Soli Deo Gloria in the Bible

In our last post, we spent some time defining the doctrine of Soli Deo Gloria as rediscovered by the Reformers.  Of course, the doctrinal formulations of even the wisest or most pious Christian must be rejected if they do not find their basis in the teachings of Scripture.  What follows is a brief survey of biblical texts which demonstrate and undergird the bold claim made by Soli Deo Gloria: that God’s foremost motivation and intention in every work is His own glory alone.

The heavens declare the glory of God,
     and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours out speech,
     and night to night reveals knowledge.
                                    –Psalm 19:1-2 [1]

To begin, this well-known psalm sets forth the basic principle that God’s glory is reflected in His creation.  It is important to note that the glory on display in creation is not “creation’s glory” in the sense of belonging to or originating from it.  Says Bavinck, “In the created word there is a faint reflection [by comparison] of the inexpressible glory and majesty that God possesses….  It is not beautiful by itself but by participation in a higher, absolute beauty.”[2]  John M. Frame similarly describes the created world as “his finite glory-light.”[3]

Not to us, O LORD, not to us, but to your name give glory,
     for the sake of your steadfast love and your faithfulness!
Why should the nations say,
     “Where is their God?”
Our God is in the heavens;
     he does all that he pleases.
formattingissodifficult–Psalm 115:1-3

In this later passage, the psalmist indicates a concern that all glory be given to God, since He alone is worthy of it.  Secondly, the psalmist asserts that the Lord “does all that he pleases”—which is to say, that everything He does He is pleased to do, and nothing He is displeased to do will He do.  These two facts of God’s sole worthiness of glory and His working all things in accordance with His pleasure lay much of the foundation for the doctrine of Soli Deo Gloria, which is indeed a most natural harmony of these two facts.

“I am the LORD; that is my name;
     my glory I give to no other,
     nor my praise to carved idols.”
                                    –Isa 42:8

In this first text from Isaiah, God speaks directly to the issue of His glory and could hardly be any clearer.  It is not to be claimed by anyone but Himself.  God invokes His personal name YHWH as a means of reminding the people what glory is: a perfect emanation of His divine being.  Thus it would be perverse and unfitting for any created being—much less a false idol—to claim glory for itself.

“Bring my sons from afar
     and my daughters from the ends of the earth,
Everyone who is called by my name,
     whom I created for my glory,
     whom I formed and made.”
                                    –Isa 43:6b-7

As a development of the thought in Psalm 19 above, the Lord specifically identifies his creation of humanity as being to the end of His glory.  This naturally bears implications for man’s understanding of his identity and role in creation; those who understand that their creation was ultimately purposed for God’s glory rather than for their own pleasure will certainly live their lives differently than those who do not.  (Note, however, that the principal purpose being His glory does not preclude man’s pleasure as a proximate end, as will be discussed in the following section.)

“For my name’s sake I defer my anger,
     for the sake of my praise I restrain it for you,
     that I may not cut you off.
Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver;
     I have tried you in the furnace of affliction.
For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it,
     for how should my name be profaned?
     My glory I will not give to another.”
                                    –Isa 48:9-11

Just a few chapters later, the Lord reiterates almost verbatim his proscription of glory being given to another from chapter 42.  Additionally, this passage makes use of parallel phrasing and repetition in order to emphasize the prominence of God’s actions “for his own sake.”  Especially noteworthy is the double phrase (“for my own sake, for my own sake”), which is a typical Hebrew means of indicating special veracity, importance, or intensity of purpose.  Though it would not be incorrect for God to describe His divine refinement of the people as being intended for their benefit or occasioned out of His covenant love for them, the emphatic insistence on His reputation, praise, and glory indicates this latter thrust of His intentions to be paramount over the former.

“Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him.  And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.  I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do.  And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.  I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world.”
                                                                                           –John 17:1-6

With the movement into the New Testament, God’s revelation of His self-glorification progresses through the introduction of Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, and thus the Trinitarian nature of God.  In His high priestly prayer, Christ clearly indicates a mutual glorification between Himself and the Father—a glorification which, given both the unity and the distinctiveness of the two, is simultaneously self-directed and outwardly directed.  In the words of Piper, “Since the Son is the image of God and the radiance of God and the form of God, equal with God, and indeed is God, therefore God’s delight in the Son is delight in himself.  The original, the primal, the deepest, the foundational joy of God is the joy he has in his own perfections as he sees them reflected in the glory of his Son.”[4]  Notice also that this passage strongly attests the principle of glorification as a manifestation or revelation; Christ’s work on earth was to make the Father known, and the Father’s glorification of the Son involved unveiling the splendor and fullness of Christ’s deity by the resurrection.

