Deification: The Radical Nature of our Relationship with God

If you’ve been a Christian for a few years and you move in evangelical circles, you are probably familiar with a scenario like the following:

The scene is a courtroom.  You are on trial for rebellion against God.  All the evidence has been presented, and the case against you is airtight. Your punishment is death and eternal separation from God.  There is no chance of getting off on a technicality or because of some legal loophole. The judge (in this case, God himself) sits at the bench with gavel in hand and is about to pronounce judgement.  He opens his mouth, and it is a matter of milliseconds before you hear the dreaded word ‘guilty’.  But to your astonishment, a ‘not’ precedes the word, ‘guilty’, and the gavel falls with a resounding crack.  ‘Not guilty’ – how can that be?  You know you’re guilty, and everyone else in the courtroom knows it, too.  You look at the judge for an explanation.  He proclaims that you are declared not guilty not based on the life you’ve lived, but based on the life that Jesus lived.  You are declared righteous because Jesus was righteous; his righteousness has been imputed to you and your punishment was placed on him…That is justification:  The moment you put your faith in Christ, you are declared righteous.

Such illustrations, whether completely adequate or not, are trying to communicate that for the Christian, our salvation is not based upon what we do but upon what Christ has done for us.  Our ‘righteousness’ would never be enough to save us – in fact, as Isaiah 64:6 says, ‘All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away’ (NIV).  A common tendency when we hear such courtroom illustrations is to focus on what we have been saved from – that is, our sins and God’s wrath, rather than what we have been saved to/for – that is, relationship with God.  But when we put our faith in Christ, we are not simply criminals now set free from the consequences of our crime; rather, we are set free to enjoy relationship with God.[1]  As Francis Schaffer puts it, ‘The legal circle of justification does not end statically; it opens to me a living person-to-person communication with the God who exists’.[2]

The news that because we are justified by God we can have a relationship with him is no groundbreaking or unheard of truth for most Christians.  I, like many reading this, was brought up singing hymns with words like, ‘what a friend we have in Jesus’[3], and ‘he walks with me and he talks with me and he tells me I am his own’[4].  Having a relationship with God is part of any basic understanding of Christianity, right?  But perhaps the very familiarity of such a truth is what has caused me not to recognise just how groundbreaking, breathtaking, and spectacular it really is.  As with a lot of things, we often need a shock to wake us from our dogmatic slumber (to borrow a phrase from Kant).  What woke me up in this regard was reading Eastern Orthodox theology and reading and teaching on various parts of John’s gospel, particularly chapter seventeen.  In what follows I’ll share some thoughts from the East and then move on to look at John, and, hopefully, doing so will help highlight how significant it is that Christians can have a relationship with God.

Thoughts from the East - Deification and Relationship with God 

You don’t have to read Eastern Orthodox theology too long before you come across the concept of divinization, deification or theosis (all synonyms).  Timothy Ware’s The Orthodox Churchprovides a very concise understanding of deification: ‘the final goal at which every Christian must aim: to become god, to attain theosis, “deification” or “divinization”.  For Orthodoxy our salvation and redemption mean our deification’.[5]  When you’ve grown up in conservative evangelical churches all your life and have been educated at a conservative Baptist Bible college like I have, you read something saying you should aim to ‘become God’ and you immediately start thinking ‘heresy’.  But often times, and this was true for me in the case of deification, it is the scent of heresy (whether true or perceived) that forces you to examine what is said more closely, and, in turn, examine your own understanding.  In what follows I will not give a full and faithful exposition of the Orthodox doctrine of deification for a couple of reasons.  One is that to do so would take too long.  Secondly, and primarily, my intention here is not to give a faithful account of the Orthodox position on deification, but, rather, to present a few things about and surrounding the doctrine that have helped me better understand the fullness of what relationship with God means.  I’ll start by briefly highlighting the centrality of the doctrine of deification in Orthodox theology.  I’ll then quickly mention a few things that may help quiet (though perhaps not totally silence) the heresy alarm bells, and, finally, I’ll spend most of my time examining the incarnation as it relates to the doctrine of deification, before moving on to John’s gospel.

