Understanding God: His Divine Being (Essence) and His Energia

We have little problem recognizing, as a concept, that God exists as a Divine Being.  God in His Divine Being is God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  This is God as He exists in His essence (or “substance” as we confess in the Creeds).

Although we don’t have problem understanding that God exists as a Divine Being, who He is as a Divine Being is actually beyond human naming or conceptual thought.  That is why in Scripture, using human language, God called Himself “I AM” and His people called Him YHWH, a form of “He Is.”

So then how do we understand God?  We can only know Him, at least in our current fallen state, by what He shares with us of Himself, what we can call His energetic expression, His energia.

Energia is where we get our English word “energy.”  But “energy,” as we understand the word, is incomplete to understand God and His sharing of Himself to us.  Energia is God giving of Himself in such a way to do His work.  For us, as fallen beings, it is God revealing Himself in such as way that His presence does not destroy us.

We see this distinction between divine being and energia back in the Old Testament.  On Mount Sinai, in Exodus 33, God warned Moses that “you cannot see my face [divine being/essence], for man shall not see me and live.”  Nonetheless, He continued: “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 [energia], but my face [being/essence] shall not be seen” (Exodus 33:20, 22-23).


Examples of God and the Greek Word Energia in the Bible in Relation to His People

Because our Bible versions do not translate the Greek term energia consistently, it is hard for us to understand the difference between God in His divine being and God as He expresses and gives of Himself.

This lack of clarity has been with us since the time of St. Augustine (354-430 AD), where he learned and studied the New Testament in the translated Latin, not the original Greek.  But when we go back to the original language of the New Testament, the distinction becomes clearer.


God’s Energia In the Apostles

Galatians 2:8: For He [Jesus] who worked (energized) through Peter for His apostolic ministry to the circumcised worked (energized) also through me for mine to the Gentiles.

Ephesians 1:1: Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will (energy) of God, to the saints who are in Ephesus, and are faithful in Christ Jesus.

Ephesians 3:7: Of this gospel I [Paul] was made a minister according to the gift of God’s grace, which was given me by the working (energizing) of His power.

Colossians 1:29: For this I [Paul] toil, struggling with all His energy (energy) that He powerfully works (energizes) within me.

Our Confessions describe this divine/human presence at work within the pastor:

[Pastors] represent the person of Christ and do not represent their own persons, as Christ testifies, “The one who hears you hears Me (Luke 10:16). (Ap VII/VIII, para 28)


God’s Energia in each Christian

1 Corinthians 12:6: There are varieties of activities (energies), but it is the same God who empowers (energizes) them all in everyone.

Ephesians 4:16: from whom [Jesus] the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working [energizing] properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love

Philippians 2:13: For it is God who is at work in (energizing) you, both to will and to work (energize) for His good pleasure.

Here we see that God inhabits the Christian to “energize” him to do His work.  Although we are actually doing and living, we are to see it as God in and through us–that is how real the union we have with God is!

So God inhabits each Christian, even while we are sinful, in His energia but not in His essence/being.  God in His essence, His pure being, would kill us because we still have sin within us.

But God comes to us in His mercy, making Himself–not only non-lethal but life-giving–so that when He give us Himself it saves us, not kills us.  We can only experience God in His pure essence/being in eternity, when our sinful nature has died it physical death.  Now we experience God within us in His energia.

That is why when Jesus comes to us in His energia, we really are united to Him.  This is not a pretend presence or only some abstract understanding of God within us.  This is a real union.  That is why the Apostle Peter says that “we [Christians] become partakers of the divine nature” (1 Peter 1:4).

This union with God is call mystical union (or theosis).


Mystical Union within Early Lutheranism

Within Lutheranism we have lost much of this understanding since the Reformation–but it definitely is in our theology.  Lutheranism understands this union with Christ to be so real that it actually changes us.  In a 1526 sermon, Luther preached:

God pours out Christ, His dear Son, over us and pours Himself into us and draws us into Himself, so that He becomes completely humanified and we become completely deified and everything is altogether one thing, God, Christ, and you.

This union is so real that Luther wrote:

Faith connects you so intimately with Christ, that He and you become as it were one person.  As such you may boldly say: “I am now one with Christ.  Therefore Christ’s righteousness, victory, and life are mine.”  On the other hand, Christ may say: “I am that big sinner. His sins and his death are mine, because he has joined with me, and I with him.” (Luther’s Commentary on Galatians, 2:20, Graebner translation)


Why does this union with Christ matter?

Jesus became human more than to simply save us.  He also became human to sanctify us.  This Paul makes clear: “For by grace you have been saved through faith.  This is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.  For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:8-10).

If Jesus only saves us, we would not have the ability to do anything good in God’s eyes, for this would only be the Christ for us.  But Jesus, through the Spirit He has sent, also sanctifies us.  This is the Christ in us, Christ in us in His energia.

Justification and sanctification are both part of the Christian life.  Jesus declaring us righteous (justification) and making us righteous (mystical union) are both aspects of the Christian faith.  Christ saves us and is at the same time in us.  Yet, this mystical union, this theosis, is the result of justification, not the cause of justification.

–          Why is understanding this sequence important?


This mystical union with Christ is also part of the “now” and “not yet” of the Christian life.  The Christian lives in the reality of being in union with Christ.  Yet, because he still has a sinful nature that wants to control his life and pull him away from the faith, the Christian also lives in the “not yet,” struggling to live the sanctified life that is already his in Christ.

When we understand the mystical union, we see the Christian life as more than imitating Christ (such as, “What would Jesus do?”).  It is actually being ‘Jesused’ more and more in this life, that the Christ in you becomes more visible and lived out in this world.  It is our sanctification becoming more “instinctive” as God’s will for us becomes less of an overlay and more ingrained within us, living the life we are given to live.

So when we are doing the good of God, we really are being Jesus to another.  Yet, we are not Jesus in His divine being or essence to someone else; we are being Jesus in His energia.