The Ladder of Divine Ascent and Moral Improvement


The Fourth Sunday of Great Lent in the Orthodox Church, is dedicated to St. John Climacus, the author of the ancient work, The Ladder of Divine Ascent. It is a classic work describing “steps” within the life of the struggling ascetic. There is an icon associated with this work, picturing monastics climbing the rungs of a ladder to heaven, battling demons who are trying to pull them off. However, ladders are dangerous things to put in the hands of a modern Christian.

Modernity likes ladders. We like the idea of upward mobility, of continuing improvement, of moral progress. We speak of “career ladders” and the “ladder of success.”  It is the myth of personal power. Modernity is a cultural phenomenon created by the theology of the Reformation and the philosophy of the Enlightenment. Freed from the constraints of inherited tradition (such as the Catholic Church) and the royal state (hurrah for democracy), modernity is a story told to individuals that they can now become whatever they want. Freedom and personal industry are the twin rails supporting the rungs of progress. As a philosophy, this idea and its associated notions are the bedrock of free-market capitalism.  As theology, it is the foundation for self-help Christianity and the positive, motivational preaching of contemporary religion. “Be all that you can be, and Jesus can help!”

Nurtured in this culture, contemporary Orthodox believers are not immune to its allure, particularly if the images appear in the guise of desert monasticism and Byzantine/Russian-style striving. More than once I have heard the sad confession, “I don’t feel like I’m a very good Orthodox Christian.” Implied in this statement is that Orthodox Christians should, somehow, be better than other Christians. Some foolish people even call us the “marines” of the spiritual life.

Of course, all of this, particularly when applied to writings such as St. John’s Ladder, is pure distortion and delusion. Its most subtle and seductive version is that of moral progress. I wrote a series of articles last year denouncing the concept of moral progress, identifying it as largely a modern notion and not consistent with the mind of the fathers. Here, I reaffirm that without equivocation.

We simply are not saved by getting better. It is a false image and a false goal. Of course, critics will charge that I’m being defeatist and suggesting a path devoid of moral effort. I am doing nothing of the sort. Everyone should, at all times, struggle against sin. But measuring, even watching for improvement can be not only self-defeating but sinful in itself. The Ladder points to a very different path:

“You cannot escape shame except by shame,” St. John says (4.62).

We do not gradually improve and thereby leave our shame behind us. The way down is the way up. The ladder of divine ascent is actually a ladder of divine descent. The path to union with God is only found in making the descent with Him. “Lo, if I descend into hell, Thou art there” (Ps 139:8). St. Gregory the Theologian says, “If He descends into hell, go with Him” (Oration 45).

The path of modernity carries no humility. It breeds pride, and frequently contempt. Failure is its nemesis. We blame ourselves for laziness and sloth, certain that a little more effort will make the difference. Like a child given a bad grade, we plead that we’ll try harder. Confession is seen as the Second Chance, the opportunity to pull up our grades. “Loser!” is the taunt of the modern world (a word spawned in the pit of hell).

But St. John points us towards our shame. He does not describe a path of moral improvement. His path follows the Cross, which is the descent into Hades. My failure, not sought for its own sake (we do not sin in order to gain grace), is always and immediately the gate of Hades and the gate of Paradise. When I acknowledge my failure and refuse to hide from its shame, we can call out for Christ to comfort us. “I did not turn my face from the shame and the spitting” (Is. 50:6). He will meet us in our shame, and takes it upon Himself. My failure becomes the failure of God (2 Cor. 5:21). It does not separate me from Christ, but, ironically, unites me to Him in the paradox that is at the very heart of our salvation. God became what we are, that we might become what He is. God does not meet us in the middle. He meets us at the bottom and asks us to meet Him there as well.

It is within that place that true humility is born. Judgment ceases. If I accept my shame in union with Christ, how can I judge another? Indeed, it is largely my efforts to avoid my shame that makes me judge my brother. We can only avoid judging if we “see our own transgressions” (as we are taught in the Prayer of St. Ephrem).

Modernity loves excellence. The moral improvement pitches of the motivational preachers love the drive for excellence. Our bosses and the owners demand that we strive for excellence. God is not our boss, nor does He place us in His debt (“freely you have received”). The constant nagging voice demanding improvement and excellence is not the voice of God. It is often nothing more than the neurotic echo of modernity sounding in our brains. It drives us with the threat of shame. However, Christ has trampled down shame by shame and invites us to do the same thing. “You cannot escape shame except by shame.”

Become a Christian who follows Christ. We do not seek to please Him with our excellence. We seek to imitate Him by going where He has gone.



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.


131 responses to “The Ladder of Divine Ascent and Moral Improvement”

  1. Scott David Endicott Avatar
    Scott David Endicott

    Dear Fr. Stephen,

    Father, bless!

    Would you mind recommending a translation of “The Ladder of Divine Ascent”?

    Thank you,

    Scott David

  2. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I really don’t know which one to recommend.

  3. Sunny Avatar


    Obviously you’re not meaning for us to go be slobs in everything we do and then revel in it. So, what is the proper place of excellence in our lives as Christians?

