Transformed Into His Likeness

2 Corinthians 3:18: "But we all, with unveiled face beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord,
are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit

Some things in nature are a complete mystery to me.
In college, I had a professor of logic that would say often:
"How can a black and white cow eat green grass and give white milk and yellow butter?"

There are other things that also mystify me.
How can an insect that crawls on the ground be changed into one that flies?
How can a black, fuzzy, rather ugly creature be transformed into a beautiful, fascinating creature
with brightly colored wings?

How can a destructive insect that can literally strip a tree of its leaves – or least a swarm of them can –
become a dainty creature that can land on the pedal of a flower blossom without defacing it?
In other words, how can a caterpillar become a butterfly?

I don't understand the process, but I know the word for it is metamorphosis.
That word is used to describe what happens when a caterpillar spins a cocoon around itself,
and some days later emerge as a butterfly.

There are also things in the spiritual world which are also a complete mystery to me.
How can a person who is indifferent or hostile toward God become a deeply committed follower of Jesus Christ?
How can a person who is a slave to destructive simple habits become a person who is self-controlled,
gentle, and compassionate?
How can a fanatical, self-righteous Jew named Saul of Tarsus become a humble, self-effacing Paul,
the apostle to the Gentiles?

I don't understand the process, but I know the name for it.
In 2 Corinthians 3:18, Paul calls it transformation (being transformed).
The Greek word for transformation is metamorphoomai.
You can see that our English word, metamorphosis, is a transliteration of metamorphoomai.

I find it fascinating and instructive that Paul uses the same word that describes the transformation
of the caterpillar into a butterfly to describe the spiritual transformation in the life of the Christian.
The process is just as mysterious, and the results are even more striking.

Actually, the process of transformation that Paul described very briefly and 2 Corinthians 3:18
is called sanctification.
This word is not a part of our daily vocabulary, and perhaps may even sound a bit pretentious to some.
But it is an important spiritual word that we ought to become familiar with if we desire to pursue holiness.

Sanctification is the work of the Holy Spirit in us whereby our inner being is progressively changed,
freeing us more and more from simple traits and developing within us over time
the virtues of a Christlike character.
However, though sanctification is the work of the Holy Spirit in us, it does involve our whole-hearted response
and obedience in the regular use of the spiritual disciplines that are instruments of sanctification.


Sanctification actually begins at the time of our conversion which is by an act called regeneration,
or the new birth which is the principle of the spiritual life that is planted within us.
This work of regeneration is promised in such Old Testament prophecies as Jeremiah 31:33, where God says,
"I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts." (NAS)

And in Ezekiel 36:26-27 God says, "I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you;
I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.
And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws

In the New Testament, Paul described regeneration in 2 Corinthians 5:17:
"Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!"

  1. in Titus 3:5 we read, "'Twas not for deeds that we had done, but by his steadfast love alone,
he saved us through a second birth, renewed us by the Spirit's work..." (ISV)

Notice the radical change that is explicitly described in each of these Scripture passages.
God will put His law in our minds and write it all our hearts.
That is, He will give us a new disposition that, instead of being hostile to God's law,
we will actually delight in it.
The law, which before was merely external, is now written in our hearts by the Spirit of God
so that we are moved to obedience.

The heart of stone is transformed into a heart of flesh.
"Heart of stone" is a figurative expression for a hard hard, and one that is insensible to the things of God
and unable to receive any impressions of divine truth.
The heart of flesh represents a soft and tender heart, one that is able and willing to receive
and act upon the truths of God's Word.

Matthew Henry says of this verse, "Renewing grace works as a great change in the soul
as the turning of a dead stone into living flesh

In 2 Corinthians 5:17 Paul said that when a person is united to Christ, he is a new creation.
A Christian is a radically changed person the moment he or she trusts Jesus Christ.
This doesn't mean that we become "Saints" in practice overnight.
It does mean a new creation – a new principle of life – has been planted within us by the Holy Spirit,
and we will never be the same again.

The expression "born again," from John 3:3-8, is usually taken to mean no more than being saved
from the penalty of sin.
According to Jesus, it means to be born of the Spirit (John 3:6, 8), that is, to be given new life.
Paul said the same thing in Titus 3:5 when he spoke of renewal by the Holy Spirit.

