Therapeutic Substitutionary Atonement

ats20379_Christ1For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures… (1 Cor. 15:3-4)

No statement is more central to the Christian faith than St. Paul’s rehearsal of the Apostolic Tradition – for his words “delivered…received…” are specifically the words that describe the handing over of Tradition. His words represent what is already the received teaching of the faith – the Apostolic deposit. The Christian faith is not just that Christ died and was raised from the dead, but that He “died for our sins according to the Scriptures.” The death of Christ is somehow “for our sins.” This is the very heart of the Gospel – the most primitive preaching of the Church.

But it is at this most primitive point that essential questions must be asked: how is it that Christ’s death is “for our sins?” How is it that His death and resurrection is “according to the Scriptures?” For though Christ clearly taught the disciples that He would be crucified and would rise on the third day, this was not understood by them. It was not understood because it was not a part of the received Jewish expectation of the Messiah. That Christ died for our sins and according to the Scriptures is an article of the faith that was made known only after the resurrection: it is not a derived Tradition, but a teaching of the risen Lord Himself.

This is a place where disagreement has begun to manifest itself in recent years. For some, Christ’s death on the Cross represents the payment for a debt owed to God, the debt of Adam’s sin. In another account, Christ’s death on the Cross is a blood sacrifice to appease the wrath of God, incurred through Adam’s sin. For still others, Christ’s death is the destruction of Hades and death itself, the healing of the corruption of sin. There are yet other views, but the disagreement has largely been between advocates of one version or another of these accounts.

The first two accounts generally fall into a category of “forensic” models. In these, there is a debt or a divine consequence (wrath) that must be paid or turned aside. In various ways it is noted that only a perfect Man could pay the debt (or appease the wrath). Since all men sin, only God could meet the requirements. Thus God became man, so that God, as man, could accomplish what man alone could not.

In the second model, sin and death are more or less synonymous. Rather than being forensic (legal) in character, they are ontological (a matter of being and existence). Sin is the disease of corruption, the movement from true existence toward non-being. The destructive chaos that it leaves in its wake is more like “symptoms” than legal problems. God in His mercy becomes man, and as the God/Man enters the depths of death and Hades, the depths of ontological corruption and destroys them. In His resurrection (which is a necessary aspect of this model – unlike the others), our ontological corruption is destroyed or rather “put to death” and we receive new life – the eternal life of the resurrection (which is a quality and not merely longevity). In this model, there is a participation and communion. Christ becomes sin, that we might become righteous. He dies that we might live. He takes on our death, that we might take on His life.

In both models, there is a reality of substitution – Christ assumes the place of man. But the nature of that substitution, and therefore the nature of salvation itself, is quite different. In the forensic models, Christ accepts the punishment that was incurred by man: Christ is punished instead of man. It is certainly a demonstration of the love of God, though the debt owed or the wrath appeased belong to God as well. Christ’s acceptance of man’s due consequences instead of man, goes to the very heart of the forensic model – at least to the heart of what makes it most distinctive from the ontological accounts.

Christ’s substitution in the forensic models removes man from redeeming action. Man is not punished but forgiven. The wrath of God is appeased and man is not condemned to hell. Christ accepts these things on man’s behalf. Justification is extrinsic – it happens outside of man and apart from man. By faith, man acknowledges Christ’s gift on his behalf and accepts the gift of forgiveness that could not have been his in any other way.

The substitution in the second (ontological) model is different in character. Christ steps into the life and situation of man (the human race), but does not remove man from the equation. The Cross is not foreign to man – it is the fullness of the consequence of human sin. The substitution of Christ in the ontological models is not a replacement, but a union. Christ unites Himself with man (the Incarnation) and in so doing takes upon Himself, and into Himself the fullness of our humanity (excepting sin – which is foreign to our nature). Importantly, however, just as Christ takes upon Himself our humanity, so He also unites Himself to us, we take on His divinity. As God and man Christ enters death, Hades, the full consequence of our separation from God. As God and as man, Christ destroys death and unites man victoriously to His resurrection. He is the true mediator, having restored us to the union with God for which we were created.

It would be possible to argue that this second model is not a true substitution. I agree, if the term, substitution, is meant as “replacement.” But the problems within the notion of substitution are found in the idea of Christ as “replacement.” Christ as replacement creates a “theology of absence.” If Christ simply “takes our place,” then salvation is merely forensic (legal) and something which happens outside of us. If God simply declares us to be “just,” “forgiven,” or “made whole,” then the Incarnation, Crucifixion and Resurrection become something of an abstraction. Their “necessity,” would only exist within God Himself, who might otherwise have “declared” us to be righteous without all the bother. Indeed, there can be no necessity within God, whether it is predicated of His justice, or anything else. God is free and has no necessity.

However, there is a necessity which exists within us. We are indeed broken, unrighteous, sinful, in need of healing and subject to death and corruption. If our healing required only a word, then why not speak the word long before?

The necessity within salvation lies within us. Christ’s Incarnation, Crucifixion and Resurrection are acts of freedom. It is with complete freedom and cooperation that He is Incarnate of the Virgin. His death is a “voluntary” death: “No one takes my life from me….” (John 10:18). Nor does our salvation violate our freedom. We must freely accept the gift of God given to us in Christ. The synergy of salvation is God’s respect for the freedom which allows us to exist as persons. It is this same freedom that lies at the heart of the mystery of the “fullness of time.” Christ entered history at the critical moment of man’s freedom.

Christ’s “substitution” is not a replacement. Christ does not “replace” our humanity, but “assumes” it. In Christ, every man is on the Cross. The Second Adam “recapitulates” the First Adam and the whole of humanity. There is in the Cross (and whole economy of salvation) an exchange, a coinherence, a perichoresis (περιχώρησις). The term “perichoresis” was used by St. Gregory the Theologian to describe the relationship between the Divine and Human natures in Christ. It is this same relationship (or one that can be similarly described) that is manifest in our salvation. Christ dies on the Cross. We die on the Cross.

I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me (Galatians 2:20).

St. Paul is not describing an “ethical” or “moral” transaction, but a mystical and true exchange in which the life of Christ and our lives coinhere. His life, death and resurrection become our life, death and resurrection.

Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin. For he who has died has been freed from sin. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, dies no more. Death no longer has dominion over Him. For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God (Romans 6:3-10).

A substitution which represents our absence on the Cross does violence to passages such as this. We would need to go back and edit St. Paul, inserting the words “would be as if” repeatedly into the text:

Do you not know that our Baptism makes it such that it would be as if we had been crucified with Christ? etc.

Such violence disrupts the realism of our salvation and turns the Christian life into a moral abstraction. The sacraments become empty mental exercises.

There are additional weaknesses within the forensic models, but I leave them for now. The Lenten journey is not an annual community remembrance of a legal event. Rather it is the mystical embrace of the true life which coinheres in every believer. Baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ, we journey to the common ground of our Golgotha. There we suffer and die with Christ, having shared in His fast and preparation. Dying with Him, we rejoice in His/our victory over death and Hades and join in the festal shout as death is trampled down by what is now our common death.

This is the great mystery of our faith. Those who eat the flesh and drink the blood of the Crucified and Risen Christ, abide in Him as He abides in them and become partakers (those who have a true share) in all that is His. This is the great exchange, that God became what we are that we might become what He is.

Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures..




About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.


