At one time or another, every Christian confronts the question “What is God’s will for my life?” When it comes to the specifics, the answer will differ for each of us according to context and calling, and we must exercise wisdom as we prayerfully study God’s Word and apply it in our lives. Most Christians will never know with certainty what their next step will be—only that it must be in faith as we obey the Lord’s commands.
One thing is certain, however: whatever our unique paths through life may be, God’s purpose is to shape us into the image of His Son, Jesus Christ.
In the New Testament, there are three passages that especially point us to this reality. As we come to grips with them, we will begin to understand the purpose of our salvation and God’s plan for our lives, now and in eternity.
God’s Eternal Purpose
We know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. (Rom. 8:28–29)
This well-loved passage from the apostle Paul reveals God’s eternal purpose. God has predestined His children “to be conformed to the likeness of his Son”—to be fashioned, shaped, molded in the way in which a potter molds clay. In the economy of God from all of eternity, He has made it His business to transform “those whom he foreknew.”
If we understand this reality in verse 29, we can then make sense of the oft-abused verse that precedes it: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him.” What is the “good” that He works for and guarantees? To conform us to the image and likeness of His Son! When we understand that, we will realize that even bad times may be for our good, for the ultimate good God is seeking is to ensure that we will become like His Son, Jesus.
Anyone who has been a maturing disciple for some time will have discovered that we make more spiritual progress along the pathway of failure and tears than along the pathway of success and laughter. Nevertheless, even maturing disciples are tempted to flee from trials that are clearly making them more like Jesus (James 1:2)—and in fleeing them, they miss their blessings. It is in the warp and woof of life, in the difficulties and in the disasters, that all of our rough parts are chipped away and we are fashioned into the image of Jesus.
When we read the Bible and look at the stories of those who have been saved, we can marvel at what God has done in their lives. Why should so great a witness as Stephen have been snuffed out so early on? Why should so faithful a man as Paul have endured all of those beatings and illnesses and shipwrecks? “Why, O Lord?” God’s answer is as profound as it is challenging: “I was making them like Jesus.”
God’s Ongoing Process
Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. (2 Cor. 3:16–18)
This second passage from the apostle Paul reveals something about how our transformation takes place. If we know the Lord and therefore have God’s Spirit at work in us, then we “are being transformed into the same image”—a present-tense experience. In other words, the eternal purpose of God is the ongoing process of God in each of our lives.
In 2 Corinthians 3 broadly, Paul draws a contrast between the old covenant and the new—between the reflected, fading glory of Moses that had to be veiled and the glory that we may now gaze upon freely in the face of the Lord Jesus Christ. Through His work on the cross, Christ has won us the privilege of gazing upon God’s glory as He Himself has revealed it to us. And as a result of that, we may begin to reflect His likeness.
Even bad times may be for our good, for the ultimate good God is seeking is to ensure that we will become like His Son.
“The Lord is the Spirit,” Paul writes—and the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives is always to turn our gaze away from ourselves and to Christ. So much about ourselves is discouraging. An honest assessment is likely to find a prayer life that is lacking, opportunities to share the Gospel missed, selfishness cherished, and sacrificial love avoided. In the face of such realities, what are we to do?
We’re to do what the Holy Spirit prompts us to do: to look away from ourselves and to look to Jesus, to “consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted” (Heb. 12:3). We begin to reflect the image of Jesus when we gaze upon His glory revealed to us in the Gospel. The work of the Spirit in our lives is to continue that process of looking more and more like our Savior.
But this passage reveals something else about how our transformation takes place: we “are being transformed into the same image”—a passive experience. We’re not transforming ourselves. The Spirit is transforming us.
This is no excuse to sit down and do nothing. God doesn’t put us in a passive position in order to neutralize us; He puts us there so that He might use the resources He has provided for us to accomplish His purposes. So He gives to us the means of grace such as His Word, the fellowship of God’s people, and the sacraments. You will never become like Jesus without taking hold of the means by which God intends to transform you.
In other words, it’s not a case of being wheeled into heaven as a result of passivity, nor is it a case of forcing our way in by sheer determination. It is as Paul says elsewhere: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12–13). In other words, we work out what He works in us. The grace of God teaches us to say no to ungodliness and to live upright and godly lives (Titus 2:11–12). That’s all the process. And in it all, the Holy Spirit is at work to make us like the Son.
God’s Completed Project
Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure. (1 John 3:2–3)
There are many details about our eternal destiny that we simply do not know. But we do know this: “When he appears we shall be like him.” Why? Because from all of eternity, that’s what God decided would happen. Furthermore, in the midst of our lives, He is already transforming us. Therefore, when we finally stand before Him, all that He has purposed and all that He has brought us through will come to its grand completion when are just as He intends.
John was agnostic with respect to precise details about our ultimate end, but he nevertheless reminds us of these truths: we do know that Christ will appear, that we will see Him exactly as He is, and that we will be like Him. The apostle Paul might have added, “We know that we will be with Him.” (See 2 Cor. 5:8; Phil. 1:23; Col. 3:4; 1 Thess. 4:17.)
The work of the Holy Spirit in our lives is always to turn our gaze away from ourselves and to Christ.
What incredible promises! Yet we’re so often tempted to focus on what is unsaid and untaught, fussing over and arguing about details we’re not even meant to know. In so doing, we lose track of the fact that God’s purpose is to make us like Jesus—and that is the very work that will be completed when we see Him! We can wait confidently and contentedly for the rest.
The fact is that these promises are all the knowledge of our future that we need to live a pure life. We will be with Him, and we will be like Him. What else could we need to make us zealous for the needs of the world and opportunities for evangelism! Our sure confidence in this destiny allows us to walk in obedience to Him as the Spirit empowers us, knowing that every step we take in Christ is one step closer to eternity.
The test of our love for Jesus is not whether we raise our hands when we’re singing songs, not whether we get that woozy feeling in the pit of our stomach, nor any of the other various quantifiers we’re tempted to latch onto. No, Jesus tells us how we know whether we love Him: “Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him” (John 14:21).
“Be Like Jesus, This My Song”
As Christians, our outlook is simple: we will be like Jesus. That is our priority. It’s easy to be concerned about what we’re going to do tomorrow, where we’re going to be, who we’ll be with, and so on. All of these questions about our future are uncertain. But we may know this: that God’s eternal purpose is to conform us to the image of Jesus. And that ought to transform how we view all of life’s moments and decisions—from the mundane to the extraordinary.
God’s process in the experience of time is to edge us nearer and nearer toward that end. And one day, when we are with Him, then we will certainly be like Him. And so today we may sing,
Be like Jesus, this my song
In the home and in the throng;
Be like Jesus, all day long!
I would be like Jesus.