Reading the Bible as an Orthodox Christian post-Protestantism can be difficult. Even as one’s views of God, Christ, sin, and salvation dramatically shift, old reading habits can stubbornly persist.
More than once I have encountered converts who simply have no idea how to read St. Paul consistently with the Orthodox faith. I believe that such a reading is not only possible, but is also the best possible reading, even without reference to the Fathers. That is, in dialogue with a Protestant, I can assume Sola Scriptura for practical purposes, even as I believe it to be false. The great irony is that careful exegesis leads one to the conclusion that the Fathers were right all along.
In order to demonstrate this, I will look at 2 Corinthians 3-4 verse-by-verse and line-by-line. I will demonstrate that St. Paul’s primary concern throughout the passage is theosis via the incarnation of the Son and the grace of the Holy Spirit.
St. Paul’s concern in 2 Corinthians is his credentials as an Apostle. Evidently, false apostles had arrived in Corinth and stirred up distrust towards St. Paul. The Corinthians want “letters of recommendation” to demonstrate Paul’s apostolic authority. They mock him for being so harsh in his letters, but being so weak in person. This isn’t how a messenger of God looks, they argue. In order to refute the accusations of the Church in Corinth, St. Paul reworks what it looks like to be a messenger of God around the reality of God’s disclosure in the crucified and risen Jesus Christ. We begin in 2 Corinthians 3:1, where the Apostle refutes the charge that he needs some sort of “letter of recommendation” to demonstrate his authority as an apostle of God.
(2 Corinthians 3:1-2) Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, as some do, letters of recommendation to you, or from you? You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all.
St. Paul responds to their accusation by arguing that his work for the Church of Corinth itself constitutes a letter of recommendation. It is “written on our hearts.” This phrase is a quotation from the great prophecy of Jeremiah, the prophecy of the new covenant with Israel:
(Jeremiah 31:31-34) “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”
The context of the prophecy is Israel’s exile. In Jeremiah’s day, Israel had incurred all the curses of the covenant (Deuteronomy 27-29). She was going into exile, as the Lord had told her would happen were she unfaithful to His instruction at Sinai. This is a recapitulation of Adam’s exile, as can be seen in Jeremiah 31:15, where Rachel is weeping at Ramah for her exiled children. The allusion is to Genesis 35, where Rachel dies in childbirth, in pain, giving birth to Benjamin. Other prophets also refer to Rachel’s pain in birthgiving as being undone in the messianic era, such as Micah (5:1-4) in his famous prophecy of the birth of Israel’s great king in Bethlehem of Judah. The key is in understanding that pain in childbirth was one of the primeval curses bestowed upon humanity at its Fall from Paradise (Genesis 3:16). When Israel is restored from exile, these curses will be undone. When Paul briefly alludes to Jeremiah 31, these things are all in the back of his mind. Somehow, Paul’s suffering on behalf of the Church of Corinth constitutes a fulfillment of the new covenant, where the Spirit writes the instruction of the Lord on the hearts of His people.
(2 Corinthians 3:3-4) And you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of fleshy hearts. Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God.
The allusion here is double: both to Jeremiah 31 and to Ezekiel 36, another new covenant prophecy. In Ezekiel 36, Israel is being restored to her land, brought back from exile. Ezekiel wrote after Jeremiah, when Israel was exiled to Babylon. His prophecies describe the glorious nature of Israel’s coming restoration. This is where St. Paul gets his idea of the “Spirit” being the means through which the law is written on the heart. Furthermore (though this is often lost in translation), the Apostle describes Israel’s heart in the new covenant as “fleshy.” The background is in this passage:
(Ezekiel 36:25-27) I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.
Like Jeremiah, Ezekiel sees the restoration of Israel as undoing all the curses that Adam and Eve received at their exile from Paradise. The prophet says:
(Ezekiel 36:35) And they will say, ‘This land that was desolate has become like the garden of Eden, and the waste and desolate and ruined cities are now fortified and inhabited.’
Ezekiel 37 goes onto describe Israel’s restoration as a resurrection. Like Adam in the beginning, God breathes into Israel, lying in the dust, and Israel awakes into new life. The background for the prophecies of Ezekiel and Jeremiah come from Moses himself, who wrote at the end of the Torah:
(Deuteronomy 30:6) And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.
