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How Does the Doctrine of the Beatific Vision Shape the Life of the Local Church?

That we look forward to the blessed (or beatific) vision of God in the great hereafter means we are to live now in a heavenly-minded posture. Heavenly-mindedness follows in as much as the beatific vision trains our appetites ultimately to seek God and his presence above all else. We do well to ask how such a mentality shapes the life of the church today. Four elements seem pertinent.

Rest in God

First, heavenly-mindedness alerts us to the fundamental rest found only in returning unto God himself. Against all forms of instrumentalism, we are warned here that our desire is to be for God, neither simply nor primarily for various benefits provided by this God. We are to be attuned to the startling words of King David: “One thing have I asked of the lord, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the lord and to inquire in his temple” (Ps. 27:4). Heavenly-mindedness alerts us to the fundamental rest found only in returning unto God himself. Click To TweetDavid, of course, made many requests throughout the Psalms; even within this single psalm alone, he asks not only for God to hear him (v. 7) and to forsake him not (v. 9), but also to teach him (v. 11) and to “give me not up to the will of my adversaries” (v. 12). David does bring other things before the lord. But they are as naught. One thing he has asked. Nothing else is enumerated when it comes time to prioritize. Ultimately, all blessings sought in prayer are reduced or traced back to this fundamental yearning for rest in God, described in terms of dwelling with and seeing God’s own face.

Irenaeus of Lyons famously quipped that “the glory of God is man fully alive.” Oftentimes, at least in recent decades, the quip comes apart from context, for Irenaeus specified what “man fully alive” meant, pressing on to say next “and the life of man consists in beholding God.”[1] Christian humanism cannot be pursued apart from the painstaking theological work of re-defining the humane end under the prompting of the one true God, whom we have been made to behold. The heavenly-minded church will look to the beatific vision at the end and, thus, will look to God now, taking on a theocentric character for her journey.

Christ’s Work

Second, heavenly-mindedness prompts us to trace the full scope and sequence of Christ’s work. In the modern era attention has fixed largely upon the incarnational sojourn of the Word in the first century, whether by way of its affirmation or of deconstruction by cynics. Yet the creedal tradition of the church reminds us that the heralds of the gospel attested a wider work begun in eternity past (“for us and our salvation he came down from heaven”) and furthered into the very presence of God (“he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God”). The Heidelberg Catechism sought to expound, for example, the angles of the gospel revealed in that exaltation unto heaven:

            “Q. 49 What benefit do we receive from Christ’s ascension into heaven?

  1. First, that he is our Advocate in the presence of his Father in heaven. Second, that we have our flesh in heaven as a sure pledge that he, as the Head, will also take us, his members, up to himself. Third, that he sends us his Spirit as a counterpledge by whose power we seek what is above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God, and not things that are on earth.”[2]

Before we think about wider implications of seeking “what is above,” we must begin where the text turns appositionally with the phrase “where Christ is” (Col. 3:1; cf. Eph. 1:20; Col. 2:12). The heavenly-minded church looks ahead to his second appearance and to the glory which only comes in its fullness then and there. Click To TweetChrist is in heaven, and Christ acts as our Advocate in the very presence of our heavenly Father. He is a pledge and, in due time, he “will also take us, his members, up to himself.” And the interim period between his advents is not a time of inactivity, for “he sends us his Spirit” to draw our aspirations unto him in heaven itself.

The gospel does not end with the passion, the resurrection, or even the ascension of the incarnate Son. The life-giving work of the Son continues from God’s right hand where Jesus Christ reigns and rules over all. That throne room provides the exalted context for the exercise of his prophetic office, so that his word is now “living and active” (Heb. 4:12-13). Though he has commissioned others to bear his word now, he remains “great shepherd of the sheep” and pastors his flock from on high (Heb. 13:20). Whatever the merits of historical Jesus study as it has played out in the last three centuries, we do well to note that the second person of the Son cannot be known first through any such gaze, but he must be beheld as one who is in heaven and who acts with that heavenly glory. The heavenly-minded church looks ahead to his second appearance and to the glory which only comes in its fullness then and there.

The Divine Life and Creaturely Existence

Third, heavenly-mindedness not only fixes upon God and the exalted Christ but on the “kingdom of heaven” wherein the divine life makes its salvific mark upon creaturely existence. Contemplation of the heavenly takes in meditative focus on the God who creates, sustains, and brings all things unto their end, for “from him, and through him, and to him are all things” (Rom. 11:33). Contemplation of the heavenly takes in meditative focus on the God who creates, sustains, and brings all things unto their end, for “from him, and through him, and to him are all things” (Rom. 11:33). Click To TweetBecause of the kind of being who this God is, we cannot fix our minds and hearts upon him without thereby also pinning them to his kingdom, that is, upon the people and place marked by his lordly work of creation and recreation.

