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).
- 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.”
- 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.
 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.