Dialogue Ireland Logo Resources Services Information about Dialogue Ireland
A to Z index

Christ-likeness - Kim Sønder

A response to
Rev. Dn. Dr. Brendan Pelphrey's: I said, your are gods


Although I approach the topic of spiritual growth in Christ from quite a different entry point than deification, I still found some valuable inspiration to my thoughts on Christ-likeness in Dr. Brendan's article about Orthodox spirituality. My personal purpose of involvement in the issue of Christ-likeness or deification (theosis) is in search of a practical mission theology for the Buddhists world. But compared to Dr. Brendan's Orthodox stand I belong to the historically speaking younger kind of Christianity, which has been taught to go back to the roots to seek for God's ways, i. e., directly to the Holy Scriptures of the Bible. However, I would like to affirm that I still do not find it safe to ignore those who throughout the Christian era have pondered upon the will of God from the Holy Scriptures, build intelligent spiritual practices and enjoyed the good fruits of spiritual experiences (Colossians 1:9-12). The spiritual life is a difficult topic to approach, and the loner easily gets misdirected. Therefore, although I build directly upon new intelligent exegesis of the Holy Scriptures of the Bible in context, I try to draw upon insights from all the possible sources of Christian spirituality throughout the times. For without an extensive spiritual insight from many angles it might be hard to match the profound Buddhists spirituality, which has been developed by many different nations throughout numerous centuries. I do this in reference to the word of the apostle Paul that all the servants of God belong to us (1 Corinthians 3:5-9). And I trust that God has also bestowed the Church with spiritually gifted people after the end of the selection of the Canon (Ephesians 4:11-13).


Since I sincerely believe that spirituality must be formulated in concreteness (vs. in abstract concepts), particularly in an Asian context, I highly esteem the concrete interpretations of the Biblical words for justification (made straight) and salvation (made whole) introduced by Dr. Brendan. Justification and salvation should indeed be experienced concretely. To be legally saved by receiving Jesus Christ should not be presented as the end of our spiritual aspirations, which we might easily come to believe in view of the typical salvation event Christianity, which is so eagerly promoted by many younger Evangelical churches. There the question to be raised is not so much whether there is life after death, but rather if there is life after salvation. There has also been far too much reckoning by faith of conditions of perfect holiness and health without substance in many spiritual movements within modern Christianity. However, it would for that reason still not be safe to let go of the elements of the renewal in Christ as taught by Luther and Calvin. For justification by faith and assurance of salvation are solid spiritual ground upon which we can safely build our spiritual life. It is the good beginning, but Christ-likeness is the goal of our spiritual life (Luke 6:40 & Romans 8:29-30).


The Meaning of Christ-likeness:  We have therefore a very good reason to try to define the meaning of Christ-likeness. And what would be more appropriate than to look to the apostle Paul's explanation of the incarnation of Jesus Christ in Philippians 2:6-8. It is striking that Christ is only described as "being made in human likeness" and that he is "found in the appearance as a man". Were the Gnostics truly right in denying the true humanity of Christ? This is not the least an issue in a Buddhist context, for it is quite possible to understand Gnosticism as a reflection of Mahayana Buddhism as it developed in the contemporary India. Just like the historical Siddharta Gautama by the Mahayanists was reduced to a phantom body by the help of his own teaching of no-self (Anatta), so the reality of the humanity of Christ was questioned in the second century Church.[1] The text of Paul does in fact present Christ as different from man. However, the reason is not that Jesus Christ is not a true man. The reason is the opposite that he is the true God having become man, which we are not. In his two natures Jesus Christ is not a mere man. He is more than the first man. In the incarnation a human nature was added to his divine nature. For us to become like him, a divine nature must be added to our human nature. This is exactly what happens, when we receive him into our life and get saved. We get to participate in his divine nature through the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:4). Salvation in Christ is thus far more than the restoration of original man, since we have entered into a new union with God. This is particularly described by Paul as the mystery of Christ in us, which is our hope of glory (Colossians 1:27). It is indeed the very power in us, which can bring us to Christ-likeness.


