2 Corinthians 3:17&18 “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.”
There’s no human being on the planet who doesn’t wish to change, or who does not need to be changed. Men are not what their consciences are telling them they should be. Christians discover that that longing has been intensified, focused and energised. “Take my life, and let it be consecrated Lord, to Thee,” we often sing. We want our whole lives to change and that, in part, is why we go to our church – to change. We don’t go to have our prejudices rearranged and confirmed. Many of us have been drastically changed by Jesus Christ. Our understanding of ourselves, our purpose in life, our knowledge of God is all very different from views we once held. Every time we come to church we want to go on changing for the better, making at least some baby steps, and, once in a while, as the Lord blesses, we feel we have made a leap forward. But whatever happens we don’t want to stagnate. The goal is to beautiful to fall short of.
The passage above is about Christian transformation. It is saying that there is no need for things to go on in your life as they have been. Christians too can change, and this passage brings to us the hope of an effectual metamorphosis, how you may become a mature, courageous, patient and resourceful person. Not you alone but together with a vast company of men and women – like the sands on the shores in number. A whole new constituency is envisaged, people who have their own unique personalities and have known their own combination of problems, who are now passing through a range of experiences, each one of them, as the elect of God, in the process of being divinely changed. There is, for example, an old woman in Nepal, a student in China, a fisherman in Scotland, an African farmer, an Australian Aborigine, and God is at this very moment in time transforming them without destroying their own unique identity, and there are millions like them. God alone can supervise such a mighty enterprise, and God will bring all his divine resources to achieve it. Your transformation as a Christian must happen because God has made up his mind.
Paul sets human change in the context of the living God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. God is the agent of this work, and for true change you need some understanding of the glorious living God. Consider those breathtaking epistles of Paul, how obsessed with God he is. He piles one doctrine and one conclusion on top of another, stringing them together with his mighty ‘therefores.’ When he does that he incidentally becomes more and more human. When you read or listen to them you are being fully human. It is when you ignore them, and hold no New Testament teaching then you sink down to the level of a slug or a dandelion. Trees have no doctrines. Turnips have no catechisms. Stick insects have no dogma. Only real human beings can know God and are transformed by God.
So Paul’s pattern is to bring before the church enormously profound teaching about God for what might seem to us to be very trivial purposes, for two women to be of one mind, for a congregation to become more generous, for a husband to love his wife in a worthier manner, that we all might become gentle, forgiving, patient, pure and sweet-natured people. Yet how difficult the attainment of such goals are. An educationalist who could devise the way of achieving this would win the Nobel Prize. Think of Aldous Huxley that brilliant novelist – remember how the title of his novel, “Brave New World” slips into our speech every time the possibility is raised of cloning people or politicians controlling society. Huxley wanted the world to be a better place and was continually depressed at what he saw in his chosen religion-less culture. At the end of his life he said, “It is a bit embarrassing to have been concerned with the human problem all one’s life and that at the end one has no more to offer by way of advice that ‘Try to be a little kinder.'” The world would certainly be a better place if people were a little kinder, but how do you change people for the better while preserving their own dignity and personhood?
The apostle does so by referring us to the acts of the living God. In other words, he believes that if a man wants to become a better father it would really help if he knew about the God the Father, and to be a better son to know about God the Son, and to be a better husband to know about the dying love of the Lord Jesus. All Christian truth must be “unto godliness.” So let us learn some extraordinary truth about God.
1. The Lord is the Spirit. (v.17).
Now we are a Trinitarian church, and this is certainly a Trinitarian pulpit. We believe that there are three persons in the godhead. The Father is God. The Son is God. The Holy Spirit is God. These three persons are one God. This is the nature of the only God there is. We have no experience of such a being in all creation about us. Everything else is one and only one. But God is three persons and yet one God. When Paul writes here about the Lord who is the Spirit, some believe he is talking about Jehovah, Moses’ Lord. Others believe that he is referring to the Lord Christ because Paul speaks of him in verse 14 saying that in Christ the veil is removed, and that Christ is the Lord being referred to here is our own view.
