Theosis versus Sanctification


A friend rang me up not so long ago.  He attended a worship service where the minister argued that the church should strive to attain theosis.

This concept was new to both of us.  He asked me to not indulge in too deep and elaborated theological discussion.  He just wanted to know what theosis means, and where this term comes from. I did some research.  This article is what I found.  It is by far not complete.  There is certainly much more to be said about the topic.  But I see some similarities between new developments in theological thought.

Actually, theosis is not something new; the Eastern Orthodox Church prefers to use the term theosis above sanctification.



The term theosis (deification) is fairly common in Eastern orthodox circles. By theosis the Orthodox mean the process of acquiring godly characteristics, gaining immortality and incorruptibility, and experiencing communion with God. As a result, deification corresponds somewhat to concepts which evangelicals describe using the terms sanctification, eternal life, and fellowship or relationship with God.

The Orthodox believe that gaining these blessings was the task which God set before humanity at creation, the task which through the fall humanity lost the capacity to achieve, and the task which the incarnation and work of Christ have made possible once again.  For Western evangelicals who are interested in Eastern Christendom, the most relevant aspect of Orthodox theology is its understanding of the means by which fallen people undergo this process of deification.

Eastern Christians see grace not as an expression of the undeserved nature of salvation, but as an energy of God, which can be communicated to people.  To be saved by ‘grace’ in Eastern theology means that people are deified as a result of God’s communicating to us his energies, by giving us those aspects of Himself which He chooses to share with people. When Protestants use the word ‘grace’, it describes an act of God in Jesus Christ, granting sinners salvation as a gift. Western understanding of grace is concerned primarily with forgiveness (declared righteousness), whereas the Eastern concept of grace has more to do with power or energy (deification as a process).

In some ways there are resemblances between Rome’s understanding of salvation and Eastern theology:  the primary means by which the Holy Spirit works to give grace and to deify people are the church’s sacraments and human effort.

The Eastern orthodox insistence that salvation involves human effort may not be a rejection of our belief in salvation by faith alone, but may rather be analogous to our assertion that genuine faith results in good works.


Calvinist hold to the Biblical teaching that justification and sanctification cannot and should not be confused with one another:  each teaches distinctive acts of grace in the life of the believer.

The Westminster Confession of Faith defines justification:

Those whom God effectually calls, He also freely justifies not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous; not for any thing wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ’s sake alone; nor by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness; but by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them, they receiving and resting on Him and His righteousness by faith; which faith they have not of themselves, it is the gift of God.

The Westminster Confession of Faith defines sanctification:

They, who are once effectually called, and regenerated, having a new heart, and a new spirit created in them, are further sanctified, really and personally, through the virtue of Christ’s death and resurrection, by His Word and Spirit dwelling in them, the dominion of the whole body of sin is destroyed, and the several lusts thereof are more and more weakened and mortified; and they more and more quickened and strengthened in all saving graces, to the practice of true holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord.

Charles Hodge rightly wrote:

“… justification differs from sanctification, (1.) In that the former is a transient act, the latter a progressive work. (2.) Justification is a forensic act, God acting as judge, declaring justice satisfied so far as the believing sinner is concerned, whereas sanctification is an effect due to the divine efficiency. (3.) Justification changes, or declares to be changed, the relation of the sinner to the justice of God; sanctification involves a change of character. (4.) The former, therefore, is objective, the latter subjective. (5.) The former is founded on what Christ has done for us; the latter is the effect of what He does in us. (6.) Justification is complete and the same in all, while sanctification is progressive, and is more complete in some than in others. (Hodge, C. (1997). Systematic theology. Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.)

In no way does sanctification add to our justification:  the progressive nature of sanctification does not make the saved sinner more justified.  In a sense even sanctification is a gift of grace (there is the distinction between definite and progressive sanctification)

Recent theological shifts regarding sanctification

New Perspectives on Paul (NPP)

In recent years theologians in Protestant circles challenged conservative theologians to rethink the concepts of justification and sanctification.  Ligon Duncan points out the dual instrumentality of faith and works in New Perspectives theology (of which NT Wright is probably most prominent):

“It seems dangerously close to teaching a dual instrumentality of faith and works as held by traditional Roman Catholicism, especially if it is said, ‘God gets us into his covenant but we keep ourselves there by non-meritorious works through the Spirit’s enabling.’” (

We live in a covenant of grace, but we have to do works to “stay in”.