90 responses to “Therapeutic Substitutionary Atonement”

  1. […] Given recent discussion here on Eclectic Orthodoxy on the subject of the atonement, I recommend Fr Stephen Freeman’s latest article “Therapeutic Substitutionary Atonement.” […]

  2. Burckhardtfan Avatar

    Dear Father Stephen,

    Thank you for this wonderful article. I have a few queries, especially in regards to the forensic model. Surely there has to be some notion in the Bible that Christ in some way remedies a legal quandary we are in. For instance, the legal overtones in Galatians and Romans are inescapable, e.g. Galatians 2:16 says “Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified”. The word ‘justify’ in Greek is ‘dikaioo”, which means to declare righteous, as in before the law. The word has clear legal overtones, especially when set against the Old Testament Law. This word appears many times in Romans and other Pauline epistles.

    I know that Protestants put too much weight on the forensic aspect, but surely it’s not wise to abandon all forensic/legal notions?

    Best regards,


  3. Dominic Albanese Avatar
    Dominic Albanese

    sometimes I think too many men and too many versions of God are the work of the evil one. Accept His love for and of us with no scolarship no interpatation Accept it live it and in the last line of all the slogans in most AA halls read
    First think of God live it.

  4. Perry Robinson Avatar


    Here are some comments that might prove helpful.

    Legal doesn’t necessarily entail forensic. It does perhaps in very late medieval theories of justice, but those are not the only theories of justice and law on hand, and certainly neither St. Paul nor the Romans were late medieval Nominalists when it came to law.

    Second, the question is not whether it is legal, but whether the grounds for the legal declaration are in the agent or extrinsic to him. That is, are they grounded in the love, faith and hope, the virtues, that inhere in the agent or are they unconnected to the state of his soul? A mere legal nature won’t tell us one way or the other. This is why the legal language of itself doesn’t advance the Protestant position or imply it.

  5. Eric Avatar

    Father Stephen,
    Thank you once more for such a beautiful word, laying open to us what you say is this central word, that Christ died for our sins. Such a word of Hope.

    One brief reflection that as my own journey by grace has led me towards the ontological position, it has become more apparent to me that the proponents of the first position, particularly that of propitiating the wrath of God, always seem to be very angry people. The vehemence with which the first position has been fought for, being made the exclusive golden mean of true faith, at times has been breathtaking. I cannot help but think that there is a degree of psychological projection here, anger being a very common if not universal trait

    I note also, that it is as I have learned to let my own anger go that I have been able by grace alone to receive more of the truth of the ontological position, a doctrine which is so utterly beautiful as to betoken Truth, for it is at once both very Good and Very beautiful.

    God bless you

  6. Gregory Avatar

    Very well said, father. I would point out one more thing in regard to your explanation of the forensic/juridical models. Specifically, their adherents do say that “Man is not punished but forgiven.” However, it seems to me that the word “forgiven” is incoherent in those theories of atonement. In such models, God accepts payment for a debt from someone other than the one owing it. Thus, He marks the account as paid in full. However, if anyone accepts payment for a debt from any source, he cannot also claim to have forgiven the debt. Thus, these models deny that God forgives. Indeed, they normally claim that God is not capable of forgiveness–that He is bound somehow to demand payment in full, no matter what He’d like to do.

  7. Karen Avatar

    Perry, your comment is interesting to me. Can you elaborate on the distinction or difference between “legal” (as discussed in Scripture and applied to aspects of our salvation in Christ) and “forensic” as you’re using it here?

  8. Rhonda Avatar


    Good question. FWIW, I found the following definitions:


    1.Of, based on, or concerned with the law: “the American legal system”.
    2.Appointed or required by the law: “a legal requirement”.

    Synonyms: lawful – legitimate – juridical – rightful – licit


    Of, relating to, or denoting the application of scientific methods and techniques to the investigation of crime: “forensic evidence”.

    Noun: Scientific tests or techniques used in connection with the detection of crime.

    Synonyms: judicial-judiciary-juridical-legal-justiciary

    So, it seems that legal pertains to law while forensic pertains to the investigation of the breaking of the law. Not sure just where this takes us, if anywhere, though.

  9. Dino Avatar

    I found this to be an outstanding, finely presented exposition of our Faith in the English language Father. Thank you!

  10. […] and meaning of words over the centuries. Fr Stephen Freeman has a lucid and relatively simple post here that helps explain the heart of the contemporary debate without getting hung up on some of the […]

  11. Lina Avatar

    Maybe it all depends upon how one translates the word ‘for’.
    I know in Spanish our word ‘for’, is translated two different ways. Por and Para for example.

    1. para = purpose, destination: This is for you. Alcohol is bad for your liver.

    2. por: with the idea of exchange or equivalence. Thank you for the present. cause-, purpose- I did it for you.

    So what does ‘for’ mean in this sentence? I died because of you, I died in place of you. ?

  12. David Avatar

    Blessings to you Father Stephen,

    I am an avid reader of yours. Being a roman catholic, this site makes me think more – nay! live more- and I am pleased to be able to read your pieces.

    This one in particular is the most beautiful thing I’ve read on Christ death and glofication within God. Thank you !


  13. Abraham Avatar

    Dear Fr. Stephen,

    Thank you for this wonderful article. I am a recent convert to Orthodoxy from evangelical Protestantism, bu I have to confess that I don’t understand the Orthodox doctrine of salvation. Could you recommend books or articles that explore this topic in greater detail? I’ve read the basic catechetical books–Carlton’s “Salvation,” Gallatin’s “Thirsting for God,” St. Athanasius’s “On the Incarnation”–but I’m looking for more. How did Christ destroy death? I find that concept puzzling. Also, could you recommend works on the Orthodox understanding of the relationship between the physical and the spiritual?

    Thank you for your help.

  14. Nikolai Harris Avatar

    This has got to be the finest exposition I’ve ever read on this vitally important topic. In fact, with all due respect to Pomazansky’s ‘Orthodox Dogmatic Theology,’ this is much clearer and beautifully stated. Thank you!

  15. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Over at they have a collection of quotes from eastern fathers that seems to take issue with this thesis, Father. Even use the same picture. I’m not versed enough to discern the truth of the matter though I lean toward the belief that this is an antinomy rather than and argument. A deep mystery that is impenetrable for we poor mortals that all too easily leads to doubtful disputation.

  16. Karen Avatar


    Regarding “justification” in St. Paul’s writing. I’m guessing that the Jewish law would not consider someone “justified” or declared righteous, apart from their, in fact, having become righteous under the terms of that Law, i.e., through upholding the terms of the Law, and through repentance, restitution, and sacrifice, etc., in those instances where they failed to uphold it.

    While St. Paul notes that Abraham was justified by his faith and not by the works of the Law, in light of what he explains in Galatians 3:16-19 and Romans 3:19-20 (i.e., that the purpose of the Law is to reveal sin and point us to Christ, but it is without the power to transform us so that we might obey it), he is affirming the NT truth that what makes us in reality to become righteous (to be transfigured to be in conformity with the Law, not just in its external expression, but also in its inner meaning, i.e, to be conformed to the likeness of Christ) is faith of the kind Abraham had (which in St. James’ epistle we note, by definition, also had works of faith). A living faith like Abraham’s brings us into union with Christ by whom we are empowered (progressively) to fulfill the Law. That is, in union with Christ (which is by trust in His Person, a dynamic and growing process) we are progressively made righteous, or “justified” in St. Paul’s sense.

    I think it is also noteworthy to remember that it is actually against the Old Testament Law to punish the innocent in place of the guilty. Perhaps someone else can provide the OT references for that.

  17. Mary Lanser Avatar

    Perry: Excellent point. Which is why one must always turn to the spiritual masters of the age to really come to grasp the teaching.

  18. Lasseter Avatar

    Perry Robinson:

    Legal doesn’t necessarily entail forensic.

