In Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot, Prince Myshkin is quoted as saying, “Beauty will save the world.” Readers and scholars have discussed and debated the meaning of the statement ever since. Brian Zahnd calls the statement enigmatic, but concludes that the statement “certainly must somehow have been connected to Dostoevsky’s deep Christian faith.” Commenting on the statement, Vigen Guroian concludes that “it is clear that Dostoevsky intends Christ as its ultimate referent.”
What a fascinating thing for a Christian to say: “Beauty will save the world.” Dostoevsky did not mean beauty as a mere idea or concept. He was not saying that beautiful things will save the world. Rather, he was saying that God is beautiful and that Christ is therefore beauty manifest. This may sound odd to us, “Beauty will save the world,” but the beauty of God was actually something that earlier Christians spoke a great deal about.
In The Beauty of God: Theology and the Arts, Daniel J. Treier, Mark Husbands, and Roger Lundin have written about the disappearance of the language of “beauty” from the Christian vocabulary and about hopeful signs that the concept is working itself back into the modern Christian vocabulary.
After a period of considerable neglect in modern religious thought and church culture alike, beauty has begun to reclaim its rightful place in the larger scheme of Christian theology. For many centuries, along with goodness and truth, it formed part of the triad of transcendental ideals that the Christian tradition inherited from the classical age and appropriated for its own uses. From the beginning of the Christian era to the dawning of the modern world, a rough consensus about the interrelationships of beauty, truth and goodness governed Western conceptions of everything from the workings of language to the intricacies of creation and the mysteries of providence…Under a number of pressures, that synthesis gave way in the early modern period, and the theological interest in beauty entered a period of slow but steady decline. Over time the ideal of beauty seemed increasingly irrelevant to the new realities that science, economics and politics were either discovering or creating at the dawn of the modern age.
I would like to argue for a reclaiming of beauty as not only a concept and a component of our vocabulary, but as a way of helping us follow Jesus Christ. The third section of our canon contains a call to live lives reflective of the beauty of God in Christ.
As a body of born again believers,
We covenant to become an authentic family by
loving one another as Christ loves us,
praying for one another,
speaking truth to one another in love,
being patient with one another,
protecting one another,
considering one another as more important than ourselves.
We covenant to embrace the whole gospel by
studying God’s Word faithfully,
learning the gospel together in family worship,
giving ear only to sound doctrine,
living out the gospel in our lives,
embracing the whole counsel of God.
We covenant to bring glory to God by,
gathering for worship faithfully,
singing to the glory of God,
joining together in fervent prayer,
doing good works to the Father’s glory,
living lives that reflect the beauty of Christ
Again, this will sound odd to some, and perhaps it will sound odd or uncomfortable to men in particular. I wish to show, however, that beauty not only has a place in the Christian vocabulary, it should occupy a very important place in our very lives.
God is beautiful.
Let us begin with a basic theological affirmation: God is beautiful. In saying that this is a theological affirmation I am saying that it says something about God. And, like all theological claims, it must be judged by scripture. So I ask: does the Bible depict God as beautiful. It most certainly does! We will deal at this point simply with some of the more explicit references to God’s beauty in scripture, though please note that there are many ways to describe beauty that do not contain the word “beauty” or “beautiful.”
In Psalm 27, David expresses his deep desire to live in fellowship with and worship of the living God. In this context, he expresses his desire to see God in all of His beauty.
4 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.
Immediately we see the disconnect between how earlier believers thought and how we think. This morning, how many of us got up and prayed that we would see the beauty of God as we come together to worship Him.
A similar idea appears in Psalm 96:
5 For all the gods of the peoples are worthless idols, but the Lord made the heavens. 6 Splendor and majesty are before him; strength and beauty are in his sanctuary.
As God was seen as inhabiting His sanctuary and filling it with His glory, this assertion that “strength and beauty are in his sanctuary” can be seen as descriptions of God Himself. The psalmist is not saying that the sanctuary is built well and looks nice. No, he is saying that God has strength and beauty and that God’s beauty is reflected in His tabernacle.
In Isaiah 28 Isaiah depicts God as beautiful and as beautifying His people.
5 In that day the Lord of hosts will be a crown of glory, and a diadem of beauty, to the remnant of his people, 6 and a spirit of justice to him who sits in judgment, and strength to those who turn back the battle at the gate.
