Theosis: Does Christmas Make Men Gods?

Sometimes you’re reading an old Church Father or something along those lines when you suddenly feel the need to stop in your tracks because you hit a quote like this one from St. Athanasius:

For the Son of God became man so that we might become god.

If you’re not from an Eastern tradition of Christianity, you might think that sounds heretical.Then there are other statements like of Irenaeus: “If the Word became a man, It was so men may become gods,” or of Augustine: “But he himself that justifies also deifies, for by justifying he makes sons of God. ‘For he has given them power to become the sons of God.’ If then we have been made sons of god, we have also been made gods.” 

So what does this all mean? Were the Church Fathers just raving heretics who missed important doctrines like monotheism and the Creator/creature distinction? Were they basically the predeccessors of New Age charlatans? I’m going to say “No,” and if that seems indefensible I will go on to explain why, and what the line of thought they’re talking about has to offer us today, specifically from a more Reformed perspective.

The doctrine we are specifically dealing with here is called theosis (also deification or divinization). Broadly speaking, the term just refers to a creature somehow becoming more like a god. For Christian theology in particular it is about a way of looking at salvation focused on our union with God. So what exactly does theosis mean in that context?

First, I should point out that despite the strong language in those quotes I just provided, none of these people thought that humans were somehow going to become equal to God, members of the Trinity, secondary deities, or anything along those lines. What they actually meant is more nuanced. They all believed that there is and can be only one true God, and that humans can’t just become another one, or something just like Him. So we can ignore the initial fear and try to find the reality that the writers were pointing toward by using deification language. Specifically, I will look at this from a Reformed perspective, through the lens of union with Christ.

In Reformed and Lutheran circles, doctrines of theosis are sometimes called Christification to emphasize that we are not dealing with some generic turing of men into gods but that what is happening in theosis is the transformation of humanity into the pure image of Christ, who is the image of God. Theosis means that through Jesus we participate in the life and glory of God, and that is where we find salvation.

What does this mean more specifically? I’ll break it down a little more clearly. Man by his mere flesh, his nature without God, has no true life or glory. He is little more than a smart and emotionally complex monkey. He will pass away after a brief, absurd, and often miserable existence filled with sin. His life and glory can come only from God, only from His ability and call to display the image of God. The glory of God is the true life of man. But because of sin, man is separated from the glory of God. This leaves him with only death and misery.

Jesus came in to resolve this problem. Being Himself God, He took upon human nature so that in His person there could be a humanity who is truly the image of the invisible God. Jesus, being that image unstained, lived a human life which was completely filled with the glory of God both in His power and in His holy character. Unlike Adam, He carried out that union of man’s life and God’s glory all the way to the grave and even back. Upon returning in a victorious resurrection, He was glorified as a renovated human being. His resurrected humanity far surpassed the old, mortal kind. It was and remains filled to the brim with God’s life and glory. Jesus is therefore what God looks like as a man. Jesus’ glory as the resurrected Lord is the human version of the glory of God. He is the image of the invisible God, and the only person in whom human nature has been able to align perfectly with divine nature (though without the two being mixed up together). To reiterate in one more way, in Jesus God’s glory has been translated into a human glory, a glory owned by the risen Christ.

The result with Jesus, then, is this: in Him there exists a form of humanity that far surpasses our fallen, sinful state, and even surpasses Adam’s state in Eden. It is filled with more life, glory, and power than man has ever known because of His union with God the Father through the Holy Spirit.This is humanity grown up, perfected, and exalted as God’s partner in love. This is not by any power inherent in mere humanity, but by grace alone, the free grace of the Son in choosing to become man, the free grace of the Father in resurrecting and glorifying His Son, and the grace of the Holy Spirit in binding this all together by His sovereign power. And by this grace Jesus has formed a kind of humanity which, compared to us in our current state, is so exalted and like-God to possibly justify calling it deified humanity, man become god.

Now, because of this new kind of human existence which Jesus alone possesses by nature, a special union between God and man, the rest of us are invited to join in. But we are called by grace alone through a union of faith with Jesus in the Spirit. And in this union we are transformed. We get to participate in the new, glorious humanity of Christ. We are conformed to the image of Christ (thus Christification), who is the image of God. So by the Spirit we become like the Son who is the exact expression of the Father. In this way we also come to be filled with and to express God’s life and glory. The glory of God became the glory of the man Jesus, and by our union with Him it becomes our glory as well. This is, in the end, our salvation. By our union with Christ through the Holy Spirit, we commune with God so much as to become like Him in a supernatural way which transcends the natural possibilities of anything else in creation. As Peter put it, we “become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4), not to become literal equals to God or sub-gods but to become in our human existence what Jesus is in His human existence, an existence which is created and animated by His divine nature.