The Centrality of the Doctrine

The doctrine of deification is not an obscure or tangential doctrine in Orthodoxy that you have to go to some neglected, dusty tome to find.  It is at the very heart of all Orthodox thinking.  You catch a glimpse of this in the last part of Ware’s quote above, ‘For Orthodoxy our salvation and redemption mean our deification’.[6]  You can see from this that deification is tied to the very heart of the gospel – our salvation and redemption.  The centrality of deification is expressed differently, though just as emphatically, by another prominent figure in modern Orthodoxy, Vladimir Lossky.  At the beginning of his book, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, Lossky speaks of the church’s struggle with various heretical ideologies throughout the centuries, such as Gnosticism, Arianism, Nestorianism, Apollinarianism, Monophysitism etc.  He shows how deification relates to all these struggles and concludes, ‘All the history of Christian dogma unfolds itself about this mystical centre [man’s deification], guarded by different weapons against its many and diverse assailants in the course of successive ages.  The theological doctrines which have been elaborated in the course of these struggles can be treated in the most direct relation to the vital end—that of union with God [deification]—to the attainment of which they are subservient.’[7] This statement by Lossky not only shows the supreme importance of deification for the Orthodox—‘all the history of Christian dogma unfolds itself about’ it—but it also begins to give some content to what is meant by ‘deification’.  In the above quote I’ve supplied in brackets the word ‘deification’ because from the context it is clear that is what Lossky is referring to, but you can see that in one of the instances above he uses the words ‘union with God’. This is what deification is about – it is about union with God, and, as I’ll argue below – particularly with the discussion of John’s gospel – this union is of an intimately personal/relational character.  Recast in these terms, then, deification is about man’s union/relationship with God, and put this way, it may begin to sound a little less alarming.  Before moving on to look at the incarnation in relation to deification, I’ll mention a few more points that may quiet the alarm bells a bit further.

Quieting the Alarm Bells 

Before quickly writing off the doctrine, it is important to remember at least three things. First, as has been mentioned, deification is central to the Orthodox faith, and something that is so central to a branch of Christianity with millions of adherents should not be lightly brushed aside.  Secondly, the doctrine has foundations in major Christian thinkers from very early in church history, such as Irenaeus (I will say more about him in the next section).  Neither of these considerations necessitates the truth of the doctrine, but they should at least give us pause before we dismiss it entirely.  Thirdly, and more importantly, the Orthodox do not simply believe this on the basis of the teaching of the church fathers—they think there is scriptural evidence for the idea of deification.  A key text is 2 Peter 1:4: ‘Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires’ (NIV – emphasis mine).  John’s gospel, particularly chapter seventeen, is also a place that scriptural warrant is found.[8]  It is not my intention to explain or defend an Orthodox understanding of these passages, although as I’ve already mentioned, I will turn to John’s gospel with some of my own thoughts below.  I mention these scriptures here to show that the Orthodox adhere to the doctrine on scriptural grounds and not simply on philosophical or historical grounds.

Looking at a few things that deification is not should also help clear up some misunderstanding.   In the last section I mentioned how deification is thought of in terms of union with God.  One thing to flag up here is that this union does not entail our being absorbed into God and becoming a part of his essence.  Union with God does not entail a loss of distinction—deified Christians are still themselves, while at the same time being united with God.  This important point is made in different ways by several writers, both ancient and modern.  In arguing against the position of the Arians, Athanasius says that our being in God does not mean our union with the Father is identical to Jesus’ union with the Father.  Rather, we receive this union by grace through the Spirit, where as Christ is in the Father by nature.[9]  Maximus Confessor also makes the point that the nature of the believer is not changed due to deification, ‘For it is clear that He who became man without sin (cf. Heb. 4:15) will divinize human nature without changing it into the divine nature’.[10]  And Lossky echoes this, while adding a bit more precision: ‘The union to which we are called is neither hypostatic—as in the case of the human nature of Christ—nor substantial, as in that of the three divine Persons: it is union with God in His energies, or union by grace making us participate in the divine nature, without our essence becoming thereby the essence of God’.[11]  Lossky speaks of why union with God does not result in the Christian being absorbed into God’s nature by saying it is union with God in his energies.  The Orthodox make a distinction between God’s essence and his energies, and because the union with God is with his energies, his essence and the essence of the believer do not fuse into one, but remain distinct.  I will leave to the side a discussion of what is meant by God’s energies as opposed to his essence because that goes beyond the scope of this article.[12]  The significant point for my concerns is that the union is not ‘hypostatic—as in the case of the human nature of Christ—nor substantial, as in that of the three divine Persons’.  This is critical because it means that the deified believer does not become a fourth (or fifth or millionth) member of the Trinity (which would, of course, then cease to be ‘Trinity’).[13]  This is a crucial clarification, and for me at least, significantly helps quiet the heresy alarm bells that start ringing when I read a passage like Ware’s above that tells me I must aim to ‘become God’.  However, although such considerations quiet my concerns about heresy, they also dull some of the initial excitement (albeit perhaps a wary excitement) by such a raw expression of deification Ware’s.  Part of the reason the excitement wears off, I think, is because saying that participation in the divine nature means you are not a member of the Trinity states things negatively: It doesn’t tell you what participation in the divine nature does mean.[14]  A more positive understanding of what this participation entails should begin to unfold in the next two sections, and hopefully, therefore, some of the excitement should return as well.