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!  How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!
            “For who has known the mind of the Lord,
                 or who has been his counselor?”
            “Or who has given a gift to him
                 that he might be repaid?”
For from him and through him and to him are all things.  To him be glory forever.  Amen.
                                                                                       –Rom 11:33-36

As a way of concluding his extended theological treatment in the first portion of Romans, Paul’s awe at God’s incredible work of salvation gushes forth in the form of a beautiful doxology.  After extolling God’s magnificent wisdom and divine transcendence, Paul’s concluding thoughts in the passage constitute one of the strongest biblical proofs for the doctrine of Soli Deo Gloria.  The fact that all things are “from him” (as the Creator and Giver of life) and “through him” (as the sovereign Orchestrator and Provider) naturally entails that all things are also “to him”—that is, purposed ultimately for Himself, His pleasure, and His glory.  God is the most pertinent factor in the existence of creation at every point along the way, from generation to continuation to consummation.  He Himself is the center around which He has set the whole universe to revolve, and at the root of every good work in history is the sovereign self-glorifying hand of God.  It is by virtue of His goodness that the divine agenda of self-glorification prominently includes the provision of immeasurable benefits to His creatures.  In this regard, there are two additional passages worth examining.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him.  In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved….  In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory.  In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.
                                                                              –Eph 1:3-6, 11-14 [5]

Here, as Paul speaks in exalted language about salvation through Christ—with its past, present, and future aspects (those being election, adoption, and inheritance respectively)—he identifies the praise of God’s glory (or His “glorious grace” in the case of verse six) as the end to which all these are directed.  Certainly, the blessings of salvation are inestimably valuable as ends themselves; nevertheless, even these point beyond themselves toward the one great and ultimate end of God’s glory.  If therefore such sublime ends are yet subordinated to the glory of God, what other possible end remains to challenge its priority?

Have this attitude among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.  Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed upon him the name that is above every name, so 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.
                                                                                            –Phil 2:5-11

This passage from Paul’s letter to the Philippians provides an opportunity to review the doctrine of Soli Deo Gloria while at the same time presenting one unforeseen twist to the divine method of self-glorification.  Once again, it could not possibly be argued that Christ’s salvific work was undertaken and accomplished apart from the purpose of blessing His elect.  However, Paul’s emphasis in the passage does not rest ultimately on the benefit of salvation for humans but on the glory of salvation to God the Father and the Son.  Shockingly, in what must be the greatest and most mysterious cosmic irony of all time, Christ “emptied himself”[6] and “humbled himself” in order to bring glory to the Father through perfect obedience as a human being.  (It should be noted that His application of divine wisdom in doing so was itself glorifying to Christ.[7])  On top of that, Paul affords his readers a vision of the end of the age, when God’s purpose of His glory will finally and completely invade the visible world.  The Father will exalt the Son in full, visible splendor; the Son will reciprocate in glorifying the Father; and all of creation will fulfill its ultimate end of acknowledging and revering the radiant glory of the Godhead.

Amen.


[1] All Scripture citations taken from the ESV.

[2] Bavinck, God and Creation, 254.

[3] John M. Frame, The Doctrine of God (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R Publishing, 2002), 593.

[4] Piper, The Pleasures of God: Meditations on God’s Delight in Being God (Portland, Ore.: Multnomah Press, 1991), 38.

[5] Emphasis added.

[6] This is a literal translation of the Greek verb in verse seven, which ESV translates made himself nothing.

[7] John Owen, The Glory of Christ (ed. Hervey Mockford; London: Evangelical Press, 1987), 26-29.

The Chief End of God: Soli Deo Gloria

The fundamental doctrines which guided and distinguished the early Protestant movement are generally called the five “Solas”–namely, Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone), Sola Fide (faith alone), Sola Gratia (grace alone), Solus Christus (Christ alone), and Soli Deo Gloria (glory to God alone).  Of these five, the last one may seem a little peculiar.  Compared to the others, the doctrine of Soli Deo Gloria is noteworthy in that no Protestant/Catholic contrast readily presents itself.  How then did this doctrine—which did not quite fit the “protesting” mold due to its lack of uniqueness to the Reformation movement—become elevated by the Reformers to the same iconic status as controversial doctrines like Sola Fide and Sola Gratia?

Through their thorough investigation of the Scriptures, the Reformers rediscovered the theme of God’s glory interwoven throughout the biblical witness as His most preeminent concern and fundamental motivation in every word and deed.  In response to this realization, notes Herman Bavinck, “The Reformed tradition made the honor of God the fundamental principle of all doctrine and conduct, of dogmatics and family, of society and the state, of science and art.  Nowhere was this principle of the glory of God more universally applied than among the confessors of the Reformed religion.”[1]

To reiterate, the importance of the glory of God to both the Christian and to God Himself would not be denied by any stream of the Christian tradition; at the same time, the doctrine of Soli Deo Gloria is not one to which all professed Christians would readily subscribe.  Thus it is beneficial to define the doctrine, discuss its scriptural support, address several prominent objections to it, and examine its practical relevance to the Christian life (each in successive posts).  Of course, as a means of introduction to the doctrine, one would also do well to acquaint himself with a general biblical understanding of God’s glory.