The focus, then, is all about union with Christ. Theosis, in a Reformed key, is a way of saying, on the basis of Scripture alone, that by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone we are radically transformed and exalted from our totally depraved human existence to a state which lives by and expresses the glory of God alone. By the Spirit and word we know Christ, by Christ we know God, and by knowing God in Christ we are conformed to His image to His glory unto eternal life (2 Cor. 3:18, 1 Jn. 3:2, John 17:3).

This naturally makes for a great Christmas meditation. In theosis, everything has to go back to Christmas. If Jesus did not incarnate, if He did not enter our human existence as an infant in Bethlehem, then there would be no union between God and man, no restoration of human nature by the glory of God. It all began with the Son of God becoming a Son of Man, so that we might become sons of God. On Christmas, we find that by Jesus’ grace He partook in our nature, so that by the same grace we could partake in His.

Or, perhaps as Clement of Alexandria put it, “The Word of God became man, that thou mayest learn from man how man may become god.” Merry Christmas, children of God!

Theosis: Does Christmas Make Men Gods?

How Pentecost Saves Us

Today is Pentecost Sunday, a day which often does not receive much attention in evangelical churches. That’s a bit of a shame, so for this Pentecost Sunday I want to peek into the role that Pentecost plays in our salvation through Christ. We all know that Good Friday matters, and I have written before on how Easter and the Ascension matter, but how does Pentecost save us?

After Jesus ascended, His followers were left waiting for the power to go out and become His witnesses.1 It was an awkward moment in which Jesus was no longer there, and the disciples had nothing to launch them forward. Yet before long, Pentecost arrived, and suddenly the Holy Spirit appeared and filled them all.2 Immediately the Church came to life in power. In the course of a day, 3000 people were converted. Something marvelous had just changed in the life of the Apostles. What exactly happened, though, and what is its significance?

What we are seeing here is the completion of Christ’s work of salvation. Jesus dealt with the sin problem, rose victorious to new life, and ascended to the throne of creation at the Father’s right hand. Still, one thing was left. Paul tells us that without the Spirit of Christ, there is no union with Christ.3 Without union with Christ, salvation in Him is still distant. The Apostles were waiting, not merely for power, but for the fullness of salvation itself. At Pentecost, the ascended Lord of the world poured out His own Spirit on His people so that, through this Spirit, they could receive the life He won for them and brought into heaven in God’s presence.

Yet this is where I will introduce a belief I have acquired from studying Scripture which I have not often heard, and which I know some people will not accept. I only add it because I believe it is core to what happened at Pentecost. On that day, the Church was baptized into the Spirit and born again. The new life they received through the Spirit isn’t just any new life, but the life of the new birth. For the first time in history, lost humans were regenerated.

The Biblical support for this view is, I believe, solid. It is clear enough that at Pentecost the Church received the Holy Spirit. Specifically, in receiving the Holy Spirit I propose that they received the new resurrection life of Christ which is the new birth. Some of the first Biblical evidence for this is found in John, where there is a constant connection between the new birth, water, the Spirit, and eternal life.4 In John Jesus teaches that the washing of the new birth will come with the gift of the Holy Spirit, which of course took place at Pentecost. John also specifically highlights that the Spirit was not given in this way before Jesus’ glorification.5

More evidence for this is found in the Old Testament prophecies about the New Covenant. In the prophets, it was foretold that God would restore His people from their exile, give them a new and better covenant, create in them a new heart of flesh rather than stone, and put His Spirit within them.6 This “heart transplant” is certainly to be identified with regeneration, and yet it is bound up with the giving of the New Covenant and the Holy Spirit. These were not Old Covenant realities, but new gifts brought to Israel through Jesus, the living Flesh of the New Covenant who replaces the Torah written on stone as the heart of God’s people.

We see, then, full Biblical reason to identify the giving of the Spirit at Pentecost as the giving of new birth to Israel, producing the Church who lives through Christ’s resurrection life. Pentecost is therefore the time of a truly new beginning, the day that salvation fully entered the lives of Christ’s followers. Even today, we who are alive in Christ have been born again because we have been given the same Spirit who was first given nearly 2000 years ago during the Feast of Weeks.

In this way, then, we see that even Pentecost, an event which occurred almost two months after the Crucifixion, plays a major role in salvation. It was at Pentecost that the Spirit was given, and with Him new life. We are united with the risen and ascended Lord who paid the penalty for our sins because He gave us His Holy Spirit. By this union we experience new life. By this union we are saved. Even Pentecost saves us.