After Israel’s exile, God will bring His people back home, circumcise their hearts, thereby allowing them to obey the law, which in turn, grants them life. Deuteronomy 30 stands as a fitting conclusion to the Pentateuch. The Pentateuch begins with Adam, disobedient to God, exile from Paradise, and condemned to die. It ends with Israel, the New Adam, brought home from exile, heart-circumcised, obedient, and promised life. That is why Ezekiel sees Israel’s restoration as being constituted by a resurrection from the dead after the implanting of God’s Spirit/Breath. It has everything to do with meditating on the Torah as one story.
I give this background in order to introduce you to the thought-world of the Apostle Paul. Paul saw Israel’s story as having come to its climax in the crucified and risen Messiah. He carefully rethought the whole shape of the Old Testament in light of that climax. When we do the same, we are enabled to think Paul’s thoughts after him and read the inspired words for all they are worth.
We therefore continue:
(2 Corinthians 3:4-6) Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.
The issue, as in Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Deuteronomy, is the nature of the new covenant. Paul’s statement that the “letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” is not an abstract principle about “inner” vs. “outer” obedience, though it may have a secondary application in that realm. His teaching is grounded in the words of Moses and the Prophets. When Israel was given the law at Sinai, she remained “in Adam.” Her heart was hard. Nationally, she was truly unable to do the law. As Moses said in the covenant curses, to fail to do the law was to die. As Ezekiel said, Israel’s exile is death. She lays in the dust. A hard heart combined with God’s “holy, just, and good” law (Romans 7:12) can only mean death. But now, the Spirit gives life, not because the law has been undone. Instead, the law has been supremely disclosed in Christ.
To understand this dimension of Paul’s theology of the law, one must understand the Biblical teaching on “wisdom.” The law is wisdom, as Moses said to the children of Israel:
(Deuteronomy 4:5-8) See, I have taught you statutes and rules, as the Lord my God commanded me, that you should do them in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. Keep them and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.‘ For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is to us, whenever we call upon him? And what great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today?
Such teaching reverberates throughout the whole Old Testament, especially the Psalms. Consider the beautiful words of David:
(Psalm 19:7) The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple;
In order to understand the teaching of the Apostle Paul on the law, one must understand Paul’s “wisdom Christology.” St. Paul had said in his first letter to the Christians in Corinth that the wisdom of God was disclosed in the crucified and risen Christ:
(1 Corinthians 2:2-8) For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.
Remarkably, the topic here is quite similar to the topic in 2 Corinthians 3-4. St. Paul argues that the eternal wisdom of God has been fully and utterly disclosed in the crucified and risen Christ. When one understands that the Old Testament teaches that the law is wisdom, the conclusion becomes obvious: for Paul, Christ, being the Word and Wisdom of God, is the very incarnation of the law. This is why Paul’s argument looks the way it does in 2 Corinthians 3-4. The prophecies of the new covenant have everything to do with the Spirit enabling the children of Israel to do the law. For Paul, the new covenant has been inaugurated in the resurrection of Christ. Israel is the Church, and Christ is the Law. Consequently, the Church embodies the new covenant when by the Spirit, she shares in the crucifixion and therefore the resurrection of Christ. The “letter kills”, because under the old covenant, the heart was stony. Israel lacked the Spirit. Under the new covenant, the heart is soft by the work of the Spirit, and through union with Christ, the Church can “live” as Moses had promised.
(2 Corinthians 3:7-9) Now if the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone, came with such glory that the Israelites could not gaze at Moses’ face because of its glory, which was being brought to an end, will not the ministry of the Spirit have even more glory? For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, the ministry of righteousness must far exceed it in glory.
One important element of this passage is the parallel between “ministry of death” and “ministry of condemnation.” It is true that Paul’s teaching on justification is thoroughly juridical. One of its dimensions is the metaphor of the lawcourt. Orthodox Christians need not be afraid of this, because, for Paul, juridical justification is reconfigured around the way that the verdict of “righteous” is delivered. Condemnation (the opposite of justification) is death. Righteousness (a cognate of justified) is life. That is why in Romans 5:18, St. Paul opposes condemnation to the justification of life. The foundation of this is Christ Himself. He took on Israel’s curse of exile. Because exile is death, Christ, in dying, took Israel’s curse and thereby Adam’s curse, because Israel’s curse is Adam’s curse. He did so not through imputation, but through participation. That is the key distinction between modern Reformed formulations of the Cross and the Orthodox Christian understanding of the Cross. Christ, therefore, was condemned to die, but because death cannot hold the author of life, God raised Him from the dead. This resurrection constitutes Christ’s justification, because in the resurrection, God declared that Christ truly was righteous. It is by sharing in Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection that we are justified.
