Has the glory of God become a cliché among the young, restless, Reformed crowd? The vocabulary of glory is on the rise, but certain misunderstandings and imbalances linger. Will "the glory of God" become a cliché, much like "the love of God" to the previous generation, which too often reduced love to sentimentality?
It is encouraging to hear much about God's glory as his ultimate end. I rejoice in the renewed interested in Jonathan Edwards as well as the contemporary influence of pastors like John Piper and ministries like The Gospel Coalition. I rejoice that many are captured by God's glory as the ultimate end, as it is the goal of creation; the exodus; Israel; Jesus' ministry, life, death, resurrection, and reign; our salvation; the church; the consummation; all of salvation history; and even God himself. Paul often highlights this cosmic goal: "For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, so that he might be the firstborn among many brothers" (Rom. 8:29); "all things were created through him and for him" (Col. 1:16; cf. Rom. 11:33-36; Heb. 2:10).
While there is a healthy resurgence in teaching that glory is God's ultimate end, many inadvertently equate God's ultimate end with God's comprehensive motivation (Edwards and Piper do not make this mistake, but many who read them do). As a result, we rarely hear that God often acts with multiple ends in mind.
Take the exodus, for instance. Why did God redeem his people from slavery in Egypt? One might quickly reply, "For his glory." Certainly God redeems his people from slavery to glorify himself. But the book of Exodus presents God's reasons for deliverance in a multifaceted way:
Concern for his oppressed people (3-4)
Faithfulness to the covenant promises made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (3:15; 4:5; 6:8; 32:13; 34:6; cf. Deut. 7:6-10)
That Israel would serve the Lord (4:23; 6:5; etc.)
That you should know I am the LORD (6:7; 10:2; 13:1f)
To give the promised land (6:8)
That the Egyptians will know I am the LORD (7:5; 14:3-4; 14:15-18)
That Pharaoh will know the LORD as incomparable (7:17; 8:10-18)
To display his power (9:16)
That his name might be proclaimed in all the earth (9:16)
To pass down a heritage to the children (10:1-2)
That his wonders might be multiplied (11:9)
To get glory over Pharaoh and his army (14:3-18)
For Israel's sake (18:8)
So God delivered his people for a variety of reasons, not merely one. The incomparable God acts out of love, holiness, goodness, faithfulness, and jealousy. This is critical to notice because if we equate God's ultimate end with God's comprehensive motivation, we end up subsuming his attributes under his glory. But God acts according to who he is. He loves because he is loving. He acts rightly because he is righteousness. Certainly, as he acts, he displays himself; and as he displays himself, he glorifies himself. But we must not say that God acts for his glory without simultaneously stressing that God acts out of his love, goodness, faithfulness—out of who he is.
Note also that God delivers his people for his glory, for their good, for judgment on Egypt, and for the continuance of his covenant people. Recognizing and stressing these multiple ends does not detract from an emphasis on God's glory but actually underlines it. Indeed, in the exodus, God displays his love, covenant faithfulness, jealously, providence, and power through his wonders, salvation, and judgment, in which he manifests himself and thus glorifies himself.
Why Does God Save Us?
Or we can consider the doctrine of salvation and ask, "Why does God save us?" One might hastily retort, "For his glory." Again, that is right and critical. But the Bible provides a wide range of reasons. Powerfully and regularly, God himself explains his motive for saving. John 3:16 states, "For God so loved the world that he gave . . ." (cf. 1 John 4:9-10). Ephesians 1:4-5 extols, "In love" God predestined us (cf. Deut. 7), and Ephesians 2:4 ties our salvation to God's love, mercy, and grace (cf. Titus 3:4-5). John 17 records Jesus' high priestly prayer, interweaving God's glory and the good of his people, praying and acting in part, "for their sake" (17:19). Romans 8:28 also makes it clear that redemptive history is, in large part, for the good of God's people.
So why does God save? For many reasons, but in and through all of them, God displays who he is and thus glorifies himself. God manifests his glory because in saving us he displays his wisdom (Rom. 11:33-36; 1 Cor. 1:18-31; Eph. 3:10-11), righteousness, justice (Rom. 3:25-26), love, mercy, kindness, (Eph. 2:4-7; Rom. 9:20-23), freedom, wrath, and power (Rom. 9:20-23).
Christopher Morgan is professor of theology and dean of the School of Christian Ministries at California Baptist University in Riverside, California. He is an author and editor of several books, including The Glory of God (Theology in Community). You can follow him on Twitter.