Different Degrees Of Glory
Adapted from a Sermon by John Angell James
"Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven." Matthew 5:12
This morning, I would like to turn our thoughts to the question of the different degrees of glory reserved for the children of God.
The happiness of heaven, described in general terms, will consist of the absence of all evil, both natural and moral, such as sin, and all its bitter fruits—death, disease, labor, care, sorrow, and pain; and the presence of all good suited to man as a rational, moral, social, and immortal creature, such as the perfect holiness of his nature, the presence of God in Christ, the conversation and society of blessed spirits, and that service and honor which God may appoint to the holy inhabitants of the place. But then a question arises: Will these inhabitants be equal in all respects in honor and happiness? And it appears that this will not be the case.
All real Christians will be in heaven, and possess in substance its chief delights—as well they who are converted on a death-bed; as they who yield themselves to God in their youth; as well the believer who lives and dies in undisturbed ease, as the martyr—all will be equal as to their deliverance from every kind of evil; all will be with Christ, see God face to face, and be perfectly happy—but still there will be circumstances connected with their heavenly state, that will raise some higher in the scale of splendor and blessedness than others.
While, therefore, there will be many things in which the happiness of the redeemed will be common—it will be common in its object, the blessed God and the blessed Redeemer; in its subject, all the powers of the glorified body and soul; in its duration, which will be eternal; in its security, since all will be sustained by the Divine faithfulness; and in the full satisfaction of soul, which each, according to its capacity, will possess.
Yet there will be some peculiarities and distinctions attaching to the more eminent servants of God. We may not be, and indeed are not, able to say precisely and in all things, in what these peculiarities consist—but we know that they will exist. We can conceive of a larger capacity for happiness in some than in others, just as there is a greater capacity for enjoyment in a man than in a child, or in one man than in another; yet all will be perfectly happy, according to their powers of receiving this happiness. Containers may be of various sizes, yet all full. Heaven may consist of a graduated scale of rank, station, and service; and, doubtlessly, it will; and one glorified spirit may be fitted for a higher post, a more important service, than another. And so we can conceive, how perfection in all, can coexist with variety, and even different degrees.
Let us now consider the principle on which this difference will proceed, and by which it will be regulated. It will not be an arbitrary arrangement, a mere random appointment—nothing that God does, either in nature, providence, or grace, is of this character. Everything he does, he performs according to the counsel of his will; there is a reason for everything, a principle according to which everything is done. Now this applies to the case before us.
In allotting to some a higher degree than others in glory, God acts on some principle, and what is it? Not worldly rank; some subjects and paupers will probably be higher in heaven than their monarchs. Not literary or scientific renown; some uneducated rustics may be elevated above scholars and philosophers. Not even success in converting souls to God, if it is not accompanied with a proportionate degree of pure motive and consistent piety; some obscure but eminently holy ministers, will have a brighter crown, than others whose popularity God may in a way of sovereignty make use of for extensive good.
Character, conduct, motives—as known to the omniscient God, will be the rule. We cannot find a better, a more intelligible representation of the subject, than the one usually employed, "Degrees of glory in heaven, will be proportioned to degrees of grace on earth."
Even in time we see an obvious difference among God's people. There are some who are called in the morning of their existence, and who spend a long life in the service of God—while others are called by grace at the last hour of life. There are some whose circumstances of ease and comfort call for little sacrifice or self-denial—while others follow Christ to beatings, imprisonment, and death. There are some, who though really regenerated, make little progress in sanctification, and manifest so many imperfections, and so much worldly-mindedness, as to render their profession doubtful and suspicious—while others, who have overcome the world by faith in a most conspicuous manner, and by their eminently holy and consistent conduct, bring much glory to God. There are some who are grudging, lazy, or money-loving—while others are liberal, self-denying, and hard working. Now, the contention is that according to these differences on earth—there will be corresponding differences in heaven.
The proof of differing degrees of glory, will be found in the following arguments.
1. It is set forth in the following scriptures.
Even the Old Testament asserts the fact. "Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever," Dan. 12:3. Our Lord, in his sermon on the Mount, encourages his persecuted followers to endure, by this consideration, "Your reward is great in heaven," Matt. 5:12. And in Matthew chapter 10 he says: "The one who receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet's reward, and the one who receives a righteous person because he is a righteous person will receive a righteous person's reward. And whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward,” Mat 10:41-42. The parable of the Ten Minas in Luke 19, teaches the same fact—the good trader with ten minas, gained rule over ten cities; and the diligent possessor of five minas, gained five cities. And n speaking of the righteous at the last day, the apostle says, as "star differs from star in glory. So is it with the resurrection of the dead," 1 Cor. 15:41.
