The Westminster Catechism, a Reformed Protestant confession, asks, “What is the chief end of man?” It then gives the answer: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.” Such a question and answer can be just as easily posed by an Orthodox or Roman Catholic saint or council. The chief difference is that the Orthodox and Roman Catholics would add one addition:
Man’s chief end is to glorify God, become God, and to enjoy Him forever.
Being that all of Christendom’s intellectual traditions agree so much about man’s purpose for living, how is it that they disagree as to how man attains to heavenly enjoyment? Why is the Protestant tradition usually silent about man becoming God (i.e. Theosis)? To sum up a complicated answer in few words, the point of divergence between the major communions of Christendom is that they disagree upon how man is “justified.”
As an important perquisite for this article, it is recommended you read “The Orthodox Doctrine of Justification: The Biblical Teaching” and “The Orthodox Doctrine of Justification: The Patristic and Conciliar Teaching” beforehand.
The Connection Between Soteriology and the Energy-Essence Distinction
One may surmise that intrinsic to the Orthodox soteriology as portrayed in Decree 13 of the Council of Jerusalem (1672) is the energy-essence distinction. In review, this Decree states:
[W]e rather believe that it [a work] is not the correlative of faith, but the faith which is in us, justifies through works, with Christ.
Orthodoxy teaches that “faith…justifies through works” because the faith and works are participations in God’s divine energy—God Himself. This is why these things Christians do (having faith and doing works) are done “with Christ.” Why? Because our faith and works are given to us by God:
- For to you it has been granted on behalf of Christ, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake. (Phil 1:29)
Further, our faith and works are also completed, by God, in us:
- [L]et us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the Author and Finisher of our faith. (Heb 12:1-2)
Due to the preceding, in order to understand justification, one must understand how Christians participate in God and have union with Him without becoming literally God according to His nature. It requires us to make a distinction between God according to His nature/substance/essence (i.e. the “stuff” of God, what He is “made” of) and His energies (i.e. the works of God).
What precisely is this distinction?
While the energy-essence distinction is addressed in much larger treatments than this article, it is possible to get the meat of the idea in a few words.
Orthodox believe “God’s grace” is an actual participation in God Himself via His energies. “Energies” (derived from ergon and energeia in Greek) simply means “works.” Hence, we experience and know God by His works, and when we participate in His works, we in effect are participating in God Himself.
This sounds confusing, as we often do not think of the substance of something and the works of that something being that same something. However, a simple (though admittedly imperfect) illustration of the sun may help.
What is the sun? Well, it’s that big hot and bright ball in the sky. Is the sun merely hydrogen? Is it not also light and heat? Hence, what we call “the sun” is a combination of material elements, electromagnetic radiation, and heat.
How does anyone know what the sun is? We do not need to become super-heated hydrogen to know the sun (i.e. the substance/essence of the sun). Rather, we can know the sun apart from becoming hydrogen by experiencing its heat and light (i.e. its energies). This is because the works of the sun are heat and light. The heat and light cannot be divorced from the sun, but neither are they the sun’s substance (which is the super-heated hydrogen in the state of plasma). Nonetheless, our scientific instrumentation as well as our five senses allow us to know what the sun is without becoming the sun in essence.
This is not terribly confusing when we apply this to another real-world example. Christians can know their spouses without literally becoming their spouses. Yet, they are undeniably “one flesh” with the same spouses. The oneness is the result of mutual participation with the works (i.e. energies) of the spouses.