There is the Son of God and there is the Holy Spirit. They are both equally God. From eternity they have been together. They never began to be, and they always knew the most perfect fellowship and sharing. They had no secrets from one another, and no tensions of any kind. They had the same desires and the same purpose exactly. There is not a milligram of difference between them. They have matchless affection for one another, infinitely and eternally. The Son could say to the Spirit, “I love you,” and the Spirit could say to the Son, “And I love you.” Both of them loved the Father and he reciprocated. The Son and the Spirit are not seated on two lesser thrones at each side of the Father: there is one throne, and all three are on the same level. The Son and Spirit fully share the Father’s glory. They all have the same attributes and perfections of God. They all have the same functions of God such as creation, life-giving, life-enhancing and of judgment. Both the Son and the Spirit have all the rights and prerogatives and entitlements of God. They are all to be worshipped as God. We sing our praises to Son and to Spirit and ask for their presence and their blessing on our lives. The Lord and the Spirit are equal with God. Are we all clear in our grasp of that?
Then we must go a step further and say that they are different persons, the Son and the Spirit. One can face the other and say, “You.” One can send the other, and give certain things to the other, so although the Son and the Spirit are equal yet they are distinct persons. Let us picture it like this, that the Father and the Spirit, as it were, accompanied the Son to the door of heaven and they waved goodbye to him as he came to this world and entered the womb of Mary. The Spirit did not become incarnate. Only the Son. The Spirit was not humbled to death even the death of the cross. It was the Son who was crucified. The Son and the Spirit are equal but they are distinct persons. At the Lord Jesus’ baptism only the Son was baptised, only the Father said, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased,” and only the Spirit descended like a dove lighting on the Son.
Yet the Son and the Spirit are in total continuity. Think of the great discourses in John’s gospel where Jesus is talking of the Spirit. We learn of their total unity. Jesus was sent by the Father: the Spirit is sent by the Father. Jesus is the truth: the Spirit is the Spirit of Truth. Jesus is the teacher of the disciples: the Spirit is the further teacher of the disciples. Jesus is the witness God sent: the Spirit is sent by the Father to bear witness. The world does not know or accept Jesus: the world does not recognise the Spirit. So, Son and Spirit are absolutely one.
The Son and the Spirit are equally God. They are distinct persons. At the same time they are the same in their substance. One in their being; different in their persons. The living God is so different an order of being from anything in his creation. Now before you say that this is over your head you ask yourself very carefully what is it you do not understand, because we understand that they are distinct persons so that one can love the other – the Son loves the Spirit – there is no reason why you shouldn’t understand that, is there? And yet God is one God. There is only one God. The Son and the Spirit and the Father are one being. You understand that? What is it, then, that we do not understand? It is this: how is it that they can be distinct and yet be the same? You are thinking that you are in deep waters here, that the minister and his assistant and the elders understand it but you don’t. No. All of us understand that the Son and the Spirit are distinct persons and all of us also understand that they are one being. Nobody in the world has ever comprehended how the three distinct persons can be one being.
I don’t want any one of us to feel that her mental energies are in an unusual way being over-taxed, because you older folk who left school at 14 years of age have the same capacity to understand what I am saying as those who are completing their Ph.D.’s. The great thing to take into our minds is this, that the Son and the Spirit are equal, and they are distinct persons, and they are not two gods but one God. Those are the general lessons. They are all that anybody knows about the unique mode of being peculiar to Almighty God.
Then, in our text, we have this remarkable phrase, “Now the Lord is the Spirit” (v.17). But the Lord Jesus alone is the Son of God. The Spirit is not the Son. In what way is the Lord the Spirit? It cannot mean that the second person of the godhead is the third person of the godhead. They are and always will be two distinct persons. The phrase certainly means what F.F.Bruce says, that “the Lord means the Spirit,” but we can go a little further than that. Certainly the Son and the Spirit are absolutely one in the covenant of redemption. They love the same people, and save the same people, and sanctify the same people, and intercede for the same people, and will glorify the same people. What the Holy Spirit does is exactly what the Lord does. The Lord does not do half the job, lay the foundation as it were, and then the Spirit carries on from there. The Spirit’s work is not an additional or special work beyond the Lord. What the Holy Spirit does is the Lord at work. The Son and Spirit have one name, don’t they? Believers are baptized into the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost. One name for all three persons.
We can go further yet and we can say now that the Messiah has ascended and is seated at the Father’s right hand the Holy Spirit has become entirely the beloved possession of Christ, the bride of Christ, as it were, absorbed into Christ, assimilated by Christ. The Lord can will the Spirit to do all he wants him to do. He can send him forth to regenerate and make alive these particular sinners, and sanctify others, and give strength and comfort to yet others. The Lord can be looking at this congregation now (and thousands like it) and he can tell the Spirit to uphold that believer, and return to another his first love, and to instruct the people, and to assist the preacher. Then there are unforgettable occasions when he will pour out the Spirit on a great gathering of people, as he did in Jerusalem at the feast of Pentecost, and three thousand are added to his kingdom. Such outpourings, though not of that same magnitude so that three thousand are converted under a single sermon, have occurred in the great awakenings and revivals that have occurred throughout history. Under some particularly blessed ministries like that of Charles Haddon Spurgeon in the Metropolitan Tabernacle in London in the 19th century the Spirit continually came and freed men and women from sin for thirty years. By Christ’s resurrection and ascension he, the last Adam, has become the life-giving Spirit. We are saying that Son and Spirit are totally absorbed in one another in what they are and in what they do. In the book of Revelation we are told that Christ possesses the seven Spirits, that is, the Spirit in all his fulness.