The Incarnation and Deification 

For the Orthodox, deification is the goal of the Christian – the reason for his being.  In this section I’ll explore how through the incarnation, Christ makes this goal attainable for the believer.  As mentioned above, Irenaeus in one of the early writers in which you can find ideas of deification.  Irenaeus is perhaps best known for his monumental work Against Heresies, where he describes and refutes a myriad of Gnostic heresies.  In this work, Irenaeus seeks to defend a doctrine of Christ that accords with apostolic witness and Scripture.  This is crucial because it is only the Christ of Scripture, who is both divine and human, who can, therefore, effect our salvation and draw the believer into God.  For example, he writes against those who assert Jesus was just a man saying, ‘But, being ignorant of Him who from the Virgin is Emmanuel, they are deprived of his gift which is eternal life...He [The Word] speaks undoubtedly these words [referring to Psalm 82:6-7] to those who have not received the gift of adoption, but who despise the incarnation of the pure generation of the Word of God, defraud human nature of promotion into God, and prove themselves ungrateful to the Word of God, who became flesh for them’.[15]  So those denying the divinity of Jesus lose his gift of eternal life and promotion into God.  He makes a similar statement against the Ebionites saying, ‘how can they be saved unless it was God who wrought out their salvation upon earth?  Or how shall man pass into God, unless God has passed into man?’.[16]  In order for man to attain this end, God first had to pass into men: i.e., God had to become a man.  Irenaeus does not explicitly use the terminology of deification, but his language of ‘passing into God’ foreshadows the explicit language of thinkers such as Athanasius a couple of centuries later.  Irenaeus comes even closer to the formulations of Athanasius in book five of Against Heresies when he says, ‘the Word of God, our Lord Jesus Christ…through His transcendent love, [became] what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself’’.[17]   This is God coming down in order to raise men up, and this is the theme that Athanasius picks up on a couple of centuries later. 

Near the end of Athanasius’ On the Incarnation we find one of the classic expressions of deification: ‘For He [the Word] was made man that we might be made God’.[18]  Athanasius returns to different expressions of this idea in many of his writings.  One comes in his second discourse against the Arians, in which Athanasius makes several points that are relevant for our discussion:

For therefore did He assume the body originate and human, that having renewed it as its Framer, He might deify it in Himself, and thus might introduce us all into the kingdom of heaven after his likeness.  For man had not been deified if joined to a creature, or unless the Son were very God; nor had man been brought into the Father’s presence, unless He had been his natural and true Word who had put on the body.  And as we had not been delivered from sin and the curse, unless it had been by nature human flesh, which the Word put on (for we should have nothing common with what was foreign), so also the man had not been deified, unless the Word who became flesh had been by nature from the Father and proper to Him.  For therefore the union was of this kind, that He might unite what is man by nature to Him who is in the nature of the Godhead, and his salvation and deification might be sure.[19]  

Athanasius is continuing in the vein of Irenaeus here, stressing that it was essential that Jesus be both divine and human for at least two critical reasons: Jesus had to be a man in order to deliver us from sin and the curse because our sin is a human problem that needed a human solution.  Secondly, he had to be God in order to deify us and introduce us into the kingdom of heaven and the presence of the Father.  Put in the terms that I began the article with, this is not just salvation from sin and judgement, but salvation to or for relationship with God.  Granted, Athanasius does not speak here in terms of ‘relationship with God’, but he does provide some positive content to what deification entails; e.g., entrance into the kingdom of heaven and the presence of the Father.  Being brought into the Father’s presence has particular relational overtones when viewed in light of passages from John’s gospel that will be examined below.  However, before moving on to those passages in John it will be useful to look at one more perspective on the incarnation and deification.