How does this apply to God? For one, the Scriptures speak of works as something God participates with us in:
- [W]ork out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure. (Phil 2:12-13)
Further, one can surmise in the Scriptures that man never can “see God,” the significance of this being that God is only perceivable in His energies, not His essence:
- No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him. (John 1:18)
- Not that anyone has seen the Father, except He who is from God; He has seen the Father. (John 6:46)
- Who alone has immortality, and dwells in light unapproachable, Whom no man has seen, nor can see. (1 Tim 6:16)
The preceding is demonstrated in Saint Stephen’s vision. When he sees the Father, he is in fact seeing “the glory of God”:
- But he, being full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and said, “Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” (Acts 7:55-56)
The Scriptures teach that “glory” can be seen and given from God to man. The “glory” cannot be God’s essence (i.e. substance) or we would literally be “made” of God. In a prayer, Jesus reveals that man is given the same “glory” which God the Father has given to the Son:
- And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one…I desirethat they also whom You gave Me may be with Me where I am, that they may behold My glory which You have given Me. (John 17:22, 24)
In layman’s English, we experience the work of God, which is God, but we do not see, or get, a “piece” of God according to His divine nature. In Orthodoxy, we understand “glory” to be His energies because the glory is an aspect of God. We know this because the Father imparted “glory” to the Son and also to us. Obviously, God does not impart us His substance, any more than the sun’s rays impart us the substance of the sun.
How does the preceding apply to Decree 13 of the Council of Jerusalem in its teaching on justification?
Decree 13 teaches that “the faith which is in us, justifies through works, with Christ.” Faith justifies “through works” because good works are participations in God’s grace (i.e. “energies”). This is what “with Christ” means. It is, in fact, His energies which justify and sanctify the Christian. The grace of “justification” is literally a participation in God’s energies, or in other words, God Himself. This is why 2 Cor 5:21 teaches:
- For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.
Christians literally “become the righteousness of God” and this is “in Him.” Christians have a literal union with their God, which is why Saint Paul teaches they are already “raised up together” and “sit[ting] together in the heavenly places in Christ.” (Eph 2:6) This literal union is just as literal as one’s union with one’s spouse. Saint Paul in the same letter speaks of marriage and equates it to our salvation in the Church:
- “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This is a great mystery, but I speak concerning Christ and the Church. (Eph 5:31-32)
Upon reflection, it appears that the West’s lack of an energy-essence distinction is why Orthodox and Western Christian communions speak past each other on the topic of justification. What are the ramifications of failing to have an energy-essence distinction within Western theological paradigms on justification? As we shall see, it leads to the notion that man is justified by something that is not God and this idea then gives rise to even more aberrant speculation as to how to get that something.
The Roman Catholic View of Grace Contrasted with Orthodoxy
The Roman Catholic view of justification is more closely related to Orthodoxy than Protestantism’s doctrine is. However, it also emphatically rejects that the grace which justifies man properly is God’s own righteousness (i.e. His energies). The following treatment is heavily indebted to Jay Dyer’s research on this topic.
Due to there being no energy-essence distinction, Roman Catholicism teaches that the grace man experiences from God is from His essence and therefore a “created accident” given to man from God (and not something uncreated from God). It would be nonsense in such a system to assert that His essence, or “uncreated grace,” can be experienced, because men would have to likewise share God’s essence. This would turn them into the eternal God. For more detail, one should consult Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica (First Part of the Second Part, Question 110, Article 2, Objections 2 and 3).
The preceding teaching is dogmatically affirmed in the Roman Catholic Council of Trent:
Finally the unique formal cause [of justification] is the “justice of God, not that by which He Himself is just, but by which He makes us just,” that, namely, by which, when we are endowed with it by him, we are renewed in the spirit of our mind, and not only are we reputed, but we are truly called and are just, receiving justice within us. (Session VI, Chapter 7)
The interpretation given here is the mainstream view of the Roman Catholic Church. The Catholic Encyclopedia states in its article on “justification”:
According to the Council of Trent sanctifying grace is not merely a formal cause, but “the only [unique] formal cause” (unica causa formalis) of our justification…Since justification consists in an interior sanctity and renovation of spirit, its formal cause evidently must be a created grace (gratia creata), a permanent quality, a supernatural modification or accident (accidens) of the soul.
One must remember that in Roman Catholic theology “accidents” are the outward and not divine “part” of the Eucharist. Transubstantiation teaches that the bread and wine are transformed into Christ’s body and blood only in their substance (i.e. essence), but not in their accidents. (It is worth noting that the Council of Jerusalem affirms Transubstantiation with similar terminology.)