To the same effect, are all those passages which speak of the rewards of the final judgment, when "we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil," 2 Cor. 5:10; Rev. 22:12. How decisive is the language of the apostle in Galatians chapter 6, "Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up," Gal 6:7-9. "The point is this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully," 2 Cor. 9:6. How clear and how impressive are such statements, that our life is a seed-time for eternity; that all our conduct is the seed sown, and that the harvest will be according to the seed we sow—in kind, quality, and quantity.
Consider also the following arguments in support of the fact of different degrees of glory.
2. There will certainly be different degrees of misery and disgrace in hell.
Paul in Romans chapter 2 says that the wicked are storing up wrath for themselves when God’s judgment will be revealed. The Lord in Luke chapter 12, speaks of different levels of punishment for the disobedient servant who knew his master’s will and for the one who did not.
And why not, then, different degrees of joy and honor in heaven? Observe the way in which the apostle speaks of the different rewards of the ministers of the gospel in 1 Cor. 3, "Each will receive his wages according to his labor… If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone's work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire" 1 Cor 3:8, 14-15. If this is true of ministers, it is no less so of all professors.
3. But this appears equally clear, if we consider the nature of those things of which our heavenly happiness will consist.
Part of our happiness will arise from the recollection of what we have done for Christ. Memory will supply much of both the torment of hell, and the happiness of heaven—and they who have most to remember will be most happy. Our future happiness or misery will therefore, in a great measure, arise out of our conduct here. Every holy action will be the seed of happiness. Did not Paul, when drawing near his end, look back with delight and gratitude, yet with humility, upon his apostolic life, when he exultingly exclaimed, "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith," 2 Tim. 4:7. And if such joy was lawful and proper then, what will be the delight of looking back from heaven upon a life of service on earth; of retracing all the way in which Divine grace has led, sustained, and sanctified us; of reviewing our temptations, conflicts, and triumphs! And this joy will be in proportion to the cause which produces it.
Another part of our happiness will arise from the approval of God and Christ. This is evident from his representation of the solemnities of judgment in the 25th chapter of Matthew. How wonderful to see Him smile upon us! To hear Him say, “you did it to me,” Matt 25:40. Well done, my good and faithful servant. Well done. I saw every action of piety, every struggle with temptation, every tear of penitence, every gift of property, every expression of sympathy with a suffering brother, every labor, and every sacrifice. I know your works, and now I reward them by this public testimony. How rich a reward! And of course it must be in proportion to the conduct which will secure it.
Another source of our celestial bliss will be the proofs and the fruits of our usefulness in the cause of God, and of immortal souls. The misery of the wicked in hell will arise, in no small degree, from seeing around them, in that world of despair, those whom they had led there by their evil principles, active effort, and seductive example. By a similar law, the happiness of the saints in heaven will receive everlasting advances from hearing the songs, and witnessing the joys of those whom they were the honoured instruments in saving from death and conducting to glory. What must be the heaven of such men as Whitefield, and of other less distinguished servants of Christ, in beholding before the throne so many whom it was their unutterable privilege to lead there!
Not dissimilar in kind, though of course less in degree, will be the joy of all who lay out their property, spend their time, or sacrifice their ease, endeavoring to increase the number of the saints, and in this way people the realms of glory with redeemed spirits. Surely, there must be an honor and a bliss in reserve for the eminently zealous, devoted, and self-denying—which will not be experienced in the same degree by those who do little for Christ.
Do not all these considerations, then, support the fact that there are different degrees of glory in heaven? Can we conceive of heaven without it? Does it not prove itself to every person’s judgment? In every community on earth, from a family to a state—there are different services, and different posts, which must be occupied by various people, according to their various degrees and kinds of fitness—and why should it be otherwise in heaven? They, surely, form an inaccurate, low, and unworthy idea of that blessed world, who consider it only as a place where all are in every respect alike—all are equal, and all are occupied in exactly the same way.
