Read II Corinthians 3:12–18; Ephesians 3:14–21
1. IN HEAVEN THERE IS NO PROGRESS IN SANCTIFICATION
“Nothing unclean shall enter heaven at all” (see Revelation 21:27). When a believer dies, he is in that selfsame moment wholly delivered from sin in every form. It is clear, therefore, that in the life hereafter there can be no progress in holiness. Today Abraham is not any holier than he was the very instant his soul arrived in heaven. In heaven there is no advance in sinlessness. In that respect all the redeemed are absolutely perfect from the very moment they enter the pearly gates.
2. NEVERTHELESS. THERE CAN VERY WELL BE PROGRESS IN HEAVEN; FOR EXAMPLE, IN KNOWLEDGE, LOVE, AND JOY
I do not know of a single passage in the entire Bible which directly and literally would prove that there is even this kind of progress in heaven. The church has not incorporated this idea in its confessions. If one is inclined to disagree with the theory that there is progress in heaven, he has the perfect right to do so. It is entirely a matter of inference, not of direct and positive proof.
That having been said, it is, nevertheless, the opinion of many–for example, H. Bavinck, J. J. Knap, R. C. H. Lenski, J. D. Jones—that there is such progress. This opinion is based on inference or deduction. Personally I believe that the inference is legitimate. I base my own opinion in the matter on the following grounds:
a. Scripture’s doctrine of everlasting life (John 3:16; 11:25.26; especially 10:10)
According to Scripture, when the soul enters heaven it continues to live. It does not just remain everlastingly in a fixed position. It does not simply “stay put.” It lives more abundantly than ever before. Now to live means to think, to have fellowship, to see and hear, to rejoice, etc. Now, as it would seem to me, for finite beings, in a state of sinlessness, such living spells progress. Is it at all probable that we shall think, and not advance, in knowledge? That we shall have fellowship—and what a fellowship!—and not make progress in love? That we shall see and hear the glories of heaven, and not become enriched in our experience of heavenly joy?
Moreover, growth in knowledge, love, and joy is not necessarily inconsistent with “perfection.” Just as here on earth the “perfect” child is the growing child, and just as the “perfect” Christ-child was the one who “advanced in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men” (Luke 2:52), so it may well be in heaven.
b. Scripture’s doctrine of the greatness of God and the littleness of man (Isaiah 40:25, 26; 44:6; 45:5)
According to Scripture, our souls are—and ever remain—finite, restricted, limited. But God in Christ is—and ever remains—infinite, unrestricted, unlimited. Besides God there is no God. Now when, in a condition of absence from sin and death, the finite comes into contact with the Infinite, is it possible that the finite would not make progress? When the inexhaustible riches of heaven are poured into vessels of definitely limited capacity, is it possible that such vessels would not become more and more filled?
Take, as an example, Christ’s love toward us. Even in heaven we shall strive to know “the breadth, length, height, and depth” of that love. Of course, no redeemed soul will strive to do this all by himself. He will try to do it “together with all the saints.” Even then, however, according to Scripture, that love of Christ toward us is a love which “passes knowledge.” The whole of it will ever remain too great for human comprehension. It is exactly as the poet said:
“Could we with ink the ocean fill,
And were the skies of parchment made,
Were every blade of grass a quill,
And every man a scribe by trade;
To write the love of God above
Would drain the ocean dry,
Nor could the scroll contain the whole.
Though stretched from sky to sky.”
That, as I see it, will be the glory of heavenly life; namely, that we shall be delving ever more deeply into that love of God, and shall continue to discover everlastingly that we have not reached bottom and can never reach bottom, for there is no bottom: that love is infinite. We shall never be told, “Now you know absolutely all there is to know about the love of God in Christ.” If thorough, infinite comprehension of God’s love—or of any of his attributes—were possible, we would cease to be finite. We would ourselves be God. And yet, besides God there is no God! As long, therefore, as Christ’s love remains infinite and we remain finite, we shall make progress in our knowledge of that love and in our loving and joyful response to it. Is it even conceivable that one who—even if only with the eye of his soul—beholds the glory of God in Christ would not advance in knowledge, love, and joy?
c. Scripture’s doctrine of the absence of sin From the realm of heaven? (Matthew 6:10; Revelation 21:27)
In heaven, according to Scripture, there is no sin. This means that the chief obstacle to progress will have been completely removed. Neither sin nor the curse is able to dwell there at all. Now it would seem to me that minds unobscured by sin will make better progress in knowledge than minds obscured by sin; that hearts no longer oppressed by the results of sin will advance more readily in inner delight than hearts that are thus oppressed.
d. Scripture’s symbolic language (I John 3; 9; Revelation 22: 1, 2; cf. Ezekiel 47:1–5)
The Bible pictures everlasting life or salvation under the symbolism of a germinating seed, a growing and fruit-bearing tree, an ever-deepening river, etc. All such figures would seem to imply progress.
e. Scripture’s doctrine of the abiding character of hope (I Corinthians 13:13)
Hope means joyful anticipation of glories still to come. To be sure, here on earth we also hope. But these hopes are not always fulfilled. In heaven, however, every hope attains fulfillment, and, at the same time, hope continues on and on. Does not this two-fold fact imply everlasting progress; namely, in knowledge, love, joy, etc.? Indeed, as I see it, there is progress in heaven, and this even during the intermediate state.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
A. Questions Answered in the Outline1. In which sense is it true that there is no progress in heaven? 2. In which sense could it, nevertheless, be true that there is progress in heaven? 3. Do you think that finite creatures will ever be able to know “all about” the love of Christ? If not, why not? 4. Does the absence of sin from the realm of heaven have anything to do with the possibility of progress in heaven? 5. What are some of the other arguments on which I have based the opinion that there is progress in heaven?
B. Additional Questions1. Purposely I used the expression “progress; for example, in knowledge, love, and joy.” Can you add anything to this list of three? 2. Adam and Eve were “perfect” before the fall. Did that exclude the possibility of progress? 3. Our Lord Jesus Christ, as man, was “perfect,” completely sinless. Did that exclude the possibility of progress? See Hebrews 5:7–10; notice especially verse 8. How do you explain that? 4. Does not I Corinthians 13:12 (“then shall I know fully even as I was fully known”) exclude any idea of the possibility of progress? Hint: does this actually mean, “then shall I know infinitely”? If it meant that, what would that make of us? What does I Corinthians 13:12 mean in the light of the entire context? 5. Is this idea of progress even in heaven of any practical value? For instance, is there possibly a relation between our rate of spiritual progress here and our rate of progress (in knowledge, love, joy, etc.) there?