Salvation according to the Ancient Church by Ken Athanasios
THE SAD REALITY OF LIFE IS THAT WE ALL MUST DIE. AS THE BOOK OF HEBREWS SAYS, “IT IS APPOINTED UNTO MEN ONCE TO DIE, BUT AFTER THIS THE JUDGEMENT.” IF IT WAS NOT FOR CHRIST’S COMING TO THIS WORLD, WE WOULD ALL BE DOOMED. I THINK ALL OF US WHO ARE CHRISTIANS WOULD AGREE WITH THIS STATEMENT. HOWEVER, WHEN IT COMES TIME TO STATE HOW WE UNDERSTAND HIS WORK OF SALVATION, WE WOULD PROBABLY arrive at SOME DISAGREEMENT AND CONFUSION.
TO GET THE ANCIENT CHURCH’S UNDERSTANDING, WE MUST FIRST LOOK AT SOME OF THE WRONG OR INCOMPLETE WAYS PEOPLE HAVE PEOPLE HAVE LOOKED AT REDEMPTION AND SALVATION.
SINCE THE NEW TESTAMENT IS A PROCLAMATION OF THE GOOD NEWS OF SALVATION RATHER THAN A CONCISE THEOLOGICAL EXPLANATION, MANY CHRISTIANS HAVE REFLECTED ON THE REDEMPTION PASSAGES IN THE GOSPELS AND EPISTLES, TO TRY AND UNDERSTAND HOW SALVATION WORKS. HISTORICALLY THERE HAVE BEEN SEVERAL DIFFERENT UNDERSTANDINGS THAT THEY HAVE COME UP WITH. I WILL LIMIT THESE TO THE TWO MOST POPULARLY HELD AMONG MOST CHRISTIANS TODAY.
I WILL LIST THE VIEWS AS THE SATISFACTION VIEW AND THE PENAL SUBSTITUTION VIEW.
THE FIRST IS WHAT I WOULD CALL THE SATISFACTION VIEW. THIS VIEW WAS ARTICULATED FIRST BY A WESTERN BISHOP, ANSELM OF CANTERBURY. FOR SURE THE SCRIPTURE AND CHURCH FATHERS USE THE LANGUAGE OF A DEBT BEING OWED AND A RANSOM BEING PAID. BUT WHAT ANSELM DID WRONG WAS TO CONSTRUCT A RATIONALISTIC SYSTEM IN WHICH HE SAW GOD AS A SORT OF MEDIEVAL LORD OR KING WHO HAD TO MAINTAIN HIS HONOR AND REPUTATION. AS A MEDIEVAL LORD, GOD THE FATHER, HAD CERTAIN LAWS THAT MUST BE OBEYED. IF ANY MAN DARED TO VIOLATE THESE LAWS THEN IT WOULD BE AN OFFENSE AGAINST THE HONOR AND MAJESTY OF THE PERSON OFFENDED, IN THIS CASE, GOD HIMSELF. THEREFORE, THERE WOULD NEED TO BE A OFFERING MADE TO THE OFFEDED PERSON, AND THE PAYMENT WOULD HAVE TO BE INFINITE, SINCE GOD HIMSELF IS INFINITE. IN ANSELM’S MODEL, THE ONLY PERSON WHO COULD MAKE THE PAYMENT TO SATISFY GOD’S OFFENDED HONOR WAS GOD HIMSELF. THEREFORE, CHRIST, THE SON OF GOD, BECAME MAN IN ORDER TO OFFERER TO THE FATHER A SUPREMLY MERITORIOUES GIFT ON BEHALF OF MAN, WHAT MAN OWED GOD. AND HE DID THIS BY THE VALUE OF HIS SINLESS, GOD PLEASING LIFE, AND HIS SUFFERINGS AND DEATH ON BEHALF OF HUMANITY. THIS WOULD COME TO BE KNOWN AS THE SATISFACTION THEORY, AND WOULD PREDOMINATE FOR CENTURIES IN THE ROMAN CATHOLIC WEST.