This act of regeneration or new birth by which a person enters the Kingdom of God (John 3:5)
is solely the work of God the Holy Spirit.
Thus it is entirely a work of grace, and just as justification is.
It is also an instantaneous act of God.
The moment we are justified, we are also regenerated.
A person cannot be justified without being regenerated.

I believe that there are possibly thousands of professing Christians who think they have been justified,
who think their sins are forgiven and that they are on their way to heaven who show no evidence
of the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit in their lives.

I fear for them that they will one day hear the awful words from the lips of Jesus Christ,
"I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!" (Matthew 7:23

I don't wish to be misunderstood at this point, but let me say emphatically that the solution
for these people is not to change their conduct so that they might see some evidences of regeneration.
The solution is to come to Jesus, renouncing any confidence in their own goodness,
confessing themselves to be sinners in the sight of God, and trusting entirely in His atoning work.

Then they will be truly justified (saved from the penalty of sin) and will at the same time
be genuinely regenerated (made new creations in Christ).
The evidence of regeneration will then be apparent to them and to others around them.


So, regeneration is the beginning of sanctification, or to use the words of Paul in 2 Corinthians 3:15,
of transformation.
So sanctification then is the carrying out of regeneration to its intended end.

A nineteenth-century Presbyterian minister named William Plumer, wrote,
"Regeneration is an act of God's Spirit.
Sanctification is a work of God's Spirit, consequent upon that act…
In regeneration we become 'newborn babes;'
in sanctification we attain the stature of full-grown men in Christ Jesus

Some may ask the question, "What is the relationship of sanctification to justification?
Can a person be justified but not sanctified

The answer is that justification and sanctification are inseparable.
God never gives justification without sanctification. (See 1 Corinthians 1:30 and 6:11)
Both have their source in the infinite love and free grace of God.
Both are accomplished by faith.
In justification we rely on what Christ did for us on the cross.
In sanctification we rely on Christ to work in us by His Holy Spirit.
In justification He works in us, but elicits our response to cooperate with Him.

Justification is an act of God which is complete at once and forever.
Sanctification is a work of God begun in regeneration, conducted through life and completed at death.
In justification God imputes [that is, credits] to us the righteousness of Christ.
In sanctification He [imparts] grace, and enables us to exercise it.

The Holy Spirit's work is a work of grace.
Whether we think of sanctification as an undeserved blessing, which it is, or a gracious work
of the Holy Spirit in us, it is indeed a work of grace.

Our response to the Holy Spirit's work and our cooperation with Him and His work is the pursuit of holiness.
I would emphasize that the pursuit of holiness, though requiring diligent effort on our part, is dependent
upon the enabling power of the Holy Spirit.
The apostle Paul expresses this principle of dependent discipline quite clearly in Philippians 4:13:
"I can do everything through him who gives me strength."

In that case, Paul did the work by learning to be content.
But he did it through the enabling strength of the Holy Spirit.
It is difficult to grasp this principle of being responsible yet dependent.
But it is absolutely vital that we grasp it and live by it.

The goal of sanctification is likeness to our Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul said in 2 Corinthians 3:18 that we "are being transformed into his likeness."
In Romans 829 he said that God "predestinated [all believers] to be conformed to the likeness of his Son."
The goal for all Christians who are trusting Christ is to be Christlike.

Both words, transformed and conformed, have a common root form, meaning, a pattern or a mold.
"Being transformed" refers to the process.
"Being conformed" refers to the finished product.

Jesus is our pattern or our mold.
We are being transformed so that we will eventually be conformed to the likeness of Christ.

Sanctification or holiness (the words are somewhat interchangeable), then, is conformity
to the likeness of Jesus Christ.
We see this same idea expressed in different wording in other New Testament Scriptures.

In Ephesians 4:24, Paul said our new self is "created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness."
Hebrews 12:10 says that God disciplines us, "that we may share in his holiness."
And then 1 Peter 1:16 we read, "Be holy, because I am holy."

