Once and For All?


I have been puzzling some lately about the doctrine of Justification, particularly as understood by some Protestants. I am not the theologian that my good friend, Fr. Al Kimel, over at Pontifications is, nor am I versed in late medieval scholarship, which is what early Protestant doctrine requires. My puzzle is perhaps a bit more existential, and a bit on the Scriptural side (I do try to study from time to time).

The puzzle for me is the “once and for all” sense that some give to their doctrine of Justification. The only way that we can be “justified” or “made just” in a once and for all sense would be if this action were extrinsic to us and purely forensic in nature. That is to say, it would occur strictly on God’s side, and would, in the last analysis, be a legal declaration based on the merits or actions of Christ. If I understand the rhetoric correctly, this would be “imputed” righteousness – being considered righteous even though we are not.

It cannot mean that we are made righteous in some completed sense – because the example of every Christian I know would prove this not to be the case. We Baptize them (or whatever your particular Church does), and they come up out of the water and sin pretty much just like before. And yet it is quite clear that the Church teaches that something does indeed happen in Baptism and we are not the same as we were before Baptism.

Some of these questions were real questions in the early Church as well. If you read the book of Hebrews, by itself, it is clear that the problem of post-Baptismal sin was considered grave and problematic. St. Paul knows that we can and do sin after Baptism, but says to it, “God forbid” (Romans 6:15).

But first things first in my questions. There have always been problems with the purely extrinsic models of justification. For one thing, the “reality” of what happens is restricted to God alone – it consists only in what He considers us to be. The obvious question, since most would make a person’s justification a requirement for salvation, would be, “If the reality exists only in what God considers us to be, why, in His infinite mercy, does He not just consider it so for everyone?”

This turn of the question seems quite fair, since Martin Luther asked much the same question of the Papacy, when considering the Church’s authority to declare indulgences. “If the Church has this authority to release from Purgatory, why, in the name of mercy, does it not just do so for everyone?” What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. If the Reformation could ask such obvious questions of the Pope, can we not ask such obvious questions of the Reformation and its account of God?

Of course, the answer is that the Reformation’s answer has been given, and that’s where extra doctrines, such as election, predestination, sovereignty of God, etc., become important. God could, but He doesn’t, and this is why…

These explanations, with a carefully crafted bulwark of Scripture, are what make up the bulk of classical Protestantism. The Reformation was not a “return” to Biblical authority, but a shifting of authority from one ecclesial source (Rome) to another (Geneva), (Wartburg, etc.), and so it continues to this day.

What is fascinating to me is how these questions failed to be heart-stopping issues in the Church for so many centuries. Admittedly, the Roman construction of Purgatory, etc. was a little late on the scene, along with much of the language of merit, but these issues governing the very issues of our salvation seemed not to have been points of division between the Fathers for centuries. The Church in the East, when it confronted certain ideas in the West, such as at the Council of Florence, did reject the direction the West had taken (despite the Council’s initial acceptance by the Patriarch of Constantinople, et al.). The canonization of St. Mark of Ephesus is the definitive answer to the Council of Florence and its continuing rejection by the Orthodox.

What is interesting to note is that the Fathers of the early centuries (the conciliar period) spoke profoundly about our salvation and in no way neglected it in their thought. St. Athanasius writes on the matter at length, as does St. Gregory the Theologian, or take your pick.

What we find when we read them is not a complete, single, over-arching definition of terms or singularity of imagery, but a use of the whole of Scripture and every example they can bring to mind. Just recently, the Catholic Scholar (I do believe he’s Catholic), Stephen Finlan, produced an excellent study on Problems with Atonement, in which he looks at the history of Atonement doctrine and its use in the New Testament. One of the things he notes is St. Paul’s use of multiple metaphors – sometimes in a single sentence.

Paul intertwines these images so thoroughly that Christians have ever since understood scapegoat as having judicial implications that it did not have in its original setting; have understood redemption as carrying sacrificial or scapegoat implications; have understood sacrifice as carrying weight on the day of final judgment. Christian discourse has so blended these ritual and ransoming images that they have long since ceased to be distinguished by most readers of the Bible. But we need to recognise what his original hearers undoubtedly knew, that he was blending different metaphors. (p52) Incidentally Steven Harris has a good review of Finlan’s book over at his site, The World of Sven.

How could Paul blend metaphors or combine different images? The answer would seem quite simple. St. Paul believed that Christ has reconciled us to God and united us with God in Himself. And, he is willing to use any image that he can put his hand on to illustrate and support his belief. This is far different than saying that St. Paul had a mature, developed understanding of the mechanics of atonement. Apparently, the early Fathers were quite comfortable with that fact and never forced the issue. The issue does not become forced until in the West it became a wedge issue between Protestant and Catholic. Today, many Protestant groups narrowly cite the substitionary atonement theory as a touchstone of orthodoxy and require its subscription in many of their own statements of faith. They do what the Church (Orthodox) has never done nor found necessary.

In Orthodoxy, probably the fullest statement of atonement is in the retelling of the gospel story we hear in the Anaphora of the Divine Liturgy. There, such notables as St. John Chrysostom, or more thoroughly, St. Basil the Great, recount the gospel for the Church:

With these blessed Powers, 0 Master, Lover of man, we sinners also do cry out and say, Holy art thou, in truth, and all-holy, and there is no measure to the magnificence of thy holiness, and holy art thou in all thy works, for in righteousness and true judgment hast thou brought about all things for us. When thou hadst fashioned man, taking dust from the earth, and hadst honored him with thine own image, 0 God, thou ‘didst set him in a paradise of plenty, promising him life immortal and the enjoyment of eternal good things in the observance of thy commandnients. But when he disobeyed thee, the true God, who had created him, and was led astray by the deceit of the serpent, and was slain by his own trespasses, thou didst banish him, in thy righteous judgment, 0 God, from Paradise into this world, and didst turn him back to the earth from which he was taken, dispensing salvation for him through regeneration, which is in thy Christ Himself. Yet thou didst not turn thyself away till the end from thy creature which thou hadst made, 0 Good One, neither didst thou forget the work of thy hands, but thou didst look upon him in divers manners, through thy tenderhearted mercy. Thou didst send forth prophets; thou hast wrought mighty works through the saints who in every generation have been well-pleasing unto thee; thou didst speak to us by the mouths of thy servants the prophets, who foretold to us the salvation which was to come; thou didst give the Law as an help; thou didst appoint guardian angels. And when the fulness of time was come, thou didst speak unto us through thy Son Himself, by whom also thou madest the ages; Who, being the brightness of thy glory, and the express image of thy person, and upholding all things by the word of His power, deemed it not robbery to be equal to thee, the God and Father. But albeit He was God before the ages, yet He appeared upon earth and sojourned among men; and was incarnate of a holy Virgin, and did ‘ empty Himself, taking on the form of a servant, and becoming conformed to the body of our humility, that He might make us conformed to the image of His glory. For as by man sin entered the world, and by sin death, so thine Only-begotten Son, Who is in thy bosom, God and Father, was well-pleased to be born of a woman, the holy Theotokos and Ever-virgin Mary, to be born under the Law, that He might condemn sin in His flesh, that they who were dead in Adam might be made alive in thy Christ Himself, and, becoming a citizen in this world, and giving ordinances of salvation, He removed from us the delusion of idols and brought us unto a knowledge of thee, the true God and Father, having won us unto Himself for His own people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, and being purified with water, and sanctified by the Holy Spirit, He gave Himself a ransom to Death, whereby we were held, sold under sin. And having descended into hell through the Cross, that He might fill all things with Himself, He loosed the pains of death, and rose again from the dead on the third day, making a way for all flesh unto the resurrection from the dead – for it was not possible that the Author of life should be holden of corruption – that He might be the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep, the first-born from the dead, that He might be all, being first in all. And, ascending into heaven, He sat down at the right hand of thy majesty on high, and He shall return to render unto everyone according to his works. And He hath left with us as remembrances of His saving Passion these Things which we have set forth according to His commandment. For when He was about to go forth to His voluntary, and celebrated, and life-creating death, in the night in which He gave Himself up for the life of the world, He took bread in His holy and immaculate hands, and when He had shown it unto thee, the God and Father, and given thanks, and blessed it, and hallowed it, and broken it

And exclaiming, he says this:    He gave it to His holy disciples and apostles, saying, Take, eat, this is my Body, which is broken for you for the forgiveness of sins, etc.

If you read through this account of St. Basil’s you can see that, like St. Paul, numerous images are used. We are “sold under death,” we were “dead in Adam,” we were “in delusion,” etc. Finlan notes that it was a mark of good rhetoric to combine metaphors and to use as many allusions as possible. In this sense, Paul is every bit the equal of St. Basil, if not more so.

So where does that leave us with my first question? It seems to me that it leaves us with reality and not with anyone’s legalized version of the metaphysics of salvation. Christ has reconciled us to God. This is clear. In Baptism we are united to Him and we are changed, but it is also true that “it does not yet appear what we shall be” (1John 2:2). For although something new has begun in us and the life of the age to come has begun to show forth within us, yet the life of the age that is passing away shows at least as often if not far more.

The atonement, it would seem to me, and the doctrines associated with it, must be at least as real and reality based, as the incarnation of Christ, else His incarnation need not have been real. Christ did not die for us merely to change the mind of God. What kind of God would need such a thing in order to change His mind?

Christ died for us and in Him we died as well. And the death we die is real, just as the new life we live is real. Christ clearly died, “once and for all,” and does not need to die again. But having said that, we do not then need to make of this fact simply an idea in the mind of God. God became what we are that we might have a share in what He is. This is clearly the teaching of Scripture. It is not merely imputed to us or “reckoned” to us – but is given to us in Christ and it becomes our reality.

We can use more studies like that of Finlan’s and far more reading of the Fathers. We can use far less of doctrinal posturing that rehashes the debates of the 16th century. It was a bad century for almost everyone concerned.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.





30 responses to “Once and For All?”

  1. Alyssa Avatar

    Good morning Fr. Stephen,

    I’ve got a “new convert” question for you…You said in this post:

    “What we find when we read them is not a complete, single, over-arching definition of terms or singularity of imagery, but a use of the whole of Scripture and every example they can bring to mind.”

    I have heard this before from Orthodox men and women, but it seems to me that the Orthodox are willing to accept all imagery EXCEPT that of a juridical one. I have only heard arguments against this, but no explanations that actually embrace this image along with the many others found in the scriptures. I have not heard alternate explanations and expositions of those Pauline passages, but something much more like a dismissal of them out of what appears to me like disgust for the West. I sort of get the feeling that the East would like to pull a Thomas Jefferson on these passages of scripture which do use some legal language.

    Can you help me understand this in a more positive light, and not one that is just a reaction to Rome and its reformers?


  2. […] Fr Stephen Freeman shares his thoughts on justification and the sufficiency of Christ’s atonement: “Once and for All?” […]

  3. Benjamin Avatar


    It can be hard to find an in depth Orthodox summary of the forensic metaphors of salvation, especially in more modern writers – but one can find these metaphors well treated in many of the Father’s writings. Also, being that the liturgy is often considered an interpretation of the Scriptures within the Church, one can find therein declarations of how Christ has nailed the written bond of offenses held against us to his cross, how he has torn our guilt assunder, etc. They come, especially around Lent.

    Hieromonk Damascene gave a talk on the cross of Christ in 2004, and you can read the article at the link below. Obviously, no one speaks authoritatively for the Church, but he does address the forensic aspects of salvation in this talk.


  4. Benjamin Avatar


    And thank you for this article. Coming from a Protestant background, I am always interested in Orthodox teachings on justification, being that they are so fluid. The fluidity is a good thing, methinks.

    On a side note, NT Wright, the well-known Anglican Bishop, is quite a critic of imputed-righteousness theology, and has written much on the centrality of union in and with Christ in Saint Paul’s thought. He has many good words to say.