It is important then that we connect, at any rate the idea of state, with that of place; and to remember that repentance, faith, and holiness, are not so much a condition of heaven—as a preparation for it. Regeneration is the beginning of glorification. Sanctification is the fitness for glorification.
We move on to answer some of the objections which some who have not well considered the subject sometimes bring against it.
i) Is it not opposed to the parable of the workers hired to go into the vineyard, all of whom received the same wages, whether hired at the third or the eleventh hour? Matt. 20. The answer to this objection is that, this parable really had nothing to do with the subject; its design being, not to represent the distribution of rewards and punishments in a future state—but the calling of the Gentiles to become fellow-heirs with the Jews, in the same church state and gospel privileges.
ii) Does it not set aside salvation by grace, and justification by faith without works? Certainly not. It may be put like this: Nothing performed by a creature, however pure, can merit eternal life. God may freely lay himself under an obligation to reward the obedience of a holy creature with everlasting life, and his so doing may be fit and worthy of him. Man having sinned, the promised good is forfeited, and death becomes the only reward of which he is worthy. God, having designs of mercy, however, towards rebellious creatures, sent his Son to obey and suffer in their place, resolving to bestow eternal life on all who believe in him, as the reward of his work.
God not only accepts all who believe in his Son for his sake—but their services also. There can be no rewardable action done by us at all, until we have believed in Christ, and are justified without works; and even then the different degrees of reward that follow, are all granted for the sake of Christ. It is not the result of any worthiness in us—but of Christ's merits.
It is therefore a reward wholly of grace, and not of debt, from first to last. And seeing it in this light, it excludes all boasting, and gives the greatest possible encouragement to be constant, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord.
iii) If there are different degrees of glory, will not this be a source of envy and jealousy? It would, if we carried our present imperfections to heaven; but in a world of perfect love to God, and perfect love to our fellows, these passions cannot exist. Heaven will be so full of love, as to leave no room for anything else to live there. Nor can we conceive of a higher, nor indeed, in such a state, of a lower exercise of this God-like feeling, than to rejoice in the Divine award, which elevates to a degree of glory above us, those whom we will then perceive and acknowledge to be more fit for it.
iv) If all are perfect, it may be said, how can there be different degrees? All are perfect according to their capacity—but all do not have the same capacity. Two diamonds may be of the same purity and brilliancy, yet they may be of different sizes and value.
v) A question has sometimes been asked, "Whether it is right to hold up this subject as a motive to Christian diligence?" But why should it be a question? How can it be doubted? Is it not so held up by our Lord and his apostles? We need not pretend nor attempt to be wiser than they. Was not Moses "looking to the reward?" Heb 11:26. It is without a doubt scriptural to propose it as an inducement to zeal, diligence, and self-denial, in the service of the Lord.
We must be careful, however, not to abuse this doctrine, as some have done, in listing the peculiar virtues to which high rewards are assigned in the heavenly world, among which they include the Roman Catholic practices of celibacy and austerity.
We must be careful also not to encourage a selfish, mercenary notion of merit; for we know salvation to be all of grace from first to last—are to discourage those sentiments of profound humility which lead us to feel, as well as say, that the lowest seat in heaven is infinitely more than we deserve.
But we ought to remind ourselves, because the Scripture does, that the greater progress we make in divine experimental knowledge, and in real holiness, according to the means and helps we enjoy; the greater fidelity and diligence we show in discharging the duties of our particular position as members of society, and of the church; the more hard working we are in the improvement of the talents, whether ten, five, or one, entrusted to our care; the more we abound in fruits of righteousness, and the more zealous we are in those good works for which we have opportunity and capacity; the more self-denying we are for Christ's and conscience' sake; the more steadfast we are in resisting temptations; the more we glorify God by the exercise of faith and patience in the hardest, heaviest trials; the more active, liberal, and ready we are to make sacrifices for the cause of God and the salvation of souls; the more we cultivate love to our brethren and charity to all; the more we excel in spirituality and heavenly-mindedness; and the more we clothe and adorn all our other graces with humility and meekness of mind—the greater will be our future reward, the higher we will rise in glory, the more fitted will we be to serve God in some exalted position in the heavenly world.