    This comment is odd to me. It’s like saying “medicinal doesn’t necessarily entail clinical” or “penal doesn’t necessarily entail punitive.” The words, legal and forensic aren’t perfect synonyms (they both have to do with jurisprudence, but they apply and are used in somewhat different ways), but they’re close enough, especially in discussions about Atonement. When we say that a theory of atonement is “forensic,” we certainly don’t mean to use the rhetorical connotation of the word: we’re talking about the judicial, which is to say legal, meaning. Of course every Orthodox Christian on the Internet knows about penal substitutionary atonement theory and its forensic shortcomings, but it’s not the first example of a forensic examination or treatment of religion in history, and forensics certainly wasn’t born in the Middle Ages. The Pharisees had their own forensics, for instance. The discourse in the Old Testament had its own forensics.

    I would respond to Burckhardtfan‘s comment about the word justification by pointing out that the New Testament turns the significance of terminology like that into something new, revealing the shortcomings of a life led by the limited old concepts. The Apostle Paul uses the same word as one uses to describe a legal accomplishment to describe an accomplishment that transcends law, because, as he explicitly states repeatedly, the law is not sufficient to save us. If the justification we seek is eternal, we cannot be “justified” by law. Law is an earthly thing. A thing exercised by men and limited thus. The righteousness we long for is that of the Kingdom of Heaven, and that “justification” requires something beyond the earthly law. His use of the word should not be taken to be so limiting as to constrain it to the very concept his words so clearly were breaking free of.

  19. fatherstephen Avatar

    I think it is one of the great errors of the Reformation that “justification” is read in such a legal manner. “Dikaios” indeed means “just,” (dike), but the Greek underpinnings of dike and the Latin underpinnings of justus are simply worlds apart. It’s the later, Latin, justus, that has such a forensic (which I only use to avoid the word “legalistic” since the latter word implies a kind of attitude rather than just meaning the whole legal world) meaning.

    I’m no expert in the writings of NT Wright, but I understand that he has done much to reflect on the wrong readings of “righteous” that have dogged Protestant theology. Most people are woefully ignorant of ancient history – sometimes using a dictionary, thesaurus or a concordance to look up meanings. To understand “dike” or “dikaiosune” or the various Greek words surrounding this – it is necessary to know Greek history and culture and how the word was used, what associations it had – struggling to get something of a “feel” for its meaning. That has to be combined with a genuine knowledge of Jewish thought, particularly Hellenistic Jewish thought, to see what the word might have meant to St. Paul. What we can most easily assume, is that St. Paul’s meaning is not that of “justus,” in that he shows no particularly bent towards the world of Roman thought.

    I cringe listening to people explain what the OT means, using the lens of modern Protestant thought on what Jews believe. The modern Protestant (or modern Christian for that manner) account of what Jews believe is almost utter clap-trap. I’ve watched modern Christians trying to tell modern Jews what Jews believe, when they are simply clueless. There is a make-believe idea of Judaism, invented historically by Protestant polemic (cf. A.v. Harnack, et al), which never existed. Essentially, it sees ancient Jews as ancient Protestants – iconoclastic – deeply forensic, etc. It postulated a “Jewish-Christianity” that was essential Protestant that was corrupted by pagan influence producing Orthodox-Catholic Christianity. It’s a false history. Most Protestants aren’t aware of the full account of this fabrication, but still believe parts of it. One of the last holdouts is the fabrication of the forensic account of justification that has such a firm hold in Reform thought (and some few other corners) that it is very hard to deal with. It so permeates certain aspects of Christian thought that people read it into the Scriptures when it’s not there. We see “justification” and think, “It must be forensic – what else could it possibly mean?” Because the imagination has been damaged by a cultural reading that is simply wrong.

    A great example of this is to read the forensic model back into the OT sacrificial system when it’s not there at all. The OT sacrifice system is much closer to Pagan sacrifice systems. In those systems, the gods actually were “fed” by the burning of the sacrifice and liked what they smelled and did favors as a result. It was like a bribe. There are hints of this in the OT. God “smells” the sacrifice of Noah and is pleased. That’s what Genesis says. It’s a very primitive part of Genesis. Clearly, we read it differently now and we should, but to read it forensically is wrong in every possible way.

    The entire notion of sin in the OT has more to do with stain and uncleanness which has nothing forensic about it at all. It’s not a category we have any common ground with – or very little. Orthodoxy has some occasional hints of this in the canons relating to certain things being forbidden in the altar. But “ritually unclean” has nothing to do with forensic things.

    I could write at greater length on this – and will perhaps fashion a future article on it – but those who make a case for a forensic reading need to dig further – much further.

  20. Dino Avatar

    I think that the term “δικαιοσύνην θεοῦ” as found in Romans 3:5; James 1:20; especially Romans 10:3 seems to have been understood in a great variety of ways, but it is a key term which, first and foremost, seems to signify God’s virtue, – an aspect of His mode of existence- of which Man can participate. Even Galatians 2:16 (which you mentioned earlier) has a very similar meaning open to a Greek speaker, ie: that one’s Faith and Trust in Christ has the power to impart God’s mode of existence as (that all encompassing virtue of) “righteousness” (a very Hellenistic term) to Man.

  21. Jeremy Avatar

    My pea-sized brain is a bit overwhelmed. This was a very good post and several of the comments have been helpful as well.

    All I have ever heard growing up is the legal interpretation of Christ’s death on the cross. I began having problems with it about a year ago when, as Gregory pointed out above, I realized that if the debt was paid by Jesus then there is no such thing as forgiveness.

    I still don’t fully understand the Orthodox perspective, I just know that the little bits I have grasped have been much more beautiful.

  22. Brian Avatar

    Although word studies may have their place, I have always found the hymnography of the Church to be far and away the best interpreter of Scripture.

    We are hard-pressed to find many hymns or prayers in Orthodox liturgy that speak of “payment” for sin. What we do find repeatedly and in all manner of poetic language is how Christ willingly chose death for our sakes and how He destroyed death by descending into it Himself, thereby uniting even death itself to the Godhead, having assumed it along with all human nature (and all creation) into God who is life. “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?”

    Someone will say, “But there are SOME Orthodox hymns that speak of payment for sin…and what about all the Scriptures that talk about the justice of God?” There are indeed hymns and Scriptures that employ the imagery of ‘payment’ and ‘justice.’ However, many today hear these words through the prism of juridical concepts while Orthodox Christians have always understood such words in a different light, and the hymnography of the Church bears this out when one listens and participates attentively. Concepts of ‘payment’ are understood in terms of the priceless value of the life of Jesus. His sacrifice on our behalf was infinitely costly, but we do not infer from this that anyone (i.e., God or the devil) was thereby ‘paid.’ In much the same way, a soldier who dies in battle can rightly be said to have sacrificed his life and “paid the cost of our freedom,” but we do not infer from this that such a payment was made to anyone. Likewise, the concept of justice in the Christian East (and throughout the Bible in general) has reference to righteousness, love, goodness, mercy, and compassion. When God is said to be ‘just’ in giving His Son over to death for our sakes, we understand this to mean that He conquered death and the devil and redeemed us out of His goodness, mercy, love, and compassion. It is the sort of justice manifested in the attitude of the Betrothed when he first discovered that Mary was with child, “…and her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.” Biblical justice (even in the Old Testament) is not a juridical concept that exacts retribution or demands payment to ‘balance the scales.’ Moreover, it is the only sort of justice that is thoroughly consistent with God’s unwavering love for mankind reflected in both the life of Christ and His commandments including, “Be ye therefore merciful as your Father in Heaven is merciful.” This thoroughly Biblical, Christian concept of justice sheds an entirely different light on the justice of God in the Atonement than that which is understood by many moderns, and it causes the following passages to take on an altogether different connotation:

    “But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels for the suffering of death, crowned with glory and honour; that He by the grace of God should taste death for every man. For it BECAME Him (it was befitting of His goodness, compassion, mercy, and divine humility) for whom are all things, and by whom are all things, in bringing many sons unto glory, to make the Captain of their salvation perfect through sufferings.”


