We are familiar with the countless passages that urge Christians to be one with each other, but we’re uncomfortable when the text urges us to become one with God. After all, God is just too big, too powerful, too other …
And yet there is clearly a sense in which such unity is urged as one of God’s purposes in saving us through Jesus.
The thought is implicit in more familiar images. We Christians are the body of Christ — making us, in some sense, one person. The church is the bride of Christ — which surely implies a unity comparable to the “one flesh” unity of husbands and wives described in Genesis 2.
And then there are such cosmic passages as —
(Eph 2:4-7 NAS) 4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), 6 and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places, in Christ Jesus, 7 in order that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.
Paul pictures Christians as united with Jesus in his resurrection and therefore on his throne.
This imagery is likely borrowed from Daniel 7 —
(Dan 7:13-14 ESV) 13 “I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. 14 And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.
In verses 13-14, the kingdom is given to the Son of Man, the Messiah. But later in the same chapter, the “saints” (or holy ones) possess the kingdom.
(Dan 7:18 ESV) 18 But the saints of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever, forever and ever.’
(Dan 7:21-22 ESV) 21 As I looked, this horn made war with the saints and prevailed over them, 22 until the Ancient of Days came, and judgment was given for the saints of the Most High, and the time came when the saints possessed the kingdom.
(Dan 7:27 ESV) 27 And the kingdom and the dominion and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven shall be given to the people of the saints of the Most High; his kingdom shall be an everlasting kingdom, and all dominions shall serve and obey him.’
Paul interprets these these passages as, of course, both true — the Son of Man and the saints will reign together as one.
Now, it would be a huge mistake to imagine that this unity with God and Jesus somehow makes us part of the Holy Trinity. We are repeatedly pictured as spending eternity worshiping and serving God, not as being God.
And yet the idea of being united with God should not be dismissed merely because it might be taken too far.
The Orthodox call this unity theosis. They also call it “deification,” which is a term I find more misleading than helpful. To become like God is not the same as becoming God. Will we be divine in the afterlife? It’s a matter of definition, I suppose, but to most people, words like “divine” and “deity” distinguish the Trinity from all others, and that distinction is eternal, as even the Orthodox concede. Therefore, I prefer theosis to mean becoming united with God and like God in the scriptural sense but not being elevated to the same level as the Trinity.
As explained in the OrthodoxWiki—
Through theoria, the knowledge of God in Jesus Christ, human beings come to know and experience what it means to be fully human (the created image of God); through their communion with Jesus Christ God shares Himself with the human race, in order to conform them to all that God is in knowledge, righteousness and holiness. Theosis also asserts the complete restoration of all people (and of the entire creation), in principle. …
All of humanity is fully restored to the full potential of humanity because the Son of God took to Himself a human nature to be born of a woman, and takes to Himself also the sufferings due to sin (yet is not Himself a sinful man, and is God unchanged in His being). In Christ, the two natures of God and human are not two persons but one; thus, a union is effected in Christ, between all of humanity and God. So, the holy God and sinful humanity are reconciled in principle, in the one sinless man, Jesus Christ. (See Jesus’s prayer as recorded in John17.)
This reconciliation is made actual through the struggle (podvig in Russian) to conform to the image of Christ. Without the struggle, the praxis, there is no real faith; faith leads to action, without which it is dead. One must unite will, thought and action to God’s will, His thoughts and His actions. A person must fashion his life to be a mirror, a true likeness of God. More than that, since God and humanity are more than a similarity in Christ but rather a true union, Christians’ lives are more than mere imitation and are rather a union with the life of God Himself: so that, the one who is working out salvation, is united with God working within the penitent both to will and to do that which pleases God.
Theosis is thus a doctrine repeatedly and plainly taught in scripture that is largely ignored by the Western church. In the West, the goal is to get saved and so go to heaven when we die, which is accomplished through faith actuated in baptism (or the sinner’s prayer, in some denominations). The saved person then lives a good, moral life, attends church, contributes tithes, and tries not to mess up so badly as to fall away (or demonstrate that he was never really saved in the first place).
