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What Is Required to See God?

The Beatific Vision and the Ordo Salutis

The great Christian hope is communion with God as we experience it in both this life and the next. As we traverse this pilgrim life, believers are often profoundly aware of the distance between us and God’s direct presence. In the words of Westminster Shorter Catechism 19, “All mankind by their fall lost communion with God.”[1] At the end of all things after Christ returns, our removal from God’s presence will be rectified and so it will be that “the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.” (Rev. 21:3) God will be among us in a new way for restored communion with his people. In other words, we look forward to when we see God face-to-face.

How might I see God?

Christians then must ask the question: How might I see God? What does it take to reach that blessed enjoyment of seeing God? We should first respond that the Philippian jailer asked the same question: “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” And Paul and Silas answered, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:30–31). Our leading reply is then the Protestant doctrine of salvation by faith alone. Some, however, might quickly interject that Scripture exhorts us to “Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14). Even as early as Gregory of Nyssa’s homilies on the beatitudes, reflections upon the connection between holiness and the beatific vision have given the impression of “a demand for purity that appears for all intents and purposes impossible to fulfill.”[2] Setting aside the long historical debates about exactly what it means that we might see God, this essay argues that God’s gifts of grace to believers in Christ provides all that we need to see God in perfect enjoyment of his presence in everlasting life.[3] More specifically, the Reformed doctrine of glorification, as a saving benefit received on the basis of Christ’s work applied to us rather than as something we achieve and attain because of any of our works, provides confidence that every true believer in Jesus will see God and be made happy in the enjoyment of his glory on the last day. Every true believer in Jesus will see God and be made happy in the enjoyment of his glory on the last day. Click To Tweet

The statement in Hebrews that we cannot see the Lord without holiness easily troubles believers, even as we endeavor after new obedience in the Christian life, because we know that we are sinners. We cannot see God now yet are made for that very communion with God in his direct presence. Believers have wrestled with this fallout of our sin and misery for all redemptive history. As Moses interceded to keep God from destroying Israel and to preserve his presence with his people as they went to the promised land, he exemplified our desire to rise above our distance from God to see him in his glory.

Moses said, “Please show me your glory.” And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The Lord.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.” And the Lord said, “Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock, and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen” (Exod. 33:18–23).

Moses wants to see God’s glory, yet God will not grant that sight to him. God’s reason was that a sinner cannot see him and live. A sinner’s inability to see God and survive then rightly raises a concern for us about the holiness that we need to possess in order to see God.

As we wrestle with how to find comfort about seeing God at the last day, the Westminster Shorter Catechism 38 helps us find our bearings toward assurance.

What benefits do believers receive from Christ at the resurrection?

At the resurrection, believers, being raised up in glory, shall be openly acknowledged and acquitted in the day of judgment, and made perfectly blessed in the full enjoying of God to all eternity.

When Christ returns, he raises his people unto glory. In 1 Corinthians 15:23, Paul outlined this order between Christ’s resurrection and ours: “But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.” This resurrection body, however, is raised imperishable, in glory, and in power because “it is raised a spiritual body” (1 Cor. 15:42–44). The resurrection body is spiritual, not because it is disembodied which would be an oxymoron of the highest order, but because the Spirit characterizes the resurrection order (1 Tim. 3:16). So then, we are raised in glorified bodies. As the Westminster Shorter Catechism 38 noted, when we are raised in glory, having glorified bodies, we then experience perfectly blessed enjoyment of God’s presence. In other words, our glorification is directly unto the beatific vision.

So already, we see that we are raised in a particular glorified body. The sheep and the goats are distinct as they step out of their graves. Christ does not make resurrected people into sheep and goats at the last judgment but divides them according to what is already visibly the case given the resurrection itself (Matt. 25:32–33). In this way, we enter the full possession of everlasting life comes to us in the same way that our justification came to us in this life: by faith alone.

What holiness is required to see the Lord?

What then is the holiness required to see the Lord, how do we have it, and how does the doctrine of glorification help us know that we will see that Lord? The most common assumption is that this holiness of which Hebrews speaks is a goodness inherent in the person. That assumption is correct. But the other commonly held assumption, namely that this holiness is goodness which we achieve through our life of sanctification in endeavoring after new obedience, is emphatically incorrect. Rather, the holiness that we need to see God is given to us because of Jesus Christ and his mediatorial work on our behalf. We enter the full possession of everlasting life comes to us in the same way that our justification came to us in this life: by faith alone. Click To Tweet

Although we cannot punt to the doctrine of justification, arguing that this holiness is just Christ’s imputed righteousness, we must account for justification’s significance for this issue. In Romans 5:18, Paul wrote, “as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification unto life for all men” (my translation). Notably, justification is “unto life,” meaning that it results in life. Justification is of course grounded in Christ’s obedience that makes us righteous in God’s sight. This status of righteousness that is justification has the consequent reward of everlasting life, also known as glorification. So, even our glorification comes to us on the basis of what Christ has done on our behalf, following in its needed location in the ordo salutis.[4] Because Jesus justifies us by his imputed righteousness, God will glorify us at the last day, raising us in glory to be openly acknowledged at the final judgment for what God has made us to truly be because of Christ.

