Often, in ministry, I have found that many Christians do not have a deep comprehension of what “salvation” really means. Sometimes it is because they have never received mentoring and sometimes because they have received mentoring. Sometimes, out of a need to make the best of a bad situation, they try to figure things out all by themselves. Sometimes, and this is frustrating, they have been taught a boiled down or reductionist version of the Good News.
Often it goes something like this: Salvation involves the expression of God’s love through His mercy. The Father sent His Son to die to pay the price of our sin – suffer the condemnation that we deserved – and by that substitution we receive the forgiveness of our sins. What is more, there is some kind of visitation of the Holy Spirit to lead us in the way of truth and empower us to live a Christian life. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, we are to serve Christ in the Church and world, which includes by spreading the Good News they have received with others. By in large, this short summation is, for many, the extent of their understanding of salvation.
That summation is true as far as it goes. But, the truth of it is almost totally negated by the fact that there is so much missing.
Many well-meaning disciples of Our Lord have never been taught that the true cornerstone is the re-integration or reunioning of divinity and humanity. In the Incarnation of the Son of God, the Father, by the power of the Holy Spirit restores the union of divinity and humanity. This is the deepest content of the word “salvation.” St. Gregory establishes this profound truth in Chapter 32 of his “Great Catechism.” Here is the chapter in its entirety.
What other objection is alleged by our adversaries? This; that (to take the preferable view) it was altogether needless that that transcendent Being should submit to the experience of death, but He might independently of this, through the superabundance of His power, have wrought with ease His purpose; still, if for some ineffable reason or other it was absolutely necessary that so it should be, at least He ought not to have been subjected to the contumely of such an ignominious kind of death. What death, they ask, could be more ignominious than that by crucifixion?
St. Gregory points out that it is the adversaries of Christianity that do not comprehend the necessity for God to become man – for divinity to unite Himself with humanity in the fullness of his tragic condition. Do you already hear the implication that there is, in the salvific work of Christ Jesus, the necessity to unite divinity and humanity? I also find it an unsettling that St. Gregory is implying that those who do not “get” the necessity of God putting on humanity in order to save humanity are “adversaries” of Christianity. The adversaries are not just out there somewhere but in the Church as well!!
What answer can we make to this? Why, that the death is rendered necessary by the birth, and that He Who had determined once for all to share the nature of man must pass through all the peculiar conditions of that nature. Seeing, then, that the life of man is determined between two boundaries, had He, after having passed the one, not touched the other that follows, His proposed design would have remained only half fulfilled, from His not having touched that second condition of our nature.
We must, as this point, remember the saying of St. Gregory of Nasianzus in his “Epistle 51, to Cledonius” (First epistle against Apollinarius): “That which was not assumed is not healed; but that which is united to God is saved.” The Catholic Encyclopedia adds, “This speculation of the Greek Fathers undoubtedly contains a profound truth which is sometimes forgotten by later authors who are more intent on framing juridical theories of ransom and satisfaction.”
So, we being led to conclude from the outset that the Incarnation of the Son of God is about more than just the forgiveness of sins.
Perhaps, however, one who exactly understands the mystery would be justified rather in saying that, instead of the death occurring in consequence of the birth, the birth on the contrary was accepted by Him for the sake of the death; for He Who lives for ever did not sink down into the conditions of a bodily birth from any need to live, but to call us back from death to life.
That stops me in my tracks!! Reflect on that sentence for a while. The death that Jesus died necessitated His birth. It is not enough for Jesus to “die for our sins.” He must be “born for our sins” as well. Jesus assumes all of our life. He unites Himself to all of our life. The Incarnation is, once again, about more than just “dealing with sin” in a substitutional death. The Son of God is uniting all of His self/condition to all of our self/condition not in order to accomplish anything other than that – to unite Himself to us that we might be united to Him.
Since, then, there was needed a lifting up from death for the whole of our nature, He stretches forth a hand as it were to prostrate man, and stooping down to our dead corpse He came so far within the grasp of death as to touch a state of deadness, and then in His own body to bestow on our nature the principle of the resurrection, raising as He did by His power along with Himself the whole man. For since from no other source than from the concrete lump of our nature (cf. Romans 9.21) had come that flesh, which was the receptacle of the Godhead and in the resurrection was raised up together with that Godhead, therefore just in the same way as, in the instance of this body of ours, the operation of one of the organs of sense is felt at once by the whole system, as one with that member, so also the resurrection principle of this Member, as though the whole of mankind was a single living being, passes through the entire race, being imparted from the Member to the whole by virtue of the continuity and oneness of the nature.
Our Lord, in becoming Incarnate for our sake (and the sake of the whole created order), in the totality of His living (which includes His dying on the cross) bestows on us His divinity. He bestows or reinstills the resurrection principle – the divine nature which is LIFE – in us. We must, in order to receive this resurrection principle, receive the crucifixion principle. We must die with Him if we hope to be raised with Him (Romans 6.1-11). In every way, He is like us that we, by the working of His power, might be like Him in every way.
Now we are getting close to the true meaning of salvation – the union of divine life with human life to reunite and invest divine life in human life for human life to be fully human.