    “But now the righteousness of God APART from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, TO DEMONSTRATE HIS RIGHTEOUSNESS, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, to demonstrate at present time His righteousness, THAT HE MIGHT BE JUST and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”

  23. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    Fr. Stephen,

    An excellent article. It is so often said that Jesus died for our sins – but so seldom is there any enlightening explanation of what this means. Thank you for offering one of the best I have read.

    The concept of union instead of replacement seems vital to making any sense of Christianity – or human life, for that matter. I also sense that there are significant implications for understanding suffering in your explanation. I would greatly appreciate your expounding on this if you agree.

    As a RC, I am in the midst of the Easter season now and have been especially struck by the transformative power of the Resurrection. Though I have certainly heard before the accounts of Peter healing the man at the Beautiful Gate and raising the disciple Tabitha from the dead, I am struck so much now that Peter is indeed living the New Life. The old Peter, living the old life, could not have acted in this manner. Only in union with the risen Christ could this have been possible. It is no longer Peter who lives, but Christ living in Peter (to paraphrase Galatians).

  24. Burckhardtfan Avatar


    This brief article from NT Wright might be useful to you:

    What is very interesting is that the law-court was a METAPHOR in Paul’s theology. Paul uses the image of the law-court to explain a more pressing concern of the early church: who is and who is not the People of God? It has nothing to do with correcting the ‘legal quandary’ of humanity, and is certainly not about ‘paying a debt’ to the Father. Christians will be judged ‘righteous’ on the Last Day, not because they have ‘put on’ Christ’s righteousness or had their debt of sin paid, but because by being in Christ they are counted among God’s people (cf. Galatians 3:24-29), who has dealt with sin and the power of death. As NT Wright so aptly puts it:

    “Justification is part of Paul’s picture of the family God promised in his covenant with Abraham. God’s judicial announcement on the last day in favor of certain people is also the declaration that they are part of the family promised to Abraham (Romans 4; see also Galatians 3). This is why LAW-COURT IMAGERY IS APPROPRIATE: When God entered into a covenant with Abraham, the purpose was, and remains, to put the whole world to rights, to deal with sin and death” (emphasis mine).

    The law-court is not an actual court in heaven, but a symbol of our inclusion (or exclusion) from God. Such inclusion rests solely on whether we are in Christ or not. “And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:29).

    P.S. This is why I really get annoyed with Dispensationalists. Their misreadings extend to the Gospel itself, and even to distorting passages such as Galatians 3:29 to argue for the existence of a ‘spiritual Israel’ (Christians) and a ‘physical Israel’ (Jews). Dispensationalists will argue that verse like Galatians 3:29 refer to the ‘spiritual seed’ of Abraham, and that the physical seed (Jews) are entitled to Palestine forever. If that’s so, then we have two ‘chosen people’, which destroys the Gospel’s mission to make one people in Christ and pull down the dividing wall between Jew and Gentile (Ephesians 2:14). It also means certain people will get special privileges from God, not because they are in Christ but because of their ethnicity. This is a blatant contradiction of the Gospel, and a violation of God’s character. To misunderstand the people of God is to misunderstand the Gospel.

  25. Rhonda Avatar

    Fr. Stephen;

    I cringe listening to people explain what the OT means, using the lens of modern Protestant thought on what Jews believe. The modern Protestant (or modern Christian for that manner) account of what Jews believe is almost utter clap-trap. I’ve watched modern Christians trying to tell modern Jews what Jews believe, when they are simply clueless. There is a make-believe idea of Judaism, invented historically by Protestant polemic, which never existed. Essentially, it sees ancient Jews as ancient Protestants – iconoclastic – deeply forensic, etc.

    20+ years ago I had a 2-year hiatus as a Jewish proselyte (full conversion takes 3 years) as I was disgusted with what I had seen & experienced in Protestantism & was unimpressed with what I had seen in RC (I had never heard of EO at that time). I too took many of my Protestant mis-perceptions of Judaism with me. Imagine my surprise when the Rabbi teaching me refuted the penal/juridicial attitude that I had been taught. I asked him what then was the purpose of the Mosaid Law & its OT sacrificial system. His answer was to teach us that sin against others, whether God or creation, was damaging & costly. Also the system was to teach us how to live together in a community & to learn love each other by first loving God as well.

    I “lost” many of my Protestant notions of Judaism over those 2 years, & thankfully so. I also learned more about what it meant to be a Christian that in all of my previous years. I never once was treated harshly or with disdain because I was not Jewish, nor did I see anyone else so treated, unlike my Protestant upbringing. The women quickly took me in tow & began teaching me to be “a good Jewish wife” as I would be responsible for the “synagogue of the home”, even attempting to arrange marriage for me to “a good Jewish boy.” When I told that Rabbi after 2 years that I was not going to convert & thanked him for his tutelage, he sent me away with a heart-felt blessing that I had never experienced from a clergy member before; nor did I ever receive such a beautiful blessing again until I met the priest who received me.

    I also learned to love chant & liturgical worship conducted within & by a community of faithful. All of these lessons paved the way for my eventual reception into the Orthodox Church as I experienced first-hand the “continuation” from Judaism to EO that I had never experienced within the RCC or Protestantism. This I found to be ironic as many Protestant groups actually try to recover the original Jewish-Christian faith from the early Church.

    As a side note: One of the most interesting people I met during that time was a Jewish atheist who was very observant to attend the synagogue services & don the tallit (prayer shawl) & tefillin (leather boxes containing Scriptures). I had to ask him why he worshiped God when he did not believe God exists. His answer, “I’m still part of the Jewish community so I worship within it. When it comes to God, well, let’s just say I am the first to admit that my knowledge is not absolute & I might be wrong. Therefore, I worship God just in case I am!”

  26. fatherstephen Avatar

    As noted, I’ve not spent much time with Wright – but know in general that he offers revisions of the typical treatment of St. Paul. This is indeed helpful. I think it’s often the case that readers are literal when they should be metaphorical and metaphorical when they should be literal.

  27. fatherstephen Avatar

    There was the case of an atheist Jew in Poland after WWII who traveled miles each week to attend Synagogue services because the neighboring town only had 9 men. 10 are required for the quorum (minyan) for prayer. I thought this man more righteous than many believers.

  28. Rhonda Avatar

    Ah…yes, the minyan. When I learned of this is Judaism I immediately thought of Christ’s words of where 2 or 3 are gathered. While I understood the OT references for a minimum of 10, it also made more poignant the transcending of the Law by Christ in the NT, thus through my rudimentary experiences in Judaism I gained a much deeper understanding of Christ & true Christianity.

  29. Matthew Kennel Avatar
    Matthew Kennel


    I love the blog! I might offer one contribution on the Atonement from Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. He notes that the thing that transforms the Cross from being merely a Roman execution to being a sacrifice is Christ’s self-offering in the Eucharist. And thus, the revelation of the Atonement comes not after the Resurrection, but on the night of the Last Supper. This means, therefore, that the Atonement is intrinsically linked with the Liturgy and with the gifts of the Eucharist and of the Priesthood. Small wonder that many Protestants have had distorted readings of the Atonement when they have also scrapped the Eucharistic Sacrifice, the Real Presence, the Priesthood, and Apostolic Succession. It is only in the glory of the Liturgy, in which we participate in the New Exodus, God’s great act of deliverance, that we can truly understand the Atonement.

