Salvation is only the beginning
Blameless. Spotless. Without sin. That may describe how Jesus lived his life, but it would be more than a bit of a stretch to say itís how I live mine. I remain far from perfect. Yet the blameless one called on his disciples to ďbe perfect as I am perfect.Ē Great. That seems like a goal well beyond reach. Itís a bit like saying that my goal should be to swim across the Atlantic. Perfection is so far from how I actually live my life that asking me to be perfect doesnít inspire me to do anything differently.
The Orthodox Churches, like the Greek and Russian Orthodox, have done a better job of holding out this goal of perfection than we in the west. In the Protestant Churches, the emphasis is on salvation, coming to a saving relationship with God. But, in the Orthodox Church, they have always emphasized that salvation is just the beginning of a relationship, not the end. They call the process of growth that all Christians should continue to go through Theosis.
Theosis means deificationóbecoming divine. It is a thought not expressed much in churches, that we are to work toward becoming divine. I think we are a bit allergic to the idea. After all, wasnít it wanting to be like God that caused Adam and Eve to sin? Wasnít it trying to build a tower to the heavens to be like God that got all humanity dispersed at Babel?
Trying to become like God seems risky at best and blasphemous at worst. But if you think about it, this is the ideal Moses held out in saying God wants us to be holy as God is holy. This is the same ideal Jesus held out in saying be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect. And it is the same ideal Paul holds out for the Thessalonians as he prays for God to strengthen their hearts in holiness so they may be blameless before our God.
Theosis means becoming like God, not becoming God. Unlike salvation, theosis is not something accomplished in a moment, but a goal. While you can never fully accomplish theosis in your lifetime, God still holds it out as a goal worthy of your efforts. In fact, the imitation of God is held out as the only goal worthy of our efforts. We are to work at being increasingly holy as God is holy and perfect as God is perfect.
First, let me take a bit of the pressure off. God does not ask you to be holy so that you can get into heaven. A blameless life is not the ticket to the hereafter. When you come to faith in God through the person of Jesus, you are in. Though you are not worthy, God counts Jesusí blameless life as yours. Then, God gives you the gift of the Holy Spirit, Godís spirit dwelling within you to complete your sanctification, your becoming perfect.
So perfection is not a goal to strive for in hopes of winning Godís approval. God already loves you. Perfection is what you spend the rest of your life working on in thanksgiving for all God has done for you. The process itself is not a chore, but a gift.
The Orthodox teach that theosis is impossible on our own. Not only do we need God, but we also need Christís body, the church. The Orthodox saying is Unus Christianusónullus Christianus, meaning one Christianóno Christian. You cannot really strive toward becoming like God on your own.
For the Orthodox, the idea of theosis is nonsense without a community of faith worshipping together. Through the liturgy, we all come together as the Body of Christ to be nourished by Godís presence in Word and Godís presence through the bread and wine of communion. It is in this shared experience of God that the Holy Spirit calls us to greater holiness. And it is through this shared experience that God nourishes us toward theosis.
I hear the grace in a call to perfection. God does not hold out some worthless ideal like, ďWhatever you do is fine by me as Jesus paid the price anyway.Ē God holds out nothing less than that we should be the best we can be on any given day as we attempt to be perfect as God is perfect.
At first that standard may be low as we take baby steps toward being more like Jesus. If we can just fail to give in to road rage in traffic, then later we can actually try to be polite. If we can just not publicly cut down our enemies, later we will work on loving them. God does not strengthen our hearts in holiness all at once. It is an ongoing process. That ongoing process of living a more godly life is the ideal the Orthodox call Theosis.
To nourish that spark of divinity glowing inside you, you need to surround yourself with a church family, a group of fellow imperfect Christians who are on their own spiritual journeys. We encourage one another on our own paths toward perfection.
God holds out to you the highest of all goals, perfection, because God loves you and wants what is best for you. Even though you will never be perfect all the time, you can still have those moments, where you own words and actions are perfect as God is perfect. I pray that those times will increase for each of us.
(The Rev. Frank Logue is pastor of King of Peace Episcopal Church in Kingsland, Georgia.)
King of Peace Episcopal Church + P.O. Box 2526 + Kingsland, Georgia 31548-2526