I would wager that most Christians easily associate Christ’s Incarnation with humanity’s need for salvation. It’s popularly recited, “God became man in order to save us.” In fact, I would even go further and wager that most Christians believe our need for salvation compelled God to become man. I’ve lost count of how many “gospel presentations” I’ve heard stating that God’s only course of action was to become human and rescue us. And I’ve heard the Incarnation reduced even further to such statements as “God became human just so that he could die for us.”
While such a statement contains a modicum of truth, I believe it misses the amazing truth of how our salvation is contained within Christ’s Incarnation. Certainly God became human to save us. And he saves us by becoming like us — the Word of God took on human nature so that we humans might participate in his divine nature (2 Pet 1:4). Or to quote St Athanasius once again, “God became man so that man might become god.” In other words, our salvation isn’t simply found in the several hours of Jesus dying on the cross. Rather, our salvation is found in the entire event of the Incarnation — from Gabriel’s pronouncement, through conception, pregnancy, and birth, through Christ’s entire life, through his crucifixion and resurrection and even beyond.
Because through the Incarnation, we discover the amazing reality of “God with us.” That is our salvation.
Our salvation is communion with God, who has taken on our nature and dwells with us. We have koinonia with him, which means we share our lives with him; we participate in him and he in us. And in that sharing of lives, we are being transformed into the likeness of Christ, who is not only the genuine image of God, but also the genuine image of humanity. Jesus wasn’t just God in a shell of human skin and flesh. He was fully God and fully human. And in the fullness of his humanity, Christ embodies the kind of humanity into which we are being saved.
So, through Jesus — the Word and Image of God incarnate — God is recreating and renewing his image within humanity. Yet this renewal requires the vanquishing of the death and corruption that continues to distort the image of God in us. Death and corruption must first be vanquished at a cosmic level, accomplished through Jesus’ crucifixion. That’s why we sing at Pascha:
“Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death. And upon those in the tomb, bestowing life.”
But the death and corruption that finds residence in our lives also must be expunged at a practical level. Christ died on a cross not so we could avoid one, but so we could take up one ourselves. The New Testament documents are replete with pastoral exhortations to mortify whatever belongs to the old nature and to begin practicing by grace that which belongs to the new nature, the renewed image of God as embodied in Christ. So in practice, communion with God requires both an ascetical side of dying to self and a sacramental side of participating in the divine grace. Through this process we work out our salvation and become by grace what God is by nature.