The Lord will be a diadem of beauty, a crown of beauty! So too the Lord’s Messiah, our Savior. The latter half of Zechariah 9 is a messianic text. It speaks of the coming Savior, Jesus. In doing so, it says this of the day of salvation:
16 On that day the Lord their God will save them, as the flock of his people; for like the jewels of a crown they shall shine on his land. 17 For how great is his goodness, and how great his beauty! Grain shall make the young men flourish, and new wine the young women.
Yes, how great is His beauty! Jesus is beautiful! “But,” you might ask, “surely the cross, the means by which Christ saves us, was not beautiful. Surely it was hideous and ugly.” R. Albert Mohler has correctly written that “the cross is beautiful, but it is not pretty.”Seen from below, from the human vantage point, the cross was ugly and shameful. Seen from above, from the vantage point of God and the unfolding of His plan of salvation, there is nothing more beautiful than the cross of Jesus Christ and His saving work thereon.
Church, God is beautiful! Let us begin to think again of the beauty of God!
We are made beautiful as we live in relationship with God.
God is beautiful, yes, and the gospel tells us that the beauty of God is not distant, unapproachable, or detached. Rather, the beauty of God is all bound up with the glory of God and the love of God. God’s beauty therefore is an invitation. David Bentley Hart put it wonderfully when he wrote:
In the beautiful God’s glory is revealed as something communicable and intrinsically delightful, as including the creature in its ends, and as completely worthy of love; what God’s glory necessitates and commands, beauty shows also to be gracious and inviting; glory calls not only for awe and penitence, but also for rejoicing…The Christian use of the word “beauty” refers most properly to a relationship of donation and transfiguration, ration, a handing over and return of the riches of being.
That is beautifully said! We are invited to step into the beauty of God and in so doing we are made beautiful. That is, we reflect God’s beauty. The scriptures plainly teach this. Consider:
We are made beautiful when God saves us.
Isaiah, in Isaiah 62, speaks of the effect of salvation on the people of God. Listen:
3 You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God. 4 You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate, but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married; for the Lord delights in you, and your land shall be married.
When God saves us we are made beautiful because when God saves us we become conduits for and partakers and reflections of His beauty! The beauty of God rests in and on and around the people of God when we live in relationship with God. When we live the life to which He has called us we can then reflect His beauty! Let your life be beautiful!
We are made beautiful when God blesses us.
Furthermore, we are made beautiful when God blesses us, when He pours out all manner of good upon us, as He does! In Ezekiel 16 the Lord says this to His children:
10 I clothed you also with embroidered cloth and shod you with fine leather. I wrapped you in fine linen and covered you with silk. 11 And I adorned you with ornaments and put bracelets on your wrists and a chain on your neck. 12 And I put a ring on your nose and earrings in your ears and a beautiful crown on your head. 13 Thus you were adorned with gold and silver, and your clothing was of fine linen and silk and embroidered cloth. You ate fine flour and honey and oil. You grew exceedingly beautiful and advanced to royalty.14 And your renown went forth among the nations because of your beauty, for it was perfect through the splendor that I had bestowed on you, declares the Lord God.
That last sentence is key to our understanding of beauty: “for it [i.e., your beauty] was perfect through the splendor that I bestowed on you.” We have no beauty in ourselves. All we bring to the table is our sinfulness. But God saves us, calls us back to the life He intends for us, washes us in the blood of the lamb, puts His Holy Spirit within us, commissions us to ministry and mission, then empowers us to live the life of Christ in the world. And when this happens—and it will happen to any who open their hearts to Jesus Christ—we are made beautiful by God!
Think of the people you know or have known who truly follow Jesus. Is beauty not an apt description for their lives? Do they not shine with the beauty of God!
We are made beautiful when we worship and honor Jesus.
In Matthew 26, a woman scandalizes Jesus’ disciples by lavishly honoring and worshiping Jesus. Jesus’ response to His disciples’ indignation is fascinating.
6 Now when Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, 7 a woman came up to him with an alabaster flask of very expensive ointment, and she poured it on his head as he reclined at table. 8 And when the disciples saw it, they were indignant, saying, “Why this waste? 9 For this could have been sold for a large sum and given to the poor.” 10 But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a beautiful thing to me.
To honor Jesus, to worship Jesus, to give all that we have to and for Jesus is a beautiful thing! This woman comes with a sincere heart of worship and adoration. All the disciples say is the material waste. Jesus, however, sees beauty!
We are made beautiful when we tell others the good news about Jesus.
Paul, in Romans 10, says that it is particularly beautiful when the people of God publish and proclaim the gospel of Jesus around the world.