Federal Vision (FV)

More recent than NPP, Federal Vision Theology, almost in cahoots with the NPP theologians began to offer this understanding:

“In baptism every baptized person receives all the benefits of Christ (election, union with Christ, justification, adoption) so that one is in “the covenant” by grace but one retains these benefits and either remains or becomes (they have said both) elect, united to Christ, and justified by cooperating with grace through trusting and obeying.”  (

Grace, but one has to retain the benefits of grace by cooperating with grace:  works?

Emergent or Emerging Churches (EC’s)

Emergent church exponents abhor (rightly so) the dead Christianity of the majority of members of established Reformed churches and promote “authentic christianity” – the search for the “deeper spiritual life”.  The Emergent or Emerging church is post-modern (whilst New Perspectives and Federal Vision  – and for that matter the Eastern Church – surely are not!) and its adherents look for a deeper “mystical” expression of “the real Christian life” and our union with Christ.

This inevitably leads to some form of works.

Some common ground

Adherents to the NPP and FV will deny any agreement with what is known as the Emergent or Emerging church.  Rightly so.

The common ground between the above theologies is the fact that sinful man just can’t live with the idea that he plays no part in the salvation of grace in Jesus Christ.  The point of contention in all the above movements and theologies is justification by faith – alone.  Pure Calvinism, or Biblical theology, to them leaves man completely without accountability (or waters down his responsibility to life a holy life), without him doing something to “do” include him in a “works” (even non-meritorious works) of salvation.

There is, it seems to me, a monumental confusion between the Biblical teachings of justification and sanctification:  sanctification as an imperative on the life of a saved sinner is confused with the forensic declaration of justification by faith alone, and becomes a system of good works which help the sinner to be saved.

Something wrong with Calvinism?

At this point I want to agree with this statement:

“There’s nothing wrong with our theology, except that we fail to live up to it. Our standards are not deficient; rather, our deportment is. Too often we fail to be in practice who we truly are in Christ. The solution to lives that are not what they should be is not theological reformulation, as Federal Vision proponents would claim, but faithful living within our already well-developed theological system. It is the best expression of Scripture that the church has, by God’s guidance and grace, developed thus far.” (

Post-conservative Evangelical Theology

One would need to be blind to not see the effect of (modern-day) Neo Calvinism on the theological and ecclesiological landscape.  (I would have to disagree to put Abraham Kuiper in the box of New Calvinists – as many actually do).  If I really have to do, the debate would centre around theological issues, and not style ( The author of that article does not seek to necessarily find theological grounds for his distinction between “old” and “new” Calvinists;  his argument for style is, I think valid:  in the end, the package in some ways determines how the content will be evaluated.  Just think what your spouse will think of a gift for your silver anniversary if it is wrapped in a used brown paper bag!)

At least for the sake of this article, some Neo Calvinists can be defined as Post-conservative Evangelists.

A definition

  • Post-conservative evangelical theology is that it is thoroughly and authentically evangelical. It is not ‘post-evangelical’.
  • For post-conservative evangelicalism experience rather than doctrine is the enduring essence of evangelical Christianity.  While affirming the importance of doctrine some say that it cannot take the place of or hold primacy over the experience of new life in the Holy Spirit that comes with faith and repentance and the continuous infilling of the Holy Spirit.
  • Post-conservative evangelical theology is uncomfortable with foundationalism:  post-conservative evangelicals worry that conservative evangelicals look upon Scripture as just that—a pre-systematised system of timeless truths just waiting to be organised into a coherent system which could then replace Scripture .
  • Post-conservative evangelicals have a strong interest in dialogue between diverse groups of theologians. (The unhappy postulation of “grace” against “doctrine”.
  • Post-conservative evangelical theology have a broad and relatively inclusive vision of evangelicalism.  For post-conservative evangelicals the ‘essentials’ category contains only those few beliefs that are central to the gospel and the experience of the transforming grace of God in Jesus Christ. (It is almost if there is a aversion for distinctiveness.  Post-conservative evangelicals prefer not to call churches by the name of the denomination:  it is sometimes hard to work out if a “ministry” is Anglican, Presbyterian or Baptist.  It could be “Downtown Ministries” not “Downtown Presbyterian Church”, or “Uphill Ministries” not “Uphill Baptist Church”.  It also seems as if this tendency is not accidental, but fairly deliberate.)
  • Some post-conservative evangelical theologians have a relational view of reality including a relational vision of God’s being.  The God of the Bible, they argue, is relational and not self-enclosed; this God allows Himself to be affected by humanity. (They show an aversion to dogmatics. (In recent times the emphasis is on Biblical Theology, rather than Systematic Theology (or Domatics.  They hold to a “non-doctrinal” understanding of soteriology (some even see themselves as ‘Five Point Calvinists’), but show a lack of biblical Christology, Pneumatology, ecclesiology, cosmology, missiology, sacramentology and eschatology.)
  • Some post-conservative evangelicals have an inclusivist attitude toward salvation. God is the supreme evangelist and post-conservatives do not limit his gracious work for the salvation of people to the extent of human missions and evangelism. By his prevenient grace God attempts to draw all people to Himself. He is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance. Post-conservatives hope for the salvation of many who follow the light of God’s truth flickering however dimly in their own cultures and religions and are met by the God of Jesus Christ on their journey toward ultimate truth. (The following remarks of Billy Graham are alarming:  “He’s [God is] calling people out of the world for His name, whether they come from the Muslim world, or the Buddhist world, or the Christian world or the non-believing world, they are members of the Body of Christ because they’ve been called by God. They may not even know the name of Jesus but they know in their hearts that they need something that they don’t have, and they turn to the only light that they have, and I think that they are saved, and that they’re going to be with us in heaven. (  It is true that Tim Keller rectified a misunderstanding he created (,), but he appeared somewhat uncertain and hesitant to answer during the interview with Martin Bashir.(