Nevertheless, if grace is an “accident,” this means the righteousness of justification is not God Himself. This is a contradiction of 2 Cor 5:21 and opens up an under-appreciated proverbial can of worms.
If the good works that justify and sanctify the Christian are not man’s participation in God’s energies (i.e. God’s works), then what are good works? The short answer is that, within the Roman Catholic worldview, they are accomplished by man via a “created grace” given to him by God that in turn merit salvation in recompense. So, it is what the man is doing and experiencing through “created grace” that makes him righteous (i.e. what man “gets from God” for doing good by the “grace” of God), not that he is righteous because he is literally imparted the righteousness intrinsic to God Himself. Hence, justification in Roman Catholicism is a “two-step process” where man gets something and then additionally merits that same something from God.
In layman’s terms, faith gives man grace to get started in salvation so that he can then do good works, which then merit (or essentially earn) that salvation.
The preceding synopsis aligns with official Roman Catholic teaching. Their catechism states that while “no one can merit the initial grace of forgiveness and justification at the beginning of conversion,” subsequent good works and the works of others on our behalf are needed to “merit for ourselves and for others the graces needed for our sanctification…and for the attainment of eternal life.” (CCC 2010)
This is why Roman Catholicism has a “treasury of merits.” Good works, done by someone on their own or someone else’s behalf, merit salvation—which is a “created grace” or thing given to man. Anyone’s merits in effect are efficacious to an individual, because man’s “problem” is he has a debt of merits (demerits), which can be canceled out by the merits of others (or his own).
It must be stated that Roman Catholicism teaches that the good works are God’s own gift to man out of His graciousness. So, God recompenses man for His own work. Nevertheless, it is a theology of recompense and to say that it is not makes it unnecessarily difficult to understand. So, we must understand the merits of men as something accomplished by the grace of God in any event.
The preceding two-stage justification scheme where man through works merits the reward of something from God allows for a subtle differentiation to be introduced into Western theology. God’s grace is simply a created grace that nudges man to believe. This justifies a man “initially” (to use Roman Catholic terminology), allowing man to enter a salvific relationship with God. Subsequent good works are something, though accomplished by the same nudge (i.e. grace), necessary for subsequent justification (i.e. the meriting of salvation).
To review, the same essential nudge is helping man between initial and subsequent justification, but as we can see, the nudge is accomplishing two different things.
As we shall see, Protestants alter this paradigm by calling “initial justification” simply “justification” and “subsequent justification” by the name “sanctification.” Protestantism shares with Roman Catholicism that God is nudging man towards two different ends—one end being our entering into a salvific relationship with God and the other end the fruits of this relationship.
However, if one presupposes upon the Orthodox doctrine, there is no difference in what God is accomplishing in man either initially or subsequently. Man’s righteousness is God’s and man’s makes it his own through a faith that conforms himself to God. Hence, (initial) justification accomplishes the same thing as subsequent justification/sanctification. To quote Saint Filaret of Moscow’s Longer Catechism:
His voluntary suffering and death on the cross for us, being of infinite value and merit, as the death of one sinless, God and man in one person [Jesus Christ], is both a perfect satisfaction to the justice of God [the Father], which had condemned us for sin to death, and a fund of infinite merit…but this benefits only those of us who, for their parts, of their own free will, have fellowship in his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death. How can we have fellowship in the sufferings and death of Jesus Christ? We have fellowship in the sufferings and death of Jesus Christ through a lively and hearty faith, through the Sacraments, in which is contained and sealed the virtue of his saving sufferings and death, and, lastly, through the crucifixion of our flesh with its affections and lusts. (Questions 208-210)
For example, the thief on the cross, through his selfless contrition, conformed himself to Christ’s death. This faith, with Christ, accomplished in him is his justification. This is true of not only other martyrs, but all Christians who in faith mortify the flesh. According to Saint Nicolai of Zica:
However, as amazing as these examples of voluntary martyrs are, the examples of ascetics, known and unknown, are not a bit less amazing, for asceticism is nothing less than prolonged martyrdom. (Prologue of Ochrid, September 10, Reflection)
From the preceding, we can conclude that the “infinite merit of Christ” benefits man in the sense that Saint Maximus (in the previous article) asserted–in proportion to his faith. This faith must be substantive, normatively having works throughout a lifetime which imbue the individual with humility and love. However, such a faith sometimes lacks tangible works, but this is rare as most people do not die in sudden and profound deathbed repentances or martyrdoms. As Saint Bede teaches when commenting on Abraham’s saving faith in James 2:
The works mentioned here are works of faith. No one can have perfect works unless he has faith, but many have perfect faith without works [i.e. thief on the cross], since they do not always have time to do them. (Concerning the Epistle of St. James, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture New Testament, Volume XI, p. 33).