How can we know whether we are being transformed more and more into the likeness of Christ?
We began by studying His character.
One wonderful description of Christ is that He "loved righteousness and hated wickedness." (Hebrews 1:9)

Jesus did not just act righteously, He loved righteousness.
In His humanity He loved it's equity, fairness, justice, and upright dealings with others.
At the same time He hated wickedness.
Jesus hated sin as sin.

We often hate the consequences of sin (even if it seems to be no more than the guilt feelings
that follow willful sin), but I suspect that we seldom hate sin as sin.
Sin is a rebellion against God's authority.
Sin is a despising of His person.
Sin is a defiance of His commands.

Do we truly hate sin when we see it in our own lives because of the despicable nature of it?
To the extent that we do, we are being transformed into His likeness.

John 6:38 is another Scripture that should be helpful to us.
It says, "For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me."
The entire goal of the life of Jesus was to do the will of His Father, even though that will culminated
in Jesus laying down His life for His sheep.

If we are going to become more and more like Him, we must grow toward that same goal of seeking His will.
To be like Jesus is not just to stop committing a few obvious sins such as lying, cheating,
gossiping, and thinking impure thoughts.
To be like Jesus is to always seek to do the will of the Father.
That is a very high standard.
We frequently desire to do our own will, resulting in actions that may not appear to be sinful in themselves.
But they are sinful, if they are not the will of our Father.

Not only did Jesus do the will of the Father, and not only was that His whole goal in life,
but Psalm 40:8 tells us that He delighted to do the will of the father.

To be, like Jesus is to come to the place where we delight to do the will of God,
however sacrificial or unpleasant that will may seem to us at the time, simply because it is His will.

Then we look at the statement of Jesus in John 8:29, "For I always do what pleases him [the Father]."
Everything that Jesus did was done with the purpose of pleasing the Father.
And Jesus perfectly realized that purpose.

What about us?
How often do we think, speak, or act with the purpose of pleasing our Father?
Of course we will never attain that purpose to the extent that Jesus did, but the question remains,
what is our goal – what is our aim – what is our purpose?
Is it to please our Father in all that we do, or is it just to get through life as comfortably as we can?

We must remember that God looks at our motives as well as our actions.
(See 1 Chronicles 28:9; Proverbs 16:2; 1 Corinthians 4, 5)

We may do or say the right thing outwardly, but what is our motive?
Is it to please our Father, or is it sometimes just to feel good about ourselves, or to look good to others?
This is not to say that we should always be questioning our motives.
But I'm trying to paint a picture to some degree of what it means to be transformed
more and more into the likeness of Christ.

It is a process!
Conformity to Jesus is a lifelong process, and a goal that will never be attained completely in this life.
That is why Paul refers to the continual changes being wrought in us with his expression
in 2 Corinthians 3:18, "with ever-increasing glory."
It is more literally translated in the New American Standard Bible, "from glory to glory."

That is, as the Spirit of God works in us, we progress from one stage of glory to the next.
Charles Hodge has written, "The transformation is carried forward without intermission,
from the first discernible resemblance, to full conformity to the likeness of Christ, both as to soul and body

Because sanctification is a process, there will always be a conflict between us and the "flesh,"
or with the sinful nature, and with the Holy Spirit.
This conflict is described by Paul in Galatians 5:17: "For the sinful nature desires what is contrary
to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature.
They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want

Paul went into this with greater detail in Romans normal 7:14-25, where he said such things as,
"I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature.
For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out
." (Verse 18)
Most of us would have to admit that "When I want to do good, evil is right there with me." (Romans 7:21)

Think of yourself walking into a room where the lighting is controlled by a dimmer switch.
As you walk in, the lighting is dim and you see the furniture all in place, – there are no newspapers
lying around, and there are no dirty cups on the coffee table.
The room looks neat and clean.

But when you turn up the dimmer switch and it is brighter, you begin to see dust on the furniture,
smudges on the walls, chips in the paint, and threadbare spots in the carpet.
The room that looked all right in the dim light suddenly appears dirty and unattractive
under the full glare of the brighter light.

That is what happens in the life of a person who is pursuing holiness.
At first, your life may appear fairly good because you have been a decent sort of person,
and no gross sins are visible.
Then the Holy Spirit begins to "turn up the brightness" of His Word and revealed
the more subtle, "refined" sins of which you were not even aware.
Or perhaps, you were aware of certain thoughts or actions, but had not realized they were sinful.

