I recently met the priest at the one Orthodox church in town. I’m somewhat conversant with Orthodox theology, so I’m interested to talk with him more. I find talking with those of other church bodies enlightening because they come with different perspectives. Often their perspectives will highlight flaws in your own way of thinking or action.
In this case, the framework for Orthodox theology is very different from how we Lutherans typically view things. The main idea is that God is working to make us more like Him. That’s not in the sense that we will ever be gods, for that was the very thing Satan promised. No, in this case the goal is to become more like Christ, not in His divinity, but in His humanity.
The Orthodox church uses all of the same sacraments as the Catholic church: baptism, chrismation, confession, holy orders, anointing of the sick (this can also be Last Rites), marriage, and communion. However, the Orthodox aren’t looking at them in terms of where God is offering blessings but in terms of things that are making us more like Christ. All of these sacraments connect to Christ in one way or another, either by associating us with His love, bringing us into the roles He carries out before His Father, or by cultivating godly virtues in us. In their way of thinking, Christ becomes a man, a perfect man, in order to restore us to perfect humanity.
It’s a helpful way of thinking. We Lutherans will tend to think in terms of justification and sanctification, and the Orthodox view gives some shape to what sanctification looks like. God is continuously at work in you to make you more like Christ. If Christ is a perfect man, and He is, then we have an idea what sort of people we ought to be because we have the perfect role model.
There’s a lot more to say, since this is the framework they use for their understanding of God’s work. Lutherans will more likely use justification and sanctification, or Law and Gospel. Law and Gospel answer how it is we are able to be made more like Christ, as the Law makes us mindful of our shortfalls and the Gospel forgives them and works to make us better. The two views are aimed at slightly different questions. The Orthodox view is more directed at discussing what God intends to do with us. Law and Gospel tells you what you are receiving and becoming like Christ tells you what God is doing with what you have been given.
In the end, the two views are not incompatible. The Gospel grace given to us through Word and Sacrament make us more like Christ. This work cannot be achieved, or even begun, on your own. It must entirely come from God. Still, even becoming like Christ is not the ultimate goal. God’s grace, supplied through Word and Sacrament, restores us to God’s image (another way of saying we become like Christ). The true goal is to once again be in God’s presence and live with Him as His people. These theological frameworks are ways of looking at how God achieves that goal.
Though I find much value in the Orthodox way of looking at things, I continue to hold to the Lutheran view. Luther is very good at keeping first things first. God’s grace is where everything begins and it must be there through everything we do, or all is lost. Sin must continuously be addressed through the free forgiveness of God. It is only once that has been established, through faith, that my growing process can begin. I only improve and become more like Christ because I am continuously driven to the Gospel by the Law where I may once again find forgiveness.
In the end, I will be like Christ. God’s Word tells me so. God’s sacraments help me to find a bit of that here in the world today.