    For example, I have really enjoyed learning about the profound wisdom inherent in the eating practices of unindustralized, traditional people groups and growing in my implementation of those principles and techniques in my own daily routine as a homecook/homemaker. There is a real excellence to be gained there. Or the fact that I will never grow tired of growing in my understanding of the *very* excellent and sophisticated ins and outs of Patristic thought and Scripture itself!

    I think you catch my drift. So what do you say?

  4. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    Thank you Father. Your insights are very valuable. I realized some time ago the more I walk towards the light, the dirtier I look. Thankfully, I am learning to bear the shame of my dirt and keep my eyes on myself.

  5. caroline shepherd Avatar
    caroline shepherd

    Thank you Father – very helpful

  6. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Enjoy them for their own sake. Becoming excellent, however, is filled with so many pitfalls that it’s a poorly chosen path. Let the excellence be of Christ. We should concern ourselves to whatever is at hand with joy and thanksgiving. The excellent principles and techniques of the fathers will not yield their treasures to us apart from the Cross.

  7. Onesimus Avatar

    Thank you Father. You have blessed me immeasurably. The deceptiveness of sin and the devil are most certainly the appeals to our pride in the midst of our most intimate and nagging failures. ‘See, look what a loser you are.” ‘Just stay on the ground buddy…and you won’t fall again.’

    And then there is Christ, lying on the floor with us , standing up and grabbing us by the wrist to pick us up off the floor. ‘Do you want to be healed?” He asks. Please Yes….but…”

    Get up, pick up your mat….walk…and follow me to the cross. Bear your shame, die to your prideful self, and I will raise you up to life.

    Sometimes we have our own little Gethsemane where we pray to not carry that shame and not to die….to let the cup pass from us. Will we sleep, scatter, fight, sell out or seek the will of our Father? The choices are all there. Not my will, but your will be done.

    Sometimes we scatter and deny, fearful for our lives. But the risen Christ still reaches out to us. ‘Do you love me?’

    ‘ Yes Lord. You know that I do.’

    ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to gird yourself and walk wherever you wished; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands and someone else will gird you, and bring you where you do not wish to go.”‘

    Death to self is so much more than we are ready for. It is most often that place ‘we do not wish to go,’ indeed.

    Now I understand what you’ve said elsewhere. ‘That which has not died is not resurrected.”

  8. Andrew Avatar

    I have always been curious about the fact that the ones we and God identify as saints, whom we look to as an example of that excellence and upward ascent, never regard themselves as such. The frame of reference has been changed by exactly the downward movement of bearing ones own shame in the context of confession. Such a one does not esteem themselves as better than anyone else. Yet we definitely regard them as such, to the point of being sometimes intimidated to go into their presence and thereby losing great spiritual benefit. The goal of this Christian journey, I must continually remind myself, is not self improvement but keeping our gaze on Him, drawing ever nearer. Only by this are we not overwhelmed, but able to bear our shame. And of course as soon as Peter took his eyes off the saviour he began to sink in the waters of his own shame and pride. The only self improvement is to keep our eyes on Him, and the only way to salvation.

  9. Les Avatar

    Father Bless,

    How does one go about applying this practically? If one goes about the true path of salvation, will it not be necessarily accompanied by moral progress? If yes, are you saying that we should not rely on this progress (or at least what appears to us as progress) as a “sign” that we are successfully following the true path to salvation?

    Forgive me Father.

  10. tess Avatar

    Father, this post made my heart sing. Thank you.

  11. Athanasia Avatar

    At a Lenten Retreat two Saturday’s ago, I learned the meaning of ‘mercy’. This statement (When I acknowledge my failure and refuse to hide from its shame, we can call out for Christ to comfort us.) makes so much more sense to me coupled with my new understanding.

  12. Hugh McCann Avatar
    Hugh McCann

    I *do* hope you’re read far & wide, Fr Stephen!
    We do not seek to please Him with our excellence.
    …Let the excellence be of Christ.


    We are failures; he is our Victor.
    We are sick; he is our Healer & Health.
    We are dead; he is our Life.
    We are false; he is our Truth.
    We are ungodly; he is our Godliness.
    We are unjust; he is our Justification.
    We are unrighteousness; he is our Righteousness.
    We are unholy; he is our Sanctification.
    We are lost; he is our Redemption.
    We are foolish; he is our Wisdom.

  13. Sunny Avatar

    Thank you, Father, and well said.

  14. Nicholas S. Avatar
    Nicholas S.

    Thank you, Father. When I go into my shame and leave all the rationalizations and justifications behind, the world is transformed. I no longer try to feebly grasp at what little I have. I see that everything is, in fact, a gift. And within that realization is true freedom.

  15. Hugh McCann Avatar
    Hugh McCann

    We are shameful; he is our Glory.

    Christ is the Ladder to God the Father, not our struggles, “victories,” whatever.

    Just as Jacob was called up (Gen. 28:12f ~ And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it. And, behold, the LORD stood above it, and said, “I am the LORD God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac: the land whereon thou liest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed.”)

    so Christ connects us to God: John 1:51 ~ And [Jesus] saith unto [Nathanael], “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Hereafter ye shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man.”