And this feeling ought to be very deeply impressed on your minds, that this will not only be the result of gracious and fair appointment—but that it is the tendency of advanced piety itself, to prepare us for such distinctions. There is likely a far more close and intimate connection between a state of grace and a state of glory, than many imagine. We all need a fitness for, as well as title to, heaven—and although everyone is fit who is truly regenerated, and no one else—yet the more we are sanctified, the more we are fit for some of the higher services in our Father's house; where, as well as in the church on earth, there will be use and service for vessels of gold, as well as of silver. There are many professors whose advancement in piety are so slight; whose graces are so faint; whose religion is blended with so much worldly-mindedness; who are at so little pains to grow in grace, that if they are true Christians at heart, and should be admitted to glory—they seem to be qualified for only some low place in the kingdom of heaven.
How mighty should be the influence upon our mind and conduct of such a subject as this! How should it correct our laziness, and rouse and enliven us to all diligence and perseverance! What an impression should it give us of the importance of our present situation and our present conduct! We are fearfully made, and still more fearfully placed. Everything we do, is a seed for the future, and must bear eternal fruit. All our actions, words, and thoughts—are ripening into heaven—or hell. Can we be blind to the solemnity of our situation? Will we be anxious only to grow rich for time—and neglect to grow rich for eternity? Will we be intent only to amass wealth on earth—and forget to "lay up treasure in heaven?" (Matt 6:19) Will we be eager to enlarge and improve the inheritance which is seen and temporal—and be careless about enlarging that which is incorruptible, undefiled, and which does not fade away?
Men are ambitious enough, and we perhaps are like them, to rise in the world, and to attain to secular pre-eminence—let us copy this propensity; but by faith transfer the earnestness to eternal objects, and strive to be great in the kingdom of heaven. If there are prizes of various degrees of value, why should you not contend for one of the nobler ones? Why should you not covet earnestly the best gifts? While you acknowledge, with the truest lowliness of mind, that you are unworthy to sit down on the threshold of heaven—still press forward to a seat far nearer to the Savior's throne and feet. Seek to glow and shine like the angels in glory, and at the same time emulate them in deep humbling of soul, under a sense of your utter unworthiness before God.
How loudly and impressively does this subject speak to you who are young professors, and who are just setting out in the spiritual life. Blessed is your privilege, in being called so early into a state of grace, and thus being invited, by the sovereign mercy of God, to add to the weight and the jewels of that crown which, if you are faithful to death, is forever to adorn your head.
Consider well your opportunity. Your future life, as regards any earthly object which you can contemplate—is but a shadow; yet as connected with the eternal world—is of unutterable importance. I trust that you will not spend your days in folly and sin—you have renounced these things; but I ask, will you spend your life for worldly wealth and comfort—to the neglect of growth in grace? How rich may you grow in grace here—and glory hereafter! What treasures may you lay up in heaven! Let no ordinary degree of holiness satisfy you—no small measures of piety content you.
In clear devotedness and usefulness in the church on earth, prepare for such service in the church triumphant, as will display the immensity of Divine grace, and the riches of Divine power. Seek eminent holiness first, for its own sake, and the sake of God who requires it—and then you will find in the end, that eminence in grace leads to eminence of glory!
There is no doubt that a conviction of the truth of this subject, and regular meditation upon it—would do much to elevate the tone of piety among Christians, and keep up, and greatly enliven the spirit of zeal and generosity. It is not only a depressing—but a dangerous notion to hold, that weak faith, being still true faith; and little grace, which is still real grace—that those who have but small measures of either will reach heaven as certainly, and rise as high in heaven, as those who make greater progress. This may seem to savor of a disposition to exalt the mercy of God—but its tendency is to abuse it; and under the appearance of deep humility, to promote laziness, lukewarmness, and worldly-mindedness.
It is a sad and fatal experiment to try, with how little religion we can reach heaven. If it be the language of humility as it oftentimes is, with some that use it, to say, "They will be content with the lowest seat in glory," it is, at other times, words of laziness and indifference. The question, however, is not what we deserve—but what we are invited to possess. We deserve nothing but hell! But we may have not only heaven—but an abundant entrance into it.
God is inviting us to seek "more grace" here, that he may lavish upon us more glory hereafter—and all he gives, will, in one sense, flow back to himself again. Those who receive most from him, will give back most to him. Higher degrees of glory, while, as regards ourselves, they will enlarge our capacity for happiness, will, as regards him, prepare us in a more elevated manner to enjoy, serve, and honor him.
For his sake then, as well as your own, grow in grace, that you may rise in glory!