Why should Christians pursue heavenliness?
James Durham (1622-1658) was minister in Glasgow for only eleven years but left a considerable number of writings. One of the co-authors of 'The Sum of Saving Knowledge', he is best known for writing what is still regarded as the classic Reformed work on church unity, division and schism, 'A Treatise Concerning Scandal' as well as a highly sought after commentary on the Book of Revelation.
10 Aug, 2023

The pressures of secularism can mean that even Christians place more value on earthly things than heavenly, as if heaven was an afterthought in our lives and the really important things are to do with the here and now. This is entirely back to front, as James Durham realised and endeavoured to remind his hearers — Christians of all people should live in a heavenly way. Durham preached a sermon on the words, “Our conversation is in heaven …” (Philippians 3:20). When it was first published it was titled “A Very Heavenly Sermon.” The following updated extract explains what is meant by heavenliness, and explains why as Christians we should pursue heavenliness.

The word “conversation” or “citizenship” implies both entitlement to the privileges which belong to a certain township, and a distinctive manner of living and behaving according to the customs of that city. For Christians, it signifies a joint interest with the saints (as they are fellow citizens with the saints; Eph. 2:19), and assumes a way, walk, and lifestyle like heaven — having a nature, inclinations, desires, designs, and qualifications that are distinctively suitable to heaven.

There is a sort of heavenliness which all Christians without exception should pursue, and which is indeed their duty.

Through grace, heavenliness is in a great measure attainable. Paul and other believers attained it. It means a suitableness in respect of qualification, conformity and likeness, in so far as is incumbent to sojourners who are walking towards heaven.

It marks out the serious and suitably exercised Christian in a unique and contradistinguishing way from all others in the world. That Christian’s “conversation” is in heaven, while that of others is not.

Yet it’s not an ordinary and common thing among professing Christians, to have this heavenliness. “Many” (says the apostle) “walk, of whom I have told you, and now tell you weeping, that they are enemies to the cross of Christ: but I and a few others have our conversation in heaven.” The “many” that he speaks of here, I take to be those of whom he speaks in the chapter 1, who preached Christ, but out of envy, and exhorted people to holiness, likely with more than ordinary fervour, yet they did not have this heavenliness.

What is heavenliness?

Prizing heaven

Heavenliness is when we set heaven in our sights as our own great aim and purpose, next to the glory of God. Just as having an “earthly” conversation means that you mind earthly things, and you keep inclining towards them, and are wholly or mostly taken up about the things of the world, so to be heavenly is to have your mind taken up about heaven, prizing, affecting and seeking after heaven and heavenly things. “Seek after, or set your affections on, those things that are above” (Col. 3:1).

Actively making for heaven

Heavenliness includes taking the way that leads to the end — using all means and duties that lead to heaven. Paul indicates the earnestness and ardency of affections that Christians ought to have towards heavenly things, and how very much they should, with holy care and solicitude, be busy in using all means, and practicing all duties, which will further and promote heavenliness. It’s the counterpoint of how the worldly are taken up and exercised with carking cares, leaving no stone unmoved to promote and attain their earthly goals.

Acting like we will in heaven

Heavenliness means walking like those who are in heaven. Instead of being conformed to the world, or like the men of the world, we are to be like the angels and glorified saints in heaven, according to our capacity. As we are taught to pray, ‘Thy will be done on earth, as it is done in heaven.’ It’s to be one of a kind with and have a natural suitableness and proportionableness to those who are glorified in heaven.

Visiting heaven often

Heavenliness means we are often in heaven as to our thoughts and affections, and our desires and delights. Although we live on the earth, we should have, as it were, more than our one half in heaven. David says, “Unto thee, O Lord, do I lift up my soul” (Psa. 25:1). We should make frequent visits to heaven — we should have much to do there, have much to-and-fro, commerce, correspondence and interactions in and with heaven. We should converse more where we love, than where we live. Scripture calls this walking with God, having fellowship with Him, following hard after Him, and so on.

Why should the Christian pursue heavenliness?

