The Three Main Branches of Christianity

So far in these podcasts, we’ve mainly talked about God—what God has done. But in Christianity, it has never been seen as a one-sided thing where God does it all. In one way or another, Christianity has said that there is some kind of human response required from each individual in order for them to fully receive the benefits of what God has done. In other words, we are not passive recipients of what God has done. God is not just doing for us; He is working with us. God does His part, we do our part. 

You can think of it like this—God has opened the door, but it is up to each individual to walk through the door. God has made the way, but each individual has to follow that way to get to the destination. 

And so now we’re going to shift gears somewhat and begin talking about our part. What we’ve talked about before is how God has opened the door and paved the way. Now we need to start talking about our part. 

To do that, we’re going to leave Western Christianity, that’s Protestant and Roman Catholic Christianity, and talk about a concept from Orthodox Christianity. Most Christians in the United States don’t know much, if anything at all, about Orthodox Christianity. Most everything Christians in the United States have heard about Christianity comes from a Protestant or Roman Catholic perspective. So what is Orthodox Christianity? 

For the first thousand years of Christianity, there was basically just one organization within Christianity, one branch of Christianity. Of course, there were small groups of Christians scattered around that existed outside of that one organization, but that one organization, known as The Church, was, for all practical purposes, Christianity. But in the year 1054, almost a thousand years ago, the organized church split into two parts. In what was called the west, that's basically Europe and North Africa, The Church became known as the Roman Catholic Church. In what was called the east, that's basically everywhere outside of Europe and North Africa, The Church became known as the Orthodox Church. 

There were many different religious and political issues involved in that split, and historians still argue about exactly why it occurred. The point is that after the year 1054, Christianity split into two parts, and each part went in its own direction. Most Christians in the United States come from either a Protestant or Roman Catholic background, which means that most Christians in the United States come from the heritage of the western church, the Roman Catholic Church. During the Reformation, the Roman Catholics split into two parts. What would become known as Protestants split from the Catholics. But for all their seeming differences with the Catholics, Protestants actually retained the general Roman Catholic way of looking at things. Protestants looked at the big picture in about the same way as Roman Catholics. 

You can think of these splits like forks in the road. Things were going along one way. Roman Catholics decided they would like to go a different way, and so they curved off over in another direction. The Orthodox didn’t want to go in that direction, so they just kept going in the direction they were going. The Roman Catholics veered off and went in another direction. Then, five or six hundred years later, some Roman Catholics decided they wanted to take a slightly different direction. The majority of Roman Catholics, though, didn’t want to take that direction, so they kept going the way they were going. The ones that wanted to take a slightly different direction split off and became known as Protestants. 

Those represent the three main branches of Christianity—Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant. Roman Catholics and Protestants are very closely related to one another and share very similar beliefs, but Orthodox Christianity is somewhat different. 

And so the beliefs and ways of looking at things in Orthodox Christianity are somewhat different than the beliefs of Protestants and Roman Catholics, and many times Protestants and Roman Catholics don’t pay Orthodox Christians any attention. But, there are over 300 million Orthodox Christians in the world.

Sharing in the Nature of God

Today I would like for us to talk about a concept that is known as “theosis” in Orthodox Christianity. What is theosis? 

Near the beginning of the book of Second Peter, it says this, “His divine power has given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us by glory and virtue. By which have been given to us exceedingly great and precious promises, that through these you may be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust.” 

There is a phrase in there—through these you may be partakers of the divine nature. Partakers of the divine nature. Literally, that is “participants” in the divine nature, in the sense of joining in and having and having a share of something. Of course the divine nature is the nature of God, and so what this passage from Second Peter says is that we, as human beings, can join in with the nature of God, have a share of the nature of God. The result of that is we become, in a sense, like God. It refers to having such a connection with God that you begin to become like God. 

This is something most Protestants and Catholics don't talk much about, but it is a prominent belief among Orthodox Christians. Although today it is associated with Orthodox Christianity, it is not a distinctly Orthodox belief. It's not something Orthodox Christianity came up with. It has been around since the beginning of Christianity. It's just that the Orthodox are the only ones who still talk about it. The Roman Catholic side of Christianity never really knocked that concept out. The Roman Catholic side, which remember includes the Protestants, just went another direction. It ended up emphasizing other things, and in the process, this concept of theosis got de-emphasized to the point that over the years it was virtually forgotten.  