So since the humiliation and exaltation of God the Son the Holy Spirit has been shaped by the life and the ministry of the ascended God-man, Jehovah Jesus, and the Spirit has become the Messianic Spirit. The fact that there is a man in glory has affected all of the godhead. The omniscient Spirit has learned through Christ the compassion of the man who once was forsaken by the Spirit on Golgotha. The Spirit is full of Jesus Christ, and the Lord Jesus is full of the Spirit. So the Lord comes to us in this meeting, and we turn to him, and we experience him as the Spirit, and yet he shapes us to be like Christ. So, the Lord is the Spirit. You cannot distinguish between your experience of them. No one can confidently say, “This was an experience of the Spirit not an experience of Jesus.” No one can say, “This was an experience of the Son, not an experience of the Spirit,” because the Lord is the Spirit. Every genuine experience of the Holy Spirit leads us to confess that Jesus is Lord to the glory of the Father. In other words, every true Christian experience is Trinitarian.
So, the life that Christ has given us is not meagre life. It is the life of the Spirit. It does not need supplementation. It does not require an added initiative from the Spirit that the Son failed to provide when he has come in saving power to be your Lord. To be indwelt by the Son is to be indwelt by the Spirit also, because the Lord is the Spirit. The Holy Spirit does not come into our lives independently of Christ coming. He comes in Christ. He only comes in Christ. “Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit” (Ephs. 1:13).
2. The Lord gives us Freedom by his Spirit.
“Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (v.17). We might expect him to say that where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is love, or there is truth, or there is unity. But he chooses this grace of freedom because this is his theme in this section of the letter, the bondage of everyone who lived under the old Mosaic covenant. The first mark of the Spirit’s presence is freedom, and then comes love and unity. Now one could say that Paul is speaking about a geographical location. There is a place where the Spirit of the Lord is. Of course, God the Spirit is everywhere: “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?” cries the psalmist (Ps. 139:7). God is omnipresent. But that is not what the psalmist is talking about. He knows that this keeping, sanctifying, yearning, loving Spirit will never let him go should the psalmist try, at a time of sinful abandon, to flee from him. “If I became a prodigal son and settled on the far side of the sea the first person I’d meet when I got there would be the Holy Spirit.” Jonah could not escape from God by taking a boat to Tarshish. God met him in a storm. Yes, God is everywhere, but God is present in grace and blessing in certain places, in the heart of the believer, and where two or three are gathered in his name, and in the means of grace, in the gospel offer and in heaven. That is what Paul is talking about here. We sing the hymn of John Fawcett:
Thy presence, gracious God, afford:
Prepare us to receive Thy word:
Now let Thy voice engage our ear,
And faith be mixed with what we hear.
Thus, Lord, Thy waiting servants bless,
And crown the gospel with success.
We long for the Spirit of God to come to us as we gather in the Lord’s name. Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there the captive leaps to lose his chains. It is an absolutely basic New Testament assertion. Paul opens the fifth chapter of his letter to the Galatians with the same ringing declaration, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free” (Gals 5:1). We don’t have to plead with God, “Give me liberty or I die!” God has made every single Christian freedom. This is the birthright of every single Christian. Wherever the saving Spirit of Christ is found there is freedom. Now, it is true that not every Christian understands or realises that he is free. When the American slaves were granted freedom they had to be told clearly and forcefully about this reality. They had been slaves for so long that their biggest problem was an on-going slave mentality. “Yes, you are free,” they had to be told until they grasped it for themselves. The New Testament letters are telling Christians constantly of the privileges that are theirs which they are not enjoying because they are ignorant of them. “You are justified – declared righteous in Christ by God,” they are told. “You are adopted into the family of God. He is your father,” they are told. “You are joined to Christ – in him,” they are told. All the privileges and the implications for their lives are being opened up.