The Old Testament background for Paul’s teaching is Exodus 32-34. In Exodus 32-34, Moses has just received the covenant from God. God had instructed Him on building the Tabernacle, the restoration of Eden. God would dwell with His people as He did with Adam in the beginning. Israel, however, is in Adam, so she recapitulates Adam’s sin and breaks the covenant. That is why Moses smashes the tablets of the law. He does not do so out of anger. Instead, in the Near Eastern world, when a king made a covenant with a nation and the nation broke the covenant, the tablets of the covenant would be destroyed. Moses is declaring that Israel has broken the covenant. This is a narrative pattern in the Pentateuch. In Genesis 15, God cuts a covenant with Abram. Yet, in Genesis 16, Abram “listened to the voice of Sarai” (16:2) and attempts to do things his own way, taking a second wife and having Ishmael through her. This goes on to lead to enormous problems for Abraham and his descendants. Interestingly, this is described in the same terms as Adam’s violation of God’s covenant.
(Genesis 3:17) And to Adam he said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
After Genesis 16, God renews the covenant with Abraham in promising to make him “exceedingly fruitful” (17:5), establishing a transnational family through Isaac, not Ishmael (17:15-19). This renewal of the covenant after a minor sin is a prototype of the renewal of the covenant with Israel after a major sin, and it establishes covenant renewals as types of the ultimate restoration of the covenant through the Second Adam, Jesus Christ. Returning to Exodus 33-34, Moses intercedes with God to be faithful to the Abrahamic promise. God therefore agrees to cut a new covenant with Israel. Moses ascends the mountain, the Lord descends in the bright Glory-Cloud, and Moses comes down with the tablets of the prototypical new covenant.
(Exodus 34:29-34) When Moses came down from Mount Sinai, with the two tablets of the testimony in his hand as he came down from the mountain, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. Aaron and all the people of Israel saw Moses, and behold, the skin of his face shone, and they were afraid to come near him. But Moses called to them, and Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him, and Moses talked with them. Afterward all the people of Israel came near, and he commanded them all that the Lord had spoken with him in Mount Sinai. And when Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil over his face. Whenever Moses went in before the Lord to speak with him, he would remove the veil, until he came out. And when he came out and told the people of Israel what he was commanded,
After the Lord descends in the Cloud, Moses actually shares in the glory of God and radiates divine light. This experience repeats itself every time Moses speaks with the Lord of Glory. Because the people cannot bear to see such light, Moses veils himself when speaking to them. That is because Israel is still “in Adam.” The renewal of the covenant in Exodus 33-34 is but a prototype of the true new covenant inaugurated in Christ’s death and resurrection. Apart from that new covenant, the people of God cannot bear to look on the divine glory. This is why the ministry of the old covenant is described as a ministry of condemnation. When the glory shows itself, it only leads to death, not life. The people cannot bear it. Things are different in the new covenant:
(2 Corinthians 3:10-15) Indeed, in this case, what once had glory has come to have no glory at all, because of the glory that surpasses it. For if what was being brought to an end came with glory, much more will what is permanent have glory. Since we have such a hope, we are very bold, not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face so that the Israelites might not gaze at the outcome of what was being brought to an end. But their minds were hardened. For to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away. Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts.
Paul has subtly woven his argument here and included a pun, if we have eyes to see it. First, “what was being brought to an end” is the old covenant. It came with glory, but it has now been set aside to make way for the new covenant in Christ. Paul, describing his apostolic ministry, describes himself as “very bold” because he does not “put a veil over his face.” Keep this in your mind, because this will be enormously important as we work through the rest of 2 Corinthians 3-4. Next, the minds of the Israelites were “hardened.” Paul here uses “mind” as an equivalent to “heart”, given that Ezekiel 36 lays in the background, which describes how Israel after the new covenant will no longer have a heart of stone. This understanding is strengthened when Paul says a “veil lies over their hearts.” The key to understanding the pun is in understanding that Paul has seamlessly transitioned from speaking of Moses as a person to speaking of Moses as the book of the Torah. When Moses, now embooked in the Torah, is read in the Synagogue, the veil remains, because only in Christ is it removed.
This has massive implications. How many times have we heard the Fathers tell us that the way to truly understand the depths of Scripture is to be union with the grace of the Holy Spirit! This is exactly what the Apostle tells us now. To perceive the sense of the Scripture, one must be united to the God who radiates light. Then, as the Torah itself is an Image of Wisdom (see above) incarnate in Christ, the man in union with Christ himself radiates divine light. That is why Paul says that he is “not like Moses” because he does not “put a veil over his face.” This theme will get louder and louder as we move through the passage.
