[The following post was originally posted, in a slightly different form, on the Orthodox-Lutheran Dialogue forum.]
Is there a conflict between the doctrine of theosis, which is strongly emphasized in Eastern Orthodoxy, and the Reformational idea of "forensic justification" and "imputed righteousness"? It would seem that Protestant soteriology is about being "declared righteous" and Orthodox (and Catholic) soteriology is all about being "made righteous": forensic vs. transformative.
We were discussing this on the Orthodox-Lutheran Dialogue forum, and one of the Orthodox members said
Orthodox do not deny that there is a forensic aspect to salvation, and that this is a cataphatic way in which the Fathers and the Bible speak. I am rereading Lossky, again, and he makes this very clear. Brian [another Orthodox member of the Forum] gets at what the real issue is: Forensic Justification as the guarantor that we are saved because ALL has been done by Christ through a forensic imputation of Christ's righteousness to us, and our sins to Christ, that is used to pay satisfaction to appease the Father. This is the issue.
And he's right. Orthodox do not deny the forensic aspect. Vladimir Lossky (whom my friend referred to), in his outstanding essay Redemption and Deification, makes clear that the mystery of our redemption is many-faceted, and that the forensic/juridical way of describing it has an essential place in the Church's teaching, but that it does not exhaustively describe the mystery. There is nothing in that essay with which a Lutheran ought to disagree.
But neither do Lutherans deny that salvation is more than forensic. There is, even in Lutheran theology, both a forensic and a transformative aspect to salvation. Because of the errors which our Lutheran fathers had to combat, the forensic aspect is to the fore; but both are present in their thought (and certainly both are present in the Lutheran Confessions).
What my Orthodox friends object to is the Lutheran insistence on "forensic justification as the guarantor that we are saved". I think that "guarantor" is a strange word to use in this context. If the question is, what is the basis for our salvation? what is it that makes it possible for us to receive forgiveness and new life?, then the answer is the work of Christ, and only the work of Christ (not just His death on the Cross, but His incarnation and all that has come to pass for us: the Cross, the Tomb, the Resurrection on the third day, the Ascension into heaven, the Enthronement at the right hand of the Father, and the second and glorious Parousia). In this sense, it is the work of Christ, not anything that we do, that "guarantees" our salvation. But it does not "guarantee" our salvation in the sense of relieving us of any role in receiving it and participating in it.
What if the question is not, what is the basis for our salvation, but rather what must we do to receive salvation? On a simplistic understanding of "forensic justification", you would think that the answer would be "Nothing! Christ has done it all". But that is a misunderstanding of forensic justification, and it is not the Lutheran answer. The Lutheran answer is: repentance, baptism, holy communion, striving for obedience, confession and absolution when we fail, hearing the Word of God, following a discipline of prayer; in short, passing the remainder of our lives in peace and repentance. This is to live the life in Christ, which means to receive forgiveness of sins and the divine life through the means which God has appointed: by hearing and taking to heart the Church's kerygma and participating in her covenanted mysteries, or (to use Lutheran language) through Word and Sacrament. To think that being saved by grace alone, through faith alone, means that we need not live the life in Christ, that we can just walk away from the means of grace, is a contradiction.
But here is the key distinction: to live the life in Christ (that is, life in the Church) through Word and Sacrament is how we receive, enter into, and appropriate our salvation, but it is not the basis of our salvation. It is the work of Christ that accomplishes our salvation; our participation adds nothing to His work, but serves only to appropriate what he has has done (all that has come to pass for us). It is to safeguard that understanding of the work of Christ, not to exclude the importance of living the life in Christ, that "forensic justification" is emphasized.
All that is necessary to accomplish our salvation has been done by Christ (and I cannot believe that an Orthodox would dispute that). And I have to ask whether there is a difference between "imputation" of Christ's righteousness to us and our participation, by grace, in the divine nature. For the divine nature, necessarily, includes His righteousness. To the extent that we are deified by grace, we share in His righteousness. So "imputed righteousness" is no more and no less than a particular aspect of our theosis.
My Orthodox friend goes on to say:
Salvation is more than forgiveness. Salvation is the re-creation of humanity in the Person and Body of Christ, becoming gods by grace by being ingrafted to God Himself, physically. Salvation is the cooperation of humanity with God in our re-creation, which determines how we enter eternity- in the likeness of God, or not; able to bear the Divine Love as Heaven, or not, experiencing the Divine Love as fire and brimstone.
Amen. So I have always believed; but if "salvation is the cooperation of humanity with God in our re-creation", it is only because of the incarnation, death, and resurrection of the only-begotten and immortal Word of God that there is any re-creation that we can cooperate with. Our cooperation - as necessary as it is - has no value of its own, apart from the work of the Saviour. It is only to safeguard this truth that "imputed righteousness" and "justification by faith alone" are necessary. When our cooperation is separated from grace and from the work of the Saviour, and thought of as being meritorious in its own right, the Gospel is overthrown. I am not saying that this separation occurs in Orthodoxy (I know Orthodoxy well enough, from the inside, to know that it does not occur.) But it did occur in the mediaeval West, and it was this that made the Reformation necessary.
These two ways of looking at salvation (how salvation is accomplished vs. how we receive it) are at the root of the Lutheran distinction (not separation) of justification and sanctification. The mediaeval West confused the two. They taught that our works (whether of piety or of moral obedience) gain us merit which is contributory to our salvation. That is to make our works part of the basis of salvation. But however necessary our cooperation may be in receiving salvation, it adds nothing to the work of Christ, and forms no part of the basis of our salvation.
Even though we distinguish justification and sanctification, we never separate them. Justification is salvation; sanctification is salvation. When we look at salvation from the perspective of what we deserve and what we have earned or can earn, all we can see is the Saviour and what He has done. That is justification by faith alone. When we look at salvation from the perspective of how we live on the basis of what He has done, we see that it is our joy and privilege to be (by grace) fellow-workers with God and participants in the arduous, awesome, but ultimately joyous process of being conformed to His image. That is sanctification; that is living by faith. In the end, it is all one: justification is sanctification is salvation. Salvation is accomplished by His all-sufficient sacrifice, and worked out in our lives with our cooperation with grace, by grace.
Orthodox sometimes say that 'the Orthodox do not distinguish justification from sanctification' (and fault us Lutherans for making the distinction). But I do not think that is true. The Orthodox do not separate justification from salvation, but they do distinguish them. An Orthodox priest I once knew used to say "You cannot earn your salvation, but you must most assuredly work for it". There is the distinction in a nutshell: You cannot earn your salvation ... (because you are justified by faith) ... but you must most assuredly work for it (because, being justified, you are to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, doing by grace the works that God has prepared for you to walk in).