  30. PJ Avatar


    “The OT sacrifice system is much closer to Pagan sacrifice systems. In those systems, the gods actually were “fed” by the burning of the sacrifice and liked what they smelled and did favors as a result. It was like a bribe. There are hints of this in the OT. God “smells” the sacrifice of Noah and is pleased.”

    Paul also calls Jesus a “pleasing scent,” and his religious imagination was anything but pagan. It is made clear throughout the Old Testament that God does not need sacrifices, and that they are repugnant unless accompanied by a clean heart. For the Jew, sacrifice is an act of thanksgiving for the love and providence of the Lord, not the “feeding” of some malleable deity.

  31. James Avatar

    This is a beautiful summary of soteriology. It makes me think of the passage from St. Cyril of Alexandria in yesterday’s Office of Readings (Roman Rite): “So Christ gave his own body for the life of all, and makes it the channel through which life flows once more into us… When the life-giving Word of God dwelt in human flesh, he changed it into that good thing which is distinctively his, namely, life; and by being wholly united to the flesh in a way beyond our comprehension, he gave it the life-giving power which he has by his very nature.”

  32. Mary Lanser Avatar

    As a child raised in Catholic traditions, one of the first lessons that I learned was that God’s justice was the good order of creation [justice in it’s connotation of order rather than law] and that justification was the restoration of that good order.

    I have been vilified for that understanding and it has been called ideology, but for me, it is an article of faith.


  33. fatherstephen Avatar

    I agree. My citing of the “pagan” sacrifice is simply to note that sacrifice is by not necessarily understood as a payment – as some would hold when they read a judicial concept back into almost everything. Clearly God does not need sacrifices – this is stated repeatedly by the prophets – making it clear that He is not like the Pagan deities (and it had to be repeatedly pointed out because the Jews kept forgetting).

    My point is that the juridical model has much less support than many assume. I don’t say that there is no such imagery – only that it’s not dominant – and is often seen where it doesn’t exist. The ontological imagery – regardless of how we speak about the understanding of union, participation, sharing, exchange, coinherence, etc. is indeed dominant in the NT – virtually ubiquitous.

  34. Mary Lanser Avatar

    In the case of both a justice-analogy and an ontological perspective, there needs to be explanations of those images and perspectives. It seems to me that the explanations are as important as the analog or the perspective. They are not, either one, self-explanatory. Were that the case, we’d hardly need either the Gospels or Tradition.

    I had mentioned the fact that in Catholic tradition “justice” is the language of good order. In addition to Christ’s restoration of that good order, or redemption of that order, so too we are called to join him on that journey…as we heard in today’s gospel in anticipation of the final journey to Jerusalem, and in the journey to Jerusalem undertaken by St. Mary of Egypt. We are called to participate in that divine act, or series of divine acts.

    That journey began with the eucharistic act of the Last Supper, in itself, a giving of self, or a mystical sacrifice. One might even argue that the atonement happened at that supper, well in advance of the cross, but that the journey carries through the passion, cross and harrowing of hell and resurrection so that we may see how to accompany Him and participate with him in the restoration of the good order of creation…well…just a few thoughts.

    But the sacrifice that He asks of us is contrition and docility. Personally it would be easier to offer the fatted calf.


  35. John Avatar

    Hi Stephen. Why couldn’t both models be correct?

  36. fatherstephen Avatar

    My hesitancy is that they have such radically different understandings of God (in some versions) and of the nature of the relationship between God and man, particularly regarding salvation. I would only want to say both are correct if both are necessary (demanded by Scripture, etc.). I don’t think that is the case.

    I think that the model in which there is a true union, participation, sharing, coinherence, etc., that is the character of salvation, is, in fact, demanded by Scripture – both in St. Paul and St. John. But is the forensic model demanded at all?

  37. fatherstephen Avatar

    John, further thoughts…
    Additional problems with the forensic model. It creates a need for categories – justification being one thing – sanctification another – etc. It makes asceticism (prayer, fasting, etc.) belong somehow to something other than salvation. Salvation becomes its own category.
    In a sense, it creates a need for more than one explanation for the Christian life. If I’m just being rational (:)), then I would say it’s a lousy explanation, theory, etc., because it lacks simplicity and elegance. It creates needless complication.

    On the ground, in our Christian lives, it tends to create minimalist Christians. Having been “justified” in a forensic manner, why bother with anything else? Really? And so, asceticism, which is clearly an integral and not an optional part of the Christian life, becomes optional, and then pretty much forgotten by the forensically formed traditions. It fosters a truncated Christianity – and for that reason alone – would have to be judged inadequate and harmful.

    The ontological/union (whatever we call it) model, offers a completely integrated view of the Christian life in which “justification” and “sanctification” and different words for aspects of the same thing. Everything is about union with God, thus reconciliation and participation, communion, etc. Prayer and ascetic practice are not separate, but integral parts of that one life.

    It seems to me that life is either one thing, or it is badly described.

    Of course, a fragmented theology probably sells more books and creates more volumes in a systematic theology. 🙂

  38. Perry Robinson Avatar


    There are many theories or models of law throughout human history. Not everyone understands what law is, how it works and such in the same way. Just because the biblical language is the language of law doesn’t mean it is the language of a 16th century theory of law. It is quite possible to have a theory of law then that undergirds a reading of say Romans 4 where the basis or ground of Abraham’s justification is the virtue of faith within him rather than being purely forensic and unconnected with the state of his soul as the Reformers thought.

    By forensic, I mean in the Protestant sense of being extrinsic and non-constituative of a thing. It is a mere label, a term to group an item with others irrespective of the nature of the item.

  39. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    John – if I may…

    Part of the reason the debt/forensic model seems problematic to me is because it implies that God is angry and needs to be appeased. This makes God sound more like us and less like God.

    If God’s love for us is indeed unconditional, than He doesn’t require a “payment” (especially a bloody one) in order to accept us back into His love.

    On the other hand, it is completely consistent with unconditional love that God would come and become one with us in our (self-imposed) suffering, suffer Himself and destroy our death, enabling us to find again the union with Him for which we were created.

  40. Mary Lanser Avatar

    In the case of both a justice-analogy and an ontological perspective, there needs to be explanations of those images and perspectives. It seems to me that the explanations are as important as the analog or the perspective. They are not, either one, self-explanatory. Were that the case, we’d hardly need either the Gospels or Tradition.

    I had mentioned the fact that in Catholic tradition “justice” is the language of good order. In addition to Christ’s restoration of that good order, or redemption of that order, so too we are called to join him on that journey…as we heard in today’s gospel in anticipation of the final journey to Jerusalem, and in the journey to Jerusalem undertaken by St. Mary of Egypt. We are called to participate in that divine act, or series of divine acts.

    That journey began with the eucharistic act of the Last Supper, in itself, a giving of self, or a mystical sacrifice. One might even argue that the atonement happened at that supper, well in advance of the cross, but that the journey carries through the passion, cross and harrowing of hell and resurrection so that we may see how to accompany Him and participate with him in the restoration of the good order of creation…well…just a few thoughts.

    But the sacrifice that He asks of us is contrition and docility. Personally it would be easier to offer the fatted calf.


  41. Karen Avatar

    Thanks, Perry. Seems like what you are describing in that last paragraph is also a form of nominalism.

    Thanks, Rhonda. I looked up the definitions, too, which didn’t help me, which is why I asked Perry about it. I really appreciated your comment describing your exploration of becoming Jewish, btw! Very enlightening, I think.

  42. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman


    If nothing eles, Jesus words that the law is to be written on our hearts and fulfilled only in love would seem to eliminate any forensic model of justification and salvation would it not?

    He became one with us not to appease or deflect anger but simply and purely as a kenotic act of love that is incomprehensible to us so we place it in a category all our own that we can control and comprehend.