    Thank you for your good words, Father.

  5. Nathan Avatar

    Fr. Stephan,

    Good morning.

    You said:

    “If the reality exists only in what God considers us to be, why, in His infinite mercy, does He not just consider it so for everyone?”


    How could Paul blend metaphors or combine different images? The answer would seem quite simple. St. Paul believed that Christ has reconciled us to God and united us with God in Himself. And, he is willing to use any image that he can put his hand on to illustrate and support his belief.

    I agree with you that Luther’s statement about the Pope and purgatory was inappropriate.

    Second, there certainly are varying motiffs in Scripture about this, one of the foremost (and I think very, very important) being the “Christus victor” motiff.

    To answer your questions though, there is a sense in which all people are justified before God – this Lutherans call “objective justification”. In his infinite mercy, God died for the whole world, reconciling the world to Himself in Christ, just like you said above.

    This is the whole point of the doctrine of justifcation – its externality to us (again, as you said above: St. Paul believed that Christ has reconciled us to God and united us with God in Himself. ) From God’s perspective, we have been made right with Him fully by what He has done – there is nothing that we can do.

    The question is the question of faith: Do we believe this? If we do (only the person who also has been brought to repentance can really do this), then we are “subjectively justified”, meaning that we actually receive the benefits of justication before God. We are connected to this work “by faith”, and indeed, “in faith itself, Christ is present”. So Christ’s righteousness certainly gets inside of us immediately as a result of this (no one will be ultimately saved / justified whom God has not began to sanctify), but it is God’s declarative Word that constitutes our acceptance before him, not the righteousness he puts in us. This crucial distinction is made purely for matters of pastoral import, as all theology is only for proclamation, for the forgiveness of sins in Christ, for the comfort of sinners.

    I think to put the focus on the “in us” as opposed to the “for us” is to result in variations of fearful, stiffled medieval piety (much of which spoke little if at all about faith in Christ, but was more focused on our behavior).

  6. Nathan Avatar

    I should add, as to the question “why some and not others”, Lutherans believe this is not a good question to ask, as the answer inevitably comes down to: “Because I did this, and they didnt’…”, putting the focus back on us and our works, where it simply doesn’t belong.

  7. Fatherstephen Avatar


    That was very helpful, and I appreciate it. It is a great improvement over some approaches that I’ve heard.

    Alyssa, Benjamin is correct, you can find examples of use of forensic imagery among the Orthodox because the image exists and is useful. It has become less common in our times because of certain problems associated with it and, perhaps, because it has become an image used exclusively by some Protestant groups. Thus, when teaching, it is too easy to sound like you’re saying what they are saying when you are not.

    In certain circumstances I would agree that it is quite useful. The image of nailing the handwriting that was against us to the cross is Biblical and very powerful, for instance.

    It is the fluidity, and, in some sense, the fact that the event and reality transcend any one image, that I think gave the Fathers the freedom they used so easily. There is often a nervousness associated with any questioning of an image if you have built an entire structure of doctrine on that image, as some have with the substitutionary atonement model.

    It would be possible to take all of the models that have been used and examine each one for its strengths and weaknesses and probably to have done a good thing (Gustav Aulen’s treatment is slightly out of date and not as thorough as it could have been). In Orthodox terms, you would not have undermined the faith at all. In some circles of Protestantism, however, you could easily have brought down an entire house of cards.

  8. Fatherstephen Avatar


    Of course, the distinction between objective justification and subjective justification is post scriptural – it’s a distinction created to cover a theological gap created by the obvious. It is because justification has been used as an image to carry all the weight of salvation that creates the problem and the scholasticism style dancing to make everything fit.

    Another book, The Quest for Paul’s Gospel, by Douglas Campbell, is way ahead of N.T.Wright, I think, in his analysis of Paul and simply notes the insufficiency of the Luthern Justification model as a good account of Paul’s central teaching. It’s a good read if you aren’t offended by some well done Biblical Criticism.

  9. Ephrem Hugh Bensusan Avatar
    Ephrem Hugh Bensusan

    Fr. Stephen wrote:

    > What is interesting to note is that the Fathers of the early
    > centuries (the conciliar period) spoke profoundly about our
    > salvation and in no way neglected it in their thought. St.
    > Athanasius writes on the matter at length, as does St. Gregory the
    > Theologian, or take your pick.
    > What we find when we read them is not a complete, single,
    > over-arching definition of terms or singularity of imagery, but a
    > use of the whole of Scripture and every example they can bring to
    > mind.

    For a long time now I have been making this very argument, that it is a case of both-and, rather than either-or; that salvation, being comprehensive, does, in fact, comprehend every aspect of life – including the legal/forensic ones that are so easily dismissed by many Orthodox today. It is my heartfelt belief that no aspect of salvation should be jettisoned or deemphasised simply because we are uncomfortable with it, or because, when unduly separated from the overarching dogma of salvation, it becomes problemmatic. This is something the Fathers and the Scriptures do not do – they take an holistic view which holds all these models, all this imagery, together, distinguishing them, to use the Chalcedonian phrase, in thought alone, for they, like the Incarnation of the Word in which they are rooted, are without confusion, without change, without division, without separation.

    Still, you get in a slam at the “just God”, though:

    > The atonement, it would seem to me, and the doctrines associated
    > with it, must be at least as real and reality based, as the
    > incarnation of Christ, else His incarnation need not have been
    > real. Christ did not die for us merely to change the mind of God.
    > What kind of God would need such a thing in order to change His
    > mind? (I know all the arguments about a “just God” but that
    > silliness is grist for another post).