Geerhardus Vos helps us bring the pieces together to form a clear and cogent picture of relating the beatific vision to the ordo salutis. He argued:

Scripture nowhere teaches that no one can be saved without good works. Certainly, on the other hand, without sanctification no one shall see the Lord. There is a difference between sanctification and good works. The former can occur at once without any passage of time, as in a crisis moment; for doing the latter, time is necessary.[5]

Vos then denied, as should we, that our good works constitute the grounds of our final salvation. Rather, he argued, that the “sanctification” or inherent holiness without which no one sees the Lord is something other than our own good works. Therefore, “the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14) is quite separate from our good works as individual acts and is God’s work of making us completely holy for himself. In this respect, Vos connected the doctrine of our full justification by faith now to our continued accepted at the last judgment by explaining that “Perfect holiness in the glorified state always remains the fruit of the merits of the mediator.”[6] So then, even a need for inherent righteousness to enter heaven, that holiness required to see God, would be met because of Christ’s work apart from ours, since glorification wipes out every vestige of sin in us.[7]

God’s gift of glorification

God’s gift of glorification, which he gives to us still on the basis of Christ’s perfect work on behalf of his people, makes us fully holy and makes us able to see the Lord. The holiness required to see the Lord is not works that we render unto glorification but God’s work of glorification unto that holiness which enables us to see him fully. There is then no reason to doubt that the last judgment is anything other than an open recognition of what God has already provided in Christ.[8] Moreover, God grants us the beatific vision, that being “made perfectly blessed in the full enjoying of God to all eternity,” because he has raised us in glory. All the deficiencies of our life and existence in this age will be wiped out so that God grants everything that we need to see him face-to-face in his glory fully by his own grace, provided in the Lord Jesus Christ.

This connection between glorification and the beatific visions marks one of Christianity’s distinct emphases: the resurrection of the body. Even philosophers who predated the Christian tradition’s theological development articulated something like a vision of the divine as a culminating human experience. Nonetheless, these versions of that vision, for example as argued by the Neo-Platonist philosopher Plotinus, were disembodied.[9] In the true beatific vision, we are fully bodied. We are raised unto glory. And we are brought before the Lord to see him. In this age, “we walk by faith, not by sight” and yet remain of good courage as we do (2 Cor. 5:7–8). Yet, our justification and glorification also always remain gifts to us by faith. But those benefits of Christ which we now receive and will receive ready us for sight. Justification declares us righteous in God’s sight to give us the right to glorification. Those whom God justified are also glorified (Rom. 8:30). Glorification makes us truly pure in heart, and “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matt. 5:8).


[1] All citations from the Westminster Standards come from The Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms (Lawrenceville, GA: Committee on Christian Education of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 2007).

[2] Hans Boersma, Seeing God: The Beatific Vision in Christian Tradition (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2018), 82.

[3] For exploration of these various historical understandings in the Christian tradition, see Boersma, Seeing God, passim.

[4] David VanDrunen, “A Contested Union: Union with Christ and the Justification Debate,” in Matthew Barrett (ed.), The Doctrine on which the Church Stands or Falls: Justification in Biblical, Theological, Historical, and Pastoral Perspective (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2019), 469–504.

[5] Geerhardus Vos, Reformed Dogmatics, 5 vol. (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012–14), 4:211; Herman Witsius, The Economy of the Covenants between God and Man, trans. William Crookshank, 2 vol. (Edinburgh, 1803), 3.12.7–9; Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend, 4 vol. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003–2008), 4:252–60.

[6] Vos, Reformed Dogmatics, 4:172 (emphasis added).

[7] Vos, Reformed Dogmatics, 4:171–72.

[8] Vos, Reformed Dogmatics, 4:698–702.

[9] Boersma, Seeing God, 63–75.

Harrison Perkins

Harrison Perkins (PhD, Queen’s University Belfast) is pastor at Oakland Hills Community Church (OPC), online faculty in church history at Westminster Theological Seminary, visiting lecturer in systematic theology at Edinburgh Theological Seminary, and the author of Catholicity and the Covenant of Works: James Ussher and the Reformed Tradition (Oxford University Press, 2020).

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