The Power of Christ-likeness:   For Christ to become a man, his eternal divine nature had to be veiled. Obviously, some divine attributes like omnipotence and omnipresence could not be concordant with a human nature. But to fully appear like a man Jesus Christ had to give up all independent exercise of his divinity. In all he did he was fully dependent upon the will of his Father in heaven. Jesus said that he could do nothing by himself (John 5:19). For our spiritual life in his likeness this might have some consequences for the way we understand the union with God through Christ. As expressed by Dr. Brendon it might indeed be important to uphold the distinction between the presence of the essence of God and the release of the energy (dynamis) of God in our lives. It is impossible for us to become or even act like God or Christ. This is again a very important issue to spell out in a Buddhist context. For the highest aspiration of the Mahayana Buddhists is not just to become a buddha. It is in fact to become the Buddha, explained as the identity with the impersonal Dharma.[2] It is the result of the yeast of Buddhism, which is the denial of the existence of the self. For if there are no persons, there is no need to distinguish between the savior and the saved. It's magic. Therefore, a simple translation of the Buddhist spirit into Christian terms would be for the followers of Christ to seek to become Christ, which of course is an absurd idea in a Christian context. As it is often pursued in yoga there is in Christ no expectation of realizing an ontological sameness of the reborn believer and God, who is a distinct person. What can be expected is a release of the power of God, which inhabits the believer through the divine nature of Christ. The distinction between the essence and energy of God might in fact be reflected in the Greek language by the presence and absence of the definite article in reference to the Holy Spirit.[3] In Jesus' Teaching on prayer in Luke 11:5-12 it is concluded that the answer to persistent prayer is the granting of Holy Spirit (without article). Obviously, it is a text concerning empowerment and not on reception of the Holy Spirit as God's personal consoling presence in our spiritual life (John 14:15). In the last case it is the person of the Holy Spirit (with definite article), which is in mind. It should not be difficult to accept the fact that spiritual power among other ways is sought and released through persistent prayer. In a Buddhists context it might be important to emphasize that the divine energy not is a hidden power inherent in natural man. Divine energy is released through prayer as an undeserved favor by the grace of God. To believe in the grace of God does therefore not necessary mean to be inactive, but to allow the Lord to show his unconditional goodness to man.


The Holiness Aspect of Christ-likeness:  Since the power of Christ-likeness now has been clearly established, let us next approach the practical search for Christ-likeness. The first point might be that since Christ is perfect and without flaw, true Christ-likeness could never be attained without purification and personal holiness (1 John 3:2-3). The search for holiness is well founded in various branches of the Body of Christ. And it must indeed be kept in mind in the search for Christ-likeness not to accommodate worldly values into our spiritual lives. But although the objective of sanctification is resting upon solid Biblical ground, it could not stand alone as the objective of the Christian life in a Buddhist context. For it might in fact only appear as a weaker alternative to the Buddhist search for Nirvana, which never in truth could be compared to heaven in a Christian sense. Nirvana is a state of mind, which is characterized by being cooled from all passions and the extinction of the false idea of a human self.[4] Siddharta Gautama certainly understood the sinful nature and the radical distortion of man due to the separation from the source of life in God from an empirical perspective. In fact Buddhists share the reformed idea of total depravity in their understanding of man. Nothing in man can be saved. Therefore, particularly the negatively formulated reformed theology alone is powerless as a true alternative in a Buddhists context in its search of emptiness. However, in spite of the problem of confusion of the spirits, the aspiration for holiness is still an important constituent in the search for Christ-likeness.


The Practice of Christ-likeness:   This finally brings us to the point that Christ-likeness never could be defined in pure negative terms alone. To be something beyond the lofty Nirvana Christ-likeness must be defined in positive terms. Although positive affirmations are abhorred by Hindus, it is at least only partly so with Mahayana Buddhists. For their approach is the focus upon the virtues of the Boddhisattwas (those aspiring for Buddhahood). Although the creation of a positive value system to some degree might be acceptable as a spiritual way[5], I have indeed found it to be more prosperous to focus upon obedience to the commands of Christ as the practical way to Christ-likeness. Dr. Brendan has somehow brought out this idea in his explanation of Orthodox practices to reach deification, which in this article is paralleled with Christ-likeness. For Jesus Christ indeed commanded his followers to seek God in prayer (Matthew 7:7-8) and to remember him in Communion (Luke 22:19-20). But although it is truly in accordance with the Great Commission according to Matthew 28:20a, the development of an extensive theology on the commands of Christ has been greatly neglected by the Body of Christ. Therefore, since prayer and communion by no means make up a comprehensive recounting of what Jesus Christ commanded, it might be opportune to work harder to formulate a full theology on the Teaching of Christ. For as recorded in the Gospels Jesus Christ gave about 250 instructions and commands to his disciples during his time on earth.