Theosis refers to a personal, individual connection with God that we could best think of as a face-to-face connection with God. As a result of this face-to-face connection with God, a person becomes more and more like God, to the point where eventually, the person shares in God’s own nature. 

So let’s think more about this idea of theosis.

Biblical Basis of Theosis

There was an early Christian leader named Athanasius who lived in the 4th century. Athanasius wrote this, referring to Jesus, “God became man so that men might become gods.” God became man so that men might become gods. That, in one sentence, is what theosis is all about. 

So let’s think some more about it. We’ve already talked about something from Second Peter, now we’ll look at something that comes from Jesus Himself. In John chapter 10, Jesus says something in relation to a passage from Psalm 82. The passage from Psalm 82 reads like this, “God stands in the congregation of the mighty. He judges among the gods. God says, ‘How long will you judge unjustly, and show partiality to the wicked? Defend the poor and fatherless. Do justice to the afflicted and needy. Deliver the poor and needy, free them from the hand of the wicked. They do not know, nor do they understand. They walk about in darkness. All the foundations of the earth are unstable. You are gods, and all of your children of the Most High.’"  This is God saying to people, “You are gods.” 

Jesus picks up on that in John chapter 10. Jesus is walking in the temple, and it says the Jews surround Him and demand that He tell them whether or not He is their messiah. Jesus replies that He has already told them, and they did not believe Him. He tells them they did not believe Him because they are not His sheep, since His sheep hear His voice and believe Him. And then He says, "I and the Father are one." Upon hearing Jesus equate Himself with God, the Jews want to stone Him. They tell Him they’re going to stone Him because He said He was God. Jesus then quotes from Psalm 82 where God says to people, “You are gods.” And Jesus basically says that if God called the people gods, how can you stone Me? 

This is an interesting passage. Jesus indicates that in Psalm 82, when God says to people, “You are gods,” it means just that—people are gods. 

If that sounds strange to you, let’s think about it in another way. Think about something Paul wrote in Galatians chapter 2: “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.”  Now, let’s remember how Jesus said, "I and the Father are one," which is Jesus identifying Himself as God. Then we heard Paul say, “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” Let’s put them both together. If Jesus is God, and if Jesus is in Paul, then God is in Paul. Since God is in Paul, Paul in a sense is now a god. So if Jesus is in a person, that person is, in a sense, a god. 

It's important to realize that this does not mean a person has merged with God. It does not mean a person is equated with God. What it means is that although God is still God with a capital G, we can become gods with a little g. But how is that possible?

God's Essence and God's Energies

The Orthodox understanding is that there are two aspects to God—God's essence and God's energies. God's essence is what makes Him God with a capital G. God's essence is what God really is, and that is beyond our understanding. We can't know what God is in His essence. We can't understand God’s essence. It is beyond us as human beings. 

All we really know and understand about God comes from the things God does. This power of God that does things is called God's energies. God's energies created the world; God’s energies sustain the world; God’s energies do things in the world. That is the way we know about God—because of what God does—because of God's energies. 

And this is the way we are seen as being able to have such a connection with God and become so much like God that we become gods with a little g—through God's energies. We can share in the energy of God, and that makes us gods with a little g. However, we cannot share in the essence of God and become gods with a capital G.

What God Becoming a Human Being Does

This idea traces back to the creation account in Genesis. There is one thing said of human beings that is not said of anything else God created—that we are created in God's image. To be created in God's image means that we were created to reflect God. 

But of course, that didn't last. Adam and Eve ate the fruit God told them not to eat. And when they did, the image of God in them was spoiled. They no longer reflected God; they no longer had the capacity to reflect God. 

Adam was the first man God created, and he was created in the image of God, to reflect God. But he ate the fruit, and the image of God in him was spoiled, so that he was no longer able to reflect God. That was the “first Adam.” 

But the Bible speaks of a second Adam—Jesus. Jesus is called the "second Adam" in the New Testament. The reason Jesus is called the second Adam is that Jesus was what God originally intended man to be. Jesus was the perfect human being, who was everything God intended a human to be. 

But Jesus was not only a perfect human being; He was also something else. Jesus was also God. In Jesus, we have two things at once. We have man, as man was originally created to be, and we have God Himself. In Jesus we have God becoming a real human being. 

