The essay below appears as the Commentary to the April 7th entry in Consuming Fire, the daily devotional version of George MacDonald's Unspoken Sermons.
George MacDonald ends his sermon, The Way, by returning to the question the rich young man asked at the very beginning: what must I do to have eternal life? Only at this point does the Scotsman address what that question actually meant. MacDonald points out that the rich young man's conception of eternal life was shallow; likely, he merely desired to live forever. I think MacDonald would agree with me that the rich young man in essence was asking what he must do to be saved. The second sentence of the last paragraph above suggests this, for it equates eternal life with oneness with God, which for MacDonald was the very definition of salvation. Of course, the rich young man was far from thinking of salvation in such terms!
Thinking about this topic led me to note some of the similarities between the Scotsman's thinking and that of John Wesley, and the section that follows is taken from my essay, MacDonald and Wesley, which can be read in full on this website. It also led me to the Eastern Orthodox concept of theosis, which is presented further below.
Salvation and Sanctification
“We can fulfill the great…commandment of loving God with our whole heart and our neighbors as ourselves,” writes Melvin E. Dieter in Zondervan's Five Views on Sanctification, explaining the Wesleyan perspective. “Any lesser vision falls short of the fullness of the ‘great salvation’…The end result of Christian perfection is not an inner spirituality but works of love. Saving faith is fulfilled in the outgoing life of holiness and self-giving in the love of Christ; otherwise, it is dead. By salvation, Wesley meant: ‘not barely, according to the vulgar notion, deliverance from hell, or going to heaven; but a present deliverance from sin…’”
Similarly, in his sermon The Way, MacDonald states that “if by salvation [Christians] mean something less than absolute oneness with God, I count it no salvation…” (emphasis added) In Justice, he went on to explain that “[t]he salvation of Christ is salvation from the smallest tendency or leaning to sin. It is a deliverance into the pure air of God’s ways of thinking and feeling. It is a salvation that makes the heart pure, with the will and choice of the heart to be pure.”
Imputed vs. Imparted Righteousness
“Wesley believed that the Bible clearly and persistently taught that God had wedded holy living and salvation by faith alone into one inseparable whole,” states Dieter. “The fulfillment of Christ’s work in atonement as it respects the law lies not so much in what He did on the cross ‘for us’ as in what His work on the cross does ‘in us’ as the life of Christ becomes ours in the new birth and sanctification…the Reformation tradition frequently emphasizes justification and adoption, it often neglects regeneration and sanctification; a wholly imputed righteousness…comes to the fore, but imparted righteousness…is neglected.”
In Justice, MacDonald asserts that Christ “died that I may be like him,[and] die to any ruling power in me but the will of God.” In Righteousness, his views on imputed and imparted righteousness—likely more extreme than Wesley’s—are forcefully set forth: “The doctrine of imputed righteousness is a mean invention, false, and productive of falsehood…Pray God I have no righteousness imputed to me. Let me be regarded as the sinner I am; for nothing will serve my need but to me made a righteous man, one that will no more sin.”
Mirrors of the Lord
“Wesley,” Dieter observes, “declared that the supreme and overruling purpose of God’s plan of salvation is to renew men’s and women’s hearts in His own image...‘Real religion,’ he preached in 1758 from the text 1 John 3:8, is the restoration of human beings…not only to the favor of God, but to ‘likeness to the image of God’; not simply deliverance from sin but being filled with all the ‘fullness of God.’ Nothing short of this is true religion, he declared.”
In The Mirrors of the Lord, MacDonald writes that “The Lord will work until the image of the humanity of God is wrought out and perfected in us, the image we were made at first, but which could never be developed in us except by the indwelling of the perfect likeness…the glory of God in the face of Jesus, mirrored in our hearts, has made us alive; we are one with God forever and ever.” (emphasis added)
The Eastern Orthodox Doctrine of Theosis
There is no evidence that George MacDonald was familiar with the Eastern Orthodox faith, but his belief that salvation meant "absolute oneness with God" seems closely related to the doctrine of theosis. As set forth in OrthodoxWiki.org, theosis is a process which ends in being united with God, and theosis is salvation. For purposes of this brief essay, I will simply quote from OrthodoxWiki; it is my opinion that MacDonald would have found the doctrine of theosis most pleasing.
Theosis ("deification," "divinization") is the process of a worshiper becoming free of hamartía ("missing the mark"), being united with God, beginning in this life and later consummated in bodily resurrection. For Orthodox Christians, Théōsis (see 2 Pet. 1:4) is salvation. Théōsis assumes that humans from the beginning are made to share in the Life or Nature of the all-Holy Trinity. Therefore, an infant or an adult worshiper is saved from the state of unholiness (hamartía — which is not to be confused with hamártēma “sin”) for participation in the Life (zōé, not simply bíos) of the Trinity — which is everlasting...
...The statement by St. Athanasius of Alexandria, "The Son of God became man, that we might become god", [the second g is always lowercase since man can never become a God] indicates the concept beautifully. II Peter 1:4 says that we have become " . . . partakers of divine nature." Athanasius amplifies the meaning of this verse when he says theosis is "becoming by grace what God is by nature" (De Incarnatione, I)...
Through theoria, the knowledge of God in Jesus Christ, human beings come to know and experience what it means to be fully human (the created image of God); through their communion with Jesus Christ God shares Himself with the human race, in order to conform them to all that God is in knowledge, righteousness and holiness. Theosis also asserts the complete restoration of all people (and of the entire creation), in principle. This is built upon the understanding of the atonement put forward by Irenaeus of Lyons, called "recapitulation."
For many fathers, theosis goes beyond simply restoring people to their state before the Fall of Adam and Eve, teaching that because Christ united the human and divine natures in his person, it is now possible for someone to experience closer fellowship with God than Adam and Eve initially experienced in the Garden of Eden, and that people can become more like God than Adam and Eve were at that time. Some Orthodox theologians go so far as to say that Jesus would have become incarnate for this reason alone, even if Adam and Eve had never sinned...