If you are a Christian, that is, if you are made alive and indwelt by the Spirit of God, you are a free person. What does that mean? Paul is speaking about the Mosaic covenant, as “the ministry that brought death” he describes it (v.7), and “the ministry that condemns men” (v.9). He look at his fellow Jews, his kinsmen according to the flesh, and he pitied them. If they were conscientious they were off to Jerusalem three times a year. They would use their time there to make sacrifices for their sins. It was the only place where there was an altar. So they accumulated guilt until they could get to the temple and buy the animal for sacrifice. Then there was circumcision and there were the food laws. Then there were the ten commandments and they made them aware how their moral failures brought God’s judgment upon them. They were total failures, and the next visit to the temple was the only place of confession of sin where sacrifice could be offered. But it never ended, that pattern of new sin and guilt and new sacrifices. Paul did not look at their religion and say, “Wonderful sincere religious people.” He said that they were slaves. Wales has been looking, at the beginning of 2001, at 50 million people in India thinking that if they had washed themselves in the river Ganges at such times in a stellar calendar their personal guilt could be washed away. Slaves to a false religion. These are people living under a ministry of condemnation, and the Jews I’ve described were living the best kind of religious life, the most conscientious old covenant Christians, longing for the Messiah to come, waiting for the redemption of Israel, but were also slaves. Many others of Paul’s fellow Jews were totally secularised or hellenized. They had jettisoned all their religion, but that had given them no more freedom to love and serve God and man.
Then the Messiah comes and established a new covenant by his life and death. What freedom he provides:
i] from all the ceremonials of the old covenant, from the sacrifices of animals, and earthly priests, and the food laws, and the trips to Jerusalem, and the sabbatical structure of seven years, and the fifty years Jubilee, and circumcision. All that those symbols had once represented he has, all by himself, fulfilled. That bondage has come to an end. You are free from all of that. Now we may boldly go to God immediately through his Son Jesus Christ and cry, “Abba Father!”
ii] from the condemnation of the broken law we have been freed. Golgotha’s cross is the place where the Son of God bore all our condemnation. There is absolutely none left. No anger and no wrath. So fear and unbelief are banished from our minds. As Toplady asks,
From whence this fear and unbelief?
Hath not the Father put to grief
His spotless Son for me?
And will the righteous Judge of men
Condemn me for that debt of sin
Which, Lord, was charged on Thee?
No! God will not. He cannot condemn guilt which has once and for all been dealt with totally by Christ. “Payment God cannot twice demand, First at my bleeding Surety’s hand, and then again at mine.” The Christian is free from condemnation. Look to Christ for this. Let me give you four words of exhortation, originally given by William Jay of Bath:-
1. Don’t look for something in the law which can only be found in the gospel.
2. Don’t look in yourself for what can only be found in Christ.
3. Don’t look in your fellow creatures for what is only to be found in the Creator.
4. Don’t look on earth for what is to be found in heaven.
iii] from the lordship of sin we have been freed. Once sin had dominion over us. It told us to ignore God, and live without Christ, and think nothing of the Bible, and forget about death – and we obeyed sin. “Yes, sir,” we said. We were slaves of sin. But when Christ came by his Spirit into our lives he snapped the chains that bound us to our old master, and he set up his throne in our hearts. When sin told us not to pray we refused, “No. I shall pray.” When sin told us to forget about ever going to church, we disdained sin, “No. I am going to church every Sunday.” We bowed the knee to the King of Kings. When the Lord Jesus said, “Follow me, love your enemies, forgive seventy times seven,” we bowed the knee to him. The Spirit of Christ gave us strength to freely serve our wonderful Master. So the righteous demands of the law are freely fulfilled by us, who are “not being without law toward God but under the law of Christ” (I Cor. 9:21 RSV). The Christian is a free man who bows the knee to Christ. He does not sing, “We shall overcome some day.” Christ’s revolution against the god of this world has been totally successful. A new kingdom of grace has been established on this planet, and all its citizens have overcome the bondage of sin in King Jesus.
William Sloan was a Christian fisherman and preacher in the Faroe Islands north of Scotland who died in 1914. One day he was rowing out in his boat in Torshvn harbour to visit the sailors on a large ship. He was a ship visitor for Christ. He was rowing past a new boat and he noticed its name. It was called the “Unbendable” (in the Danish language), and as he was rowing under the shadow of the ship he muttered that word to himself, “Unbendable? Unbendable?” Then, out loud, he said, “Unbendable? But one day every knee will bend to Jesus and every tongue will confess he is Lord.” There was a man who had come on deck that moment to empty a kettle over the side, and he heard those words and they deeply convicted him, and he bowed the knee to the Lord. “I heard these words one day,” he would say, “that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” The Spirit of Christ used his word to free that sailor. Where the Spirit of the Lord is – it may be on the deck of a ship – there is freedom.