  16. Carmelita Avatar

    Father bless! With all respect, I woul like to hear more about what you mean (Catholic church). l know that the Catholics don’t have it all together, but in my opinion they are one of the Christian groups that is closest to us. Forgive me please.

  17. Byron Avatar

    Judgment ceases. If I accept my shame in union with Christ, how can I judge another?

    It is interesting that accepting our shame brings the end of judgement. Not that people will stop judging but that their judgments won’t matter anymore in light of Christ. “Holy Fools” indeed! They are immune from the judgments of the world….

    For example, I have really enjoyed learning about the profound wisdom inherent in the eating practices of unindustralized, traditional people groups and growing in my implementation of those principles and techniques in my own daily routine as a homecook/homemaker. There is a real excellence to be gained there. Or the fact that I will never grow tired of growing in my understanding of the *very* excellent and sophisticated ins and outs of Patristic thought and Scripture itself!

    If this “excellence” lets us love greater, pursue it! If it (seemingly) elevates us above others, turn away from it!

  18. Raphael Avatar

    I wonder about the place of art and beauty vis a vis excellence. When we encounter beauty that someone has produced how does that relate to excellence? Can we say that the artist has achieved excellence? A clumsy phrase, but I’m trying to set it in the context of the article above.

    Perhaps it is telling that modernity hates beauty. Perhaps the artist can only truly be excellent when he empties himself in creating his art. Or when she gives everything of herself as an offering for the audience. And in this emptying, the artist denies his or her own excellence.

    What brings this to mind is the joy of watching someone do something that they are excellent at doing. To watch a master craftsman at work is to watch beauty (both in the act of making and the final product).

  19. maria Avatar

    Father Bless!
    Thank you Father Stephen. This post and some of your recent posts have lifted a burden from me.

    However several things in our Church seem to indicate a sort of “improvement” type of Christianity and I hope you can answer these.
    What about Christ’s command to be perfect?
    And what about St. Paul’s reference to the Christian life as a race or athletic competition?
    As a third example, it often seems that examples are held up to us (various monastics, saints or other) and it creates a sense of comparing ourselves for the purpose of reaching the same level of life they have achieved (things like ” he reached illumination, etc.).
    Also of course, there is the idea of “being saved”. What does “being saved” mean in the context of this non-progressive Christianity?

    How can we understand these three examples without feeling that we are not supposed to be “improving/ progressing” in some way?

    Finally, after becoming Orthodox, some of the various problems that plagued me just sort of vanished. It’s tempting to think of this as progress as in: “Yesterday, i was short tempered and impatient…. Today, i’m at peace and have ‘acquired’ patience.”

    Thank you

  20. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    For one, the danger is, as I noted, the use of “progress” by a modern. We are so permeated with false notions of progress that we cannot bear the idea correctly. “To be saved,” means to be united to Christ and rescued from whatever is drawing us away from Him, etc. We can be continually thankful for the continual work of salvation going on in us without bothering to think, “I’m more saved today than I was yesterday.”

  21. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    In this article I’m only referencing the role (very important) played by the Catholic Church in the history of Western civilization. The period of the rise of modernity, 1500’s forward, are marked first by a rejection of Catholic tradition and thus its restraints, and by the rejection of the traditional state (hierarchically structured). Without those traditional fetters, modern, Western man imagined himself to have this new freedom that would allow him to be anything he wanted to be. He also imagined himself able to invent whole new Churches, better than the one he had left. It is in no way meant as a critique of Roman Catholicism. That’s quite a different topic.

  22. drewster2000 Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    As with every article you write about progress and excellence, there are many who say “yes but…” I very much sympathize with this angst and wrestling. The Western world is swimming with rules about always excelling. Even if you were to tell us to stop pursuing any progress, many of us would obediently work on not pursuing it – and eagerly look for signs that we were making progress in the work of not pursuing it.

    It’s like telling us to be silent – and we would like to talk about that! The topic of progress hits so close to what we consider our heart and the very core of our person that we simply don’t know what you’re talking about. (grin) At this point I would like to briefly restate what I think you’re saying, in hopes that it makes more sense to everyone – myself included.

    Let’s use a physical example. Let’s say all of us work out – each to his own, but we all have some kind of exercise program. If you were addressing this, you might suggest that we stop tracking our status and our progress. Don’t let it be too easy or too hard, but otherwise pay absolutely no attention to our progress. That includes our weight on the scale, how we look in the mirror, how our number of repetitions have gone up or down, etc.

    If we lost so much weight that we needed new clothes, then we should get new clothes, but otherwise this event shouldn’t make an impression on us. I lost weight; so what? I’m simply focusing on doing my workout. I don’t see improvement as any merit on my part, and I don’t see failure as any reason to berate myself.

    I don’t judge; I simply work out. There are no goals I’m trying to achieve. That isn’t because goals are bad in and of themselves, but rather because I have a weakness for goals and striving and ladder climbing and I let it go to my head, thinking that all success in reaching my goals is to my credit and all failure to do so is to my shame.