This unites two natures in one. It unites the nature of God with human nature. This uniting of the nature of God with human nature creates a union between God and human beings. In Jesus, God is joined to humanity, and God joining Himself with humanity deifies humanity. What that means is God, by becoming a human being but still being God—that’s the two natures of Jesus—takes humanity and elevates it to a higher level than it ever would have been otherwise. God has joined Himself to humanity, and by so doing has elevated humanity to a higher level. 

Be sure and understand it's not that this just restores humanity to what it was before Adam ate the fruit; it’s much more than that. It takes humanity to an even higher plane that it was on before Adam ate the fruit. In Jesus, God has made a real union between Himself and human beings. He has in a sense, made gods out of human beings by joining His nature with human nature. 

The whole meaning of what it means to be a human being has changed. When God came to earth and became a human being in Jesus, it changed what human beings are. God brought some of His "godship" with Him, and at that time, joined it to humanity. This elevated humanity above what it had ever been before and joined all human beings, in a real way, to God. 

God shared some of Himself with us. This happened when God became a human being in Jesus.

We Must Do Our Part

The Bible speaks of Christians as being "joined" to Jesus. The Bible speaks of Christians as being Jesus' “body.”  When you are a Christian, you are a part of Jesus. And remember that Jesus was God. And so when you are a Christian, you are a part of God. 

The Bible says when you are a Christian, Jesus is in you, and you are in Jesus. And so when you are a Christian, God is in you, and you are in God. This is a real union with God—God in you, you in God. You are united with God, and you share in God's nature. 

The way the Orthodox see this, it is not something that God does to you, like hitting you with a lightning bolt and changing you all at once. Rather, God makes it possible, a possibility that can be realized. It’s something that takes effort on your part to actually be accomplished in you. It is a possibility that God enables in you. God makes it possible; you have to do your part to bring it to reality. 

God will work in you to make this happen, but you have to cooperate with God and do your part. It is a gift from God, but you have to seek it out and work for it. The gift from God is that God makes it possible, since without God making it possible, without God opening the door for it to happen, all your striving for it would be useless. That gulf between God and man is impossible for man to cross on his own. But God makes it possible for those who actively work for it to cross the gulf. 

According to this idea, your task in this life is to fashion your life in accordance with God's will, and you do that by following Jesus. One of the things Jesus did was give us an example of a perfect life, human life the way God wants it to be. And so the task of a Christian is to live following Jesus' example. That’s what it means to be a “follower of Jesus.” You imitate the way Jesus lived His life. 

But that’s not easy. It’s a constant struggle to live following Jesus' example. It's not easy, but if you try, if you engage the struggle and attempt to live in imitation of Jesus, God works in you. God shares Himself with you. He enlightens the eyes of your understanding. He fills you with His fullness. His great power works within you. 

Between your efforts and God's efforts, you become more and more like God. You start by trying to imitate Jesus, and God works in you to help you do that. As time goes on and God works more and more within you, you are imitating Jesus so much that it ceases to be just imitation, and you “are” like Jesus. At first, you're just acting like Jesus, but as time goes on, it's no longer just acting; it becomes who you really are. 

If you reach that point, the process of theosis is complete, and you are united with God. You are glorified as Jesus is glorified. Jesus dwells completely in you, and you dwell completely in Jesus. You are like Him. 

This means you do not have to wait until you die and get to heaven to be glorified and in the presence of God. If you are following Jesus, you are glorified and in the presence of God here on earth. 

This state transcends death. It’s a victory over death, because once you reach this state, death really doesn't matter. Death no longer has any meaning. Listen to what Paul wrote in Romans 14: 8, “For whether we live, we live unto the Lord, and whether we die, we die unto the Lord, whether we live therefore or die, we are the Lord's.” The death of your physical body has no meaning to you; it's irrelevant. 

Remember though, this process of theosis is something that takes both you and God. You must do your part, and then God will do His part. Also remember that this is a process. It is a path you progress on little by little. There will be setbacks and detours along the way. If you hit a setback or detour, you just realize it and get back on the path again. Frankly, very few, if any, human beings will ever be able to say the process is complete. It won’t be really complete until we get to heaven. 

But the important thing is not “Have you reached the goal?”; the important thing is whether or not you’re trying to reach the goal. If you’re trying to reach the goal, God will help you along. And if you’re still trying to reach the goal when your human life comes to an end, God will reach down and pull you through.

And so the question is: Are you trying to reach the goal?