3. The Lord Transforms us into his Likeness.
“And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (v.18)
This is a wonderfully encouraging verse. “We,” says the apostle to the whole Corinthian church with all its tensions and hang-ups. He stands in solidarity with them. “We … are being transformed.” But to make the case absolutely clear he says, “We … all … are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory.” Make no exceptions where God makes none. The weakest and the newest Christian here today is experiencing ever-increasing transformation. Under the Mosaic covenant just one man was outwardly transformed, but under the new covenant that blessing is the possession of all.
What exactly is happening? This translation says that we all “reflect” the Lord’s glory, but another way of translating it is to say that we “behold” the Lord’s glory – the footnote in my version is offering that translation when it suggests “contemplate.” But again the word is often used for looking at your reflection in a mirror, and so the King James translation says that we are all “with open face beholding in a glass the glory of the Lord.” It is suggesting correctly that we have to wait to heaven to gaze directly on the Lord’s glory, but here on earth we contemplate a manifestation of his glory in the inadequate reflection of polished brass. Many scholars do think that the best translation is to ‘behold’ rather than to reflect, and that is my conviction. What is happening is that all of us to a greater or lesser extent bring into our lives some contemplation of the Lord’s glory.
This is the means of our being transformed. We are overwhelmed as we consider our glorious Lord. We are in a living and loving relationship with this exalted Christ, and the affect of that is that we are steadily being transformed into his likeness. This consideration of him is something experiential and existential – “with unveiled faces beholding our glorious Lord.” This cannot be something only at the level of the mind, of the theological, or even the ethical. Surely this has to do with spirituality, with devotion and ardour and adoration – if such words have any meaning at all! The apostle is not looking back to the road to Damascus. This transformation is not because of a historical incident in his own personal story which no one else could possibly share, but this is something that every single Christian experiences. So Paul is not looking back. This is not past conversion. He is looking up. He is “looking unto Jesus” – in the words of the letter to the Hebrews (12:1&2). He is not remembering something here. He is concentrating as clearly as he can on the Lord, who is no longer the man of sorrows but the Spirit. He will have nothing coming between himself and Christ. If it is merely, as it were, a veil on his face he will strip it away so that he can look unto Jesus with an unveiled face.
Now you will acknowledge, I know, that there is a beauty in the pages of the New Testament that displays to us the glorious loveliness of Jesus. As we study this Book that it has a blessed sanctifying influence on our lives. Sometimes when we read it we are broken by its power and tremendously moved. Sometimes when we hear it preached we are deeply affected by it. There is no doubt that we need fresh creative history-of-redemption puritan preachers who can make the Saviour we find in the gospels live again, so that our souls are stirred and our affection set on things above as we meet him in the preached word. May God raise up such ministers and bless his infallible word. We can be deeply moved by a new sight of the glory of Christ, and numbers attest to this. In an interview with John Stott he acknowledges, “God has given me in his goodness some profound spiritual experiences both when I’ve been alone and even more in public worship, when tears have come to my eyes, when I’ve perceived something of his glory. I can remember on one particular occasion when we were singing, ‘At the name of Jesus every knee shall bow.’ I did really break down, because I saw the supreme exaltation of Jesus to the right hand of the Father. I have had other profound experiences which have moved me to the core of my being.”
There was an enriching experience of the glory of God which Sarah, the wife of Jonathan Edwards, once passed through. She once recorded in her diary, “Thursday night, Jan. 28, was the sweetest night I ever had in my life. I never before, for so long a time together, enjoyed so much of the light, and ‘est, and sweetness of heaven in my soul….All night I continued in a constant, clear, and lively sense of the heavenly sweetness of Christ’s excellent and transcendent love, of his nearness to me, and of my nearness to Him; with an inexpressibly sweet calmness of soul and an entire rest in him. I seemed to myself to perceive a glow of divine love come down from the heart of Christ in heaven, into my heart, in a constant stream, like a stream or pencil of sweet light. At the same me, my heart and soul all flowed out in love Christ; so that there seemed to be a constant flowing and reflowing of heavenly and divine love, from Christ’s heart to mine….”
“This lively sense of the beauty and excellency of divine things continued during the morning, accompanied with peculiar sweetness and delight…. The spiritual beauty of the Father and the Saviour, seemed to engross my whole mind. .. I never felt such an emptiness of self-love, or any regard to any private, selfish interest of my own. . . . The glory of God seemed to be all, and in all, and to swallow up every… desire of my heart.”
