As Paul offers God’s decree of election as the firm foundation upon which his readers stand to find comfort and be established in every good work and word, he brings up not only the fact of election but also the goal of election, which is our salvation, the obtaining of “the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Thess 2:14). I’m going to use this reflection to expand on my thoughts regarding the goal of election.
In my sermon, I point out that the obtaining of the glory of Christ is a thread throughout the New Testament, stated variously by Peter, Paul, and John. It is also an idea contained in the Westminster Shorter Catechism, which sees the goal of sanctification as believers being “renewed in the whole man after the image of God” (WSC 35). This way of expressing the goal of sanctification (which is the same as the goal of election) is very near to a concept developed in the Eastern Orthodox church: theosis.
For various reasons, the concept of theosis has been minimized in the Western church. One reason in particular is that has been confused with the concept of apotheosis.1 Apotheosis is the idea of sharing in God’s essence or being absorbed into the divine. That is a pagan idea which has no place in Christianity. However we end up describing the goal of election, to obtain the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ is not to lose our own individual being or identity, nor is it to be exalted to be what humanity has never been, for example uncreated, eternal, omnipotent, etc.
On the contrary, “Theosis presented accurately is never conceived of as absorption of the human person into the divine. The human person being a person always maintains his or her distinction: ‘the idea of deification must always be understood in the light of the distinction between God's essence and his energies. Union with God means union with the divine energies, not the divine essence.’”2
To present theosis more accurately, we can view it from the perspective of our union with Christ. When Christ ascended to the right hand of the Father, he sent his Spirit to dwell in and with his church. By the Holy Spirit, then, we are united to Christ and thereby have communion with God. Our communion with God changes us so that we begin to think his thoughts after him and keep his commandments. More than that, we begin to want to worship him. Understood in light of our union with Christ in the way that I have just defined it, theosis “follows the principle that a person becomes increasingly like the object that commands his or her worship. Idolaters become like their worthless idols (Ps 115:4-8; Rom 1:22ff); so in worshipping the Holy Trinity we become like Christ and eventually will be exactly like him according to our humanity (2 Cor 3:18; 1 John 3:1-2).”3
Coming at this idea from a slightly different angle, John Murray writes the following: “When we think of the glory of God as the chief end and goal of sanctification, we must appreciate the extent to which God will be glorified in the glorification of his people. … It is only in relation to the redemption of the elect that the incarnation of the Son has meaning. The glorification of the elect is really one with the final glorification of him who himself is the embodiment of the glory of God.”4
Finally, George Hammond points out that theosis, as it has been expressed in this reflection, makes sense of the broader trajectory of Scripture that points to the new heavens and the new earth being better than the Garden of Eden. “The goal is not one of mere restoration to the pre-fallen condition of Adam, but rather ‘…to transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body (Phil 3:21).’”5
In the end, whether we use the term theosis or not, we must appreciate that God’s goal of election is nothing less than to glorify himself in the glorification of his children. And if that is our inheritance for the future, let us follow Peter’s practical application of this doctrine in the present: “Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall. 11 For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet 1:10-11 ESV).