For some Christians, such as the thief, by God’s grace their faith is so selfless and humble that they had conformed themselves to Christ instantly. Either instantly or over a lifetime, the grace is the Life of Christ Himself. According to Saint Paul:
- It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. (Gal 2:20)
And so, for the Orthodox Christian salvation is not recompense for good works, because the doing of good works (or the desire to do so from a truly repentant sinner who dies beforehand) is an actual experience of salvation—God’s grace. Orthodoxy rejects that good works demand recompense from God, specifically because we are saved by God’s grace. As Saint Nicolai of Zica taught:
Who can comprehend and acknowledge that we are saved by grace–that we are saved by God’s grace, and not by our merits and works? Who can comprehend and acknowledge that? Only he who has comprehended and seen the bottomless pit of death and corruption in which man is engulfed by sin, and has also comprehended and seen the height of honor and glory to which man is raised in the Heavenly Kingdom, in the realm of immortality, in the house of the Living God–only such a one can comprehend and acknowledge that we are saved by grace. (Prologue of Ochrid, Homily, November 9).
Hence, without rejecting the efficacy of good works, many Orthodox pray the following every morning:
For if Thou shouldst save me for my works, this would not be grace or a gift, but rather a duty; yea, Thou Who art great in compassion and ineffable in mercy. For he that believeth in Me, Thou hast said, O my Christ, shall live and never see death. If, then, faith in Thee saveth the desperate, behold, I believe, save me, for Thou art my God and Creator. Let faith instead of works be imputed to me, O my God, for Thou wilt find no works which could justify me. But may my faith suffice instead of all works, may it answer for, may it acquit me, may it make me a partaker of Thine eternal glory. (Russian Morning Prayer)
The Orthodox Christian seeks the humility of Christ and understands it is this sort of Christlike faith that is salvific. The natural living out of this faith contains good works, which are in of themselves salvific as well because they too impart the Life of Christ to the believer.
Contrasting Orthodoxy’s Teaching on Salvation with Protestantism
Protestant soteriology (i.e. the study of salvation) is an intellectual development out of the Roman Catholic worldview. Generally, it is indifferent as to what grace is, but it implicitly presumes upon “created grace,” because no magisterial Protestant source taught that salvation is Theosis via God’s divine energies. It should not surprise an informed observer, therefore, that Protestantism like Roman Catholicism infers that God’s created grace “nudges” man to believe and then man to grow in holiness—viewing the coming to belief and the subsequent growth in holiness as fundamentally different ends.
In Protestantism, justification is when God declares one as “righteous” and sanctification is a subsequent process of actually becoming more righteous. As we reviewed in a previous article, this declaration is not contingent upon an actual righteousness or Christlikeness—but rather a legal declaration which artificially adds the merits of Christ onto the account of the individual. As we can see, the Protestant idea merely takes the Roman Catholic “Treasury of Merits” and changes how one gets the merits (through faith) and from Whom the merits are derived (Christ alone).
Sanctification, which does not save Christians but is the result of justification, is the process of actually becoming Christlike. However, one can be justified (and therefore saved) without being Christlike.