Or consider that incident recorded in the life of John Flavel, the puritan preacher of Dartmouth who died in 1691. He tells us he was walking somewhere one day when, “his thoughts began to swell and rise higher and higher like the waters of Ezekiel’s vision, till at last they became an overwhelming flood. Such was the intention of his mind, such the ravishing tastes of heavenly joys, and such the full assurance of his interest therein, that he utterly lost all sight and sense of the world and all the concerns thereof, and for some hours he knew no more where he was than it had been in a deep sleep upon his bed. Arriving in great exhaustion at a certain spring he sat down and washed, earnestly desiring that if it was God’s pleasure that this might be his parting-place from the world. Death had the most amiable face in his eyes that ever he beheld, except the face of Jesus Christ which made it so, and he does not remember though he believed himself dying, that he ever thought of his dear wife and children or any other earthly concernment. On reaching his inn the influence still continued, banishing sleep, still the joy of the Lord overflowed him and he seemed to be an inhabitant of the other world. He many years after called that day one of the days of heaven, and professed that he understood more of the life of heaven by it than by all the books he ever read.”
But it is not only preachers, or their wives who can speak of experiences like this. Alvin Plantinga is a member of the Christian Reformed Church in America and also one of the world’s leading philosophers. He’s been president of the American Philosophical Association. He’s taught at Yale, Harvard, Chicago, Calvin, Notre Dame, and elsewhere. His powers of logic are staggering. Dr. Plantinga tells how as a young man, he left home and went off to Harvard University.
He says, “I was struck by the enormous variety of spiritual and intellectual opinion at Harvard, and spent a great deal of time arguing about whether there was such a person as God… I began to wonder whether what I had always believed could really be true. At Harvard, after all, there was such an enormous diversity of opinions about these matters, some of them held by highly intelligent and accomplished people who had little but contempt for what I believed.”
But it was there on the campus at Harvard that something happened. Plantinga writes, “One gloomy evening I was returning from dinner. It was dark, windy raining, nasty. But suddenly it was as if the heavens opened; I heard, so it seemed, music of overwhelming power and grandeur and sweetness; there was light of unimaginable splendour and beauty; it seemed I could see into heaven itself; and I suddenly saw or perhaps felt with great clarity and persuasion and conviction that the Lord was really there and was all I had thought. The effects of this experience lingered for a long time; I was still caught up in arguments about the existence of God, but they often seemed to me merely academic, of little existential concern.”
Plantinga goes on to say “Such events have not been common subsequently and there has been only one other occasion on which I felt the presence of God with as much immediacy and strength. That was when I foolishly went hiking alone off-trail in really rugged country getting lost when rain, snow and fog obscured all the peaks and landmarks. That night, while shivering under a stunted tree in a cold mixture of snow and rain, I felt as close to God as I ever have before or since. I wasn’t clear as to his intentions for me and I wasn’t sure I thought I approved of what his intentions might be (the statistics on people lost alone in that area were not at all encouraging), but I felt very close to him; his presence was enormously palpable.”
You may not have had such astounding experiences at all. That doesn’t mean that there is something wrong with you. The Spirit of God moves in many different ways. The Spirit does not give to all the same kind of experience. But every Christian needs to be looking unto the same Lord, the same Word of God, and the same Saviour, and to be longing for this ever-increasing glory. You and I need faith in the Lord not faith in experiences. God is real. The Bible is true. Jesus lives. His Spirit is at work whether or not we have that overwhelming, almost tangible sense of God’s nearness that John Stott, John Flavel, Sarah Edwards and Alvin Plantinga once had. Thank God for every baby step. What would Joni Eareckson Tada give to be able to make a baby step?
Irwin Shaw wrote a short story called The Eighty-Yard Run. As a college freshman, at his first football practice, he broke loose for an 80-yard touchdown run. His team-mates looked at him with awe. His coach said, “You’re going to have quite a future around here.” His girlfriend hugged him excitedly after the practice. Life was going to be completely satisfying and rewarding.
But what was his future? His football experience was disappointing. His marriage sours. The pain of failure is even greater because he remembers thinking on that ‘perfect day’ many years before that life would always be that way. But life doesn’t stand still. There isn’t a once-for-all experience. Winston Churchill once said, “Success is never final. Failure is never fatal. It is courage that counts.”
