In the first part of this series, I contrasted the Western, legal perspective of salvation with the Eastern Orthodox understanding of sin and salvation. In this blog, I want to unpack the topic further, but mostly focus on Orthodoxy.
THE IMAGE OF GOD
In Genesis, we learn that mankind was created in the image of God. When we fell, and continue to fall, that image becomes tarnished and obscured, but it never disappears. It is still within you.
In addition to being made in the image of God, we are both body and spirit. We are NOT spirits trapped within a body. We will not “some glad morning” fly away and leave our bodies behind to never be retrieved. According to ancient Christians such as St. Justin Martyr, when we sin, it is not just our body, but our soul and spirit that sins as well. When we are saved, it is our entire being that is saved. When God created man, He said “it is good,” because all things which God creates are good. The image was tarnished, our nature was soiled, but it is being redeemed and glorified.
As I stated in my previous blog, God is Life itself. To turn away from life results in death. There is no other way. The scriptures and early Christian writings1 emphasize the two paths: death and life. To commune with God is to unite to life and existence. Turning away from God results in death and a state of being called non-existence.
SIN AS SICKNESS
Our beautiful movement toward Life is frequently interrupted by a disease called sin. It courses through our entire being. The scriptures, in several places, view sin as a sickness that needs healing, and not as a legal problem in which we have offended God. Some examples that come to mind:
But He was wounded for our transgressions,
He was bruised for our iniquities;
The chastisement for our peace was upon Him,
And by His stripes we are healed. (Isaiah 53:5)
I said, LORD, be merciful unto me: heal my soul;
for I have sinned against thee. (Psalm 41:4)
I will heal their apostasy; I will love them freely,
for my anger has turned from them. (Hosea 14:4)
The Spirit of the Lord GOD is on Me, because the LORD
has anointed Me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent
Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the
captives and freedom to the prisoners; (Isaiah 61:1)
As a good doctor is not disgusted or offended by a sick patient, so our Lord is not offended by our sin. Rather, He is compassionate and loving; He desires to heal us. For this reason, many in Orthodoxy refer to salvation as “therapeutic.”
There are several Orthodox writers who state that Jesus Christ would have become incarnate in the flesh whether or not mankind had ever fallen away. Why? Because in taking our flesh upon Himself, God glorifies our human nature, uniting it with the Divine nature of God Himself. God wrapped himself in our human nature and elevated it to the throne in heaven during the ascension. The incarnation is an indispensable part of our salvation!
That idea was radically offensive to ancient people, which is why early Christian heresies attempted to deemphasize Jesus’ humanity rather than His divinity. But God did become a man through Jesus and has lifted up our human nature to His divine nature, redeeming and glorifying all of us! To be fully human, therefore, is to be like Christ and one with God.
The Apostle Peter writes that we become “partakers of the divine nature”2 and the book of Hebrews states we are “partakers of Christ.”3
When we unite with God and partake in His nature, either we pull Him down to something lower than God or we are raised up to be, by grace and adoption, what Jesus is by nature. God is unchangeable, as is written in Hebrews, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.”4 So, salvation is the latter; it is uniting with the energies of God through grace and the incarnation of Jesus through a process called theosis.
IT’S NOT ABOUT HOLY RULES
And so we see that the “rules” in scriptures are not to be understood in a legal perspective. Rather, they are warnings that say, “Hey! This stuff won’t just hurt you a little bit. It is killing you and separating you from life, love, peace, and joy.” We cannot have both darkness and light, both life and death. We must choose one. The Way of Life has been revealed to us, and God will meet us on the journey. But we must still walk it.
Some terrible western “theologians” in the 19th century wrote that God’s commandments are arbitrary. God could have said “thou shalt murder” and killing would then be virtuous. These people unfortunately had no clue who God is. God is not concerned at all with rules; rather He earnestly desires that we commune with Him and not death. In order to make that easier, we are given “rules” to obey. But these point us to the nature of God and help us to better understand Him.
For a God who commands “love your enemies” is one who loves us, even when we were His enemies. A God who commands purity is Himself pure. In order to unite to Him, we must not simply be nice folks, but be completely transformed into His likeness. His commandments provide guidance and a spiritual barometer along the way.
1 Deut 30:19, 2 Kings 18:32, The Didache, the Epistle of Barnabas, etc
2 2 Peter 1:4
3 Hebrews 3:14
4 Hebrews 13:8