14 How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? 15 And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!”
Ah! Your feet are beautiful when they carry good news to the hurting and the lost! Your hands are beautiful when they reach to the despondent and the outcast with hope and good news of salvation in Jesus! We are rendered beautiful, made beautiful, proclaimed beautiful in the Kingdom when we give ourselves to the calling of God to be salt and light in the world!
We are made beautiful when our character reflects the character of Christ.
Our characters become beautiful when they begin to reflect the character of Jesus Christ. In 1 Peter 3 Peter writes:
3 Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear— 4 but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious.
When we begin to follow Jesus and begin to look and sound like Jesus, our characters become beautiful. We begin to claim a beauty that Peter says is “imperishable.” It cannot be destroyed. Whatever may happen to your outward appearance, you can remain beautiful by truly following Jesus and reflecting His character in the world!
“Beauty will save the world,” Myshkin said. Properly understood, that is true. We might also say that the saved world will become beautiful just as its Savior is beautiful.
Our lives in Jesus should be lives of continuous beautification in preparation for the day in which when we are presented to Him.
There is finally an eschatological or future dimension to the beauty of God and His people. In Ephesians 5 Paul speaks of the final presentation of the church to Jesus as a wedding. It is a powerful image found more than once in the New Testament: Jesus is the groom and His followers are the bride. Paul’s unique angle in Ephesians 5, however, is to speak of this life as our time of preparation and beautification for our wedding day when we are presented to Jesus. Hear what he says:
25 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.
Christ laid down His life on the cross, Paul says, to save us and to sanctify us. We are, he says, cleansed “by the washing of water with the word.” That is, we are made and rendered clean by the blood of Christ. But this is not simply one moment in the past. Rather, it is the beginning of a process of beautification. And what is the point of this beautification: “that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.”
This is amazing! Christ is preparing us for the final wedding in which we, the church, His people, will be presented to Him. And His desire is that we should be presented “without spot or wrinkle or any such thing.” Christ Jesus wants His bride to be as beautiful as He knows we can be! He wants us to reflect His beauty, to be “holy and without blemish.”
This means that everything we do in every day we live is either making us more beautiful, more lovely, and more prepared or making us ugly and blemished. It is this idea perhaps more than any other that leads me to say that we simply must reclaim beauty as a functioning word and concept and idea in our lives!
Discipleship is beautification!
Following Jesus means looking more and more like Jesus, that is to say, means looking more and more beautiful!
I am always struck when I do weddings at the meticulous care and preparation of all involved, but especially of the bride. When I marry couples I have them go through the “Prepare-Enrich Marriage Assessment.” One area of that assessment measures the stress levels of the bride and groom. Without fail, in premarital counseling, bride is more stressed than the groom (of course!) and almost always “wedding concerns” are listed at the time of the bride’s list of stressors. Why? Because brides want the wedding to be right, to reflect rightly the love that she and the groom have.
On the night before the wedding is the rehearsal. After the rehearsal the bride will usually tell everybody what time to be at the church the next day. I am always intrigued by this. If the wedding is at, say, 2, the bride will tell the groomsmen that they need to be there no later than 11 or 12. But then she will turn to the bridesmaids and say, “We will be here at 8 a.m.!” or somesuch. Why? Because the bride has got to get ready! The groom can put on his penguin suit and run the brush over his hair once and nobody cares. But when the back doors of the church open and the bride steps into the assembly of God’s people in all her glory, it has got to be right!
Dear church: when the gates of the Kingdom are thrown open at the end of days and Christ’s bride, the church, you and me, step into His presence, will we be beautiful? “I do not know how to be!” We might be tempted to cry! But here is the difference between the wedding of the Lamb and our weddings: in the Kingdom, the groom lays down His life to make us beautiful! The groom dresses us and makes us beautiful! The groom is up before we ever are and has made straight the way!
Church, let us be beautiful for our groom! Let us reflect the beauty of our King!
Brian Zahnd, Beauty Will Save the World: Rediscovering the Allure and Mystery of Christianity. (Lake Mary, FL: Charisma House, 2012), p.xiv.https://www.touchstonemag.com/archives/article.php?id=27-06-030-f
Mark Dever, J. Ligon Duncan, R. Albert Mohler Jr., C. J. Mahaney. “How Does It Happen? Trajectories toward An Adjusted Gospel.” The Unadjusted Gospel. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2014), p.62.
David Bentley Hart. The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth (Kindle Locations 307-322). Kindle Edition.