Classical and contemporary forms of Western Christianity, particularly and especially Protestantism, assert that God must punish sin in order to fulfill His perfect justice, and that if we are not damned, someone else must be punished and killed in our place. However, if a judge let a convicted murderer walk free simply because an innocent man volunteered to be executed instead, where is justice to be found in that? Haven’t two injustices been committed? What kind of earthly court would that ever fly in?
A number of Protestants will ask “But didn’t Christ die on the Cross for the atonement of man’s sins? Do you not believe that was what it was for? If so, how does man receive forgiveness? Where does grace start?”
The first question is: “What is atonement?” If the question is do we believe that Christ died to satisfy the wrath of the Father against sinners, then our answer is a resounding no. Imputed righteousness and forensic justification are the principal Reformation doctrines of salvation that stem from the soteriology of Anselm, a papist Archbishop of Canterbury in the 11th century. Anselm held that man’s sin had infinitely offended God and that in order for God’s honour to be restored and His wrath against men to be averted, the balance had to be restored by a man suffering an infinite amount of shame. Because men had offended an infinitely holy God, they could never assuage His wrath towards their sin. In Anselm’s view, Christ, as an innocent man dying for others, performed an act of high merit. Because Christ is God, Anselm reasoned, Christ generated infinite merits. Through the sacraments and acts of Christian virtue, men appropriated this merit so that it could balance the wrath of the Father towards their sin. Because sin is an infinite denigration of God’s honour and no normal man could pay an infinite penalty, Christ had to become incarnate and suffer as the God-man – that is, being shamed through the crucifixion on behalf of mankind. This was the first substantial step in the viewing of salvation in the West as a primarily legal and juridical affair.
This was taken a step further by the Reformers – if the death of Christ is to pay a legal debt on behalf of humanity to the Father, why would there be any need for sacraments, for any sort of cooperation with God in order for our salvation to be accomplished? Hence, they took it to its next logical step – rather than Christ suffering for us, as Anselm had posited, Christ instead suffered instead of us. God, in His wrathful indignation against humanity, was bound by necessity (a pagan Hellenistic concept, I might add) to punish sinners by tormenting them in hell, and so Christ as a perfect sacrifice was punished instead by having God’s wrath poured upon Him instead. Now that Christ has paid the legal debt to God the Father, His perfect record can be imputed to us in exchange for our sinful records being imputed to Him (imputed righteousness) and because God has found a loophole in His own law, He can now “declare” the sinner righteous and judge him as being not guilty because Christ has taken the punishment due to him (forensic justification/penal substitution).
Orthodoxy rejects the models of both Anselm and the Reformers. There are two main issues that we take with it which stem from the legal theme that runs throughout them, and they are that they assume firstly that God is the primary antagonist when it comes to the situation that requires us to be saved, and secondly, that salvation is primarily an extrinsic process. To be fair, these really aren’t two separate issues because the latter proceeds directly from the former.
Protestant soteriology assumes that God is the one with the sticking problem, not us. We are sinful, and therefore God must punish us. God is bound to punish us, otherwise his perfect holiness and justice are violated. The problem, according to Protestants, is not that we as sinful and fallen human beings will experience the unfiltered presence of God as torment due to our internal conditions in the same way that those who possess diseased eyes writhe when exposed to the light of the sun, but that God by His very nature is bloodthirsty and needs to punish in order to be satisfied. Salvation in the eyes of Protestants, therefore, is not freedom from the bondage of sin and death, but rather it is deliverance from the hands of God Himself! As much as Protestants may protest otherwise with their rhetoric, they do not believe that we are saved from sin – they believe that we are saved from God!
This is where the link with a purely extrinsic model of salvation comes in. Because, according to Protestants, we are saved by Christ taking upon Himself the wrath of God and exchanging our imperfect records with His perfect one, the essence of salvation is something that occurs completely external to ourselves. Yes, I know that many Protestants have a notion of “sanctification” in which subsequent to regeneration the Christian will grow in holiness, but this is not seen as an essential part of the process of salvation itself. Rather, it is merely a “bonus” or “evidence” that one is truly saved. If man is saved only in an extrinsic fashion, then regardless of whether or not he actually becomes conformed to the image of God, that does not bear upon whether or not he is “saved”. Rather, because God the Father is able to plug His ears and cover His eyes and pretend that you’re something that you actually are not (that is, perfect due to Christ’s blood covering your sins), you are saved because God pretends and legally declares that you are righteous, rather than because He has actually made you righteous through the redeeming of human nature by Christ’s incarnation, the breaking the bonds of Hades and death’s hold over humanity through His death and Resurrection, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and the participation in the Mysteries of Christ.
In contrast, Orthodox Christianity holds that salvation without an essential intrinsic facet is completely useless. Because we believe that man is the primary antagonist in this narrative, not God, to simply “declare” us righteous would profit us nothing. What does it matter if God looks upon us and sees Christ if our own internal conditions make the very presence of God absolutely unbearable? Salvation is not something achieved through a legal process, but by the very healing our souls and our fallen natures through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Orthodoxy doesn’t claim that salvation is a legal affair, so we have no attachment to “justice” being served and have no problem with God not being “just” in legal terms (though I would contend that the justice spoken about in Christianity is not a legally orientated one).
As for the question regarding where one receives forgiveness from, the answer is fairly simple – by uniting our human nature with His divine nature in all things, Christ has bridged the gap between God and man. We can approach God in repentence (and remember the words of King David in Psalm 50 (51) where he writes “For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”) God doesn’t need sacrifice to forgive us. All we need to obtain forgiveness from God is to repent and turn to Him. The purpose of Christ’s death, from an Orthodox perspective, is not to soothe God’s anger against humanity, but to be a part of the greater overall plan to reconcile us to Him.
As for grace, the Orthodox Christian position is that Grace has always been present, as Grace is nothing more than the Uncreated Energies of God Himself, but that after the Fall mankind stopped participating in them (rather than the Western idea that God actively removed His sanctifying grace from mankind, which leads to the false teaching of inherited guilt). Salvation in Orthodox theology is not a one-time event, but a lifelong process of being conformed to the image of God. This is achieved through participating in the Uncreated Energies of God which are communicated to us through the Holy Mysteries of the Church, including the regenerating waters of Holy Baptism, the sealing of the gift of the Holy Spirit with Holy Chrism, the continuing struggling towards repentance in Holy Confession, the reception of Christ’s Body and Blood through the Holy Eucharist, the anointing of the sick via Extreme Unction, and, for some, the sanctifying lives that are brought about by Holy Matrimony and Holy Orders.
In the briefest terms possible, Orthodox Christians do not believe that Christ’s death was payment to God the Father for sin, but rather that Christ has redeemed human nature by participating in it. The Incarnation was necessary because Christ redeemed our human nature and reconciled it to God by uniting it with His divinity. St. Gregory the Theologian famously stated that “That which is not assumed is not healed.” St. Athanasius the Great claimed that through the Incarnation, “God became man so that man might become deified.” Both of these expound upon St. Peter’s words that we may become partakers of the divine nature (2 Peter 2:14).
By Christ becoming incarnate, He has united the entire human experience with God. By entering into Hades, He has made death union with God rather than separation from Him, and in the words of St John Chrysostom, when Hades came upon earth and found heaven, when it came upon a corpse and found God, it was embittered and spat Him out. As the Golden-Mouthed saint concludes: “Christ is risen, and you are overthrown! Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen! Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice! Christ is risen, and life reigns! Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in a tomb! For Christ, being raised from the dead, has become the first-fruits of them that slept. To Him be glory and might unto ages of ages. Amen!”