What, then, is there beyond the bounds of probability in what this Revelation teaches us; viz. that He Who stands upright stoops to one who has fallen, in order to lift him up from his prostrate condition? And as to the Cross, whether it possesses some other and deeper meaning, those who are skilled in mysticism may explain; but, however that may be, the traditional teaching which has reached us is as follows. Since all things in the Gospel, both deeds and words, have a sublime and heavenly meaning, and there is nothing in it which is not such, that is, which does not exhibit a complete mingling of the human with the Divine, where the utterance exerted and the deeds enacted are human but the secret sense represents the Divine, it would follow that in this particular as well as in the rest we must not regard only the one element and overlook the other; but in the fact of this death we must contemplate the human feature, while in the manner of it we must be anxious to find the Divine. For since it is the property of the Godhead to pervade all things, and to extend itself through the length and breadth of the substance of existence in every part—for nothing would continue to be if it remained not within the existent; and that which is this existent properly and primarily is the Divine Being, Whose existence in the world the continuance of all things that are forces us to believe in,—this is the very thing we learn from the figure of the Cross; it is divided into four parts, so that there are the projections, four in number, from the central point where the whole converges upon itself; because He Who at the hour of His pre-arranged death was stretched upon it is He Who binds together all things into Himself, and by Himself brings to one harmonious agreement the diverse natures of actual existences. For in these existences there is the idea either of something above, or of something below, or else the thought passes to the confines sideways. If, therefore, you take into your consideration the system of things above the heavens or of things below the earth, or of things at the boundaries of the universe on either side, everywhere the presence of Deity anticipates your thought as the sole observable power that in every part of existing things holds in a state of being all those things. Now whether we ought to call this Existence Deity, or Mind, or Power, or Wisdom, or any other lofty term which might be better able to express Him Who is above all, our argument has no quarrel with the appellation or name or form of phrase used. Since, then, all creation looks to Him, and is about and around Him, and through Him is coherent with itself, things above being through Him conjoined to things below and things lateral to themselves, it was right that not by hearing only we should be conducted to the full understanding of the Deity, but that sight also should be our teacher in these sublime subjects for thought; and it is from sight that the mighty Paul starts when he initiates (Ephesians 3.18) the people of Ephesus in the mysteries, and imbues them through his instructions with the power of knowing what is that “depth and height and breadth and length.” In fact he designates each projection of the Cross by its proper appellation. The upper part he calls height, the lower depth, and the side extensions breadth and length; and in another passage (Philippians 2.10) he makes his thought still clearer to the Philippians, to whom he says, “that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth.” In that passage he includes in one appellation the centre and projecting arms, calling “things in earth” all that is in the middle between things in heaven and things under the earth. Such is the lesson we learn in regard to the mystery of the Cross. (Emphasis is mine.)
What St. Gregory says is true for the whole universe is, first and foremost, true of humanity. We were created to be the icon of creation to God and of God to the universe. We are, in fact, created in the image of Him who is the image of the Father – Christ Jesus. All of this is summed up in the word – priest. Christ is the Great High Priest. We, as fully human beings, share in His priesthood. We receive and exercise our priesthood in Him and He exercises His priesthood in and through us.
And the subsequent events which the narrative contains follow so appropriately that, as even unbelievers must admit, there is nothing in them adverse to the proper conceptions of the Deity. That He did not abide in death, that the wounds which His body had received from the iron of the nails and spear offered no impediment to His rising again, that after His resurrection He showed Himself as He pleased to His disciples, that when He wished to be present with them He was in their midst without being seen, as needing no entrance through open doors, and that He strengthened the disciples by the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, and that He promised to be amongst them, and that no partition wall should intervene between them and Him, and that to the sight He ascended to Heaven while to the mind He was everywhere; all these, and whatever like facts the history of Him comprises, need no assistance from arguments to show that they are signs of deity and of a sublime and supereminent power. With regard to them therefore I do not deem it necessary to go into any detail, inasmuch as their description of itself shows the supernatural character. But since the dispensation of the washing (whether we choose to call it baptism, or illumination, or regeneration; for we make the name no subject of controversy) is a part of our revealed doctrines, it may be as well to enter on a short discussion of this as well.
Our Lord desired to reveal His resurrected glory to His disciples not only after His resurrection for forty days, but before His death on the mount of transfiguration. What are we, in view of this discussion, to make of these revelations?
It was and is the faith of the Church since the beginning that we are, in these passages to see ourselves as we are to be (and can begin to become here and now) in consummate perfection by the saving grace of Christ.
St. Athanasius says, “God became man so that men might become gods…” St. Maximos says, “All that God is, except for an identity in being, one becomes when one is deified by grace.”
C. S. Lewis in Mere Christianity says it this way:
The command “Be ye perfect” is not idealistic gas. Nor is it a command to do the impossible. He is going to make us into creatures that can obey that command. He said (in the Bible) that we were “gods” and He is going to make good His words. If we let Him—for we can prevent Him, if we choose—He will make the feeblest and filthiest of us into a god or goddess, dazzling, radiant, immortal creatures, pulsating all through with such energy and joy and wisdom and love as we cannot now imagine, a bright stainless mirror which reflects back to Him perfectly (though, of course, on a smaller scale) His own boundless power and delight and goodness. The process will be long and in parts very painful; but that is what we are in for. Nothing less. He meant what he said.
We are, by faith and consistent cooperation, recipients of His very life as our life. To be fully human is to be the recipient of the life of Christ – the divine nature – and have that nature united with our own. Human life is total participation in the life of Christ Jesus. The life that results is truly human life. It is this goal by which the “saving work” of Christ is designed. It is this goal – deification – which is the goal of the Christian life and through it in hope for all human life.
To God be the glory.