Friday, October 3, 2008

Partaking of the Divine Nature (Part 1)

Grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord, as 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. (2 Peter 1:2-4)
Peter encourages and exhorts believers with the prospect of sharing in the divine nature. James R. Payton Jr. probes the matter in a recent article in Christianity Today. He asks the question, “Is salvation solely about us and our need to be forgiven and born again, or is there a deeper, God-ward purpose?” From a study of early Church Fathers, he answers,
The leaders of the ancient church thought so, speaking regularly of salvation in a way that may sound strange to many evangelicals, but which Wesley alluded to in some of his hymns. In particular, they envisioned salvation as theosis, an ongoing process by which God’s people become increasingly “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4), formed more and more in God’s likeness. As the 2nd-century theologian Irenaeus urged in Against Heresies, “Through his transcendent love, our Lord Jesus Christ became what we are, that he might make us to be what he is.” The great 4th-century defender of Jesus’ divinity, Athanasius, put it even more forcefully: “[God] became man, that man might become god.” [James R. Payton Jr. “Keeping the End in View: How the Strange yet Familiar Doctrine of Theosis can Invigorate the Christian Life.” Christianity Today, October 2008, 67.]
Clearly, there is a moral component to Peter’s words, having to do with God’s “virtue” or goodness and believers escaping “the corruption that is in the world through lust.” Believers are enjoined, accordingly, to add virtue, knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, brotherly kindness and love to their faith (2 Peter 1:5-7). However, that does not exhaust our participation in the divine nature, for Peter also speaks, in verse 3, of divine power, and what has been given to us by it, as well as the divine glory by which we have been called.

Peter was no stranger to this divine power and glory, and it was more than a theoretical construct to him. He experienced it firsthand. Along with James and John, Peter saw the Lord Jesus transfigured before his eyes. “His [Jesus’] face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light” (Matthew 17:2). Certainly, Jesus partook of the divine nature by reason of being the Second Person of the Trinity, but here He was in his humanity, His body revealing the glory of God in a tangible way. There is no inherent contradiction in the human body partaking of the divine glory, as indeed the Incarnation as well as the Transfiguration demonstrate.

Peter also witnessed the power of God at work through the human body of Jesus and the many miracles He performed. Indeed, Peter preached to Cornelius that “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power, who went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with Him” (Acts 10:38). Though Jesus was and is the Son of God, in His earthly ministry He was anointed by God with the Spirit and power, and it was because “God was with Him” that He went about doing good and healing. Here again, we see Jesus in His humanity partaking of the divine nature and power.

Before He ascended to heaven, Jesus promised the disciples, of whom Peter was one, “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you” (Acts 1:8). The same Holy Spirit and power that was on Jesus to go about doing good and healing would also be upon them. Their witness came not only by word but also by power, as the balance of the book of Acts demonstrates. Again, there is no inherent contradiction in a human being partaking of and manifesting divine power. Peter experienced this divine power, for example, when he and John healed the lame man (Acts 3:1-10), and when he raised Dorcas from the dead (Acts 9:36-42). There is also the unusual example of when people brought their sick out into the streets where Peter’s shadow might pass over them, and they were healed (Acts 5:14-16). This was not Peter’s doing, but the power and glory of God at work in Him, accomplishing it through him.

In his first letter, Peter recognized other aspects of the divine nature at work in God’s people. He blessed God, “who according to His abundant mercy has begotten us again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled and that does not fade away, reserved in heaven for you”(1 Peter 1:3-4). Believers share in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, to partake of divine immortality. As Paul said, “This corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality” (1 Corinthians 15:53).

First Peter 1:23 reminds us that we have been “born again, not of corruptible seed but incorruptible, through the word of God which lives and abides forever.” This is a heavenly birth, brought about by God’s own word, and as Jesus taught Nicodemus, by the Spirit of God (John 3:3-8). Believers partake of a divine conception and birth.

[Part 2]