    If it is a matter of law, we don’t have to submit to love or forgive or consider ourselves as “greatest of sinners” or any of that. Of course, as a prior commentor noted, it also means that we cannot be forgiven for as we demand justice, so we shall also suffer justice. “…and in the course of justice, none of us should see salvation”.

    It also means that we become playthings of the evil one when evil things happen, like the Boston bombing or Newtown.

    If Shakespeare can recognize the simple reality and express it so succinctly and beautifully (Merchant of Venice, Act IV, scene 1), why is it so difficult for me?

    The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
    It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
    Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
    It blesseth him that gives and him that takes: ‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes The throned monarch better than his crown; His sceptre shows the force of temporal power, The attribute to awe and majesty, Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings; But mercy is above this sceptred sway; It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
    It is an attribute to God himself; And earthly power doth then show likest God’s When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew, Though justice be thy plea, consider this, That, in the course of justice, none of us Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy; And that same prayer doth teach us all to render The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much To mitigate the justice of thy plea; Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice Must needs give sentence ‘gainst the merchant there.

  43. Oruaseht Avatar

    Minimalistic Christianity is indeed the (unintended) product of the Reformation’s Sola Doctrines & ensuing forensic justification. I see it everyday.

  44. Alan Avatar

    “On the ground, in our Christian lives, it tends to create minimalist Christians. Having been “justified” in a forensic manner, why bother with anything else? Really? And so, asceticism, which is clearly an integral and not an optional part of the Christian life, becomes optional, and then pretty much forgotten by the forensically formed traditions. It fosters a truncated Christianity – and for that reason alone – would have to be judged inadequate and harmful.”

    Father, thanks for this great post. I particularly loved your paragraph that I included above. This is perhaps THE defining issue that is driving me towards the Orthodox faith. In my former Evangelical world, I grew so weary of the attitude I saw in so many of “well, I’m saved. I’ve been justified. So now nothing else matters. I’ll just live as I please.”

    Any attempt at anything even resembling asceticism, would be met with cries of “legalist!! stop trying to earn your salvation!” Sigh.

  45. Perry Robinson Avatar


    Yes, it is a form of Nominalism which is grounded in a form of Voluntarism. Things have the value they do and are classed they way they are because of the willing of some agent. This was an essential philosophical precursor to Reformation distinctives and without it, those distinctives could not have come about. This is why the Reformation is a product of Late Medieval Catholic Scholasticism. Louis Boyer’s work, The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism, is helpful in seeing this.

    But if I might suggest there is a more pressing problem with the penal model of the atonement. If the penalty for sin is death and this entails a loss of communion with God, then either it is the case that the Son falls out of the Trinity or there is another subject in Christ to whom the wrath and penalty are applied, leaving us with a dual subject Christology. If your theory of the atonement leaves you with either Arianism or Nestorianism, that’s a good reason for dumping it.

  46. Karen Avatar

    Thanks again, Perry. Penal Substitution certainly appears to create a duality in the Godhead. I hadn’t thought about the implications for Christology, but what you say makes sense.

    Alan, I hear you. This is the issue that drove me to Orthodoxy as well.

  47. Fr Aidan Kimel Avatar

    I have found St Athanasius’s tract “On the Incarnation” very helpful on this question of the atonement. Although Athanasius uses forensic language (ransom, debt, etc.) in a limited way, it is subordinated to St Athanasius principal concern: the destruction of death. At no point does one get a sense that God needs to be placated or appeased or that the death of God is somehow necessary to reconcile God to man. It’s all about delivering humanity from the bondage of death and destruction. See, e.g., my article on St Athanasius and substitutionary atonement:

  48. Lina Avatar

    How does Leviticus 17:11 fit in? “For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement for the soul.”

    Having discovered this verse years ago, I began to realize how costly sin is.

  49. Alan Avatar

    In His resurrection (which is a necessary aspect of this model – unlike the others), our ontological corruption is destroyed or rather “put to death” and we receive new life – the eternal life of the resurrection (which is a quality and not merely longevity).

    Fr. Stephen,

    I love your quote above. Particularly your point, than in the non-forensic model, the Resurrection is necessary. I think this point cannot be overstated. In the forensic model, the Resurrection means nothing. The significant event was the death of Christ. That’s the point at which the transaction was complete. Not trying to be snarky here, but seriously, I wonder why those who believe in this theory even celebrate the resurrection?

  50. CoffeeZombie Avatar


    I am no theologian or anything, but my first response to your question is that this verse is precisely intended to provoke such a thought as: “Having discovered this verse years ago, I began to realize how costly sin is.”

    How costly is sin? It brings death. It cuts us off from the source of Life, and thus plunges us into bondage to death and corruption. For the Israelites, this fact was grotesquely illustrated in the blood sacrifice.

    In that sense, it reminds me of a story I once heard about a woman who confessed to spreading rumors and lies. Her priest told her to cut up some paper into as many pieces as she could, climb to the highest point she could in the city, and scatter the paper into the wind. After she had done so, she reported back to the priest, who said, “No go gather them all back up again.” “But that’s impossible!” she replied. “Likewise, it is impossible to gather back up the lies and slander one spreads.”

    Then, there is a deeper level here: a foreshadowing of Christ. “…for it is the blood [of Christ] that makes atonement for the soul.” That is, in the shedding of Christ’s blood, he “trampl[es] down death by death, and upon those in the tomb bestow[s] life.”

  51. Lina Avatar

    I was just cleaning out a closet that still had books from my father’s library and came across the following book:

    The Present State of the GREEK CHURCH in Russia



    with a Preliminary Memoir on the Ecclesiastical Establishment in Russia;

    and an Appendix, containing an account of the Origin and Different Sects of Russian Dissenters.

    Br. Robert Pinkerton

    Translated from the Slavonian

    Published in New York 1815 Collins & Co no. 189

    anybody know anything about it?

  52. Mary Lanser Avatar

    I had noted earlier that I thought it is interesting to contemplate that the atonement occurs at the Last Supper, actually and in reality, and that the rest of the actions of the passion, death, resurrection, and ascension then refrain the sacred eucharistic act that precedes them.

    Then strangely enough this morning I ran across these poetry fragments from St.Ephrem the Syrian:

    Blessed are you, O Upper Room, so small
    in comparison to the entirety of creation,
    yet what took place in you
    now fills all creation__which is even too small for it.
    Blessed is your abode, for in it was broken
    that Bread which issues from the Blessed Wheat Sheaf,
    and in you was trodden out
    the Cluster of Grapes that came from Mary
    to become the Cup of Salvation.

    Bless are you, O Upper Room,
    no man has ever seen
    nor ever shall see what you beheld:
    Our Lord became at onc
    True Altar, Priest, Bread, and Cup of Salvation.
    In His own person He could fulfill all these roles,
    none other was capable of this:
    Whole Offering and Lamb, Sacrifice and Sacrificer,
    Priest and the One destined to be consumed.


    It was the very same Christ in the Upper Room
    who gave and was distributed to all.
    Even though the people slew Him,
    He had previously slain Himself with His own hand.

    It was one slain by His own hands
    that the crazed ones crucified on Golgotha,
    had He not slain Himself in symbol,
    they would not have slain him in actual fact.

    Sebastian Brock, trans. p. 102, The Luminous Eye

  53. Karen Avatar

    Following up on question about the distinction between “legal” and “forensic” according to Perry, I found the following wonderful, more expansive explanation in an old thread on this blog:

    Thank you, MG, whoever you are!

  54. Victor Avatar


    You said regarding the forensic model: “I wonder why those who believe in this theory even celebrate the resurrection?”