    This is not the way the Fathers speak about the justice of God. Certainly, that topic is much more expansive than that which is restricted to the courthouse, but there is no call to dismiss it so casually. St. Cyril of Jerusalem didn’t:

    “For we were enemies of God through sin, and God had appointed the
    sinner to die. There must needs therefore have happened one of two
    things; either that God, in His truth, should destroy all men, or
    that in His loving-kindness He should cancel the sentence. But behold
    the wisdom of God; He preserved both the truth of His sentence, and
    the exercise of His loving-kindness. Christ took our sins in His body
    on the tree, that we by His death might die to sin, and live unto

    Neither did St. Gregory Palamas:

    “The pre-eternal, uncircumscribed and almighty Word and omnipotent Son of God could clearly have saved man from mortality and servitude to the devil without Himself becoming man. He upholds all things by the word of His power and everything is subject to His divine authority. According to Job, He can do everything and nothing is impossible for Him. The strength of a created being cannot withstand the power of the Creator, and nothing is more powerful than the Almighty. But the incarnation of the Word of God was the method of deliverance most in keeping with our nature and weakness, and most appropriate for Him Who carried it out, for this method had justice on its side, and God does not act without justice. As the Psalmist and Prophet says, ‘God is righteous and loveth righteousness’, ‘and there is no unrighteousness in Him’. Man was justly abandoned by God in the beginning as he had first abandoned God. He had voluntarily approached the originator of evil, obeyed him when he treacherously advised the opposite of what God had commanded, and was justly given over to him. In this way, through the evil one’s envy and the good Lord’s just consent, death came into the world. Because of the devil’s overwhelming evil, death became twofold, for he brought about not just physical but also eternal death.

    “As we had been justly handed over to the devil’s service and subjection to death, it was clearly necessary that the human race’s return to freedom and life should be accomplished by God in a just way. Not only had man been surrendered to the envious devil by divine righteousness, but the devil had rejected righteousness and become wrongly enamoured of authority, arbitrary power and, above all, tyranny. He took up arms against justice and used his might against mankind. It pleased God that the devil be overcome first by the justice against which he continuously fought, then afterwards by power, through the Resurrection and the future Judgement. Justice before power is the best order of events, and that force should come after justice is the work of a truly divine and good Lord, not of a tyrant.”

    Or St. John Chrysostom:

    “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us’. In reality, the people were subject to another curse, which says, ‘Cursed is every man who continueth not in all the words of the law to do them’. To this curse, I say, people were subject, for none had continued in, or was a keep of, the whole law; but Christ exchanged this curse for the other, ‘Cursed by God is everyone who is hanged on a tree’. And then both he who hanged on a tree, and he who transgresses the law, is cursed, and as it was necessary for him who is about to relieve from a curse himself to be loosed from it, but to receive another instead of it, therefore Christ took upon Him such another, and thereby loosed us from the curse. It was like an innocent man’s undertaking to die for another condemned to death, and so rescuing him from punishment. For Christ took upon Him not the curse of transgression, but the other curse, in order to remove that of others. For, ‘He practiced no iniquity, nor was craft in His mouth’. And as by dying He rescued from death those who were dying, so by taking upon Himself the curse, He delivered them from it.”

    Clearly, substitution *is* a touchstone of Orthodoxy – it just isn’t the only one. Likewise the doctrines that appear to you to be “unreal” since they are conceptually forensic and legal in nature.

    So is the justice of God; but many of our brethren fail to recognise that not only our condemnation but also our salvation itself is an act of justice. As we sing during Great Lent, “In the midst of two thieves, Thy Cross was found to be a balance of justice.”

    We can see this in these three passages from one Patristic and two more modern thinkers. First, St. John Damascene:

    “A judge justly punishes one who is guilty of wrongdoing; and if he does not punish him he is himself a wrongdoer. In punishing him the judge is not the cause either of the wrongdoing or of the vengeance taken against the wrongdoer, the cause being the wrongdoer’s freely chosen actions. Thus too God, Who saw what was going to happen as if it had already happened, judged it as if it had taken place; and if it was evil, that was the cause of its being punished. It was God Who created man, so of course He created him in goodness; but man did evil of his own free choice, and is himself the cause of the vengeance that overtakes him.”

    Then, Vladimir Lossky:

    “We should not depict God either as a constitutional monarch subject to a justice that goes beyond Him, or as a tyrant whose whim would create a law without order or objectivity. Justice is not an abstract reality superior to God but an expression of His nature. Just as He freely creates yet manifests Himself in the order and beauty of creation, so He manifests Himself in His justice: Christ Who is Himself justice, affirms in His fullness God’s justice…God’s justice is that man should no longer be separated from God. It is the restoration of humanity in Christ, the true Adam.”

    Lastly, Metr. St. Philaret of Moscow:

    “Draw closer and examine the threatening face of God’s justice, and you will exactly discern in it the meek gaze of God’s love. Man by his sin has fenced off from himself the everlasting source of God’s love: and this love is armed with righteousness and judgement – for what? – to destroy this stronghold of division. But since the insignificant essence of the sinner would be irreparably crushed under the blows of purifying Justice, the inaccessible Lover of souls sends His consubstantial Love, that is, His Only begotten Son, so that He Who ‘upholds all things by the word of His power’, might also bear the heaviness of our sins, and the heaviness of the justice advancing towards us, in the flesh of ours that He took upon Himself: and, having Alone extinguished the arrows of wrath, sharpened against the whole of humanity, might reveal in his wounds on the Cross the unblocked springs of mercy and love which was to the whole land that had once been cursed – blessings, life and beatitude. Thus did God love the world.