(2 Corinthians 3:16-18) But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.
This is a dense passage if there ever was one! We must keep our eye fixed firmly on the text if we are to understand it. First, the object that was “veiled” in the old covenant was Moses, both the person and the book of Moses. When one turns to the Lord, Moses is no longer veiled. Second, through the Spirit, there is “freedom.” For any Jew in the first-century, echoes of the exodus would immediately spring to mind. The restoration of Israel from exile is the new exodus, which has occurred through the resurrection of Christ. The gift of the Spirit prophesied in Ezekiel 36 is the sign of that new exodus and new covenant. The veil is removed from Moses, and this means that we are able to see what Moses saw (which is why we are able to understand his book!), the glory of the Lord that dwelt in the Tabernacle. The threads rush together when the Apostle says we are transformed into the “same image” from glory to glory. We discussed above how the Torah was an imprint of Divine Wisdom, the same Wisdom that has become Incarnate in Christ. St. Paul elsewhere speaks of the whole purpose of God being devoted to our conformance to the “image of His Son” (Romans 8:28-30). Because Christ is the Image of God (Colossians 1:15) and the Wisdom of God (Colossians 2:2-3) Christ is the greater Torah. The Torah is the Image of God because Moses wrote it after he beheld the Glory in the Tabernacle or on Mt. Sinai. In union with that Glory, we understand the Torah.
(2 Corinthians 4:1-4) Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart. But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this age has blinded the minds of the unfaithful, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.
The Apostles, in union with the Glory which Moses beheld, now reflect that light into the world through their Apostolic Ministry. The god of this age (cf. Galatians 1:4) blinds those who are perishing, that is, whose hearts remain hard, under the old covenant. The means through which the Apostles are united with the glory is through Christ, who is the image of God.
(2 Corinthians 4:5-6) For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
The Apostle here echoes two texts from the Old Testament in order to make his case. The first echo is plainly of Genesis:
(Genesis 1:3) And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.
This echo is woven together with one from Isaiah:
(Isaiah 9:2) The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined.
The context of Isaiah 9:2 is that great messianic prophecy of the child who sits on David’s throne as “Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Father of Everlasting, Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9:6-7). In weaving these two texts together, Paul sees the recreation of the world as being inaugurated through the arrival of Israel’s Messiah. The first thing God ever made was light, in the image of His own light. Now, light once again dawns through the coming of the Messiah. Our union with that Messiah means that light “shines in our hearts”, in an even greater way than Moses, who beheld the Light in the Tabernacle. We therefore reflect that divine light into the world. And the key for all of this is the incarnation of the Eternal Son of God.
The glory of God shines “in the face of Jesus Christ.” In order to understand this passage, one must remember that Paul has not forgotten about his use of Exodus 33-34, the renewal of the covenant with Moses at Sinai. Paul has argued consistently that not only are we in a more glorious day than the Israelites, who could not behold the glory in Moses’ face, we are in an even greater day than Moses himself. Remember these words of God to Moses in the book of Exodus:
(Exodus 33:21-23) And the Lord said, “Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock, and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen.”
Moses saw the Glory of God, but not the Face of God. Now, the face of God is seen. The way we behold the Glory of God is in the “Face of Jesus Christ.” It is Jesus Christ through whom God recreates the world, shining light once more. It is Jesus Christ through whom God renews the covenant with Israel and ingrafts the Gentiles into Israel. It is Jesus Christ through whom we behold the Divine Glory. It is Jesus Christ who is the eternal Face of God.
As we move to the conclusion of St. Paul’s argument, let us not forget his foundations. The new covenant comes through the incarnation of the Son communicated through the Grace of the Holy Spirit. Through that new covenant, we receive the long-awaited promise of life, undoing the curse of Adam in us. That is the “ministry of justification”, the “justification of life.” Justification is theosis, through which we receive the divine light and therefore life. But let us also not forget what Paul is arguing against. The Corinthians have disdained Paul because of his weakness. Now, Paul will explain exactly how union with Christ occurs.
(2 Corinthians 4:7-12) But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the deadness of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.
The way in which one is united with God and radiates the Divine Light into the world is union with Christ. And as Paul hammers home here, the Risen Christ is the Crucified Christ. We “carry the deadness of Jesus in our body” so that the “life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.” We who “live” (remember the new covenant) are being “given over to death.” In order to be raised with the Lord Jesus Christ and thereby attain that glorious light, one must die in Christ, by the Spirit, every day. This is justification, as Paul wraps the whole argument together in the next two verses.