    I expect that part of it is that it is considered a proof that the transaction was successful, like a receipt declaring “paid in full”. They also celebrate it as proof that they themselves can be resurrected. Generally their ideas about the resurrected state itself are somewhat confused as well. I recall one person explaining it all as pretty much like our current existence but with super powers for all and no end to it.

    If one’s idea about the cross are distorted, it is impossible to have clear ideas about the resurrection. They celebrate both, but not in ways we would expect or understand.


  55. Elizabeth Avatar

    Father, thank you! This is *extremely* helpful. I’ve heard all of my Orthodox life about this distinction, but it’s never been so clear to me why the distinction is so important. Thank you for this timely help in entering more deeply into this Mystery.

    To those discussing the how and why of the efficacy of Jewish sacrifices: one way of understanding it (and, like all true Mysteries, there is more than one way to look at it) is to see them as a prefiguration of Christ’s death. St. John Chrystostom’s incredibly powerful homily for Holy Friday says:
    “If we wish to understand the power of Christ’s blood, we should go back to the ancient account of its prefiguration in Egypt. Sacrifice a lamb without blemish, commanded Moses, and sprinkle its blood on your doors. If we were to ask him what he meant, and how the blood of an irrational beast could possibly save men endowed with reason, his answer would be that the saving power lies not in the blood itself, but in the fact that it is a sign of the Lord’s blood. In those days, when the destroying angel saw the blood on the doors he did not dare to enter, so how much less will the devil approach now when he sees, not that figurative blood on the doors, but the true blood on the lips of believers, the doors of the temple of Christ.”

    A blessed Holy Week to all!

  56. Elizabeth Avatar

    I meant to add above, that St. John’s explanation shows that it is not that Christ is a bigger, better Jewish sacrifice, but that all of the sacrifices in the OT draw their power from the death and resurrection of God himself, which we can and must understand in the way that Fr. Stephen has described.

  57. […] Stephen Freeman of the Orthodox Church in America recently posted a great article on the atonement which should be read by […]

  58. […] [For a fascinating Eastern perspective on this – Fr Stephen Freeman has written once more a fine blo… […]

  59. Russell Almon Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    Hey, I’m new here but wanted to drop in with a comment. I don’t have time for a longer comment, but just quickly – I’m from a Baptist background and interestingly found my way to the wider church tradition and the Cappadocian Fathers (and other early church fathers) through the late Baptist theologian Stanley Grenz. Over recent years I have found Orthodox theology to be so rich … and refreshing. All this is a lead in to say that this vision of the atonement is just wonderful. I have been coming to something like this for quite some time (with the help of some Orthodox theologians and other ‘evangelical’ theologians like Scot McKnight and N.T. Wright). Thank you for this.

    I did have one question that perhaps you could elucidate for me. I read back through the blogs and through all the comments to see if it was mentioned and I couldn’t find it – but, in calling the post ‘Therapeutic Substitutionary Atonement’ – to what does the descriptor ‘therapeutic’ signify. Is the forensic/legal view therapeutic or your ontological/union view? And in what way do you see it as ‘therapeutic’?

    Blessings and peace to you.

  60. fatherstephen Avatar

    I was using therapeutic as a descriptor for the ontological approach – since it views salvation essentially in terms of the healing of the work of corruption (death) within us. I failed to develop that use of the word in the article. I’m also struggling with the use of the term ontological. In Atonement theory, the “Classical” (Christus Victor – in which Christ tramples down death and frees us from Hades) model was popularized by the little book of Gustav Aulen (Swedish Lutheran theologian of great stature) by the title of Christus Victor. He was correct in as far as he went, but he failed to see the overarching theme of “union.” The Christus Victor model works because of Christ’s union with us and our union with Him. And that is a better description of the Orthodox use.

    Aulen argued that Luther dominantly held to a Christus Victor model rather than the Anselmian penal substitution, even though later Protestants would come to champion the latter. I was fascinated by his contention, and in a doctoral course when I was a Duke, I did a research paper on Luther – using his hymns (reading his entire theological works was too much for a single term) as the material for analysis. He wrote several hundred of them. In only about 2 was there a hint of the Anselmian model, while the Christus Victor model was very well represented. Aulen, it seemed to me, was right.

    How about that PJ? A Protestant of whom I speak well!

    I was looking for language to describe the Orthodox dominant understanding of the atonement. I confess to coining the phrase “Therapeutic Atonement” in that effort. Might not stick or be useful. As for “ontological,” there are some writings by 20th century Orthodox theologians (mostly of the “Paris” school), that mentioned “rediscovering” the ontological approach of the Fathers in almost everything, in contrast to the forensic approach (moralistic/legal/psychological) that they had been subjected to in the scholastically dominated seminaries of the Russian 19th century. It was like a breath of fresh air to them. It was the same to me.

  61. Fr Aidan Kimel Avatar

    “Therapeutic” has some negative connotations (perhaps especially for those of us who have done “therapy,” so I did a therausus search. How about the word “sanative”? No negative connotations, as far as I can tell–on the other hand, it reminds me of “sanitation.” Not so good. 😉

  62. Lina Avatar

    Recently in my readings I have become aware of the almost constant use of the word ‘Christ’ to refer to Jesus. My understanding is that according to Luke 2: 21 His name was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before He was conceived in the womb. I grew up on Jesus.

    I understand that the word Christ comes from the Greek translation of the Hebrew word Masiah which means the anointed one, Christos being the Greek translation of that word. Therefore it would seem to me that He should be referred to as Jesus the anointed one, or Jesus the messiah, or Jesus the Christ. Christ is not his last name.

    My questions are:
    1. Why do writers seem to shy away from calling Jesus by His given name?
    2. Why is He not referred to as The Christ?
    2. When I see the word Christ, should I translate it as Jesus or should I translate it as The Messiah, or the Anointed one?

    Philippians 2:9-10. “Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knew should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth.”

  63. fatherstephen Avatar

    Orthodoxy has a great devotion to the name Jesus, using the Jesus prayer as its most constant form of prayer. In writing and speaking, it’s not unusual, however, to hear Him referred to as Christ or the Lord, etc., not out of any disregard for the Name, but out of a deep respect for the Name. It’s more cultural than theological.

  64. Dino Avatar

    I 2nd that too Father, in Greece we naturally shudder when we hear how easily some English speaking Christians of other denominations pronounce the word “Jesus”.
    It doesn’t just sound disrespectful , it sounds like they have no real relationship with the One Who’s name they through around – it certainly almost proves they never use the “Jesus prayer” properly.

  65. PJ Avatar

    I agree, Father. It’s a matter of veneration and respect. I am deeply uncomfortable with the evangelical habit of casually tossing around the Holy Name. I prefer to call our Savior the Lord Jesus Christ,” or simply “the Lord.”

  66. Victor Avatar

    While I am no fan of the casual intimacy with Christ professed by the delusional, I think there’s something more than this going on within evangelicalism. The means of expressing any kind of union with God are very limited for these folks. Most have little or no understanding of sacramental life and most have also been reared in spiritually ‘noisy’ places.

    Without stillness or sacrament they are left with words and feelings. Is it any wonder many get lost along the way? Is it any wonder that some obsess with their own emotive construction of God? This also explains somewhat their fascination with “end times” material. They are looking for the right vessel to carry their spiritual hunger and longing for God. Without the Eucharist they look for the kingdom only in the future as they are deprived of it now.

    While their wounds are unpleasant, they are the wounded, not the enemy. May God be their help and may we all be His willing servants in caring for them.

  67. fatherstephen Avatar

    That’s very insightful. Of course, the Orthodox are wounded, too, in lot’s of ways. We patients should be kind to one another in the hospital.