Regardless of the merits of the internal logic of the preceding, one can easily surmise that the Orthodox doctrine of grace “breaks” the Protestant system. If one were to presume upon the Orthodox understanding of grace, differentiating between justification and sanctification is nonsensical.
Salvation is a participation in God’s divine energies. The grace that makes one justified, as in the literal energies, are the same energies that sanctify. The same grace of divine participation in His energies is saving the individual all along.
Justification is simply a word that means one is “tapped” into God’s energies. Sanctification is no different in that it also is simply man being tapped into God’s energies. Therefore, justification and sanctification are the exact same thing.
This is why Orthodox use the terms justification and sanctification synonymously. For example, Saint Cyprian comments on the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican that the Publican went home “justified” and:
[T]his man who thus asked [for mercy]…deserved to be sanctified, since he placed the hope of salvation not in the confidence of his innocence, because there is none who is innocent. (Treatise 4, Par. 6)
A Protestant may object that their system is more Biblical than the one Cyprian is presuming upon. Protestants argue that justification and sanctification are not synonymous in the Scriptures. However, the terms “justified” and “sanctified” are nowhere treated in such a sense that explicitly or implicitly differentiates between their meanings. Instead, the words are used interchangeably. For example, Saint Paul equates baptism, justification, and sanctification in 1 Cor 6:11:
- And such were some of you. But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God.
The Protestant idea that justification is a previous pronouncement and sanctification is only a continuing reality is contradicted in additional Scriptures. The Scriptures in several occasions speak of those “sanctified by faith in Me” (Acts 26:18), “sanctified in Christ Jesus” (1 Cor 1:2), and “sanctified by God the Father” (Jude 1:1). Saint Paul asserts that “we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” (Heb 10:10) The term “justified” can just as easily be substituted in any of the preceding, which lends credence to the Orthodox view that justification and sanctification are synonymous. Further, being that one is sanctified in the past tense, this shows that the grace of sanctification is the same grace which justifies the Christian at the time of his baptism by the Holy Spirit.
Nevertheless, this does not mean that sanctification is not also an ongoing process as Protestants assert. For example, Saint Paul teaches in Hebrews 10:14:
- For by one offering He has perfected forever those who are being sanctified.
However, Protestants are incorrect in their assertion that justification is always a past pronouncement. This is because Saint Paul also speaks of justification as a continuous reality. In the King James Version of the Scriptures, there are several examples of the Greek word “justify” in the aorist tense which follow the sense of the aorist tense given by Saint Jerome’s translation of the same passages.* For example:
- Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. (Rom 5:1)
- That being justified by his grace, we should be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:7)
* The aorist tense pertains to a past action which is not necessarily either completed (like the past tense) or ongoing (continuous tense) event. Greek does not have a straight-forward past tense. Context determines the translation. For example, in the Lord’s prayer it is said, “hallowed be Thy name,” the word “hallowed” is the same as “sanctified” in the Greek and it is used in the aorist tense. It is clear this is not merely a past action which has already been completed. Rather, it was true in the past and continues to be true today. Christians reflexively understand the correct usage of the term “hallowed,” even when communicated in the past tense as it is English, in a sense consistent with the aorist tense. Obviously, Greeks likewise would have the same sensibilities in both using and interpreting the aorist tense.
Some incorrectly assert that the interpretation of the aorist tense must be exclusively inferred to be in the past tense when translated into English. However, this is not only linguistically incorrect, the Scriptures contain one undisputable passage where justification is referred to as a continuing reality. Specifically, Rom 3:23-24 uses the term “justify” as a Present Participle (i.e. a verb in English which ends in “-ing”):
- [A]ll have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified [lit. “justifying”] freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.
Hence, the Scriptures teach that formerly sinful men (cf 1 Cor 6:11) are literally being justified in an on-going sense.
