Holiness: Different Views of Christian Ethics (Part 1)

Sanctification is not only a theological topic, but a very important experiential side of Christian life. It’s not just another “thing,” but really the essence of the Christian life. Whether we call it the fruit of the Spirit, holiness, sanctity, sanctification, consecration, virtue, or righteousness–it’s really all the same thing. But just as there are many names for this experience, there are also various views about it.

  1. Eastern Orthodoxy: Becoming Like God in Heart and Deeds – This is probably the oldest view about sanctification. Coming out of the teachings of the Desert Fathers, the Orthodox Church teaches that sanctification is essentially about man becoming like God (theosis). This is not Gnostic, New Age, or occult. This is not the teaching that man is already god or a divine being. It still holds that God created man, but that man is created in God’s image (Gen. 1:27). Athanasius (d. 373) is famous (or infamous) for saying, “He, indeed, assumed humanity that we might become God…He endured shame from men that we might inherit immortality” (On the Incarnation of the Word, 54).
    Although New Age Christians seem to have latched onto this quote in order to find justification for their self-deifying theological views, I think it is an issue of context and translation. Firstly, I don’t think the context of Athanasius’ quote is about the occult concept of “spiritually evolving into godhood” or becoming a “creator of one’s own universe” (henosis), but rather about the Eternal Word (Jesus) incarnating Himself into a Man. How amazing this is. And, like Jesus, but as His creatures, after we die, we will inherit immortality and become divine (like God), but not really gods in the pagan sense like Zeus or Hercules. Jesus said, “Those who are considered worthy of taking part in that age and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage, and they can no longer die; for they are like the angels. They are God’s children, since they are children of the resurrection” (Luke 20:35-36). Second, I think it’s an issue of translation. I think a more accurate English translation of the quote from Athanasius is probably something like: “He, indeed, assumed humanity that we might become divine.” Angels are divine, and thus because Christians after death will be “like the angels,” it means that they too will be divine or like God. But not in the pagan Zeus sense; it also doesn’t mean that man will merge substantially with the Trinity and become the Creator Himself! No way! It just doesn’t seem to mix well with Orthodox theology to make Athanasius out to be a New Ager, teaching that man is a god. I don’t think he taught that “henosis” stuff at all.
    But while man will never become a god in the “existential” sense of the term, Christians can struggle and strive and work their way towards Christlikeness or Godlikeness. The goal is to imitate Christ in all of His moral glory and perfection. Sinlessness is the goal, but will only be reached after death, as well as immortality. But immortality is not the central aspect of sanctification. However, it is part of the reward for practicing righteousness: “In the way of righteousness there is life; along that path is immortality” (Prov. 12:28). The angels–who Jesus said Christians would become like–are sinless and immortal; and it is these traits that the Orthodox Church have highlighted as essential to the goal of sanctification (or growth in holiness). For this reason, the Desert Fathers, Orthodox saints, ascetics, hesychasts, and mystics tried to live as “angels” in this life the best they could for Christ’s glory. By exercising his free will, the Christian is to strive for complete union with God’s will–in will, feelings, thoughts, and actions. With the help of the Holy Spirit (synergism), the Christian is to do what God says sincerely from the heart. Thus Paul’s command: “Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to His good purpose” (Php. 2:12-13).
  2. Roman Catholicism: Taking Up Your Cross, and Following Christ – Although this view of holiness has different emphases than the Orthodox view, it is additionally valuable. And, I think is more complete and developed, and perhaps closer to the Biblical view. Not to say that the Orthodox view is un-Biblical. But, it seems that the Roman Catholic view of sanctification has just a little bit more to add to that divine vision of Christian holiness. Firstly, the Catholics have emphasized that all virtuous conduct–in heart and external deeds–is impossible without receiving the Holy Spirit within (Gal. 5:17). This gift of righteousness empowers the Christian to think, feel, and do virtuous things. Those who live this way are said to live a life of “heroic virtue;” and provided that they work at least 2 confirmed miracles in their lives, they may be canonized as official Roman Catholic “saints.” While all of the Biblical morals are important to Catholics, some are especially valued by them. Namely–love, humility, virginity, and love of suffering for Christ.
    (1) Love is considered the foremost, as this was taught by Jesus and the apostle Paul. Love is considered as the supreme commandment of God, the very summation of all of the moral laws of God. It’s not only a very important commandment or social virtue, but a super-virtue that leads the Christian to automatically obey all of the moral commandments of God. Jesus said, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matt. 22:37-40). Paul repeated this concept: “The entire law is summed up in a single command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself'” (Gal. 5:14).
