and beauty of God, must therefore stand at the center of our thinking on ugliness. If God has the final word on beauty, he also has the final word on ugliness.
  • The narrative of the fall instructs us that rejecting God’s word and living our own way is characteristic of sin. Like Eve, we attempt to establish our own standard of right and wrong, good and evil, beautiful and ugly. Freedom in the area of beauty comes only through rejecting every standard of man for beauty and embracing God’s standard as the final word on the matter. This includes repentance for our failure to believe his word.

 


[1] Throughout the creation narrative it is very clear that God alone holds the prerogative to determine what is good and what is not. Seven times he declares the creation to be good (Gen 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31). One time he declares what is not good: a solitary existence for man (Gen 2:18). God makes it clear that it is not a good thing to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil because death will ensue (Gen 2:17). When you follow the narrative the audacity of Eve to state what is good is shocking. She is essentially assuming the authority of God to assess and determine reality. She is making an authoritative declaration that is outside of her capacity and role.

[2] William J. Dumbrell, The Faith of Israel: A Theological Survey of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker House Academic, 2002), 23.

[3] Luther argued that at the root of all sin is the “Annihilatio Dei,” the attempt to annihilate God. Mark Seifrid, “Justified by Faith and Judged by Works: A Biblical Paradox and Its Significance,” SBJT 5:4 (Winter, 2001), 91.

[4] F. Duane Lindsey, “Essays Toward a Theology of Beauty,” 125. Augustine was one of the first theologians to use “Beauty” as a proper name for God. A smattering of theologians has followed his example throughout church history.

[5] Bruce Ware, “Male and Female Complementarity and the Image of God,” JBMW 7:1 (Spring 2002), 15-16. Ware traces the history of interpretation and discusses the various ways the image of God has been understood. He summarizes the various interpretations under three views. 1) Structural views- proponents of this position argue that the image of God is found in some aspect of our human nature that distinguishes us from animals. The image of God from this perspective was often located in the will, mind, intellect, or soul. 2) Relational views- proponents of this view argue that the image of God is seen in relationships. Arguing from a Trinitarian base this position believes that community is the key to understanding the image. 3) Functional views- proponents of this view argue that the image of God is located in the various functions and responsibilities of man. Since the discussion of the image of God is in the context of Adam ruling and subduing those holding this view argue that this is the primary significance of the image.

[6] Ibid, 16-17. Ware calls this position “functional holism.” It integrates the structural, functional, and relational viewpoints and argues that the entirety of human existence contributes to our understanding of the image of God.

[7] John Frame, “Men and Women in the Image of God” in Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood, eds. John Piper & Wayne Grudem (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1991), 227. Frame says, “Our fundamental principle, that everything human images God, requires us to hold that the human body, also images God.” He goes further to defend how the body is integral to human existence and therefore necessary for understanding the image of God.

Gospel & Beauty: A Cruciform Majesty

“He has transferred unto himself the filth of my sins, and communicated unto me his purity, and made me a partaker of his beauty.”

Gregory of Nyssa

The cross turns the world upside down. Power is weakness, wisdom is foolishness, greatness is service, humility is glory—this is the logic of Calvary. You cannot speak of love, justice or peace apart from Good Friday. The cross defines reality. Luther was right, “the cross alone is our theology.”

Our task is to bring everything in life into gospel orbit, to create a robust dialogue between all things and the cross. As we do so our thoughts are formed and chastened. Certain ways of thinking and being are put to death while new ones are brought to life. The gospel is a gracious yet painful dialogue partner.

God will use his gospel to challenge, convict, and reshape our vision of reality. Every arena of life must be submitted to the gospel of God. The aim of the Christian is none other than to live “worthy of the gospel of Christ” (Phil 1:27). God intends that the gospel shape, challenge, and rule our lives in every way.

Beauty is a captivating reality that has always been a driving and shaping force in every culture at every period in history. Our culture and time frame are no different. Whether the magazine rack, a commercial, or the latest movie we are consistently confronted with the question of beauty. It is never far from our mind or desires.

We are called to pull the theme of beauty into the gospel orbit. Even the notion of thinking biblically and theologically about beauty drives us to some very basic questions. What is your starting point for thinking about beauty? How do you define beauty? Who defines beauty? Why do we think of beauty the way we do? In what ways is your perspective on beauty driven by your culture? Do you have a theology of beauty? Where would you start? How does your view and thinking about beauty affect your every day life? How important is the issue of beauty to you?

We are all profoundly influenced by our culture. Beauty in our world is tied to a certain physical appearance. This cultural view of beauty is a standard of judgment we use to assess others and ourselves. It shapes our thoughts, actions and goals in subtle yet profound ways. Beauty is a force.

We need a biblical and theological framework for rightly thinking about such a powerful reality. I suggest three anchor points for building a cross-centered view of beauty: the beauty of God, the beauty of God’s place, and the beauty of God’s people.[1]

We will work through these themes from an Old Testament perspective and then comb back through them again in light of the gospel. As we work the themes we will explore important implications from each section. The next few blog posts will be dedicated to exploring this theme.


[1] A similar three-fold division is used by Graeme Goldsworthy in his book The Goldsworthy Trilogy (Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 2001). He understands God’s kingdom as God’s people in God’s place under God’s rule. These are three significant themes of biblical theology and so happen to be important to a theology of beauty.