Another analogy might be the shining of a spotlight into the shadowy recesses of an old house.
The Holy Spirit is continually shining His spotlight of conviction into the recesses of our hearts,
revealing sinful attitudes and actions of which we were not aware.
These newly, discovered sins are usually displaying and discomforting to us.

And the more holy a person is, the more he or she is dismayed.
Then as we attempt to deal with these sins, we discover that they are stubbornly entrenched
in our habits of life and are not easily dislodged.
Or a sinful habit that we thought had been decisively dealt with reasserts itself,
and we seem powerless before its onslaught.
All these experiences set up the tension within us that Paul described in the latter half of Romans 7.

Does this mean then that we are no better off than the unbeliever who struggles with some habit
he or she wants to be rid of.
John Murray provides helpful insight into the difference between the struggle of a believer with sin,
and that of an unbeliever with some undesirable habits.

He wrote: "There must be a constant and increasing appreciation that though sin still remains,
it does not have the mastery.
There is a total difference between surviving sin and reigning sin, the regenerate in conflict with sin
and the unregenerate complacent to sin.
It is one thing for sin to live in us: it is another for us to live in sin

Sin is like a defeated army in a civil war that, instead of surrendering and laying down its arms,
simply fades into the countryside, from which it continues to wage a guerrilla war
of harassment and sabotage against the government forces.
Sin as a reigning power is defeated in the life of the believer, but it will never surrender.
It will continue to harass us, and seek to sabotage our Christian lives as long as we live.

It is important for us to understand this difference between the unbeliever living complacently in sin,
and the believers struggling against sin.
If we are going to pursue holiness, we must accept the fact that there will be continual tension within us
between our desires and our performance.

Now let us look at the agent.

Who is responsible for this transformation?
The answer to that question is the Holy Spirit.

Paul said in 2 Corinthians 3:18 that we are being transformed by "the Lord, who is the Spirit."
The verb, "being transformed", is passive.
That means that something is being done to us, not by us.
This does not mean that we have no responsibility and no sanctification.
It does mean that in the final analysis it is the Spirit of God who transforms us.

He calls on us to cooperate and to do the part He assigns us to do, but He is the one who works deep
within our character to change us.

We must come to realize that both from our personal study and our observation of our life
– that the deep work of spiritual transformation of our soul has been what the Holy Spirit has done,
not what we have done.
We can, to some degree change our conduct, but only God can change our heart.

There are several passages of Scripture that emphasizes the fact that sanctification is primarily
the work of the Holy Spirit.
In 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24 Paul said, "May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through.
May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it

Notice, that it is God Himself who will sanctify us "through and through."
In other words, God will bring the process to completion.

Then Paul wrote in Philippians 1:6, "Being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you
will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus
The writer of Hebrews prayed that God will "work in us what is pleasing to him." (Hebrews 13:21)

Although these passages speak of God in a nonspecific sense, or use the pronoun, "He",
we know from other Scriptures that the work of sanctification within the Trinity is primarily
the work of the Holy Spirit. (2 Thessalonians 2:13; 1 Peter 1:2)

This being true, we ought to pray daily for His work of sanctification within us.
A favorite prayer of ours could be the words of Hebrews 13:21 and ask that He will work in us
what is pleasing to Him.

The Spirit of God has certainly given us certain responsibilities in the sanctifying process.

In fact, the Bible is filled with exhortations, challenges, and commands to obey,
as well as spiritual disciplines to be practiced.

The way the Spirit operates in our lives to sanctify us is shrouded in mystery.
Paul said in He works in us "to will and to act according to his good purpose" (Philippians 2:13),
but he never tells us just how the Holy Spirit interacts with, or works on our human spirit.

Again the comments of John Murray are also helpful as he wrote:
"We do not know the mode of the Spirit' s indwelling nor the mode of His efficient working
in the hearts and minds and wills of God's people by which they are progressively cleansed
from the defilement of sin and more and more transfigured after the image of Christ

We will often be conscious of the Holy Spirit's working in our lives and will even be able to discern
what He is doing to some extent, especially in those instances where He elicits
a conscious response from us.
But again. we must not suppose that the measure of our understanding or experience is
the measure of the Spirit's working.