THE NEXT VIEW WAS ARTICULATED BY THE PROTESTANT REFORMERS. AND IT IS CALLED THE PENAL SUBSTITUTION VIEW. THIS VIEW SAYS, THAT GOD THE FATHER, HAD GIVEN MANKIND COMMANDMENTS THAT MUST BE FOLLOWED TO THE LETTER OF THE LAW. BUT SINCE ADAM AND ALL MANKIND AFTER HIM BROKE THE LAW, THE FATHER, IN ABSOLUTE JUSTICE, REQUIRED THAT AN INFINITE AMOUNT OF ETERNAL PUNISHMENT BE DEALT OUT UPON EVERY HUMAN BEING WHO EVER LIVED, BECAUSE THEY ALL HAVE SINNED. BUT SINCE GOD LOVES MANKIND, HE SENT HIS SON INTO THE WORLD TO BE OUR “SUBSTITUTE” AND TAKE UPON HIMSELF THE GUILT AND PUNISHMENT OF EVERYONE WHO EVER LIVED, MAKING IT POSSIBLE FOR GOD THE FATHER TO FORGIVE ALL THOSE WHO BELIEVE IN HIM. CHRIST HAD TO ENDURE ETERNAL PUNISHMENT; EITHER ON THE CROSS, ACCORDING TO CALVIN, OR IN HELL AS SEEMS TO BE THE CASE, WITH LUTHER. I SAY IT AGAIN, THE IDEA BECAME THAT GOD MUST POUR OUT HIS WRATH AND ETERNAL PUNISHMENT ON THE GUILTY OR MANKIND COULD NOT BE FORGIVEN. THERE ARE SEVERAL PROBLEMS WITH THIS IDEA. AS WITH THE PREVIOUS ONE, IT MAKES GOD BOUND TO A KIND OF JUSTICE THAT IS SOMEHOW ABOVE HIM. IT ALSO MAKES GOD OUT TO HAVE A VENGFUL NATURE, SOMETHING HE HIMSELF FORBIDS. WE MUST REMEMBER THAT FORGIVENESS AND RESTITUTION, WHETHER BY “MERIT” OR BY “PUNISHMENT,” ARE OPPOSITE. FORGIVENESS REQUIRES NO PAYMENT, IT IS ABSOLUTELY FREE.
SO THESE THEN ARE THE TWO MOST POPULAR UNDERSTANDINGS OF WHAT CHRIST CAME TO DO, “SATISFATION” AND “PENAL SUBSTITUTION.”
ONE OF THE BIGGEST PROBLEMS WITH ANY “TRANSACTION” UNDERSTANDING OF SALVATION IS THAT IT TOTALLY MAKES THE WHOLE OF SALVATION A ONCE AND FOR ALL “DONE DEAL”. YOU WILL HEAR THE PHRASE: “ARE YOU SAVED?” AND, OF COURSE, WHAT THAT MEANS IS: “ARE YOU A RECIPIENT OF THE WORK OF GOD, THE SON, PAYING OFF GOD, THE FATHER, TO GET YOU FORGIVEN AND THEREFORE, SAVED?”
WITH THE ORTHODOX THIS IS NOT THE CASE. TO UNDERSTAND THE ANCIENT CHURCH’S VIEW, WE MUST GO BACK TO THE BEGINING. After God created Adam and Eve as our first parents He gave Adam headship over all creation. Adam was not created perfect, as some people think, but He was created good. Adam was not created unable to die but he was created with the ability through God’s grace to keep from dying. Clothed with God’s Grace Adam could live forever as long as he held to that Grace by obeying God’s commandment not to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God told Adam “On the day you eat of it, you will die.” Which meant that Adam would lose the life-giving Power that kept him alive? Keep in mind God did not tell Adam that He would kill him.
In the Garden of Eden was another intelligent creature, the devil. God allowed the devil to test Adam and Eve’s obedience. And the devil used the snake to trick Adam into disobeying God.
When Adam disobeyed the commandment, he lost Grace and he died spiritually. Later he would also die bodily. So then, the devil led Adam through trickery, to lose Grace and die. The book of John says, “The devil was a murderer from the beginning” (John 8:44.) God has given permission to the devil to bring death upon all who depart from Gods commandments. If we were sinless we would not die but because we sin, the devil is allowed to bring death upon us.
Bishop Hilarion Alfeyv states “Most assuredly, God is not a party to evil (Or the devil), yet evil is somehow under His control: it is God who sets the boundaries in which evil can operate. As the opening of the book of Job shows, there is a certain direct and personal relationship between God and the devil (cf. Job 1-2); the nature of this relationship is, however, unknown to us. According to the mysterious ways of His Providence, and for purposes of edification, God allows evil to act as a means of setting people aright. This is evident from those parts of Scripture where God is recorded as visiting evil upon people: thus God hardened the heart of Pharaoh (Ex.4:21; 7:3; 14:4); God visited Saul with an evil spirit (1 Sam.16:14; 19:9); God gave the people ‘statutes that were not good’ (Ezek.20:25); God gave the people up to ‘impurity’, ‘dishonorable passions’ and a ‘base mind’ (Rom.1:24-32). In all of these instances it is not God Who is the source of evil: in possessing utter power over both good and evil, God can allow evil to operate in order to transform it into a source of virtue and to direct it towards good consequences. He can also use it to deliver people from a yet greater evil.”
Death is allowed by God, and in a sense is a great mercy, because it puts an end to sin and through it, as we will see later, our separation from God.
Because Adam was the head of all humanity, he not only brought suffering and death upon himself but also upon Eve and the rest of us who are their children.
Adam was unable to reverse the consequences of His sin. If repentance and God’s forgiveness were all that was needed to escape suffering and death then surely repentance would have been enough. For, God is forgiving and merciful, and his divine justice is not the same as human justice. God’s justice allows for forgiveness free of charge as long as one truly repents. But the problem went deeper than just good standing with God. Adam’s nature, which we share, lost Grace and his nature came under the power of the devil, decomposition and death. What or rather who was needed to bring Adam back to spiritual and physical life?