In verse 17, the apostle exhorted the Philippians to be followers of him, and here he tells them that his conversation is in heaven. He proposes himself as our pattern in this, and the Spirit of God by him presses it on us as our duty to imitate him in this thing. It is not so singular a practice that he alone has the monopoly on heavenliness. It was common to him and other serious Christians according to their measure, which is why he doesn’t say “my conversation” but, “our conversation.”

A Christian’s “conversation” or “citizenship” should be heavenly because all that a Christian has is from and in heaven, and is some way heavenly.

Look, first, at the Christian’s nature. It’s from heaven; he is partaker of the divine nature, he is born of God, he is of the new Jerusalem, his Father is heavenly (as he is taught to pray, “Our Father, which art in heaven,” or, “Our heavenly Father”)

Where is the elder Brother? In the heavenly places. The Christian’s treasure is in heaven; his hope is in heaven; heaven is the city, the mansion, the rest, to which he is travelling.

Look, secondly, at the believer’s calling and his obligation. He is partaker of the heavenly calling (Heb. 2:1). Separated from the rest of the world, the Christian ought not to live as the world lives. He has a heavenly law to walk by. He has heavenly promises to feed on and live on, and to comfort himself in. His happiness is heavenly. All the duties that he is called to are heavenly.

Are not his prayers and praises heavenly? and can a believer possibly pray and praise rightly and not be heavenly?

To be translated from darkness to light, to be a partaker of the sanctifying Spirit of God, to be a new creature, to have the spirit of adoption, to have boldness of access to God, to be an heir and a joint-heir with Christ, &c. — are these not heavenly?

Or if, thirdly, we look at the believer’s company, is it not heavenly? We are come (says the apostle, Heb. 12) to God the judge of all, to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, to the new Jerusalem (which refers to all the saints in heaven and the saints on earth), to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly of the first born, and to the spirits of just men made perfect.

In a word, whatever we look to, whether to the believer’s nature, or to his end, or to the rule of his walk, or to the promises, or to his work and way wherein he is to go, it is all heavenly.

How can we be convinced to pursue heavenliness?

We should understand from all this what a high level of holiness we are called to. Many have clearly never walked under the conviction that holiness is necessary as a duty; otherwise it would not be possible that so many men and women, who are called Christians and profess a hope of heaven, could or would dare to live as they do — some in profanity, riotousness and gluttony, some in mere respectability and morality, and others in formality and hypocrisy at best.

Let me ask you in all earnestness, are you not convinced that this is a duty? or do you think that Paul was joking, or flattering, when he exhorts us to follow him in this? Or that it’s possible to enjoy so many heavenly privileges, or be to any purpose performing heavenly duties, if you are not heavenly? Don’t get the wrong idea about Christianity, as if when you are exhorted to be Christians, you are only invited not to be profane, or only to go about the externals of religion, or only to have a sort of mere sincerity in it. Indeed these things are good in themselves and we do not, we dare not, reject them, but rather commend them. But you are called to more, to much more!

I know some are so profane, and others are so misbelievingly discouraged, that when they hear such doctrine as this, they will be ready, the one sort to say, “Well, we can’t all be saints!” and the other, “Sadly, whoever is going to be a saint, it won’t be me!” But let all such mouths be stopped. We are called and obliged indispensably to be saints. If we are not saints here, we shall never be saints hereafter.

There are also some who have such distempered attitudes that they either put off all or most duties, or at least go about them very heartlessly, because they cannot attain perfection in them. But it’s clear from the Scriptures that there is a kind of perfection that can be attained here in this life, which is this holiness and heavenliness. When you shall be called to a reckoning, God will not ask you so much whether you did not get drunk, whore, swear, lie, cheat, steal, or the like, as whether you were heavenly in your way of life? Holiness is not to be limited to some few particular duties, but is the requisite qualification of a Christian in all duties and in all actions. Whether Christians are praying, practising, hearing, reading, buying, selling, eating, drinking, or whatever it may be, they are to be heavenly in it all

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