How Pentecost Saves Us

Assorted Thoughts on Christmas

The title here is as descriptive as they get. I basically have a bunch of random thoughts about Christmas. I could write them all as separate posts and try to elaborate and go into loads of detail, but why do that when it’s almost Christmas and you have people to see, presents to wrap, and plans to make? So here you go, assorted thoughts on Christmas from yours truly:

  • The way I see it, the question about “the meaning of Christmas” is rather pointless. Christmas is too big and straddles too many groups and cultures to even have a single meaning. It it’s not something laid out by God’s will in Scripture, so we have no basis for saying it even has to be about Jesus, though of course it’s great if it is. The more important question, in my mind, is “What will you make of Christmas?” or perhaps even, “What will you make Christmas mean to people in need?”
  • Following somewhat on that point, I personally tend to see basically two Christmasses as my personal framework. To me, there is the celebration of Jesus’ birth as one thing, and the common cultural traditions as another thing, both of which happen to be called “Christmas.” I enjoy each one in its own way and as its own thing. I love to think about the significance of Christ’s birth, and to call the world to think about the Savior. In a mostly independent way, I love the air of cheer, joy, friendliness, presents, trees, lights, and celebration. The two can overlap somewhat, but I nonetheless enjoy each part of Christmas in its own right.
  • I think Christmas is a very interesting phenomenon. What drives massive portions of the human race to calm down a bit on the hostility, celebrate peace, exchange gifts, and try to be a little happier than usual? It seems to be something that came along apart from the celebration of Jesus’ birth, so what led everyone to do this once a year? Why aren’t we mostly the same all year long? What power lies behind this kind of global day of the good that something like the Christmas truce could even happen? It’s all rather odd to me, and I cannot help but think that God intervenes, at least a little bit, to give us this time of year. Who’s to say that snow angels aren’t really angels?
  • Why was Jesus born? “To save us from our sins” is the usual answer. So I’d like to ask next, “Would Jesus have come if the Fall never happened and we didn’t have sin?” This is an interesting question, and I believe myself that the answer is “yes.” A neglected part of our theology of salvation is how essential it is for God and man to be united in the person of Jesus Christ, the God-man. Eternal life is not merely the biological reality we would have if we never sinned; it is the life of eternal communion with the Triune God, a life given to us through the Holy Spirit and created by the life of Jesus, the only person in whom divine life and human life are always and completely united and reconciled. So even without sin, I’m convinced that we would not have eternal life without Christmas. Jesus was always destined to be the one Mediator, the Reconciler, the Firstborn over all creation, God’s Word in flesh.
  • I think most churches should take a far more active role in bringing Christmas blessings directly and personally to the people of their local communities. Not just giving money and/or outsourcing to another organization. Not just contributing to a Christmas charitable thingo. Not just shoeboxes. Actually getting out, taking gifts of many different kinds, and sharing the love of Christ face-to-face with loads of people. Not just cheap gifts, either. Nice gifts. Gifts like you would want someone to give you. It’s like that one rule Jesus taught. What was that, again?
  • “Away in a Manger” seems to imply the heresy of Docetism. Just sayin’.
Assorted Thoughts on Christmas

Happy Resurrection Day! (Or, Why Easter Rocks)

Happy Easter, everyone! Today is that marvelous day when we all sing of one reality: He is risen! The Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, rose from the dead on this day around 2000 years ago. As it is written, “God raised Him from the dead.”

Today, I do not feel the need to correct any errors, at least directly, because the Resurrection is a reality of what is right and good. Easter is for happy celebration, so correction feels out of place. I do, however, want to simply highlight some of the great truths about the Resurrection, so that we can rejoice in and meditate on them for this Easter day. Without further ado, let’s remember what the Resurrection means for us:

The Resurrection means that our physical bodies will be resurrected. If anything is clear from Jesus rising, we can know that His rising is the cause and the guarantee of ours (John 14:19, Rom. 6:5, 8, 1 Cor. 15:20-23, 2 Cor. 4:14). Our salvation can never be complete without our bodily resurrection, because God made us to have bodies, and in fact if we don’t physically rise from the dead through Christ then we are still lost in our sins (cf. 1 Cor. 15)! But praise be to God that He has raised our Lord from the dead, so that all us of who die in Him will be resurrected just like He was (Rom. 6:8). And when we are resurrected, we will receive the eternal life of knowing God, and His Son whom He has sent (John 17:3, 1 John 5:20).

