What does it mean to be “partakers of the divine nature”?
For by these He has granted to us His precious and magnificent promises, in order that by them you might become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world by lust (emphasis added)- 2 Peter 1:4, NASB.
As defined by the Orthodox Church, deification (theosis) postulates that a Christian can become subjected to
God’s full and perfect penetration . . . in which [state of being] the operations and energies of human nature cease, having been replaced by the Divine Operations and Energies.
Though it has been part of “the spirituality” of the Orthodox Church for centuries, belief in divinisation or theosis is emerging amongst today’s evangelicals.
Over two decades ago, Al Dager noted a trend among some Charismatics:
But we are now hearing from prominent teachers in the Christian media that man was created with a divine nature which was lost due to the introduction of sin. By being born again by the Spirit of God we lose our sin nature and regain our divine nature.
Greg Boyd, who advocates both open theism and contemplative spirituality, forthrightly states:
We no longer have a “sinful nature”.
To this point (though personally I do not believe he believes in deification), John MacArthur has written that early believers “were little Christs,” because they were first called Christiani at Antioch (i.e., “belonging to the party of,” Acts 11:26). Though Jesus warned of “false Christs,” neither He nor His apostles called believers “little Christs” (Matthew 24:24; cf. 1 John 2:18).
Again, MacArthur’s inference that God “was right inside” the pagan philosophers at Mars Hill is troubling. God is right inside believers only! The Apostle Paul wrote: “Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his” (Romans 8:9; cf. John 3:3, 7).
Yet if scriptural precedent exists for the Christian to attain to divinity,
The only biblical text which seems to bear directly on deification is II Peter 1:4, where the destiny of Christian believers is described as becoming “partakers of the divine nature”.
Dager too noted that the man-becomes-god teaching “is based upon a theosophical interpretation of II Peter 1:4 . . .”
So the question becomes, does Peter’s reference to partaking of the divine nature support the teaching that in this life a Christian can become deified? On the face of it, Peter might appear to be teaching that possibility. But upon a deeper investigation of the text, he does not.
To understand “partakers of the divine nature,” the context, grammar and syntax of Peter’s statement needs to be attended to, because if we understand what the apostle really communicated to the believers of that era, then we will be clear as to what he means for believers today. To this understanding, the following translation of 2 Peter 1, verse 4, is offered:
For by His own glory and excellence, the Lord Jesus has granted to us His precious and magnificent promises in order that by them—His precious and magnificent promises—we participate in/with the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world by lust.
To understand what Peter stated in this verse, several points can be noted, some of which are obvious in the English text, and others that are not. In noting these points, it will become clear that the apostle was not teaching deification, that in this life Christian souls can be so consumed of divinity that the operations and energies of their human nature cease (i.e., a theotic state of being).
First, let it be stated that contrary to the prevalent Hellenistic philosophy of his day—that once-upon-a-time pre-existent human souls were part of deity, that amidst life’s material matrix these souls have lost consciousness of their divinity, and therefore that the goal of the soul in this life is to recover the lost consciousness of feeling oneness with God—Peter’s text assumes humans do not possess the potential to recover a lost divinity. As Köster states,
2 Pet. 1:4 presupposes the distinction between our weak mortal nature and the divine essence.
Kelly adds that,
Union with God’s being was not the natural possession of man but the effect of God’s drawing him to Himself.
So Peter’s statement contradicts the prevailing Gnostic and Platonic notion of his day; namely, that once-upon-a-time the human soul, whether individually or collectively, was part of God. This theosophical view of reality is current among Charismatics within the New Apostolic Reformation and Latter Rain movements as well as today’s New Age/New Spiritualists.).
Peter’s statement indicates that there was never a time when pre-existent souls either possessed or participated in divinity. Therefore, in stating that Christians partake of the divine nature, Peter is not borrowing from Hellenistic philosophy as presupposed by many New Testament scholars. In fact, he is contradicting that idea!