    “But if the Heavenly Father out of love for the world gives up His Only-begotten Son; then equally the Son out of love for man gives Himself up; and as love crucifies, so is love crucified. For although ‘the Son can do nothing of Himself’, neither can he do anything in spite of Himself. He ‘does not seek His own will’, but for that reason is the eternal heir and possessor of the will of His Father. ‘He abides in His love’, but in it He Himself receives into His love all that is loved by the Father, as he says: ‘As the Father hath loved Me, so have I loved you’. And in this way the love of the Heavenly Father is extended to the world through the Son: the love of the Only-begotten Son of God at the same time ascends to the Heavenly Father and descends to the world. Here let him who has eyes see the most profound foundation and primordial inner constitution of the Cross, out of the love of the Son of God for His All-holy Father and love for sinful humanity, the two loves intersecting with, and holding on to, each other, apparently dividing up what was one, but in fact uniting the divided into one. Love for God is zealous for God – love for man is merciful to man. Love for God demands that the law of God’s righteousness should be observed – love for man does not abandon the transgressor of the law to perish in is unrighteousness. Love for God strives to strike the enemy of God – love for man makes the Divinity man, so as by means of love for God mankind might be deified, and while love for God ‘lifts the Son of man from the earth’, love for man opens the embraces of the Son of God for the earthborn, these opposing strivings of love intersect, dissolve into each other, balance each other and make of themselves that wonderful heart of the Cross, on which forgiving ‘mercy’ and judging ‘truth meet together’, God’s ‘righteousness’ and man’s ‘peace kiss each other’, through which heavenly ‘truth is sprung up out of the earth, and righteousness’ no longer with a threatening eye ‘hath looked down from heaven. Yea, for the Lord will give goodness, and our land shall yield her fruit’.”

    For me, to replace such profound thought with ideas that seek to separate God’s justice from His love and set them at artificial odds with one another is absolutely tragic. It is far better, in my view, to take an approach to such issues that recognises the validity (indeed, the Scriptural and Patristic requirement for) of the legal/forensic models – and here’s the key – as they are integrated into the whole doctrine of salvation by the Scriptures and the Fathers, not artificially but as a dynamic organism, or as a multifaceted gem.

  10. Fr Stephen Avatar
    Fr Stephen

    Thank you for the informative post and you’re right we should use both/and. But, as I noted above, in our present circumstances, which indeed differ from the Fathers (they were not in a Protestant milieu) the “just” God has frequently been reduced to a caricature, for which there are problems. Of course, we believe in a just God (but I would refer you to St. Isaac of Syria for excellent observations on the problems associated with the image). He says we “know nothing of God’s justice, only His mercy.” I’ve noted some of the present problems. Forgive me, if my offhand comment came across as a slam. I could have worded that better.

    God, of course, is just. But, I would tend to stand with St. Isaac, in which, overwhelmed by God’s mercy, I am uncertain what to say of His justice.

    But thanks for the citations. And forgive.

  11. Fr Stephen Avatar
    Fr Stephen

    By the way, Ephrem,

    I thought the quote from Lossky was perhaps the best of the lot – but notice here, Lossky has subtly defined God’s justice as His mercy – which is what Isaac of Syria says. Also, his careful rejection of certain false images of God and justice show what care we also must take in using them. I absolutely do not deny the place that the forensic imagery has in Orthodoxy. It is indeed both-and. But there are weaknesses as in every image. But I have not denied it.

  12. fatherstephen Avatar


    Having had a few thoughts, I will take your correction and have removed my flippant comment on God’s justice. It really didn’t need to be there.

    One of the joys of owning a blog is that I can respond by fixing things when they need fixing. It’s not quite as good as repentance, but it’s a blog’s version of it. 🙂

  13. Ephrem Hugh Bensusan Avatar
    Ephrem Hugh Bensusan

    You wrote:

    “I thought the quote from Lossky was perhaps the best of the lot – but notice here, Lossky has subtly defined God’s justice as His mercy – which is what Isaac of Syria says. Also, his careful rejection of certain false images of God and justice show what care we also must take in using them. I absolutely do not deny the place that the forensic imagery has in Orthodoxy. It is indeed both-and. But there are weaknesses as in every image. But I have not denied it.”

    I have always taken St. Isaac’s saying, which stands almost alone in expression (though not in content) in the Patristic literature, as an indicator that the justice of God is something far more expansive than we might narrowly understand, but that we don’t need to discard the various layers of meaning (which I am not saying you have – when I make such references I referring to those, like Kalomiros and Khrapovitsky, who actually do); rather that we are called to contemplate justice in all its depth of meaning.

    Another several quotations that might be apropos are these:

    “In essence the wrath of God is one of the manifestations of the love of God, but of the love of God in its relation to the moral evil in the heart of rational creatures in general, and in the heart of man in particular.” ~ St. Theophan of Poltava

    “Come, all ye peoples, and let us venerate the blessed Wood, through which the eternal justice has been brought to pass. For he who by a tree deceived our forefather Adam, is by the Cross himself deceived; and he who by tyranny gained possession of the creature endowed by God with royal dignity, is overthrown in headlong fall. By the Blood of God the poison of the serpent is washed away; and the curse of a just condemnation is loosed by the unjust punishment inflicted on the Just. For it was fitting that wood should be healed by wood, and that through the Passion of One Who knew not passion should be remitted all the sufferings of him who was condemned because of wood. But glory to Thee, O Christ our King, for Thy dread dispensation towards us, whereby Thou hast saved us all, for Thou art good and lovest mankind.” ~ Doxastikon at Vespers, Exaltation of the Holy Cross

    “Christ does not execute justice; He manifests it: He manifests that which God expects from the creature, the fullness of humanity, ‘the maximum man’ to take up the expression of Nicholas of Cusa. He fulfills the vocation of man betrayed by Adam: to live, and to nourish the universe, only from God. Such is God’s justice. The Son, identical with God in His divine nature, acquires through the Incarnation the possibility of fulfilling it. For He can then submit to the Father as if He were distant from Him, renounce this will of His own given Him by His humanity, and give Himself totally, even unto death, that the Father may be glorified. God’s justice is that man should be no longer separated from God. It is the restoration of humanity in Christ, the true Adam.” ~ Vladimir Lossky

    ISTM that the basic problem is narrow understandings – and I will admit the much of the West, particularly the Dispensational Fundamentalism that is the prime conservative expression of American Protestantism, largely takes a very narrow view of things like justice. But it also seems to me that our calling is to proclaim the expansiveness, yea, the comprehensiveness of the Gospel, rather than to (and again, I am not saying you do this) deride language that is part of God’s self-revelation, a tendency that appears to me more rooted in an emotional lack of comfort with words like “justice”, “wrath”, “satisfaction”, etc., than anything else except, possibly, overreaction to certain overemphases in Western Christian thought. This leads to a narrowness of its own, one that cannot ultimately serve to lead someone to a broader embrace of all the richness God has revealed in Christ Jesus.