Defining Soli Deo Gloria

Though the Bible includes a number of genres of literature, the ‘dictionary’ genre is not to be found among them; therefore, while readers of the Scriptures may encounter terms like glory with such frequency as to develop general ideas of their meanings, there is much to be gained from seeking to establish a proper definition for such important theological concepts (or, better stated, such significant metaphysical realities).  In the case of the glory of God, the difficulty of constructing a definition is amplified by the fact of its partial incomprehensibility to the finite minds of human beings; in fact, this may be where any accurate definition must start: the acknowledgment that the divine quality of God’s glory makes it altogether too lofty to be captured in full by pen or tongue.  Having granted this limitation, John Piper defines God’s glory as “the beauty of his manifold perfections.  It can refer to the bright and awesome radiance that sometimes breaks forth in visible manifestations.  Or it can refer to the infinite moral excellence of his character.  In either case it signifies a reality of infinite greatness and worth.”[2]  Bruce Milne defines the glory of God in similar terms—“the visible manifestation of God’s being”; he elaborates, “His glory carries us into the heart of all that is essential to his being as God, his divine majesty, his sheer Godness….  His glory refers to that by and in which he alone is God.”[3]

Both of the definitions given above seem to imply two subtly distinct meanings of glory: one an objective, intrinsic quality of God’s being (“moral excellence”; “that in which he is God”) and the other a corresponding outward display of His qualities.  Some dispute has arisen over whether the former understanding of glory as likened to an attribute of God is in fact biblical.  H. P. Smith argues persuasively that the Scriptures only ever speak of God’s glory with the attending notion of manifestation or communication; for the present purposes, Smith’s case is more than satisfactory.[4]  While not altogether abandoning the notion of an internal quality of glory, Jonathan Edwards is careful to distinguish between the two and to emphasize the external aspect as it pertains to Soli Deo Gloria:

The thing signified by that name, the glory of God, when spoken of as the supreme and ultimate end of all God’s works, is the emanation and true external expression of God’s internal glory and fullness; meaning by his fullness what has already been explained; or, in other words, God’s internal glory, in a true and just exhibition, or external existence of it.[5]

Having thus briefly surveyed a number of baseline definitions, it is clear that God’s glory is indeed magnificent and divinely splendorous.  The doctrine of Soli Deo Gloria begins with the notion that God finds no greater pleasure than in His own glory.  As Piper explains, “God’s own glory is uppermost in his own affections….  He puts a greater value on it than on anything else.  He delights in his glory above all things….  He loves his glory infinitely.”[6]  It follows naturally that God’s highest joy would be His highest priority; it also follows that God would be consumed with righteous jealousy were anyone else to grasp at the glory which only He deserves.  Such is the essence of Soli Deo Gloria: that God’s foremost motivation and intention in every work is His own glory alone.  Even at its best formulation, the syntax here may lend itself to some confusion; while the word alone indicates God’s unwillingness to forfeit His glory to another, it does not mean that God’s glory is the only end for which He works.  The fact of God’s glory being His ultimate end does not preclude Him from also having proximate ends for His works; it does however subordinate all other ends to that glory.  As Piper explains, “God has many other goals in what he does.  But none of them is more ultimate than this….  God’s overwhelming passion is to exalt the value of his glory.”

The Westminster Confession of Faith reflects the primacy of glory among God’s divine aims by placing the doctrine of Soli Deo Gloria among the very first expressions of God’s character and activity in the confession:

There is but one only, living, and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions; immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most wise, most holy, most free, most absolute; working all things according to the counsel of his own immutable and most righteous will, for his own glory….[7]

It can rightly be reasoned that such a doctrine would not achieve this prominent placement in such a significant and enduring confessional statement without having been first established on a defensible scriptural basis.  In our next post, we will briefly survey several major texts in which the glory of God can be seen as His predominating motivation and goal across a number of significant biblical contexts.

The Lord bless you and keep you.


[1] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: God and Creation (ed. John Bolt; trans. John Vriend; Reformed Dogmatics Vol. 2; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2004), 434.  To clarify, Bavinck is not here confusing Reformation theology with Reformed theology, nor is the author.  It so happened that the Reformed theologians would retain this particular zeal for the doctrine as Protestantism differentiated.

[2] John Piper, Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist (Portland, Ore.: Multnomah Press, 1986), 31.

[3] Bruce Milne, Know the Truth: A Handbook of Christian Belief (rev. ed.; Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1998), 81.

[4] H. P. Smith, “The Scriptural Conception of the Glory of God,” The Old Testament Student Vol. 3 no. 9 (May 1884): 325-326.

[5] Jonathan Edwards, The End for Which God Created the World, ¶ 265.

[6] Piper, Desiring God, 31-32.

[7] Westminster Confession of Faith, 1646, II.I.