Second, participation in the “divine nature” is in accord with the “precious and magnificent promises” of Jesus. In his book The Mystical Union of the Eastern Church, Vladimir Lossky states concerning the false teaching of deification in Christendom’s history:
If God has given us in the Church all the objective conditions, all the means that we need for the attainment of this end [i.e. attaining théōsis], we, on our side, must produce the necessary subjective conditions: for it is in this synergy, in this co-operation of man with God, that the union is fulfilled. This subjective aspect of our union with God constitutes the way of union which is the Christian life.
Clearly, the apostle Peter understood that any participation in the “divine nature” is not based upon synergy (God and man working together), but by God’s grace according to His precious and magnificent promises. If synergy between God and man is involved, it will only be in the sanctification process whereby the Holy Spirit enables individual Christians to incorporate virtues of godliness into their lifestyles (2 Peter 1:5-7; See the seventh point below).
Third, within the clause “you might become partakers,” both the verb and noun are plural. The fact that the apostle addresses all his readers indicates that participation in the “divine nature” is not restricted to adepts, to persons specializing in spirituality. It is not for elite Christians who through spiritual disciplines or ascetic practices might attain deification (cf. Colossians 2:20-23), but for all believers who for reason of divine promises and the Spirit’s indwelling presence, God enables to live sanctified lives on earth as they await the consummation of sanctification, their glorification in heaven (Romans 8:29-30). As John confirms: “Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2; cf. 2 Corinthians 3:18).
Participation in the divine nature is not discriminatory. It’s on the group plan!
Fourth, we should note that as communicated by English translations, the verb “might become” connotes possible participation in the “divine nature.” This however, is not the sense of Peter’s statement. Believers’ participation in the divine nature is actual not potential, and will exist in continuum until the time at which they arrive in the Lord’s presence. In accord with God’s plan and purpose, the time is coming when for reason of His “precious and magnificent promises,”participation in the divine nature will be brought to its appointed consummation (1 Peter 1:3-5). As Paul affirmed:
Being confident of this very thing, that he which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ - Philippians 1:6.
For Christian believers, full participation in the divine nature, which is immortal and incorruptible, is future and awaits either our death or Christ’s Second Coming.
Fifth, we should note that the noun “partakers” (koinōnoí) connotes “the basic idea of one who shares in what is common or shared by all and may be best translated ‘partner, participant’.” Thus, partaking of the divine nature carries more the idea of doing than being. As Paul vouched for Titus: “he is my partner [koinōnos] and fellow worker [sunergós] among you . . .” (2 Corinthians 8:23).
Further, it can be noted that the English preposition “Whereby” (KJV) that introduces 1 Peter 1:4 (Greek words, di’ hōn) was used in ancient decrees pointing to the “personal expenditures of a benefactor . . . Here Peter declares that God’s boon [help, benefit] finds its source in his own ‘glory and virtue’.” It is all from and of God.
Just because God gives a believer a spiritual share in His Corporation does not mean that, for reason of divinisation, he or she owns it!
Sixth, and perhaps most importantly, we should note what the phrase “partakers of the divine nature” does not say (2 Peter 1:4). The Greek New Testament contains the following word order: theías [genitive adjective “divine”], koinōnoí [nominative noun “partakers”], and phúseōs [genitive noun “nature”].
Based upon Peter’s word choice, we can surmise that if he had intended to teach deification or theosis (thereby accommodating his statement to the Platonic-Gnostic philosophy of that era), he might have omitted the noun “partakers” (koinōnoí). Then the phrase would have read that Christians were granted “precious and magnificent promises” so that they might become the divine nature (Greek theías phúseōs). But he did not.
Instead, he inserted a nominative noun “partakers” between an adjective “divine” and a noun “nature.” In doing so, Peter stated that while by regeneration Christians participate in the divine nature (1 Peter 1:3, 23), they are not and will not be consumed of it. As Lewis Smedes (1921-2002) wrote of the interaction of the divine and human natures within a regenerate soul:
Christ communicates Himself in a way that changes us without diminishing us, transforms us without deifying us, [and] Christianises us without making us Christs.