(2 Corinthians 4:13-14) Since we have the same spirit of faith according to what has been written, “I had faith, and so I spoke,” we also have faith, and so we also speak, knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence.
Elsewhere I have discussed how Paul’s doctrine of justification is founded on the idea of the faithfulness of the Messiah. The Messiah was faithful in going to the Cross unto resurrection. That resurrection is God’s declaration that the Messiah is “righteous.” Hence, when we “suffer with Him” (Romans 8:17) we also are declared righteous (Romans 2:13), being “glorified with Him” (Romans 8:17). Justification by faith is mapped around the faithfulness of the Messiah. This theme is in full view in 2 Corinthians 4:13-14, if we have eyes to see it, and if we know our Old Testament. Paul has just told us that the way in which we receive the Spirit, new covenant, and life is union with the Incarnate Face of God, who is indeed the Crucified God. Embodying the faithfulness of the Messiah in dying unto new life is known in the letters to the Romans and Galatians as justification. This is what we see here, because Paul’s brief quotation is of Psalm 116, and the Psalm says this:
(Psalm 116:3-14) The snares of death encompassed me; the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me; I suffered distress and anguish. Then I called on the name of the Lord: “O Lord, I pray, deliver my soul!” Gracious is the Lord, and righteous; our God is merciful. The Lord preserves the simple; when I was brought low, he saved me. Return, O my soul, to your rest; for the Lord has dealt bountifully with you. For you have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling; I will walk before the Lord in the land of the living. I had faith, even when I spoke, “I am greatly afflicted”; I said in my alarm, “All mankind are liars.” What shall I render to the Lord for all his benefits to me? I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord, I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people.
Paul here sees the Psalms as the personal prayers of Jesus Christ. This idea appears elsewhere in the letters of Paul, especially Romans 15:9-11. In Romans 15:9-11, Paul speaks of the Messiah’s work for the nations, and quotes a series of passages where the Psalmist promises to confess the name of God among the nations. In 2 Corinthians 4:13-14, St. Paul says that our spirit of faith is mapped onto the faith of the one who prayed this Psalm. The one who prayed the Psalm, the Faithful One, is Christ. Note how the Apostle has echoed the Psalm even before explicitly quoting it. In 2 Corinthians 4:8, Paul said that we are “afflicted in every way”, but in and through that affliction, we carry the life of Jesus in our bodies. It is Jesus who said in Psalm 116, “I am greatly afflicted.” It is Jesus who said “I had faith, even when I spoke.” And it is Jesus who said “you have delivered my soul from death.” That is why this must be describing justification. Justification is about sharing the faithful suffering of the Messiah unto participation in His risen life. That participation marks us out as those who will inherit the final resurrection, because “He who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence.” We are brought into Christ’s presence because Christ said in the Psalm, “I will pay my vows to the Lord, in the presence of all his people.”
Justification is about the incarnation of God in Christ.
Justification is about theosis.
Justification is about the divine light.
It is my firm conviction that the Apostle Paul, in addition to being an enormously holy man, was one of the most brilliant thinkers in the history of the Church. I believe that he was unrivalled in his brilliance until St. Maximus the Confessor. Beyond all of this, the basic truth is that the Apostle Paul was an Orthodox Christian. Justification by faith was at the heart of his thought, but when one carefully reads Paul, when one thinks Paul’s thoughts with him and after him, one understands that justification is truly about theosis. St. Paul’s labor of love was in proclaiming that God had fulfilled His promises to Israel in a more glorious way than any person could have imagined. The God of Israel had sent His Eternal Son into the world, and rescued the world. The God of Israel was at last filling the whole world with His Presence. The God of Israel called all peoples to join His One People.
The God of Israel calls all of us to share in His life. That is justification; that is the Gospel.
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Father Seraphim replied: “I have already told you, your Godliness, that it is very simple and I have related in detail how people come to be in the Spirit of God and how we can recognize His presence in us. So what do you want, my son?”
“I want to understand it well,” I said.
Then Father Seraphim took me very firmly by the shoulders and said: “We are both in the Spirit of God now, my son. Why don’t you look at me?”
I replied: “I cannot look, Father, because your eyes are flashing like lightning. Your face has become brighter than the sun, and my eyes ache with pain.”
Father Seraphim said: “Don’t be alarmed, your Godliness! Now you yourself have become as bright as I am. You are now in the fullness of the Spirit of God yourself; otherwise you would not be able to see me as I am.”
—St. Seraphim of Sarov, On the Acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God