So, look at the means.

Although the Holy Spirit is the agent of sanctification and that He also works in us
in this mysterious fashion, it is also true that He uses rational and understandable means to sanctify us.
Some of these means, such as adversities and the exhortation and encouragement of others,
are outside our control to initiate.
With other means, such as the learning and application of Scripture and the frequent use of prayer,
He expects us to take the initiative.

Now, let us focus on the one specific means that Paul mentions in 2 Corinthians 3:18,
that is, beholding the glory of Christ.

Paul wrote, "But we all, with unveiled face beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed."
That is, beholding the glory of the Lord is one means that the Spirit uses to transform us.

What is the glory of the Lord that Paul referred to, and how does beholding it transform us?

First, the glory of the Lord denotes the presence of God, and all that He is in His attributes.
That is His infiniteness, eternalness, holiness, sovereignty, omniscience, omnipresence, goodness and others.
In other words, God is glorious in all of His being and all of His works.

However, in the context of 2 Corinthians 3:18, Paul was contrasting the glory of the law given by Moses
with the far-surpassing glory of the gospel. (See 2 Corinthians 3:7-11)
Then in 2 Corinthians 4:4, he spoke of "the gospel of the glory of Christ."
This means the glory of Christ is good news, for the word, gospel, means good news.

The law reveals the glory of God in His righteousness, and the gospel reveals the glory of God
in both His righteousness and grace.
The death of Christ reveals the righteousness of God in that it satisfied the justice of God,
but it also reveals the grace of God in that it was the means of salvation to those
who deserve only eternal wrath.

Furthermore, the gospel reveals the wisdom of God in devising such an infinitely magnificent way
of meeting our desperate need without sacrificing His holiness and justice.
And it reveals the power of God, both in His raising Jesus from the dead and in raising us
from spiritual death to a new life in Christ.

So the gospel pulls together and harmonizes all these glorious attributes of the Lord
– His righteousness with His grace, His justice with His mercy, His power with His love,
His wisdom with His patience and compassion.

Paul desires to magnify God's grace in a special way to us, for he wrote in Ephesians 2:6-7:
"And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus,
in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace,
expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus

The key phrase is that God might show the incomparable riches of his grace.
This is God's goal in salvation of fallen human beings – the exultation of his grace shown to us in Christ.

I regret that I don't remember the source of this tremendous statement, but it means so much:
"All revealed truth ought to be greatly valued, and received by faith; and, if properly used,
may be subservient to the main subject and design of the gospel.
But the special subject of the gospel is Christ; and preaching Christ, according to life in direction
of the word of God, is preaching the gospel.
To preach Christ is the Saviour and the Lord and the sum of gospel-preaching

This then is the glory that has a transforming effect on us.
It is the glory of Christ revealed in the gospel.
It is the good news that Jesus died in our place as our representative to free us not only
from the penalty of sin, but also from its domination.
A clear understanding and appropriation of the gospel, which gives freedom from sin's guilt and sin's grip,
is, in the hands of the Holy Spirit, a chief means of sanctification.

Nothing so motivates us to deal with sin in our lives as does the understanding and the application
of the two truths that our sins are forgiven and the domination of sin is broken
because of our union with Christ.
We need the gospel to remind us that our sins are forgiven in Christ,
and that "the blood of Jesus Christ, his Son, purifies us from all sin." (1 John 1:7)

Our specific responsibility in the pursuit of holiness as seen in 2 Corinthians 3:18, then,
is to behold the glory of the Lord as it is displayed in the gospel.
The gospel is the "mirror" to which we now behold His beauty.
One day we shall see Christ, not as in a mirror, but face-to-face.

Then, "we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is." (1 John 3:2).
Until then, we behold Him in the gospel.
Therefore, we must "preach the gospel to ourselves every day."

To behold the glory of Christ in the gospel is a discipline.
It is a habit we must develop and practice as we learn to preach the gospel to ourselves.
As we have repeatedly said, although sanctification is the work of the Holy Spirit,
it is a work in which He involves us.
It is so important that we have the discipline of beholding the glory of Christ in the "mirror" of the gospel.

This study has been adapted from several sources by Dr. Harold L. White