    So essentially, my position distils down to something Lossky (again) expresses in a discussion of ransom, but which should,IMO, be applied to all of this kind of imagery, that of “images which have value only together, to encompass the act in its incomprehensible depth through which Christ returned to us the dignity of sons of God. A theology impoverished by that rationalism which recoils before these, the images of the Fathers, necessarily loses the cosmological perspective of Christ’s work. But rather than this, we must enlarge our sense of redemption.”

  14. Ephrem Hugh Bensusan Avatar
    Ephrem Hugh Bensusan

    You wrote:

    “What is fascinating to me is how these questions failed to be heart-stopping issues in the Church for so many centuries.”

    Perhaps it is because the Fathers refused to consider such things as justification and sanctification in isolation from one another. Certainly there are distinctions (without separation or division) made by many Fathers – St. John Chrysostom comes to mind immediately, as does St. Theophan the Recluse in more modern times – but the tendency of, for instance, the Reformed, to create an explicit Ordo salutis which all too often carries with it the necessity of treating such doctrines in isolation, was rejected, or perhaps I should say, never even contemplated, by the Fathers.

  15. Fatherstephen Avatar


    Well said in both cases. If I may, I would like to use some of the patristic citations you have shared and do another piece soon on justice and its larger application, particularly within the American religious scene. Thanks ever so much!

  16. Alice C. Linsley Avatar
    Alice C. Linsley

    There is an existential basis for understanding the “both and” approach. In my heart’s deepest being I know that I stand under judgment and mercy mingled; like the water and blood that came from the Master’s side.

  17. Reid Avatar

    What an informative discussion! Thank you all for the great quotes, comments and insights.

    This notion of “both-and” seems a much better fit for the Scriptural descriptions of justification/salvation than the single notion of substitutionary atonement that I am used to. In trying to explain to myself how “both-and” can be true, I’ve found it helpful to consider which human relationship is the Scripturally “correct” one to define our relationship to God. In one place the Lord Jesus call His followers His “brother, sister, and mother.” Elsewhere He calls them His friends. The Apostle Paul calls himself a slave of Christ and yet in another place calls believers the Bride of Christ. Many passages tells believers that they are children of God.

    We are not tempted to settle on one of these as the “correct” relationship to the exclusion of all others. We comfortably recognize that these images of our relationship to God, though in some physical sense incompatible with each other (e.g., physically you cannot be brother, sister, mother, son, friend, and slave to anyone), are perfectly compatible with each other as each illuminates some facet of how God invites us to draw near to Him and live with Him. Why, then, should God’s descriptions of what He did in justifying/saving us be less multifaceted?

  18. Fatherstephen Avatar

    We always get in trouble when we want “the” Scriptural answer to certain questions. It’s a Protestant habit that makes certain assumptions about the Scriptures that are not so. They are very rich, such that it’s more like, both, and, and, and, and, and, etc.

  19. joe blogg Avatar

    I agree Fatherstephen.
    I was making the same point myself today.

  20. Fr Alvin Kimel Avatar

    So many great quotes!

  21. Barnabas Powell Avatar

    Father Stephen and Ephrem,

    I have read this thread with great interest, but I think there is a danger of missing an important element in this.

    It is obviously true that the fathers take a both/and position on this. Ephrem has done a good job here at on his own blog of displaying this truth. I readily admit that we Orthodox can become guilty of creating a straw man of the West’s position on justification.

    Having said that, let me offer my observation of the missing element I spoke of before. That element is the practical and “lived out” results of the theological emphasis of the West.

    To be sure, the West has a much more balanced teaching on this subject than has been allowed in certain Eastern critiques, but the crushing weight of the evidence in the rank and file lives of too many Protestants and Roman Catholics in the pews screams otherwise.

    Theological nuances are all well and good, but if the theologians’ theories remain the exclusive domain of the experts, and never filter into the prayers of the people, what ultimate good are they?

    The West may have a balanced view of salvation in certain theological movements through the centuries, but the everyday lives of the people all too often reflect “sinners in the hands of an angry God” rather than the Father of the Prodigal.

    It has always been the intention of the evil one to impune the character of the Father (“You will not surely die”). But all too often in the West it seems that the message of Calvary is the Father looking at us sternly and pointing to the cross and saying “See what you made Me do.”

    I readily admit this is completely unfair to many Western theologies. Now, perhaps, these Western theologians can convince their people of that.

    The faithful will incarnate the way they pray. Theology isn’t much good if it doesn’t filter down into the prayers of the faithful.

  22. Reid Avatar

    Barnabas, thank you for your post which helped me put my finger on something that has been bugging me in this discussion (by the way, in passing I thoroughly agree that what that man in the pew believes is often nearly unrelated to what the theologian next to him teaches).

    I readily agree with most of the discussion here saying that describing Christ’s work in our behalf as a substitutionary atonement is at best an incomplete view of a far richer reality. I heartily agree that salvation is not simply a legal formality (some have used the term forensic, but I do not understand its meaning in this context) in which the Judge declares a guilty man innocent on the basis of his giving mental assent to a proposition about Jesus. Such a view simultaneously empties the Gospel of meaning and twists it into a hideous perversion of itself. I also agree that “sinners in the hands of an angry God” is not the Gospel message. Never do I see the apostles and writers of the New Testament speaking of God and His invitation to salvation in such terms. My tiny acquaintance with the writings of the early Church and of the early councils reveals no such approach to the Gospel.