    We all must have goals, but they must stay simple. I have a goal to do a certain exercise for 10 repetitions, but I don’t make a goal to increase that every 30 days over the course of a year. If I fail to reach 10 repetitions, then I try again the next time. There is no shame or pride involved. It is about obedience, not about accomplishment. It is about following Christ’s example, not about boosting myself into the Hall of Fame.

    Does this example ring true in your opinion?

  23. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yes it does. Christ says, “At the end of the day, say, ‘I am an unprofitable servant.’” “Unprofitable servant” is, more or less, Jesus’ expression for “no moral progress.”

    I think it belongs with, “Be anxious for nothing.”

    We are anxious for everything and have built an entire culture on it. It’s great for the insurance industry.

  24. Carmelita Avatar

    Thank you father. I really appreciate your answer.

  25. joann Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, you write, “It is within that place that true humility is born. Judgment ceases. If I accept my shame in union with Christ, how can I judge another? Indeed, it is largely my efforts to avoid my shame that makes me judge my brother. ”

    …but yet, I often get the impression when I read your posts that you are judging your protestant brothers and sisters in Christ; in todays post by criticizing their notions of “moral progress,” as you put it.

    I often feel OCA priests tend to preach by setting up a contrast with Protestantism. I do notice that in OCA churches there tends to be a strong tendency to criticize protestant Christianity (perhaps because many converts were unhappy protestants). I am a convert to Coptic Orthodoxy (no, they are not monophysites), and I can honestly say that I have never heard a Coptic priest or monk sermonize on what is wrong with western Christianity, nor have I encountered a protestant convert who is preoccupied with criticizing the Protestantism he left.

    I chose the very ancient Coptic Orthodoxy because it was the one Eucharistic church that placed a strong emphasis on bible reading and less on abstract reasoning. The understanding of scripture is also very close to what Evangelicals would understand (with the exception of the obvious Eucharist, priesthood, etc.) Its not uncommon for a Coptic priest or monk to say something like, “Church attendance wont save, nor will receiving Eucharist every Sunday, save you. You have to have a personal relationship with the Lord, if you want to be saved. Be Holy, as the Lord your God is Holy.”

    I have come to understand that one can no longer use the designation Orthodoxy as if it all means the same thing. They seem to me rather different.

  26. John Burnett Avatar
    John Burnett

    Bless Father, .. so what I am hearing, and what I gather from the patristic writings, in a nut shell is: let the focus be solely be on Christ not the fruits of being in relationship with Him, ..yes?

  27. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I was saddened by your comment and will explain why. I have some very dear friendships among the Coptic Orthodox. I spoke in England 2 years ago, at their invitation and their good efforts, and had a very fruitful and blessed time with them. I recall a conversation in which I observed that the young college-age Copts I had met in the US (at our local university), seemed mostly like Evangelical Protestants rather than Orthodox Christians. They immediately agreed and said that this was a growing and critical problem. The work of Protestant missionaries in Egypt has had a profound effect on the Church, leaving many in danger of losing any clear relationship with the true mind of Orthodoxy. It affects many of their clergy as well. The priest I met in England was the spiritual son of one of the great Coptic desert elders, and was indeed very Orthodox. Indeed, he knew and quoted EO authors with deep familiarity.

    What you are describing is a Westernizing (Protestantizing) phenomenon that is similar to the Western Captivity (Florovsky’s term) of the Eastern Church that occurred for several centuries. For example, when the Church was suffering under the Turkish Empire, oppressed and severely controlled, there was no education allowed. Thus many priests and monks travelled to the West for their education. This created both Protestant and Catholic influences that damaged the true Orthodox ethos. Indeed, in the 17th century, a Patriarch of Constantinople was condemned for his Calvinism. In Russia, the influence came from Catholic educational missions. It has largely been the educational efforts of Protestant missionaries that have produced this new Westernizing of the Coptic Church.

    The most important movement in the 20th century for Eastern Orthodoxy was the recognition of the Western Captivity and its efforts to regain its true self. The West was free of Islamic domination and Communist tyranny and had used its freedom and wealth and political power to control and seek to change Orthodoxy into a mirror of itself. This would have been not only devastating for Orthodoxy, but the West’s loss of the mind of the truth. Modernity would have swallowed us all.

    And it is in that same vein that I write as I do. I do not care to judge Protestants or Catholics. However, I gladly judge Protestantism or problems within Catholicism (or Orthodoxy for that matter) for their sake and ours. Modernity is the single greatest challenge to the Christian faith. Its acceptance (Evangelical Christianity is the single greatest “Trojan Horse” of modernity in the Christian world) changes the Christian faith into something alien to the Scriptures and the mind of the Fathers.

    With great pain, I received a letter from a young Copt a year or so ago, urging me to use my platform to speak about the dangerous inroads of modernity in Coptic Orthodoxy. He spoke particularly about the use of contemporary music in some worship settings. I was astounded that anything like that was happening. But I have no personal experience or knowledge there and have said nothing. It is a problem for the Coptic Orthodox, one that is very dear to the hearts of many.