Dr. Brendon also introduces the love of God as an essential element of deification. But as typical of much traditional Christian theology the topic of love always seems to be treated centering around God's love, which indeed has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit (Romans 5:5). Although it is true that the power of Christ-likeness is found in the love of God, the corresponding practice of love is easily overlooked. For it should be recalled that followers of Christ - as a core concern of the Lord - are commanded to love others (John 13:34 & Matthew 22:19-20). Love is indeed the alpha and omega of Christ-likeness. For God in all ways demonstrated his love for the whole creation through our Lord Jesus Christ. Love is exactly what the law abiding Pharisees lacked in their lives. The former Pharisee, the apostle Paul affirms that without love we are nothing (1 Corinthians 13:1-3). Therefore, since love towards others is the practice of God's love we should seek inspiration from the servants of God, who particularly have championed this issue in practical concrete terms. The founder of Western monasticism St. Benedict is a good example of one, who has taught profoundly about love, when he held that love is not to do extraordinary or spectacular things. It is doing ordinary things from a loving heart.[6] Such attitude might certainly need to be emphasized in a time, where children are daily getting pacified while fed with superheroes fighting monsters and demons in video games and television shows. For as much as love is not something spectacular, it is also not something passive. Love costs! Love is a sincere concern for others with active involvement. It is providing for the family. It is caring for children. And it is teaching in school and in church. But how could what costs nothing be termed love? Therefore, the love according to Jesus Christ is not something lofty, but indeed substantial.


Christ-likeness can, therefore, not be described as the mere absence of everything negative, sinful and evil. Christ-likeness is a substantial quality, which must be approached in positive terms. This point can particularly be proven true in the analysis of the nature of the commands of Christ. Laws, rules and regulations are mostly expressed in negative terms in the form of prohibitions. We are taught what not to do. But the commands of Christ are generally affirmative. We are taught what is right to do in positive terms. The point mentioned above, that the Teaching of Christ is an underdeveloped topic within the Body of Christ, might surely be the reason why faith-prosperity theology has been able to gain so much territory among Christians. For it is indeed characteristic of the faith-prosperity theology that it pampers the positive and hates the negative. The neglect of the body of Christ in dealing sincerely with the affirmative side of Christ's Teaching has simply left vast areas of empty spiritual lands open to occupy. It might even have been for a good reason. For too much emphasis on the negative aspect of fallen man might in fact create or at least cover up over a destructive critical spirit.


Can it really be true that practice of the Commands leads to Christ-likeness? It is true because in Christ there is no discrepancy between the Lord and his Teaching. There is no discrepancy between the person of Christ and the Way of Christ. Jesus Christ said: "I am the way, the truth and the life" (John 14:6). Therefore, the schism, which can be found within Buddhism between Theravada and Mahayana, is not possible in Christ. The Lord and his way are perfectly united. But the teaching of Siddharta Gautama in the form of the Eight-Fold Path, which points to the individual search for Nirvana, obviously showed a discrepancy from the life and modeling of the teacher, who obviously acted beyond the instructions of his teachings. For that reason Mahayana focuses upon the person of the Buddha and Theravada upon his teaching with the consequence that the two vehicles of the Dharma have developed quite differently. But because of the matchless unity in Christ, the Way of Christ could indeed be understood as the middle way between the two Buddhist vehicles. In Christ it makes no difference whether one follows the example of the Master or his Teaching.


The Place to Search for Christ-likeness:  Since the search for Christ-likeness is not becoming Christ, it cannot easily be pursued as a whole. Such total attempt might in fact be either futile or exceedingly deceptive. For Jesus Christ is certainly an elevated being beyond human comparison. Obviously it is also not a direct imitation of the life of Jesus Christ. For it would look rather odd today to act like Jesus, who lived in another historical time among a different people group. Christ-likeness is more realistically pursued aspect for aspect, and for that reason it might even make better sense to speak about pursuing a life of Christ-like quality. This approach has the advantage that even a person with weaknesses in one specific area of his life might seek to express perfect Christ-likeness in another without deception. Therefore, the search for Christ-likeness should by all means be sought aspect by aspect, putting the virtues of Christ into practice in each new context, making it something beautiful and unique in the life of each new follower. But Christ-likeness is particularly the outcome of moving from the initial practice of the commands to habitual practice of the commands, which is consistent obedience to the Way of Christ.