There are going to be bad days. Every month there is not a preacher who doesn’t fall on his face and groan over a sermon. It is one of the means God uses to remind him of his weakness. Those public failures – letting down a congregation of people who love him – aren’t endings. They are avenues to beholding the glory of the God-man more widely and more deeply.
It is in the contemplation of the Lord Jesus Christ that transforming grace is given. In other words I am saying that Paul did what his Master told him to do; “Go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (Matt.6:6). The great reward you ask from God is to see more and more of the glories of Christ, and you plead this promise, “how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him” (Luke 11:13). Think of the longing in Horatius Bonar’s lines:
More of Thyself, O show me hour by hour,
More of Thy glory, O my God and Lord;
More of Thyself, in all Thy grace and power;
More of Thy love and truth, incarnate Word.
Paul centred his thoughts and affections on the heavenlies. It was there that the Lord who is the Spirit lives and reigns, and where he is accessible to every one of his people. From there he sends forth the Spirit which changes sinners into his glorious likeness. As we behold him we are gradually transformed into the same image, even as by the Lord the Spirit. But the transformation does not come by the length of time you spend in communion with God. I am not crying at you, “Pray another three hours! Get thee to a nunnery!” Neither does it depend on the vividness with which we remember the incidents in the life and the teaching of the Lord, or as we remember the great visitations of God in the past to his congregations or to individuals. Transformation comes directly from the Lord, who is the Spirit. It is only by the present power of Christ that the ever increasing glory is known. You think of the opening words of the 91st Psalm, “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.” It is evident that the psalmist is speaking there of drawing very close to God, and remaining there in the sheltering protection of Jehovah, and then finding himself even closer, resting in the very shadow of the Almighty.
Think again of the apostle Paul praying for the whole Ephesian congregation and asking this: “I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all his saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge – that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (Ephs.3:18:19). Surely he is not talking about memorising the gospels, or theological knowledge – important as these things are. He is talking about experiential knowledge of Christ’s love and being overwhelmed by it – it is too high for him to see the top. It reaches up and up and up. The first-born seraph tries in vain to sound its depth. It is too deep. Its breadth is as far as the east is from the west. How extraordinary is the love of God, and we need power to grasp more of it. Count Zinzendorf said, “I have one passion: it is He and He alone.”
A man once came to someone who was the very greatest preacher I ever heard. It was after the evening service and he said to him, “You know what bothers me? That I can sit and listen to what you have been saying, and be so unmoved.” I felt that concern, almost an anger, as I saw students at Westminster Seminary attending the lectures of the one man who was most full of God of all the men I have met, John Murray. Some of these students were taking notes, and answering his examination questions, and yet were not being transformed by the process, still having a small view of God, and of his salvation and were being worldly-minded in their conversations – not that I benefited from that privilege as I should have. But there is this matter that the apostle is praying about – “to know this love that surpasses knowledge – that you may be filled with all the fullness of God”
I once heard a very great sermon, and I thought to myself that whenever there would be a true revival of religion that the preaching would be like that. But there were Christian people listening to it who remained unmoved and even critical. So it was on the day of Pentecost. There were some in Jerusalem who said that the apostles were full of new wine.
So we are to be obeying what the New Testament says to every Christian again and again, to long for a closer walk with God, and for a pure heart, to be filled with the Spirit of God, to let the word of God abide in us richly, to present our bodies as living sacrifices to God, to be putting on the Lord Jesus Christ, to dress in the whole armour of God, and so on, and so on. Those commands are amongst the clearest parts of divine revelation. Dr Lloyd-Jones points out, “You read the lives of godly people. When you see the kind of life they were enabled to live, you will feel, ‘Oh that I were like that!’ You will discover that the reason for their living as they did was they always set the Lord before them. And so you read that when they were taken desperately ill, or when bereavement and sorrow came, it did not disturb their equanimity, they were not finally upset. They were not inhuman, they did feel those things and they felt them very acutely; but they did not lose their balance. They did not feel that everything was lost and gone. And when wars came, and trials and calamities, they did not feel that everything had collapsed. Not at all! They went on and there was a kind of added sweetness and beauty about their lives and a still greater joy and peace. That is what you find as you read their biographies, and you will find their secret was that they spent a great deal of time every day in reading the Scriptures and in praying to God. My dear friends, is this not the trouble with so many of us today?” (D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, “Enjoying the Presence of God,” Crossway Books, 1991, p.134)
That is what Paul is speaking about here when he talks of being transformed into the Lord’s likeness with ever-increasing glory. David said, “I have set the Lord always before me” (Ps.16:8). There is basic training for the Christian in the recollection of God. I am to do such things as to appropriate the Lord who is the Spirit at the beginning of a day, and I train my mind to turn to him whenever I can. Dr Lloyd-Jones again puts it quite simply like this: “I say to myself, God is and I am, and God is there. God is eternal being and life and reality. He is not a mere term or a philosophic concept – God is. He is a Person, and I want to go into his presence. I want to know Him; I want to speak to Him. I am going to approach Him, as I may decide to visit a friend. I am going to visit God and commune with Him; I am going to have fellowship with Him” (op cit p.133). It is as we draw near to God that he draws near to us and we begin to behold the Lord’s glory and are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory.