    Your depiction of Coptic Orthodoxy rings true, based on these conversations I’ve had. But it sounds precisely like the degraded form of Orthodoxy that many deeply want to stop. Evangelicals with liturgical actions is not Orthodoxy. It’s simply an historical anomaly.

    I have spent a lifetime, both studying and working with understanding the place and mind of Orthodoxy in the modern world. Do read carefully, I pray. Don’t dismiss what I’ve written too easily. You’re describing a problematic situation, not the heart and truth of the Coptic world. But how could you have known?

  28. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yes. It’s like Peter watching himself walk on water. It’s only good for drowning. Keep your eyes on Jesus.

  29. a.j. Avatar

    A few questions.
    You wrote about neurosis and voices in our heads. One I have concerns prayer and the idea of progressing in prayer. What should be done about the voice that tells me
    ” you didn’t pray today or pray the correct way, or pay enough attention so God doesn’t hear you.” Or the voice that says bad things happen because you didn’t pray enough, get up early enough, skipped a prayer etc. I am even guilty of asking Saints to pray because I am too lazy or distracted to repeat a prayer for someone over and over.
    Sometimes I feel like more prayer happens while walking the dog than rushing to say the prescibed morning prayers. (Of course other times it’s the exact opposite… if I slow down and pay attention).
    A third voice tells me that only true prayer happens when I am stressed out and cry to God, but that can be exhausting.
    It seems very lazy of me not to make an effort to pray more but I am not sure what that looks like.

  30. Austin Flores Avatar
    Austin Flores

    Father Stephen,

    As I have been reading your posts, I hear you talk about shame a lot. While I agree with most, if not all, of what you say about it I am having a hard time articulating what it is you mean by shame. My roommate and I have argued over it and I do not think I have argued it the best.

    My roommate(who is a Christian but not Orthodox) stated that shame is bad and that he sees it as seeing yourself as broken or that something is wrong with you in a destructive manner.

    When I try to state what you mean, the closest thing I can say is that you mean that shame is essentially the way we humble ourselves. By recognizing our faults and knowing we are not as good as we think leads us to humility and ultimately God. Am I correct? Lord have mercy, I am still but a catechumen.

  31. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    That’s a lot of stress! It is very easy to be consumed with getting prayer right rather than just praying as best one can. The point is to talk to God, not to get it right. Frankly, various people respond to “rules” in different ways. For many, rules are very stressful. For OCD types, they are positively nightmarish! I would say in general, don’t worry about getting it right. Just pray. By the way, it’s good to ask saints to pray for you, particularly when you can’t. I once actually took some months vacation from prayer when I was young. I was in a very, very difficult mental place and prayer was driving me crazy. So, I told God that I was taking a break and asked His forgiveness and for Him to cover me and get me back to a good place. He did.

    This doesn’t need to be so hard. We were created for prayer. It’s really quite natural. I pray a lot when I walk my dog, by the way, when I’m not talking with my dog. 🙂

    Written prayers are meant to be helpful. They are not meant to be taskmasters. Talking to God is good. Singing to God is even better. (St. Augustine says, “He who sings prays twice”). Prostrations are good. Gosh, when you begin your walk, offer the walk to God as a prayer. Then walk well, like you were making pilgrimage!

    Our brains are noisy places. We give way to much power and credit to the noise. We actually think that we “are” the noise in our heads. We say, “I cannot concentrate…” when we mean, “My mind is noisy.” It’s just your brain. When you hit your thumb and it’s in pain, you don’t suddenly think that you are your thumb. The false consciousness of modernity has made us think that the noise in our brains is, in fact, who we are. We’re totally consumed with psychology. Your brain is an instrument of your soul. But’s it’s not your soul any more than your big toe is your soul.

    Sometimes I just offer my brain to God, including all its noise. I have ADD, and the inside of my head is a noisy place! At any given moment I have the thoughts of 5 men! But, giving thanks to God for all things, I don’t despair. I just rejoice in the noise and glorify God who will be victorious in all things.

    It’s interesting, but this aspect of my brain is also a gift. Last year, I had a conversation with one of our bishops. He said, “I don’t see how you manage to do what you do,” referring to my writing, etc. I told him, “It’s simple. I have ADD. I write a little, then do something else (I can’t do anything for a single long period). Then, I take a break, read, write, comment, and then get back to work.” Oddly, the format of blogging is ideal for the problems in my brain. God is good!

  32. John Avatar

    Hi Joann,
    I am also Coptic Orthodox. However, I would have to disagree with you. In our church we do have lessons and sermons that evaluate and stress the differences between Orthodoxy and Protestantism . There is a difference between judging and defending the faith. If Fr. Steven were “judging” then we could logically say that so were St. Athanasius and St. Cyril. In fact, I am thankful for Fr. Stephen’s analysis, and believe we need more of it our church. Unlike the OCA, our church has been in America less and so we haven’t had to deal with modernity as much.