The Resurrection means that we are forever united to God in intimate fellowship through Jesus. Jesus was and is the God-man, the one person who holds together in Himself both divine (Col. 2:9) and human nature (1 Jn. 4:2). He is completely God and completely human united together in His very being. So because He carried that closeness through His entire human life and death, in the end to come out victorious risen, God and humanity are forever reconciled! Jesus Himself is the one Mediator (1 Tim. 2:5), the person with one foot in God’s life (John 1:1) and the other in our human life (Heb. 2). By the power of an unending life (Heb. 7:6) He forever keeps us in the Father’s presence. For we are in Christ (Rom. 8:1, 12:5, 1 Cor. 1:30) the Son, and the Son is in the Father (John 17:21), and the Father is in the Son (John 17:23).

The Resurrection means we are justified, brought into a right standing before God. The Bible tells us that Jesus was raised for our justification (Rom. 4:25). Even though we were sinners before God, condemned in His sight, Jesus took on our sin (2 Cor. 5:21), died, and then rose. This was the final act needed to make us right in God’s sight, for by coming back from the dead Jesus gave us a new life not under law and its condemning powers. For whoever has died is free from the law (Rom. 7:1, 4), and in coming back to life Jesus brought us a new life apart from the law (7:6). This means there is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:1). By raising Jesus from the dead, the Father stamped His approval on Christ’s entire life and work of salvation (Acts 5:3-32, 17:31), meaning we are certainly now righteous in His sight.

The Resurrection means that all creation will be redeemed and made new. Jesus did not rise just to give us new life, but in fact He did this to restore the whole universe! As we see in Romans 8:19-23, creation itself is eagerly waiting for the Spirit to restore the world to glorious freedom (and at this point Paul’s already established the connection between the Spirit’s regenerating work and Christ’s resurrection). Jesus reconciles all things in heaven and earth to God (Col. 1:20), even the broken creation, which will be put through the fire (2 Pet. 3:10-13) to become a new creation (Rev. 21:1). All this is accomplished by the Resurrection of the Son of God.

How can I even conclude reflecting on such a wonderful truth? I’ll let Paul do it for me. Since Jesus rose from the dead:

What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He did not even spare His own Son but offered Him up for us all; how will He not also with Him grant us everything? Who can bring an accusation against God’s elect? God is the One who justifies. Who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is the One who died, but even more, has been raised; He also is at the right hand of God and intercedes for us. Who can separate us from the love of Christ? Can affliction or anguish or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: Because of You we are being put to death all day long; we are counted as sheep to be slaughtered. No, in all these things we are more than victorious through Him who loved us. For I am persuaded that not even death or life, angels or rulers, things present or things to come, hostile powers, height or depth, or any other created thing will have the power to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord!

Romans 8:31-39

Happy Resurrection Day! (Or, Why Easter Rocks)

Yes, This Is A New Year’s Resolution Post

There are few things more expected from a blogger than some kind of post for a major holiday, including New Year’s. Also usually expected is a post about New Year’s resolutions, especially from people who blog about personal stuff.

Most people don’t follow through on most of their New Year’s resolutions. In fact, I’m pretty sure jokes abound about not making a resolution because you actually want to accomplish something. I have a theory, though. I think one of the main reasons that people don’t follow through is that they make their resolutions far too ambitious. It seems that most people resolve to fix all of/most of/the biggest of their life problems. That’s admirable, but such changes often take many years, or happen imperceptibly. So those kinds of resolutions rarely work out like people want.

This is why, this New Year’s, I’m making a really simple resolution: read. I’ve always enjoyed reading, and have always been somewhat of a reader. Lately, however, I have not been reading like I used to. I’ve let my electronics and laziness get in the way. This is a shame, because not only do I enjoy reading, but reading is good for me. It sharpens my mind, edifies my spirit, expands my knowledge, and engages my imagination. God has made me to read, and I thrive in living that out.

So my New Year’s resolution is to read more, read a bunch like I did in days gone by. In fact, I think I’ll start by reading through the whole Bible, as I saw suggested to reader-y types like me on The Gospel Coalition Blog. I pray God will use this to edify me and bind me nearer to Jesus. I think I’ll make my goal to finish by the end of January.

My advice to everyone else: if you want to make a New Year’s resolution, make it simple. Start with something basic, and pray God works with it. It doesn’t necessarily have to be spiritual. God owns your whole life. Choose any part to make better. I believe God blesses that.

Happy New Year’s!

Yes, This Is A New Year’s Resolution Post