    (2) Humility is important to Catholics, almost considered the second most important virtue, in cooperation with love. Without this lowliness of mind, and of esteeming others better than oneself, Christians cannot please God or progress morally in the Christian life. If they receive miraculous gifts from the Holy Spirit, then they will surely misuse them as they will become puffed up with pride (as well as from other things, like theological knowledge, praise from men, wealth, etc). Pride is very displeasing to God, and was satan’s reason for falling. Humility is the opposite of pride, and is thus quite pleasing to God. It is marked by dependence on God, and a rejection of trusting in one’s self. Humility’s most extreme expression is the rejection of everything that glorifies oneself, and replaces all of those things with glory for God. Humility cringes from being praised by masses of people as well as by individuals, because it is ever conscious of one’s sinful nature. Humility says things like: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief” (1 Tim. 1:15), and other similar things.
    (3) Virginity, also known as chastity, is very important to Catholic holiness. All of the monks and nuns of the Catholic Church were expected to be virgins. The goal of virginity–both inwardly and outwardly–is to be freed from all sexual lust of the body. By conquering the lusts of the body, the spirit may ascend in power and virtue, and be infused with an ever greater anointing from the Holy Spirit. Also, this virtue of chastity–when practiced to its umpteen character–has in sight the goal of becoming freed from all of the distractions of the world, so that one may more completely give his or herself to prayer and contemplation of God. For this reason, Jesus said, “There are also eunuchs who made themselves eunuchs (virgins) for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven. He who is able to accept this, let him accept it” (Matt. 19:12, NASB). Paul expounded on this: “An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world – how she can please her husband. I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord” (1 Cor. 7:34-35). The apostle Paul favored the virgin life over the married life, but he believed that there was a spiritual gift of celibacy that enabled people not to desire sexual attraction, and thus lead a virgin life in peace (1 Cor. 7:7). He said, “Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I am. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion” (1 Cor. 7:8-9). I admit that I do not have the gift of celibacy. That’s why I’m married.
    (4) The love of suffering for Christ (taking up one’s cross) is another highly valued virtue in the Catholic tradition. You might call this a “gift of martyrdom” in its most extreme manifestation. This is not a morbid manifestation of mental illness, nor is it a form of suicidal tendency. Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow Me” (Luke 9:23). It is the outworking of the cross of Christ in you, mystically manifesting in your life through “crucifixion experiences” (Gal. 2:20), or personal suffering in your life that has been allowed by God, for your own spiritual purification. In the Catholic tradition, these “Job experiences” are called “purgations,” because they are meant to purge the heart from attachment to everything except God and His holy will. One time I read the Catholic devotional book The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis. God actually showed me this book through dreams and signs several years ago. To my surprise, it turned out to be one of the great classics of Christian literature written in the 15th century, and was a strong influence on John Wesley’s ideas about sanctification. It is a very deep book of many pithy proverbs and holiness lessons, but I felt that the overarching theme of the book was about suffering for God’s glory. Catholic monks and nuns put a strong emphasis on meditating on the passion of Christ–His sufferings in Gethsemane, the scourging, and the crucifixion–so that they can sympathize with their Lord, become desensitized to suffering in earthly life, and become more attached to God and heavenly things. However, I don’t think it is healthy to get into a mindset where you don’t pray for healing, simply because you automatically assume that God doesn’t want to heal you of sicknesses you are suffering from.
    (5) Miraculous gifts are expected to be received once a high degree of sanctification has been attained. I tend to agree with this Catholic notion; however, 1 Corinthians indicates that the Corinthian Christians were moving in the gifts of the Spirit, but didn’t really have the highest moral standards. Matthew 7:22-23 also indicates that nominal Christians can work miracles in Jesus’ Name, and yet not be genuinely saved. But I generally think that the saints of the Bible and saints of church history that worked miracles were men and women of high morals–in heart and deeds–and for this reason, God was more willing to give them dreams, visions, voices, gifts of healing, and power over nature. Thus, love, humility, and detachment from the cares of the world make a good groundwork for moving in the gifts of the Spirit!

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