  33. Gregory Manning Avatar
    Gregory Manning

    Dear aj,

    Whose voices are they? Scolding voices tend to have parental origins. I’m 67 and I still hear my mother’s “voice” correcting, meddling, scolding–even about my church/spiritual life; something she, as a Protestant, knew nothing about! My only defense is to divert her. I’ve come to see that she did those things while she was alive because she believed that’s how mothers manifest their “love” for their children. Also, she couldn’t help herself. Regrettably, what was good for Elizabeth was good for the world. Nevertheless, I now see that and I thank her for her care and concern but gently and firmly send her away.
    If you don’t recognize the voice(s) you may want to consider the advice of Teresa of Avila:

    “When the devil reminds you of your past, remind him of his future. The devil will try and upset you by accusing you of being unworthy of the blessings you have received. Simply remain cheerful and do your best to ignore the devil’s nagging. If need be, even laugh at the absurdity of the situation. Satan, the epitome of sin itself accuses you of unworthiness!

  34. Dino Avatar

    I never expected that I’d be thanking God for your ADD Father! 🙂

  35. Dee of St. Herman's Avatar
    Dee of St. Herman’s

    Father Stephen, thank you for this reminder about the paradox of what our ascent/descent means for our salvation.

    Your answer to Joann was especially meaningful to me because, before I became a catechumen to the Orthodox faith, I shunned all of Christianity partly because of Protestant polemics that I experienced early in my childhood. And now as I near the time of my ‘illumination’ my family are becoming anxious regarding my embracing what appears to them the insanity of religion. Interestingly they have learned through their own explorations that many former Protestants are now in Orthodoxy and that ‘fact’ only raises their concerns. To them that means that Orthodoxy cannot be different from the other Christian Churches particularly if so many Protestants find a “better home” in Orthodoxy.

    My understanding of your writing is that you are discouraging the modernity concept of the Better Home and the DIY Improvement Program, and are advocating carrying the Cross. And by doing that we are in a place to see our own sins first and foremost.

    I hope you and your readers understand that what I about to mention here is given for the sake of encouraging you to keep on this topic: I have come across writings of some (five) Orthodox priests, former Protestant ministers, who appear to espouse an agenda of social constructivism and improvement via their position they have obtained within Orthodoxy. Their approach is to claim “Orthodoxy does not change” and they reference the Tradition of the Orthodox Church to support their social agenda. I believe they have an audience of former Protestants who favor their agenda. What has been helpful to me when I get ‘caught’ by these writings is to reference both your and Fr Hopko’s writings on these topics. The topics involve social issues which I’m avoiding bringing to the discussion here. What is important to me is the clarity I try to hold onto for myself and my family that my path in Orthodoxy is a path to the Cross. And that is why I’m here. And I believe that is why God has brought me here.

    I have been confronted with this question, is Orthodoxy the only path to salvation or should I describe it as such to my family, who are not believers? I know that it is my path and I wish my family would be with me as I come to services but they will not come. So I come alone, and like your commentators say above, I keep my eyes on Christ and call out to Christ as I sink in the waters of my sins.

    What comes next Sunday is the commemoration of St Mary of Egypt. While her life of repentance began in the Church and ended after receiving the Eucharist from a priest, she lived her life in the desert. I contemplate her life and reflect how different it is from the agenda excellence or of how we can morally improve our lives or improve the lives of others.

  36. Chris Avatar

    Christ commands us to “be perfect.” Ironically, perfection seems to be reached when we’re bearing our imperfections, and yet, still fighting against our passions. Is this correct?

  37. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I’m not aware of what you’re describing of a social constructivism, but I’m not surprised. It’s as I said, the assumptions of modernity permeate us and the Orthodox are not immune. Orthodoxy is not just a more excellent conservatism (which is something I see used from time to time). I expect very little from political parties of any stripe. The Church has been oppressed by Communists, Muslims, Tsars and Emperors. It is simply not of this world, in the last analysis.

    It’s very hard to find the right way to say “the path of salvation.” Christ is the only path to salvation. Orthodoxy intends to be nothing other than Christ. He is our patrimony. He is the living Tradition. But He will save whom He saves and He wants to save all. I think it’s good to let go of trying to figure all of it out. St. Mary did everything she did in union with the Church. As she struggled in the desert, she was sustained by the prayers of the Church. She was not saved alone. None of us are. My word to a drowning world, “Here’s a life boat.”

  38. Dee of St. Herman's Avatar
    Dee of St. Herman’s

    Thank you Father Stephen, for your helpful reply.

  39. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Dee of St. Herman,

    While I do not know specifically of whom you speak it is not surprising. Ideology, however, is the way of the world.

    That being said there are certain aspects of the modern political agenda that simply cannot be entertained by faithful Orthodox but not because of a political ideology. To oppose such things solely from sun ideological perspective is to fall into the same error.

    I find such things in all colors of the political spectrum. I have come to the point where I cannot give my support to any politician or party.

    Preach and live the gospel and you will be persecuted by any government men can devise.

  40. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yes. I think it is. You can almost always count on irony and paradox.