A more mature approach to life after baptism is for the church to call the Christian into the mission of God, so that the Christian is no longer merely trying to be a good, moral person and church member, but the Christian is actively seeking the realization of the Kingdom through serving those in need and evangelism. This is surely one step toward becoming like God, because we share in God’s mission.
The Orthodox call the Christian to become like God by being transformed into the image of Christ. In Protestant churches, this is sometimes called “spiritual formation.”
In contemporary Protestantism, discussions of spiritual formation tend to run toward such practices as meditation, prayer, and lectio divina, that is, toward highly individualistic spiritual disciplines designed to create “disciples.”
In Orthodoxy, theosis is achieved by very different means —
First, [theosis] is not something reserved for a few select initiates, but something intended for all alike. …
Secondly, … [theosis] always presupposes a continued act of repentance. A saint may be well advanced in the way of holiness, yet he does not therefore cease to employ the words of the Jesus Prayer ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.’ …
In the third place, there is nothing esoteric or extraordinary about the methods which we must follow … : go to church, receive the sacraments regularly, pray to God ‘in spirit and in truth,’ read the Gospels, follow the commandments. The last of these items — ‘follow the commandments’ — must never be forgotten. Orthodoxy, no less than western Christianity, firmly rejects the kind of mysticism that seeks to dispense with moral rules.
Fourthly, [theosis] is not a solitary but a ‘social’ process. We have said that [theosis] means ‘following the commandments;’ and these commandments were briefly described by Christ as love of God and love of neighbour. The two forms of love are inseparable. A man can love his neighbour as himself only if he loves God above all; and a man cannot love God if he does not love his fellow men (1 John 4:20). Thus there is nothing selfish about [theosis]; for only if he loves his neighbour can a man be deified. ‘From our neighbour is life and from our neighbour is death,’ said Antony of Egypt. ‘If we win our neighbour we win God, but if we cause our neighbour to stumble we sin against Christ’ (Apophthegmata (P.G. 65), Antony 9). Man, made in the image of the Trinity, can only realize the divine likeness if he lives a common life such as the Blessed Trinity lives: as the three persons of the Godhead ‘dwell’ in one another, so a man must ‘dwell’ in his fellow men, living not for himself alone, but in and for others. ‘If it were possible for me to find a leper,’ said one of the Desert Fathers, ‘and to give him my body and to take his, I would gladly do it. For this is perfect love’ (ibid, Agatho 26). Such is the true nature of theosis.
Fifthly, love of God and of other men must be practical: Orthodoxy rejects all forms of Quietism, all types of love which do not issue in action. [Theosis], while it includes the heights of mystical experience, has also a very prosaic and down-to-earth aspect. When we think of … Saint Basil caring for the sick in the hospital at Caesarea, of Saint John the Almsgiver helping the poor at Alexandria, of Saint Sergius in his filthy clothing, working as a peasant in the kitchen garden to provide the guests of the monastery with food. …
Finally, [theosis] presupposes life in the Church, life in the sacraments. Theosis according to the likeness of the Trinity involves a common life, but only within the fellowship of the Church can this common life of coinherence be properly realized. Church and sacraments are the means appointed by God whereby man may acquire the sanctifying Spirit and be transformed into the divine likeness.
In fact, the Orthodox approach sounds a lot like a combination of the spiritual disciplines and missional living, with a much healthier emphasis on living as part of the Christian community and participating in the Lord’s Supper. That is, the Orthodox have managed to avoid the taint of radical Western individualism, and yet I think even they’ve missed the heart of theosis. They’re very close, but not quite where the scriptures call us to go.
It’s not that they’ve entirely missed the idea, but like the Protestants, both talk around the idea and never really get to what strikes me as the key point.