The church is a signpost now of that kingdom to come. That the church looks above and forward to the heavenly coming more fully to make its home upon earth highlights the way in which the church is ruled from beyond. “Jesus Christ is Lord of the Church” – this is the banner at the forefront of all Reformed polity precisely because the church looks above, here and now, for the ascended Christ to rule his people. Heavenly-mindedness matches that governmental reality and pairs it with a lived posture of the church’s ministerial rather than magisterial word. The nature and mission of the church are given by God himself, for it speaks of his own kingdom. The heavenly-minded church will be a people inclined to be repentant and dependent, not least should she ever show signs of self-satisfaction or self-governance.

The Eternal Kingdom

Fourth, heavenly-mindedness provides a reoriented sense of self within the frame of one’s heavenly citizenship and enrollment in that eternal kingdom. A church that is heavenly-minded will be a church composed of men and women with a distinctly Christian sense of self. Heavenly-mindedness heals our mentality regarding our own identity. Paul can speak of a new self, contrasted with both the Jewish heritage of his past (Phil. 3:3-8) and the path of pagans around him (3:18-19). He will address those to whom he writes as “my brothers” and “my beloved” (4:1), terms which both likely refer not to some action he has performed (even the love is not from Paul ultimately) but to God’s own naming of them, adopting and bestowing love and favor upon them. Amidst these descriptions he presses on to speak of how “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” (3:20-21). Political loyalty takes heavenly form here, with citizenship speaking to a higher identification from which redemption or salvation shall come. That coming descent will “transform” and “subject” reality to its own claims, which Paul commends in the most personal form possible (“to himself”).In a world full of performative selves, such a heavenly-minded mentality distinguishes the church as both humble and hopeful. Click To Tweet

We might think that this is an apocalyptic inversion of a settled sense of self, as if Paul’s imagination here has turned the tables on a stable approach to human identity. This language of salvation and transformation coming from on high, in such a scheme, would upend a creational definition of human nature or a substantive depiction of our creaturely character. Yet the end is like the beginning, exceeding it no doubt but in ways which fit its own initial gestures. It is no surprise that citizenship above brings transformation and salvation from without, at least not when we speak of persons who were initially fashioned after the very image of God (Gen. 1:26-27). We too often think immediately of faculties and moral characteristics when debating that phraseology in Christian anthropology, with the image of God being related to a part, relation, task, or trait that most closely connects with the Godhead. While the image does speak to our nature, it first commends a difference that connotes our dependence. The difference is this: we are but an image, whereas God is reality. To take up the classical language of Augustine and Peter Lombard, we are but a sign, whereas God is the thing itself.[3]That is the first aspect of image language that can so easily be overlooked, namely, that an image is derivative and secondary. Before we talk about any way in which the image bespeaks our similarity to God, we must first note the ever-greater dissimilarity conveyed in that very term.

Humans have always lived on borrowed breath and found their identity only above the sun, then, as was sketched so pointedly by the penetrating criticism of every pathway to self-satisfaction “under the sun” in Ecclesiastes (e.g., Eccl. 1:9; 2:11). Thus, Paul only draws our attention ultimately to that highest of heights wherein our eternal identity and ultimate allegiance must finally be located, citizenship in heaven, in the eschatological contrasts drawn out in Philippians 3. Heavenly-mindedness extends our anthropological self-analysis by extending our contemplation of our being and nature into the dawning provision of heaven’s appearance and the spreading of its glory. We are given being by God and always have our existence as gift. Heavenly-mindedness, in the example of Paul and others (so Phil. 3:17), reminds us to have a perspective on the self as well wherein our hearts are lifted up unto God in the heavens. In a world full of performative selves, such a heavenly-minded mentality distinguishes the church as both humble and hopeful.

*This post excerpts from and expands upon Dr. Allen’s book, Grounded in Heaven: Recentering Christian Hope and Life on God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018).


[1] Irenaeus, Against Heresies (Schaff), 490 (IV.xx.7).

[2] “The Heidelberg Catechism [1563],” in Reformed Confessions of the Sixteenth Century (ed. Arthur Cochrane; Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2003), 313.

[3] For classic accounts of the distinction between signs and things, see Augustine, Teaching Christianity (Works of St. Augustine I/11; ed. John E. Rotelle; trans. Edmund Hill; Hyde Park, NY: New City, 1996), 106-107 (I.ii.2); and Peter Lombard, The Sentences, Book 1: The Mystery of the Trinity(Medieval Sources in Translation 42; trans. Giulio Silano; Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 2007), 5-11 (dist. 1).

Michael Allen

Michael Allen serves as the John Dyer Trimble Professor of Systematic Theology and Academic Dean of Reformed Theology Seminary in Orlando. Previously, he taught at Knox Theological Seminary, where he held the D. James Kennedy Chair of Systematic Theology and also served as Dean of the Faculty. He has published many academic articles and books, including Justification and the Gospel: Understanding the Contexts and Controversies, Reformed Catholicity: The Promise of Retrieval in Theology and Biblical Interpretation (with Scott R. Swain), Sanctification, a volume in the New Studies in Dogmatics series, and Grounded in Heaven: Recentering Christian Hope and Life in God

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