  41. Alban Avatar

    Father Stephen:

    There appears to be something of a contradiction (a welcome one, from my point of view) between some of what you say in your blog regarding the un-Orthodox nature of modernity and its concept of moral progress (personal and social), and the message contained in the draft document for the up-coming Council, ‘The Mission of the Orthodox Church in Today’s World’. This document would appear to consider it our obligation to engage with the ‘modern’ world, specifically in its modernity (where else can we meet it other than where it is?), in an attempt to resolve ‘modern’ problems.

    The message in the draft document appears to be that the Church should work in partnership with other ecclesial communions and humanitarian organizations in order to promote the wellbeing and protection of the human person, by engaging in actions (other than, one would assume, what the Church is doing already, or doing what it does already in a different, more ‘effective way) which promote justice and peace in the world. In other words, the Church is being called to ACT (and act differently or more effectively) in order to help ‘Today’s World’ achieve specific goals that would be constitutive of progress.

    Perhaps it is not only the Coptic Orthodox Church in North America which is in captivity to the ‘West’? While Coptic Christians may be in captivity to the theology of the Reformation, I think there is a case for saying that the Orthodox Church in Europe and North America may currently be in captivity to (post) Enlightenment philosophies, namely those of Idealism and Personalism. Freedom from Roman Catholic scholastic theology is perhaps only the first step in genuine emancipation for Orthodox Christianity in the West.

    For those of us who have journeyed to Orthodoxy from Roman Catholicism, and have experienced first hand the devastation visited on the Catholic church by the Second Vatican Council, we are probably more (painfully) aware than most of what can happen when, with the best of intentions, the Church decides to ‘engage’ with with Modern world on its own terms.

    “We (meaning individual persons, I assume) are not saved by getting better”, you write, Father. I also think this it true of the Modern World: it is not saved by getting better. ‘But if we just have the right policies, if governments are more focused on the needs of the poor, if we have more meetings between churches, if……if,……if!” The ‘modern world’ continues to seek ‘modern solutions’ to ‘modern problems’. If modernity is part of the delusional state created by the theology of the Reformation and the philosophy of the Enlightenment, then what possible benefit is there in the Orthodox Church endorsing these delusions?

    The West (for which read ‘Modernity’) tends to think in terms of problems and solutions, Orthodoxy, in terms of death and life; the West in terms of logic, Orthodoxy in terms of paradox; the West in terms of the intelligence or emotions, Orthodoxy in terms of direct experience. Although these are gross generalisations, might they not offer some insight into the true relationship between Orthodoxy and Modernity? Orthodoxy and Modernity are not two conflicting ideologies, they are two fundamentally different (and irreconcilable) ways of being, of experiencing reality. With the outcome that one becomes obsessed with helping the ‘Old Adam’ to improve himself; while the other simply bears witness to the transformation of humanity made possible only in the ‘New Adam’, Christ.

  42. a.j. Avatar

    Dear Father and Gregory,
    Thank so much for your replies. You have no idea how comforting your responses are. I won’t point out each part of your response that helped so immensely, suffice to say that I spent yesterday repeating over and over to myself that God is a good God and He loves mankind.
    It’s time to walk the dog! 🙂

  43. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    You are correct. The single greatest temptation facing the Church today is that of modernity itself. It is so subtle in many ways, and has already made such huge inroads, that the struggle with it will be long and torturous. If I could characterize my writings, I would say that they have a clear focus on revealing the nature of modernity and the Orthodox path through its many temptations.

    The largest temptation is to cede the ground claimed by modernity – that we are, in fact, living in something that is the “modern” world. We are not. Modernity is merely a set of ideas. It is not a period in history, nor is it the historical outcome of previous periods. It is a dangerous philosophy, ultimately inimical to the Christian faith and its most fundamental understandings of the world. It is, indeed, a heresy. The failure you understand this leads the Church down very dark paths – all of which sound noble, compassionate, etc.

    When the Soviets were blathering on about a “new world” and a “new man,” the Church understood it for the lie that it is. Somehow, the Western blather, so much more sophisticated, is not presently being resisted so well.

    There are indeed many who want to be seen as “useful” and “cooperative” and “enlightened.” They want to be part of this great project that is modernity. This project is a world-wide tower of Babel, ultimately the work of the anti-Christ. I am very, very far from being a “fundamentalist,” but we must use terms such as “anti-Christ” because it is the simple fact of what is taking place. In the name of compassion, modernity is set on a path of murder, nothing less. Every program in its panoply of solutions, revolves, ultimately around killing in one form or another.

    It utterly embraces the redefinition of the human as a pleasure-seeking center of freedom whose purpose is found only in itself and maximizing its usefulness to the economic, consuming order. “Be all you can be,” means, “Be the best cog possible in our pleasure machine.” All of this was foreseen in the 19th century, as it began to rear its ugly head. Even the early 20th century had its prophets. Today, with the continuing drive of relentless propaganda pumping out of every electronic orifice in the world, the prophetic voice is almost completely silenced, or overwhelmed. I am an old man. I pray God raises up prophets to speak and live and work in the generations to come. When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?