    Yet both Old and New Testaments frequently speak of God’s wrath and His judgment against the wickedness of men — his faithlessness, violence, oppression — and His rescuing of the poor and needy and faithful from such men. The psalmist cries out to God for justice against his enemies. The souls under the altar in Revelation cry out for God’s vengeance on their murderers. The Lord tells us to avoid avenging ourselves, waiting instead on the Lord who says “vengeance is Mine, I will repay.” When I see an Adolf Hitler or the American slaughter of the unborn or the legions of faithless men who discard their wives and corrupt their children (or…the list is long), then I long for God’s justice. I take comfort in believing such things anger Him, even while I take comfort in knowing He would rejoice at the repentance of men who commit such atrocities. I take comfort in our Lord’s anger at the Pharisees and teacher of the Law who “shut the door of heaven in men’s faces.”

    Alongside all the “sinners in the hands of an angry God” preaching, this society holds another view (perhaps in reaction, I do not know), epitomized in the sign I saw recently at a storefront church: “God isn’t angry with you no matter what you’ve done.” It pictures God, if I may say it reverently, in cuddly universalist terms, welcoming everyone with open arms, without repentance, simply overlooking sin because we are all His chilren. His warm, fuzzy love just overwhelms such trivialities as sin and morality. So we should all just accept each other and get along.

    Such a view is, of course, no Gospel at all, yet it appears to me that it is the de facto Gospel of much of the pagan society around us and some portion of what calls itself the church. I do not think anyone on this blog is advocating such a position, but when I read the suggestion that we should rid ourselves of the notion of an angry God, this sort of “Mister Rogers” picture is what leaps to my mind. I imagine that some folks who preach an angry God do so because it is the only way they know to avoid this “Mister Rogers” picture.

    So I think I see some genuine reasons for believing in the notion of God’s wrath (again in more than purely formal terms), and on an emotional level I feel deeply the desire to hold onto this notion. Would Orthodoxy or the Fathers argue that I am simply wrong on this point, or is there a way of reconciling all this?

  23. fatherstephen Avatar

    I think you’re right – it’s a matter of seeing and hearing the whole gospel. You have to judge as a preacher or teacher or evangelist (or whatever) who you are speaking to and what it is they need to hear in order to actually hear the good news.

    Although there is indeed some consensus among the Eastern Fathers that God’s wrath and his mercy are quite the same thing. Which doesn’t make His wrath any easier if you are refusing relationship with God. “This is condemnation. That Light has come into the world and that men preferred darkness.” It’s not the Light that hurts us, it’s our own blindness that makes it seem dark.

    But we’ll blog that one another time. But I think you’re correct in what you say. It is both/and.

  24. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Having studied Kalimiros “River of Fire” extensively and being troubled by the same question of the judicial images, I came to the conclusion that Kalimiros was saying that God’s justice is His love for us. That is what allows Him to judge with perfection. Unfortunately, I did not make the depth of study hinted at by the quotes and commentary given here.

  25. Barnabas Powell Avatar


    There is always a danger when one speaks of theology. Theology is inherently dangerous because it is fill with such import.

    That is why it is always unhelpful to reduce theology to either the ivory tower of intellectual pursuits or the pedestrian pop theology that an average person might adopt.

    The fathers say that theology is prayer. The more I learn, the more I come to respect that insight.

    Having said this, I will recount a conversation I had with a fundamentalist Baptist friend of mine. He was of the “fire and brimstone” variety and I told him his idea of hell and God’s judgment was weak and wimpy. From and Orthodox perspective, his view of hell and judgment were not nearly horrible enough.

    When I consider what the fathers said about God’s wrath and His righteous judgment, I really do tremble. It would be wonderful if hell were only flames and an eternally roasting evildoer, but hell and God’s judgment are infinitely more horrible than that myth.

    I seem to see the fathers teaching that God’s wrath is His unconditional love eternally poured out on those who hate Him, but it is their hate that burns and torments, not God’s wrath. Hell, from an Orthodox perspective is entirely man made and sustained by our pride and self-centeredness.

    Jesus resurrection and His eternal defeat of death is not good news to everyone. It only becomes good to those who embrace His lordship and His life. For those who reject God, eternal life is NOT a good thing. It is the eternal perpetualization of their own fallenness. C.S Lewis’ book The Great Divorce is a wonderful metaphor for this concept.

    So, far from dismissing the concepts of satisfaction and God’s wrath and even His anger (although the fathers say that God at His angriest is kinder than man at his kindest), I tremble in the face of an unremitting fire of love undiminished, unquenchable, and eternal. This is what I face when I enter into His presence. It is only His mercy and my abandonment to His grace that will prepare me for such an event. For a good answer before the awesome judgment seat of Christ, let us pray to the Lord.

  26. Reid Avatar

    Fr. Stephen and Barnabas Powell,

    Thank you for the helpful replies.

    Fr. Stephen, I like your comments here and elsewhere on the blog suggesting we sometimes need to emphasize one aspect of truth and neglect another in order to make the whole truth comprehensible (e.g., a man who has heard only fire and brimstone may need to hear mostly about God’s relentless love, while a fuzzy universalist may need to hear of God’s holiness and justice). From some point of view this reflects one of the simple principles of English 101: To convey a message well you must consider not only your message but also your audience. It also reflects the richness of our subject and the poverty of our sight. The blind man cannot see the whole elephant at once, and we cannot see God’s redemption or salvation or justice or mercy all at once. I suspect this is why we see the Apostle Paul saying we are saved through faith, not by works, while we see James saying we are not saved by faith alone but also by works. They are not contradicting each other but illuminating different aspects of salvation according to the needs of their audiences.

    Thank you both for clarifying that regardless of how one understands the wrath and justice of God (i.e., even if they are simply His mercy and love as experienced by those who reject Him), the consequences for the man who has cut himself off from God are terrible. (Not that I thought you had any other view in mind, but you are kind to clarify the point.) Barnabas, you write powerfully and vividly on the subject. I read The Great Divorce years ago, but I had not realized how Orthodox its view of hell is.