  68. Mary Lanser Avatar

    The one time it is easy to use just the name Jesus, alone, occurs while reading the gospels. Otherwise, I prefer to use the name with a title. It is not precisely like but something like what I was taught as a child. You never call an adult by their first name and you always use their title of Mr. or Mrs. Culture, yes, but also the attribution of the appropriate dignity and gravitas for one who creates and redeems…and with out whom…nothing!

    ….in Christ!


  69. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    It is not the common brokenness that is the problem with other Christian traditions, its the remedies. I found the proposed remedies outside the Church ineffective at best. At worst they exacerbated the disease. Heretical and non-Christian thought and belief does that.

    When one has been fed a steady diet of poison, recovery even with the proper antidote is often difficult. That is one reason I empathize with TLO.

  70. Rhonda Avatar

    I basically quit, quite unintentionally & without thinking, using “Jesus” alone after an incident at my workplace a few years ago involving a couple Protestant religious volunteers after a long weekend of missionizing & revival. This is a real story…you just can’t make this stuff up!

    Sunday evening when they (group of 45-50 Protestants) left they were very enthused & hyped-up from their efforts of saving the inmates. As I was outprocessing them one of the women asked me one of those 2 questions that all RC & EO hate, “Have you accepted Jesus as your personal Lord & Savior?” (The other being “Are you saved?”). I gave her the standard “I am a follower of Christ.” which perplexed her because she was so used to a Yes or No answer. She kept pushing for one of her desired answers as I tried to delay & sidetrack. I was busy with the large group. She also noticed that I referred to Jesus as Christ or Christ God so the question then became what did I have against Jesus? She eventually “went off” (cursing) becoming loud, demanding & very shrill. One of the nice middle-aged men heard her & approached; I assumed he was going to escort her away…but no such luck 🙁 Things went from bad to worse…

    He then went into a long speel about how Jesus was his “really cool big brother”. And furthermore, because Jesus was his really neato cool big brother, he got call God “Daddy” because him & Jesus were brothers. He then began talking about all of the fun & play that him & Jesus were going to do together, running & jumping & rolling around in the open fields of heaven after the Rapture scooped him away. When they weren’t running, skipping & playing, he & Jesus were going to crawl up into their daddy’s lap to be loved & cuddled.

    When he finally stopped emoting, I just had to ask, “You do realize that your really neato cool big brother Jesus is true God of true God, right?” Just when I thought things couldn’t get any worse, they did.

    Answer: Not any more because he (Jesus) became what I am & because he did I now have a Daddy instead of God. And because Jesus is my big brother & we have the same Daddy, God can’t burn me in hell because I’m saved now! Are you saved?

    Really, what can you say after all of that? At times discretion is definitely the better part of valor, so I chose “Have a nice evening.” 😉

  71. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Ah yes, one of the many poisons: Jesus is not God, just a powerful good friend. Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on us.

  72. Rhonda Avatar


    I like how Fr. Stephen put it a while back:

    I’ve found my way to the reservation & I’m not leaving it.

    Or something along those lines anyway…

    I too, have encountered many that want to believe in God & the Church, but they just can’t get around what they have learned & experienced outside of it. Furthermore, many that claim to be Christian think they are acting & missionizing as the apostles did, but instead their actions & message are definitely un-Christian far too frequently. I don’t know how many broken families & destroyed lives I have seen due to sincere & well-meaning yet dysfunctional believers.

  73. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Rhonda, I was dragged into the Ark. I’m not leaving either but so many have been poisoned and the antidote is so near.

  74. Victor Avatar

    It’s true that outside of Orthodoxy lived fully we find dysfunction, chaos, poison and death.

    With each passing year since my conversion (some 20+ years now) I find much of what I used to believe (or sometimes tried to believe) more and more alien.

    My personal concern is with how to deliver the antidote in a way that it can be received. I don’t mean any kind of cultural pandering or watering down the faith. In keeping with the medical analogy I guess I’m trying to discern things like correct diagnostics and bedside manners.

  75. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Victor, we share the same concerns but it is not limited to those outside but find ways to protect those inside the Church as well. Most of that lies with God, but we need to help.

  76. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Victor, just read Ephesians 4. Good direction there for us I think.

  77. Lina Avatar

    Thank you all for replying to my query. I now have a better understanding of where you all are coming from but that place is not where I have been. When I stood before my icon of Jesus, I asked Him for understanding and then went to bed. When I awoke, a famous verse from the book of Revelation was running through my head. “Behold I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come into him and dine with him and he with Me.”
    Immediately came to mind a picture of the famous painting of that verse: Jesus standing outside a fastclosed beaten up old door, handleless and vine covered. And as I ruminated on that verse, I realized how intimate Jesus wants to be with us: He wants to sit down at table and eat with us and He wants us to eat with Him. And if I take it one step further, He wants to come into my gnarled old heart and transform it with His presence. This is a one on one invitation. The question is: Will I let Him?

    There is much I could write about the times I have been with Jesus, both alone and with various people in my life: close to home and in faraway places. But most of all, I know that He is dwelling in me and day by day changing me as I cede Him the territory. With thanks to John Newton I can sing, “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now am found, was blind and now I see.” Learning to see is a beautiful ongoing process.
    “Lord Jesus, Son of God and Son of Mary, Thank you for putting up with me. Thank you for all the mercies you have bestowed upon me.”

  78. […] are good related posts off this site: An Orthodox approach: Therapeutic Substitutionary Atonement Did Jesus’ Death Satisfy God’s […]

  79. Mary Lanser Avatar

    I just saw this on Father Han’s site “Orthodoxytoday”…thought it might be of interest in light of this topic:

  80. Yannis Avatar

    Lina, are you implying that the name “Jesus” should be used rather than “Christ” because it is more intimate? But if this is the case, then all the more reason to avoid its use in public, confining it to personal prayer. The tender names I have for my wife in our private life would be cheapened if I used them to refer to her when talking to others.
    On the other extreme of the spectrum, one might say, people who believe Him to have been a mere man (or a fiction) will generally refer to Him by His given name – the epithet “Christ”, on the other hand, implies something about Him.

  81. Dino Avatar

    As Yannis seems to imply Lina, the difference is simply this:

    talking about Him to others we would use ‘Christ’, while talking to Him directly we would rather use ‘Jesus’.

  82. Mary Lanser Avatar

    …or perhaps “Lord and Master of my life…”


  83. Andrew C Avatar
    Andrew C

    Interesting. Regarding respect given to the name “Jesus”, I observe that it is almost entirely unknown as a given name among English-speaking people. (Or used to be, in the era when people were given normal names and not the weird constructions thrown around these days.*)

    It is the name above all names.

    In the Spanish-speaking world, it is not uncommonly used, of course.

    * Not to mention the 17th Century fellow Praise-God Barebone

  84. […] of satisfaction to be revolting. The Eastern Orthodox blogger Fr. Stephen Freeman has written a series of posts recently that are critical of what he calls “forensic models” of the […]

  85. Rob C. Avatar
    Rob C.

    In the Roman quote above: “For he who has died has been freed from sin. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him”, what does “we believe that we shall also live with Him” mean? It sounds like if we’ve died with Christ (through baptism), then we have attained eternal life? (apart from anything else). Or does “also live with Him” not refer to eternal life? What am I missing?

  86. […] Stephen over at Glory to God for All Things shares the best summary of atonement we’ve read online. Check it […]

  87. Kurt Avatar

    Agreeing with Kimel on “therapeutic”… How about “Healing Substitutionary Atonement”?

  88. […] For further reading, these two posts from Fr. Stephen Freeman’s “Glory To God For All Things” blog:  Are We Connected?  and  Therapeutic Substitutionary Atonement.  […]

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