Recall that according to Ware ‘it [deification] is the final goal at which every Christian must aim’,[20] and for Lossky the ‘ultimate end is union with God or deification’.[21]  I have shown how for both Iranaeus and Athanasius the incarnation of the divine Word secures not only the believer’s salvation from sin and death but also his promotion into God or deification.  Pairing these two ideas then, deification as the ultimate end and the incarnation of the Word securing deification, can lead to the conclusion that some Orthodox thinkers hold – that the Word would have become flesh whether or not man sinned.  ‘The Incarnation’, writes Ware, ‘is an act of God’s philanthropia, of His loving-kindness towards humankind.  Several eastern writers, looking at the Incarnation from this point of view, have argued that even if humans had never fallen, God in His love for humanity would still have become human: the Incarnation must be seen as part of the eternal purpose of God, and not simply as an answer to the fall’.[22]  This point of view is stated very provocatively by George Gabriel when he writes, ‘The Incarnation did not take place for the Crucifixion; the Crucifixion took place so the Incarnation and the eternal communion of God and man could be fulfilled despite Satan, sin, and death’.[23]  Such a view carries with it the idea that the communion or union God has with believers through the incarnation is greater than or more intimate than what he shared with Adam and Eve before the fall.  The incarnation, from this perspective, does more than just restore mankind to his pre-fall state; rather, as Archibald Roberts puts it describing the understanding of Irenaeus and the Asiatics, ‘man had been created for a destiny which he had never realised; the interruption in the history of our race introduced by sin was repaired by the Incarnation, which carried back the race to a new head, and so carried it forward to a destiny of which under its original head it was incapable’.[24]  Roberts goes on to associate Athanasius with Irenaeus, saying for both of them the incarnation was, ‘an advance upon, the original state of man’.[25]  Roberts cites Athanasius’ second discourse against the Arians (section 67) where the following passage can be found to substantiate this claim: ‘Mankind is then perfected in Him [Christ] and restored, as it was made in the beginning, nay with greater grace[26]  And according to the likes of Gabriel, this ‘greater grace’, this deeper communion achieved through the Word taking on humanity was always a part of God’s design for mankind.

Admittedly, asserting that the Word would have become flesh even if man had not sinned takes us into the realms of speculation.  However, I think consideration of such a position highlights something important.  Such a view places the love of God for humanity and his desire to be in the most intimate communion with humanity right at the centre of the incarnation, and, therefore, causes us to marvel at the amazing love of God for mankind.  Perhaps this is because it shows that God’s great love for man, displayed in the incarnation, is not simply reactionary, responding to sin, but is part of his settled intentions toward humanity as a means of bringing man into the most intimate communion with God.  However, the potential danger in speculating that the incarnation would have taken place apart from the fall is that such a view could lessen the seriousness of humanity’s sin and the importance of the cross.  The reality of the world we live in and the way that world is portrayed by the Bible is that man did sin, that the Word did become flesh and the cross is central to the incarnation.  According to John Behr, Athanasius in his On the Incarnation uses the term ‘incarnation’ to refer broadly not just to the Word being born as a man but also to his death on the cross.  Behr writes, ‘In other words, “incarnation” does not simply refer to the birth of Jesus from Mary, conflating Jn 1.14, which does not speak of a birth, with the infancy narratives, which do not speak of a previously existing heavenly being, but rather refers to this birth when seen from, and then described in, the perspective of the Cross’.[27]  Throughout the gospels Jesus makes it clear that he came to die (for example, Mark 10:45).  And other places in the New Testament highlight the eternal nature of the purposes of God through the death of the son (1 Peter 1:18-20; Revelation 13:8).  It is in the sacrificial death of Jesus on the cross that man’s salvation from sin and death, as well as his elevation to intimate communion with God are made possible.  And both these aspects of our salvation are found in John’s gospel, to which we now turn.

