I’m preparing for tomorrow night’s Bible study, and ran smack dab into this incredibly powerful phrase. I have quoted the phrase in context – where, frankly, I think it’s even more amazing than it would be standing alone – and bolded it so you’ll see what amazes me:
His [Jesus'] divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature,
having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.
(2 Peter 1:3-4 ESV)
Now, the concept of union with Christ is all over the New Testament. Paul constantly exhorts his audience to remember that they are “in Christ,” and that he is in them. We are often reminded of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, and that his indwelling unites us to our Savior. But nowhere, I think, is it more profoundly or startlingly put than here. Here, Peter tells us that we actually partake of the divine nature of Jesus Christ.
This is an area that the Eastern Orthodox church has spent vastly more time on than any part of the Western church, though it must be said that the Western church is not without its resources in this area. A number of medieval theologians tackled the topic, and if they tended toward a rather mystical approach, I can hardly blame them (although I might disagree with some of their conclusions along the way): it is hard to imagine a more thoroughly mystical notion than partaking of the nature of divinity itself.
More recently, many of the Puritans approached the same subject, and in ways I’m much more likely to agree with – the mysticism channeled through Reformation emphases on the primacy of Scripture and God’s self-revelation. (A close look at the context here will highlight just how much God’s self-revelation informs the whole concept: all the things Peter says are granted to believers come through the knowledge of the one who called us – see verse 3.)
Unfortunately, though, this simply isn’t a subject that gets a lot of airtime in most of our modern churches. Indeed, the main people I know of tackling the idea of our union with Christ are distinctly not evangelicals – they’re panentheists, people who see our union with Christ as having as much to do with his divinity being in all things as with our being in him.
That view is a significant failure for at least two reasons. First, it tends to largely (if not completely) eliminate the extraordinarily unique relationship to which God has called us in Christ. We are in Christ, bound to him, in ways that nothing else in creation is. Second, it diminishes or even eliminates the separation of Creator and Creation. Jesus is upholding all things, and he is everywhere – but he is not in all things the way many modern spiritualists, including the panentheists, might say. He is wholly apart and other from that which he has made – that is a part of his holiness. Furthermore, this further undermines the ways in which “union with Christ” as a theological category even matters (thus raising the question of why it is such a prominent category in the New Testament).
This is also a loss for the church. We simply skip over a central category in the thought of New Testament authors and along the way are missing out on one of the most profoundly revolutionary concepts that I can conceive of. For all our talk of having a relationship with Jesus – a topic I’ll be tackling again in the future and in far greater depth – I think we have little idea of what it means to us in real terms that Christ dwells in us and we in him. Still less do we have a firm grasp (or any grasp at all, perhaps) on the fact that we are actually partaking of his divine attributres, become godlike in a variety of ways. Our neglect of this concept stunts us spiritually, and it also leaves many of us open to confusion when others – Mormons, for example – misappropriate this language and take it in what are ultimately unbiblical directions.
Accordingly, I am going to dig in and start studying “union with Christ” much more over the next few months, and it’s a theological category I hope the evangelical church begins to recover. We need it.