The idea that man is being is being turned from bad to good by God’s grace is not a concept definitionally in opposition to the term “justify.” For example, Asaph prays:
- Verily I have cleansed [lit. “justified”] my heart in vain, and washed my hands in innocency. (Ps 72:13 LXX)
As one can see, Asaph did not in the courtroom of his mind pronounce his heart innocent. He literally washed his hands in innocence. The justification of his heart is an actual righteous act he is doing to himself. So, if God “justifies the ungodly” (Rom 4:5), there is no reason to disbelieve that what is being communicated is that God is actually doing something righteous in the individual—as per the teaching of Decree 13 of the Council of Jerusalem and 2 Cor 5:21.
The issue becomes increasingly tenuous for Protestants when the varying Hebrew words for “justice” and “righteousness” are reviewed. It suffices to say that the Hebrew term for the “righteousness” ascribed to Abraham in Gen 15:6 is used elsewhere in a sense clearly not pertaining to an artificial legal pronouncement with no corresponding reality.
To cite a couple of examples, Deut 24:12 (KJV) states that returning a pledge “shall be righteousness unto thee before the Lord.” Furthermore, Ps 106:3 (KJV) teaches that “blessed are they…that doeth righteousness at all times.”
Additionally, it should also be pointed out that the Hebrew term for “credit/impute/render” in Gen 15:6 likewise lacks any legal connotation in a plethora of Hebrew usages. The term is used in varying other contexts.
One cannot help but conclude that Biblically the Protestant soteriological scheme is an eisegesis—an imposing of their own tradition onto the text. The text of the Scriptures themselves are in fact consistent with the Orthodox doctrine, that being God accounts righteousness to man for his actual righteousness and this righteousness, being by God’s grace, is an actual union with Him, a participation in His energies.
This is why the New Testament’s most used phrase is “in Christ.” It is used approximately 80 times. Additionally, related phrases such as “in God” and “in Him” are used to the same effect more than a few times. Numerous passages attest to justification (or more generally, salvation) as being God’s grace given to man in terms of a union. To cite a couple of examples:
- There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. (Rom 8:1)
- Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature. (2 Cor 5:17)
Christians are not righteous with one kind of righteousness at one point of their lives simply by belief and then righteous with a different righteousness at a later point in time walking not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. It is the same righteousness given to man by God at both times. This righteousness gives us life from the One who is “Life.” (John 14:6) To quote Saint Augustine:
For we by His grace are to be made the sons of God…we are partakers of eternal life, He is eternal life. (On Merit and the Forgiveness of Sins and the Baptism of Infants, Book 2, chap 38)
This Life is not simply given at the moment of belief, but is continually bestowed to man if he mortifies his flesh through good works:
- For if you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. (Rom 8:13)
This conforming oneself to Christ through the renewing of one’s mind (cf Rom 12:2) and good works is a participation in the divine energies of God. This turns us literally into God according to His energies (i.e. grace), but not essence/nature/substance. This is why Saint Augustine teaches:
God, you see, wants to make you a god; not by nature, of course, like the one whom he begot; but by his gift and by adoption. (Sermon 166:4)
God called human beings “gods” in the sense that they were deified by his grace, not because they were born of his own substance…Moreover he who justifies is the same as he who deifies, because by justifying us he made us sons and daughters of God. (Enarrat. Ps 49:2)
The preceding is not some aberrant teaching of the early Church. It is the explicit teaching of Saint Peter:
- 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 Pet 1:3-5)
As we can see, the escaping of worldly corruption is what makes it possible to become a partaker of God’s divine nature. This is because man’s cooperating with God’s grace permits His grace to deify man.
In closing, one may surmise the following from this and the preceding two articles on the subject of justification. First, the Orthodox doctrine is eminently Biblical. Second, it has been clearly and simply expounded in two Pan-Orthodox councils. The Church’s saints have further clarified her teachings. Lastly, unlike Roman Catholic and Protestant explanations of how one is righteous, the Orthodox explanation makes the most sense when one adopts a holistic view of the Scriptures as well as Tradition.
The essence-energy distinction allows the Scriptures to really mean what they say. One can only lament that the West has lost this distinction and as a result has brought upon itself theological confusion and schisms over the issue of how God makes Christians righteous. Protestants and Roman Catholics would do well to return to the teaching of the Orthodox Church.