What is the environment in which the followers of Jesus Christ should seek Christ-likeness? Although it has been possible to find precious spiritual inspiration among godly people within the older branches of the Church, the Protestant reformation brought a new aspect into the spiritual life, from which it would be possible to turn back. For the reformers did not only formulate new doctrines of faith. The place to practice the highest spiritual aspirations were decisively moved from in seclusion to in the midst of daily life. Martin Luther left the Augustinian order, broke his celibacy and got married. This move had many consequences, and it cannot be reversed. Even the Buddhists world, which values the homeless life of Siddharta Gautama and the monastic life of the monks, has irreversibly changed direction in accepting the world and its search for some economic prosperity. The life in celibacy and seclusion is definitely out of the central thoughts of man in our times. Therefore, like in the case of Martin Luther, Christ-likeness must be pursued in the midst of daily life.[7] And this is certainly not an inferior path. For it is one thing to practice a spiritual life-style among disciplined monks, it is another in the midst of a chaotic daily life with all its concerns. Spirituality is not a matter of spirit alone or a particular behavior within a religious community. It concerns the whole man and his whole life. Christ-likeness must be fully sought at home, in public life and in the worshipping community. By his Great Commission Jesus Christ did not encourage us to make religious people, but real people, who knows how to live in the world according to the ways of their Creator (John 17:15-19). If such attempt, as Dr. Brendon writes about the Orthodox hope of deification, makes us shine from our bodies, may it be attributed to the presence of God's life within us by which we are daily renewed in the spirit (1 Corinthians 4:16).


The Christ-like Quality of Heaven:  It is our hope and the goal for our spiritual growth on earth in all ways to grow up to the Master of life (Ephesians 4:13). But there are of course natural limits to spiritual growth within this life. For there is a level of perfect Christ-likeness which we will only be able to reach beyond.  It is solely the work of God to our perfect salvation. We shall all become like Christ in his glorious resurrection body. Therefore, the hope we have in Christ is far beyond the lofty hope of Nirvana. To become like him is not just characterized by the absence of sin and suffering. It is also a substantial hope. For the same Jesus Christ, who died, rose from the dead in bodily form (1 Corinthians 15:3-7). It is also more than deification of our bodies of flesh. It is the reception of a new spiritual body at the resurrection. Thus the Christian hope of heaven is far more than reaching a certain blessed place. Heaven is the quality of our glorious life in Christ, which begins on earth but is ultimately perfected through the glorification of all regenerate believers in the resurrection at the coming of Jesus Christ in glory (1 Corinthians 15:42-49).


Conclusions:  It is indeed God's will for the followers of Jesus Christ to become like his Son, but how does it come about? Let me try to explain it in terms of the good, pleasing and perfect will of God according to the apostle Paul (Romans 12:2). It is God's good will that we shall be consecrated in our search for a holy life-style. For Jesus Christ was perfect without flaws. It is God's pleasing will that we shall obey the commands, especially that God's love shall be manifest in our concern for others. Such practice is obedience to the Teaching of Christ in all its fullness according to the goal of the Great Commission.  Finally, it is God's perfect will that we in all ways shall become like his Son; that our regular daily human life, aspect by aspect, is being transformed into Christ-like quality. And since Jesus Christ is in perfect unity with his Way, habitual practice of the Way of Christ leads towards Christ-likeness. But to complete our salvation Christ-likeness in all its fullness will indeed have to be perfected by God. That is what will happen through the glorification of the body by God's master hand at the resurrection of all regenerate followers of Christ.


[1] Edward Conze. Buddhism: Its Essence and Development with preface of Arthur Waley. Reprinted 1959 (New York: Harper Torch Books, Harper & Row Publishers, 1951), p. 151.

[2] Edward J. Thomas. The History of Buddhist Thought  reprinted 1967 (London: Routledge & Kegan LTD, 1951), pp. 225-26  or

  Beatrice Lane Suzuki. Mahayana Buddhism with foreword of Christmas Humphreys (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1959) , p. 53-54.

[3] In God there is no distinction between the divine nature of God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

[4] A Dictionary of Buddhism. Trevor Ling. (New Delhi: K. P. Bagchi & Company, 1981), S. v. "Nibbana" & "Nibbuta".

[5] I have not developed that idea yet, though it obviously seems to rest on safe Scriptural ground. For instance the apostle Paul admonishes followers to practice truth and righteousness etc. in Ephesians 6:10-17.

[6] Thomas H. Green. Come down Zacchaeus - Spirituality and Laity. (Notre Dame, Indiana: Ave Maria Press, 1988), pp. 35-36.

[7] A question for meditation: If Christ lived in celibacy, how can a married man develop Christ-likeness?