John's Gospel 

In John’s gospel we see both what we are saved from and what we are saved to.  Quite early in the gospel we are confronted with the problem of man’s sin and are shown Jesus’ death is the solution.  We also see that Jesus’ death provides eternal life for those who believe in him.  The meaning of ‘eternal life’ is fleshed out in chapter seventeen, and although John does not mention deification his language does resonate with some of the ideas discussed above.   

In chapter seventeen John records Jesus’ prayer to his Father for his disciples and those who will believe in him through their message.  Jesus begins his prayer by saying that his hour has come.  A survey of the rest of John’s gospel reveals that what John has in mind when referring to Jesus’ hour is his death, and this death involves being ‘lifted up’ on the cross (cf. particularly 3:13; 12:23-36).  So Jesus’ death, the resulting glory for himself and the Father and the securing of eternal life for those the Father has given him form the context of the rest of the prayer (17:1-5).  And in verse three Jesus defines eternal life: knowing God and knowing him, the one sent by God.  From the rest of the gospel and the rest of the prayer, it is clear that the knowledge referred to here is no simple mental assent.  In verses six through eight we see that this knowledge involves obedience to God’s word and truly understanding that Jesus came from, and believing he was sent by, God.  As Jesus broadens from praying for his disciples to those who will believe as a result of their message (vv. 20-26), the picture of what this knowledge of God entails/leads to is expressed in the most intimate terms.  A few comments from these verses and other places in John’s gospel where similar things are expressed will help to highlight this intimacy.

In 1:18 we see that Jesus is ‘in the bosom of the Father’.  This is an expression which speaks of intimate relationship (the TNIV and NIV 2010 translate it, as ‘in closest relationship with the Father’).  The Word, who eternally shares in this intimate relationship with the Father, as the rest of the verse goes on to say, is the one who makes Him known.  And, as Jesus says to Philip in chapter fourteen, if you have seen him, you have seen the Father.  In this exchange with Philip he goes on to say that the Father is in him and he is in the Father.  Moving to chapter seventeen, we encounter similar language: Jesus being in the Father and the Father being in him, but here Jesus prays that those who believe in him should also be included in this intimate union shared by the Father and Son.  The eternal life that comes from knowing the Father and Son involves being one in the Father and the Son (v. 21) and having the Son dwell in the believer (v. 23). This eternal life also involves believers being with Jesus where he is so that they can see the glory given to him because of the Father’s love before the creation of the world (v.24).  This harkens back to 1:18 which tells us where Jesus is: in the Father’s bosom.  And as Athanasius writes, the believer can only be introduced into the kingdom of heaven and into the Father’s presence if Christ took on flesh.  The incarnation – in the very full sense of the word that includes Christ’s death and resurrection – opens up the possibility of believers being where Christ is, which is in the midst of the intimate communion he has with his Father.

So in John’s gospel, particularly in chapter seventeen, we see the connection for the believer between knowing Jesus and the Father, being in Father and Son, and having the love of the Father dwelling in them, as well as having the Son dwelling in them (v.26).   This, indeed, is union with God, and, as Ware puts it when commenting on this passage, ‘Christ prays that we may share in the life of the Trinity, in the movement of love which passes between the divine persons; He prays that we might be taken up into the Godhead’.[28]  This is the groundbreaking, breathtaking, spectacular truth of having relationship with God.  The Orthodox doctrine of deification, whether one agrees with it at all points or not, helps to awaken us to some of the amazing scriptural truths about eternal life, such as union with God.  

It is very easy to become numb to the radical message of the gospel, both in what it says about what we are saved from and what we are saved to.  And even if we were able to fully grasp all that the coming of Christ in the flesh means for these two areas, there would still be infinite depths to mine.  For as Athanasius says,

The achievements of the Saviour, resulting from His becoming man, are of such kind and number, that if one should wish to enumerate them, he may be compared to men who gaze at the expanse of the sea and wish to count its waves.  For as one cannot take in the whole of the waves with his eyes, for those which are coming on baffle the sense of him that attempts it; so for him that would take in all the achievements of Christ in the body, it is impossible to take in the whole, even by reckoning them up, as those which go beyond his thought are more than those he thinks he has taken in.[29]

May Christians never cease to be amazed at the infinite wonders that are ours because of the incarnation of the Word.