    I wonder if part of the problem of presenting God as angry (in the fire and brimstone fashion) is not in the anger but in its picture of God as demanding “appeasement” (a word that has appeared a time or two in our discussions and which, I think, also appears in “River of Fire”). Our Lord Jesus was angry on occasion, but never because of an offense against Himself. Jesus demands no appeasement for these injuries to His honor. On the contrary without complaint He bears every indignity, abuse, grief, and pain men care to inflict, all out of love for His Father, for the sake of the very men who despise Him. He directs His anger exclusively at those men who twist, mar, obscure, and suppress the Glory of His Father so as to hinder those seeking life and healing from Him. Similarly, Jesus’ servant, the Apostle Paul, has no concern for his own honor and dignity, but he has harsh words for those who suppress God’s truth and pervert His Gospel.

    Yet that (appeasement) is not the only problem. It occurs to me, Barnabas, that one could take your potent description of Hell — without saying a word about God’s anger — and try to use it to scare men into repenting and finding life in Christ so that they might avoid such suffering. This no longer requires us to present God as angry, yet it seems just as misguided, twisted even, as trying to scare men into repentance and life by speaking of God’s anger. The problem is in the scaring and threatening. Nowhere do I see the apostles trying to scare men into the Kingdom of God. Their approach always seems to be much more one of calling men to their senses (as the prodigal son finally came to his senses), calling men to something obviously reasonable, good, and wholesome. They seem to direct the pictures of judgment and wrath (the book of Revelation, for instance) to Christians, that they might take warning and comfort from them.

    “For a good answer before the awesome judgment seat of Christ, let us pray to the Lord.” Amen.

  27. Don Bradley Avatar
    Don Bradley

    The focus in the West, both Catholic and Protestant, is upon our guilt. Both start with our guilt as something we get from Adam, and therefore we have by virtue of our birth. We sin not by choice, but by necessity as we have sin like an object dwelling in us. We can thank Most Blessed Augustine for bequeathing to the Western world the idea that all of the unbaptized, even babies, perish in hell because of God’s wrath on Adam’s disobedience. The first ring of hell in Dante’s Inferno is populated by unbaptized infants, and John Calvin wrote along the same lines. All have sin, therefore all die; it’s punitive. They call it original sin, I call it original guilt. The Orthodox do not simply have the same view as Rome or the Reformers on the fall of Adam and its consequences, therefore our view of redemption is not and cannot be the same. We don’t agree on the problem, therefore we don’t agree on the solution. The West sees God reacting in wrath to Adam’s disobedience, whereas the East sees God as taking pity.

    For the sake of brevity I’ll generalize the West when it comes to justification, as there are hundreds of variations in both the Catholic and Protestant worlds. For them, Christ died to satisfy God’s wrath, and the Resurrection is reduced to the proof that the Father accepted His sacrifice. Catholics apply the benefits of this through the sacraments, as do the Lutherans. For Catholics the righteousness of Christ’s atonement is infused into the recipient via the sacraments, whereas with Lutherans righteousness is imputed (declared) and the sacrments are the means of distribution of His benefits, though the person remains a sinner (Luther used the metaphor of being dung covered by snow). Though Luther believed strongly in predestination, it was not as pronounced as with John Calvin. Luther was vague on how this imputation that occured in the mind of God was applied to some and not others, but Calvin simply limited the atonement to the elect (that Christ did not die for all). Sacraments for Calvinists get reduced to “sign and seal”, which is a short step to bare signs and symbols that came to be the prevailing view in the Protestant world today.

    In the West all sin and therefore all die; whereas as in the East all have death (NOT GUILT) and therefore they sin because of this absence of life we call death. For the West sin was an actual substance (Augustine believed it was carried by sperm), whereas for the East sin is the lack of good. In the East we are guilty for what we do, not by virtue of our birth. In the West baptism washes away original sin we got from Adam, whereas St. Athanasius teaches that the divine image which was lost by Adam is renewed or regenerated in the recipient. So for the East sacraments are nothing less than God Himself coming to that individual in His “energies” (St. Gregory Palamas explains this best). For us sacraments are not just God’s infused grace (Rome) or a means of grace (Luther) or a sign of grace (Calvin), it is God Himself coming to us through a material object to unite us with Himself.

    I would contend that the fundamental building block for understanding Orthodox justification is the hymn we sing on Pascha:

    “Christ is risen from the dead, by death trampling upon death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.”

    Christ destroyed death, therefore everyone will rise from the grave, all of humanity. The very fact that every human being will be physically raised from the dead by virtue of Christ’s resurrection demonstrates that Christ’s atonement is actually applied to every human being. Does this mean all are “saved”? No. In some sense His atonement touches all, but how we recieve it and how we apply it is something we will be acountable for. We will be judged for the totality of our lives. The resurrected Christ comes to us with His life in the sacraments and unites us to Himself; how we recieve Him differs with each individual as we “work out our salvation with fear and trembling”.

  28. Fatherstephen Avatar


    Be gentle. The West is not quite so monochrome nor is the East as perfect as you have suggested. St. Augustine has strengths and weaknesses but remains a saint of the Church. And, as has been noted, forensic imagery is not unknown in the East. Make points as positively as possible. It will keep the tone here as generally peaceful as the blog intends. The blog rules ask us to be kind and merciful – which is tough with some of these topics. But there are so many places where the atmosphere (blogosphere) is not kind and merciful – I want this to be an oasis. Just a gentle nudge (forgive me) from this old priest.

  29. Don Bradley Avatar
    Don Bradley

    “Be gentle. The West is not quite so monochrome nor is the East as perfect as you have suggested. St. Augustine has strengths and weaknesses but remains a saint of the Church. And, as has been noted, forensic imagery is not unknown in the East. ”

    Point taken. St. Augustine produces a dichotomy in me. Though I would venerate an icon of him and I do recommend people read his works, the lofty perch he is placed upon by the West has been the source of many less-than-healthy doctrinal innovations.

    Luther’s famous quote on justification is, “Justification is the article upon which the Church stands or falls.” I couldn’t disagree with him more. The doctrine of justification is the mosh pit of Christianity, and I admit my enjoyment of the combat. I shall endeavor to sheath my sword.

  30. fatherstephen Avatar

    Thanks Don. You’re always welcome here. Mosh pit. I like that.

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