God so loved us that He sent His Son into the world to save us.
Before the world was created, it was the plan of the Holy Trinity that the Son would humble Himself by becoming human, born of the Virgin Mary to become a “New Second Adam” to save us from death and the devil. Christ came and lived a perfect human life in full obedience, fulfilling all of God’s will, the opposite of the First Adam, who disobeyed. Through every moment of Christ’s life He set Human nature free from slavery to the devil. As the book of Hebrews says “Christ was tempted in all things as we were yet without sin.” (Hebrews 4:15), setting our human nature free to serve God. The devil saw Christ’s works but did not fully understand, for he did not know that Christ was God. All that the devil knew for sure was that of all men that he had tempted this one was as close to sinless as he had ever seen before. Therefore he sought His destruction so as to have an even greater trophy in his showroom, in Hades.
The devil stirred up the Pharisees and Romans to kill Jesus. Therefore they hung him on the Cross, where Christ allowed Himself to die, not of necessity as with us sinners but by His own will he died and then went down into Hades.
The devil thought he had won the victory over Christ because he thought Christ was like every other man. But, unknown to him, he had put to death the one who was life itself, the God-man Jesus Christ. Through this great mistake, the devil along with death and Hades was overthrown by Christ’s resurrection from the dead.
Christ destroyed the devil’s kingdom, smashing the bars of the prison house of Hades and taking death and the devil prisoner. He resurrected spiritually all the dead who had followed the True God. And Christ will resurrect all men physically on the last day.
Please allow me the time to read these beautiful words from the book of Hebrews:
“But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels for the suffering of death, crowned with glory and honor; that he by the grace of God should taste death for every man.” and again “Inasmuch then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself likewise took part of the same; that through death he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil; And deliver them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage. For verily he took not on him the nature of angels; but he took on him the seed of Abraham (and therefore Adam). Wherefore in all things it behooved him to be made like unto his brethren, that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make reconciliation for the sins of the people.”
Now my friends the path is open to paradise. Christ has once again given man access to the eternal kingdom. And through the sacraments of His Holy Church and the struggle against sin man can appropriate this passage into eternal life with our conquering King Jesus Christ.
But, the Ancient Church’s understanding of salvation was not limited to Christ’s Redemption. On the contrary man was viewed as needing, to make his own, the fruits of this redemption. All humanity will rise on the last day, but how will we experience Christ’s coming? What will be the condition of our soul?
How does a person appropriate, or make his own, salvation in Christ? The answer one will get depends largely on which understanding of Christ’s work one holds to. If salvation is only, or primarily juridical and forensic, Christ paying all that we owe, or suffering all we should have suffered, than one will more than likely believe that once you have been declared not guilty, than whether you are truly righteous or not makes no difference. Kind of like the O.J. Simpson case. Even if O.J. was truly guilty, it doesn’t matter the court found him innocent, end of discussion.
However, if one believes that Christ really came to change mankind totally, than one must believe that salvation is a process and not a once for all declaration of righteousness.
Salvation than implies a growing into what we should be. The ordinary means by which an un-baptized adult is saved according to the Orthodox Church is to first hear and believe the Good News about our Lord Jesus Christ, and believe that He is the Only Begotten Son of God, that for us and for our salvation He came down from heaven, that he became man, lived a human life, suffered on the Cross, died, and was buried. That on the third day He rose from the dead and ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father and that He is coming again in glory to judge the living and the dead and that His Kingdom will have no end. Then what one needs to do is to receive catechesis, sound instruction in the Orthodox Christian Faith. Next one must receive Holy Baptism followed by Chrismation and Holy Communion which begins the Sacramental Life in Christ.
Finally one needs to grow in the Grace of God through a life of prayer, spiritual struggle with the devil and ones passions (spiritual warfare), A journey that includes three phases which are Purification, Illumination and Theosis which is Union with God.
I will explain these steps in a little detail.
Purification is the phase of the journey where we are, by God’s Grace and our own effort, being cleansed from the selfishness of our ego and desires to please our body. This is accomplished on our part by continual repentance, fasting, struggling against sin and prayer. It is achieved only through our working with God, and by spiritual council with ones Priest or spiritual father, and obedience to him, the Church, and its teachings.
Illumination, Is totally the work of God’s Grace. It is where our heart becomes pure and we see people and situations in life from God’s perspective and not from a deceived mind.
Theosis or Union with God, is the last stage in the spiritual life and is the state that the Saints are in. They have become through Grace what God is by nature. That is Truly Holy. They are connected to God and their will is the same as His.
The Orthodox Christian in working out his salvation with fear and trembling must always say after we have done all these things we must consider ourselves unworthy servants only doing what we were supposed to do and pray for God’s mercy. For He is a loving Father who is rich in mercy and will not abandon us. This is Orthodox salvation, the Faith of the Ancient and Undivided Church.