Let me use this illustration. I am visiting a man in the hospital and we are talking intimately and happily together. Then suddenly I notice that his face has lit up, that he is beaming, that there is joy and brightness about him that was not there before. I am pleased, but realise that he is not looking at me. He is looking over my shoulder at someone who has entered the ward coming to him. It is his wife, and she is beaming too as she looks at her beloved. Their faces are shining. So it is that we reflect the Lord’s glory and are being transformed into his likeness as we know his coming to us and we enter into his presence.
So it is by drawing near to the Lord and looking unto him that this transformation takes place. Are we walking with God? Are we getting disdainful of the experiential in our faith? Have we reached the point when we are sighing with William Cowper:
O for a closer walk with God,
A calm and heavenly frame,
A light to shine upon the road
That leads me to the Lamb!
There have been times of nearness to the Lord in the past, and we long for them again. So we must go to him and seek him with an unveiled face. Take off the mask. Pour contempt on the pretence. Be real with God and discover again something of the glory of the Lord from the Bible and meditation and reading and prayer. All through our lives this is happening in our hearts and souls by the inward working of the Spirit.
Go to God continually. Look unto Jesus! For every look at your sin take ten looks at Jesus, M’Cheyne reminds us. May God must come to us! This ever-increasing glory comes from the Lord. The exercise of blessing is optional with God. We can cry, and we can arrange weekly prayer meetings for revival, but the ever-increasing glory, says the apostle here, “comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” This is his grand prerogative. The account of the day of Pentecost in Jerusalem begins with the word ‘suddenly.’ The sound of the rushing mighty wind came as an utter shock to everyone there. There are times when the Lord who is the Spirit comes in utterly unpredictable ways – at an ‘ordinary’ prayer meeting, in a little chapel on a Sunday night with no announcement made of anything special but then increasingly, as the service continues, there is a consciousness that this is no ordinary meeting at all, and the whole congregation and the neighbourhood are changed for years to come. And I want to plead with you to have a place in your theological universe for events like that which come from rent heavens and are a result of the pure vertical descent of the Lord who is the Spirit.
But let me remind of the great words of encouragement with which we began this section: “we …all reflect the Lord’s glory.” We all are being transformed whether such peak experiences are ours or not – every single lamb in Christ’s flock, and to what a likeness! “Into his likeness.” Think of it! All the divine insights of the aesthetic and all of omnipotence has come together to make the Lord who is the Spirit the most beautiful being that heaven and earth has ever seen. The glory of an angel compared to his is like comparing a toad to a young girl. Christ is the loveliest of ten thousand. That is, he is ten thousand times lovelier than the archangel, and we are being transformed into his likeness. You cannot believe it for it is so breath-taking, yet this is what we are told. God so loves his Son that he has determined to fill heaven with a countless multitude of men and women each one of whom is like the Lord Jesus.
I was sympathising with one of our young women this week whose unborn child has died in the womb and I was saying to her that waiting for her in glory just inside the gates of splendour in perhaps fifty years time there will be a being of inexpressible wonder who will introduce itself to her as her own child. There will also be some of our mentally-handicapped friends there, now so inarticulate but in that place the power of God will have transformed them in mind and body. How mind-blowing the sight of them will be. But most of all of ourselves! That we should be like him! Glorification is effectual in all the elect of God. It must be. It is the last link in the golden chain.
I believe in the great power of the word of God preached to us week by week to lift up Christ before us, and transform us, if it is only as much as a baby step today. He does not cease this work. He does not neglect us. We are in God’s hands and he is working to will and to do of his good pleasure in us. He will change us into the glory of Christ. He has made up his mind. Such experiences as Flavel’s and Sarah Edwards’ and Plantinga’s were rare even for those men, but I am pleading with you to be filled with hope for what God is able to do and has done in the past in transforming a grey depressing godless community into a place where Jesus dwells. “And we, who with unveiled faces all behold the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.”
28 January 2001 GEOFF THOMAS