Partaking of His Divine Nature
“For by these He has granted to us His precious and magnificent promises, so that by them you may become the partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world by lust.” (II Peter 1:4)
Theologians since the time of the early Church fathers have attempted to explain the nature of the believer’s relationship with God. Through the centuries this issue has produced a broad spectrum of ideas. In our attempt to define and bring depth of understanding to God’s revealed truth we must take care to remain within the biblical boundaries.
Some have taken the extreme position that believers are, by partaking of the divine nature, brought into a position of virtual equality with God. This view fails to adequately see the scriptural distinction between their union with God, in the divine life and nature, and the unique status of the Godhead possessed by the Trinity alone. They erroneously portray believers as in some way co-equal with God, assuming on some level His divine headship and authority. This appears to be the view of at least some in the “Word of Faith” movement. Their overreaching imprecise statements imply that “union with God” suggests equality with God, an absolute parity with God, and thus, some manner of participation in the Godhead and in those attributes of God which are incommunicable.
[In fairness to these brothers, I do not believe they are trying to actually lay claim to a co-equal status with God. These men are not trained theologically and thus in “stretching” to express a truth that they believe they see in the Scriptures; they appear to violate orthodox theological boundaries. They do not place sufficient “fences” around some of their statements. In addition to that, they seem to lack a clear understanding of the sovereignty of God.]
On the other end of the spectrum we have those who only recognize the believer’s judicial relationship with God. This view holds that believers primarily imitate God’s divine communicable attributes rather than partake of them. They deny or dismiss any organic relationship between the Triune God and His redeemed. This teaching minimizes the relationship of the believer to the Father to mere legal status of adoption, wherein the adopted child imitates the adoptive parent’s behavior. I believe that this position is an over-reaction to the apparently extreme view they see as being perpetuated by the Word of Faith teachers.
I believe that the Biblical truth lies between these two extremes, embracing the judicial aspect of the believer’s relationship to God and at the same time affirming his union with God in Christ. The Bible never elevates man to the status of equality with God. Even prior to the fall Adam was under God’s direction and authority. God is man’s Creator, and the Potter has non-negotiable power over the clay (Rom. 9:20-21). On the other hand, a number of authors, in reaction to the exaggeration, confusion, and the error of the Word of Faith teachers, end up throwing out the proverbial baby with the bath water. These authors have also rejected a number of essential biblical truths concerning the believer’s vital union and identification with God in life and nature.
The believer’s relationship with God is more than legal, forensic, and outward. It is more than “union of fellowship,” as one author has called it. This is a limited view of our salvation. The Bible stresses that we are regenerated. According to I Corinthians 6:17: “He who is joined to the Lord is one spirit with Him.” It is more than an “adoptive” status. God Himself indwells us (Rom. 8:9; Ephes. 4:6; Col. 1:27). Jesus told His disciples to expect the Spirit of the Father to be in them (Matt. 10:20). He declared that both He and the Father would be in His believers (John 17:21). It is true that the incommunicable attributes of God are not possessed by the believer – these being self-existence, immutability, omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence, eternality, and absolute sovereignty. Nevertheless, the Bible shows us that God has chosen to impart to believers His communicable attributes – these being compassion, graciousness, mercy, slowness to anger, truth, faithfulness, and forgiveness. [See Exodus 34:6-7.] It is incorrect to teach that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit indwell the believer apart from the divine life and nature; this would fragment the essence of God. God’s life and nature are received at the moment of regeneration. God brings about the transformation of believers into His image by causing His indwelling life and nature to grow and mature within them (II Cor. 3:17-18). Ultimately, at His return even the physical bodies of believers will be transformed to a glorified state reflectng the glory of Christ (II Thess. 1:10; I John 3:2). It is scriptural to assert that believers participate in the divine nature, as long as it is made clear that we never become part of the Godhead and never evolve from creature to Creator. (This is the error of Mormonism, which teaches: “As man is, God once was; as God is, men may be.”)
What did Peter mean by the statement, “You may become partakers of the divine nature” (II Peter 1:4)? Many of the early church fathers saw Peter’s statement as actual union and participation by believers in the divine nature. Origen equated this fellowship of the Spirit with our partaking of the divine nature. He stated, “What is the fellowship of the Holy Spirit? Peter describes this by calling it ‘sharing in the divine nature.’” Ambrose, Cyril of Jerusalem, and Novatian all said similar things commenting on II Peter 1:4. (See Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New Testament Vol.11.) The Venerable Bede commented: “When God blesses us, He changes our very being so that whatever we were by nature is transformed by the gift of the Holy Spirit, so that we may truly become partakers of His nature.”
Many modern Bible scholars have asserted in their writings that partaking of the divine nature is something real and inward. For example, Kenneth S. Wuest states, “The believer is made a partaker of the divine nature (II Peter 1:4). The life of God, surging through His being, causes him to hate sin and love holiness, and produces in him both the desire and the power to do God’s will.” A.T. Robertson considers regeneration as a partaking of the divine nature, as he says concerning II Peter 1:4, “Peter is referring to the new birth as I Peter 1:23.” Henry Alford goes so far to say that the perfect divine nature abides in the believer. He writes that believers are “partakers of the divine nature (i.e. of that holiness, and truth, and love, and, in a word, perfection), which dwells in God, and in you, by God dwelling in you.” I believe that I can say with certainty that none of these men would argue that believers are equal with God, but they have clearly affirmed that God dwells in the believer, bringing His divine nature into their being.
God’s purpose in salvation was never to merely grant the forgiveness of sin. God’s purpose is to live in and through His redeemed community. The whole redemptive work of Christ, from the Incarnation to the Resurrection and Ascension, as well as the work of the Holy Spirit culminate with the believer becoming a partaker of His divine nature as the completion of our salvation.