Seventh, in this context (2 Peter 1:4-7), partaking of the divine nature regards not so much a believer’s being as his/her doing. Faith does not live in a moral vacuum (Compare James 2:20, 26.). So having “escaped the corruption that is in the world by lust,” Christians are to apply and supply; to diligently seek to add “moral excellence” to faith.
The moral excellence consists of a list of virtues in which the first virtue becomes foundational for the next, in which the latter grows out of the former—“knowledge . . . self-control . . . perseverance . . . godliness . . . brotherly kindness . . . [and] love” (2 Peter 1:5-7). In other words, by God’s grace, as believers build these virtues into their lifestyles, they participate in/with the divine nature. These virtues are God’s. Yet if believers fail to cultivate these virtues into their lives by His power, they do not participate in the divine nature. As these qualities grow in their lives, believers will “not carry out the desire of the flesh” (Galatians 5:19). In this context, to be a partaker in the divine nature has more to do with divine ethics than divine essence.
As in His incarnation Jesus partook of genuine humanity without becoming a sinner, so Christians partner in the divine nature without becoming God. While we fellowship in and with the divine nature, we don’t own it. Participation in the divine nature for Christian believers is relative, not absolute.
Vladimir Lossky summarizes the false teaching of deification in Christendom’s history:
God became man in order that man might become god, to use the words of Ireneus and Athanasius, echoed by the Fathers and theologians of every age.
As Athanasius (c. 293-373) of Alexandria stated of Jesus:
For He was made man that we might be made God . . .
He [Jesus Christ] was God, and then became man, and that to deify us . . .
The implications of deification are far reaching. Its thinking extends to the false Roman Catholic teaching of justification where Christ’s righteousness is infused into subject Christians (partial divinisation) thereby enabling them to do the works necessary to help God effect their justification. Belief in mystic divinisation also affects the doctrine of the Eucharist where, by and around the Eucharistic elements, a real corporeal presence of Christ is invoked (i.e., consubstantiation), or where alchemically, the elements morph to become the body and blood of Jesus (i.e., transubstantiation) which, when ingested, impart the divine nature to communicants.
With regard to our union with Christ, John Flavel (1627-1691), a nonconformist English-Presbyterian clergyman, states it is,
[Not] an essential union, or union with the divine nature, so that our beings are thereby swallowed up and lost in the divine Being. Some there be indeed that talk at that wild rate, of being godded into God, and christed into Christ; but O, there is an infinite distance between us and Christ, in respect to nature and excellency, notwithstanding this union.
Yet we believers ought to rejoice in our union with Christ, a togetherness that, for reason of our being baptised in/with and by the Holy Spirit, is spiritual (1 Corinthians 12:13; See John 17:21-23.). But while Christ’s dwelling in believers is spiritual, it is not substantial. It is a union and communion facilitated by the Holy Spirit who sovereignly incorporates God’s presence, not essence, in believers, this grandest of all unions being activated by faith in the atonement for sins by the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul wrote that this hidden mystery, this mustērion, then becomes, “Christ in you, the hope of glory”(Colossians 1:27).
Daniel Whittle (1840-1901) wrote of this union in his hymn Christ Liveth in Me:
As lives the flower within the seed, As in the cone the tree,So, praise the God of truth and grace, His Spirit liveth in me.Christ liveth in me, Christ liveth in me;Oh, what a salvation this, That Christ liveth in me!26
For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known - 1 Corinthians 13:12, KJV.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Larry DeBruyn is a graduate of Taylor University (B.S., 1968) and Dallas Theological Seminary (Th. M., 1974) where he received the Charles A. Nash Award in Church History. He has authored three books: Church On the Rise, Why I am not a 'Purpose Driven' Pastor,(2007), Drumming Up Deception, Whether in Celebration or Contemplation--'Feeling' the Beat, (2008) and more recently, Unshackled, Breaking Away from Seductive Spirituality (2009). Currently, Larry resides in New Palestine, Indiana with his wife Margie to whom he has been married for forty-three years. They have two grown sons. After pastoring three local churches for forty three years, Larry now devotes his time to writing and teaching internationally.