Although there is always a danger in creating a blanket definition, in some ways NPP, FV and E’C are post conservative.  Far be it from me to indiscriminately lump in what was said in the paragraph above with what follows, but what is common with what follows is their deviation from orthodox Calvinism about justification.  For some post-conservative theologians there are commonality between sanctification and theosis.

Clark H Pinnock

We follow the path of Clark H Pinnock.  I quote the work of R.E. Olson, in S.E. Porter and A.R. Cross (Olson, R. E. (2003). Postconservative Evangelical Theology and the Theological Pilgrimage of Clark Pinnock. In S. E. Porter & A. R. Cross (Eds.), Semper reformandum : studies in honour of Clark H. Pinnock. Milton Keynes, UK: Paternoster).

Olson makes these remarks:

“To follow Pinnock’s theological trail is to enter into the world of constructive and sometimes conflictive conversation with Christian theologians called Calvinist, Wesleyan, Pentecostal, Anabaptist, Process, Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic.”

“He remained Christ-centered and biblically-rooted, but now he also was a Spirit-animated risk taker prepared to hear anew the word of God on behalf of the church’s mission in a postmodern world. With this new stance came another professional move of teaching location.”

“Pinnock began a quest to help liberate the evangelical Christian community from what he came to see as its shackles of Reformed scholasticism, Hellenistic perversions, and other cultural accommodations. He has assumed that Christians are at risk of stagnating and losing the vitality of the Spirit’s witness to biblical meaning for our time when they ‘insist on conserving in ways reflective of past thought traditions and cultures more than of biblical thought and true Spirit life’”

“He had moved in the direction of the view typical of Eastern Christianity, namely that Christian theology is essentially a practical endeavor instead of a theoretical science.”

“In Flame of Love he encourages evangelicals to include within their scope of legitimate belief a broader range of ideas about Christ and salvation. For example, he endorses a version of the Eastern Orthodox concept of salvation as theosis—divinization—without discarding more traditional evangelical ideas of justification and regeneration.”

“According to Pinnock, one of the most unfortunate implications of believing that everything happens according to God’s will is that it encourages people to invest their energy in trying to accept things as the way they are rather than in changing them to the way God would want them to be.”


It seems, then, that post-conservative theology:

  • does not distinguish between justification and sanctification;
  • promotes the idea of good works as a means of “staying in” the grace of God (it strongly reminds of Roman Catholic theology) (The question to be answered here is:  what constitutes “good works”?  Can the best effort of man contribute to his “staying in”?)
  • in the extreme, some (like Pinnock and others) seek a deeper spiritual life (“living by the Spirit”) as a form of good works;
  • showing obedience may lead to a form of good works similar to the Eastern concept of theosis.  This amounts to a form of mysticism:  man becomes like God, and reminds strongly of the Perfectionist Movement. (
There is a general modern-day confusion/misunderstanding/mixing up of things with some people when it comes to justification and sanctification.  The slippery slope of New Calvinism (or post-conservative theology) is their aversion to systematic theology, which leads them away from the conservative understanding of justification.  This unavoidably leads to one of two things:
  • an emphasis on emotion/mystical, feeling good theology in opposition to clear doctrine – hence a call for deeper spiritual life; Eastern orthodox theosis as a unity between the sinner and the Saviour enters on the scene.
  • antinomianism (sanctification is seen as legalism, and attempts to godliness are dismissed).

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