  44. Sam Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    I come from a protestant background, specifically Reformed (I am no longer protestant). In Reformed circles, there is a strong emphasis on “not trying” to be better, but rather looking to Christ’s “finished work on the Cross” as our hope. The idea is that, the more we look to Christ and less to our own efforts, the more we will be sanctified. So the Reformed solution to almost every problem in the Christian life is a reemphasis on telling yourself the Gospel of Christ having paid the price for your sins, freeing you from the burden of trying harder.

    Of course, the Calvinistic notion of salvation is very bleak and legalistic in its emphasis on propitiatory atonement, as well as in its blasphemous and heretical notion that God the Father literally condemned Christ to hell in our place, reigning down judgement on him and looking on Him with hatred (a distorted notion of Him entering into Hades if there ever was one).

    My question is this: How are the Orthodox ideas you describe of bearing and embracing shame and carrying the Cross different from the Reformed notion of “Christ paid the price for you so stop trying”? Is it simply that the legal/forensic framework is different, even though the end result of no confidence in our own efforts is the same?

  45. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Good question. For one, “bearing shame” is not doing nothing. It is, indeed, much harder than moral effort. It is, in fact, dying with Christ on the Cross and descending with Him into Hades. God alone can raise us – that is the finished work.

    A key difference, I think, is that Reform (and Protestant in general) salvations tends to be seen in a very “extrinsic” manner. It is a change in my legal status. The propitiation ultimately changes God, not me.

    In Orthodoxy, salvation is intrinsic. There is no such thing as a legal status before God. There is just ontological reality – how things really ARE. Salvation is a matter of being, not of our legal standing. Thus, whatever is happening, it is happening to me. God never changes. He needs no change. He loves and accepts me. Without His love, there would be no salvation for me. He first loves us.

    If you will, the “trying” of Orthodoxy, belongs to repentance. And repentance is better understood as “bearing shame” than “trying harder to behave.”

    It’s not that we do nothing. But it is that we do what is actually useful. Trying harder and the whole moral improvement model is generally not successful and misses the point. Indeed, for the marginally successful (usually through neurosis), it leads to pride. If we bear shame, there may indeed come a moral change in our lives. But, if we do this rightly, we won’t pay much attention to that change, and it will seem like a very small thing in the light of our legitimate bearing of shame.

    Moral achievement, etc., favors the excellent, the talented, the gifted, those enjoying the successes of life. Bearing Shame, however, is available to the very worst of us. Here, drunkards and harlots can excel – as indeed they do – entering the Kingdom ahead of the pharisees.

  46. Sam Avatar

    Thank you! This was very helpful, especially the intrinsic, extrinsic distinction. God bless you.

  47. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Sam, I am sure Father will give a more complete answer but the Orthodox understanding of the Cross is quite different than you describe.

    We are not freed from trying harder, we are freed from sin through the Cross. We have to embrace the Cross physically, emotionally and spiritually with our whole being but it is a struggle to get there. Not a struggle of “trying harder” to be sure, but a struggle we must engage. We engage it in humility the root of which is a type of very fertile earth. Father, following the elder Sophrony says “we must go down to go up” While I in no way fully understand that it seems to mean that we don’t try to make “things” better, we allow the transformation of Jesus Christ by embracing the struggles “knowing all are sent by Him”. Living in mercy.

    The Russians have a word for it: “podvig” which is struggle. It is not a struggle to conquer but a struggle to accept the victory already won but it is still a struggle. We want so much to win and be right and make the world a better place, etc.

    All of those are concepts of modernity.

    The Orthodox spiritual disciplines of fasting, almsgiving, prayer, worship, repentance and forgiveness all work together to bring us down.

    The Orthodox practice of bearing shame is here and now, dying so that we might be Resurrected, transformed and transfigured in union with our Lord, God and Savior

  48. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    For what it’s worth, the first time I saw the intrinsic, extrinsic distinction, a whole lot of pieces of the puzzle fell into place.

  49. Chris Avatar

    Sam, I had the exact same question (also coming from a reformed/evangelical background), but couldn’t quite articulate it. Thank you for asking it!

  50. Raphael Avatar

    “My word to a drowning world, ‘Here’s a life boat.’”

    Using the drowning metaphor, I once heard or read something along the following lines:
    Christ doesn’t save us from drowning, but rather drowns alongside us and shows us how to drown such that we may live afterwards.

  51. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yes. I think I said that…somewhere…sometime…

  52. Alan Avatar

    Sam and Chris,

    You both might be interested in this. I have been in neo-reformed / Evangelical churches for some time, and thus I too heard this all too familiar refrain that basically says “don’t do anything.” Since the pastor of my former church often said “stop trying harder”, it initially sounded like what Fr Stephen is talking about as he too often writes “stop trying harder.” But beyond that one line, what Fr Stephen is saying is vastly different from what the three of us have been hearing in reformed / neo-reformed circles. I asked Fr Stephen about this last year. If you’re interested, on the archives section on this blog, find a post from Fr Stephen entitled “Around the Corner” from 09/07/2015, then read through the comments. I’ve always appreciated Fr. Stephen’s response to me.

  53. Hugh McCann Avatar
    Hugh McCann

    As a Reformed/Evangelical (“R/E”) Christian, I appreciate the comments from Orthodox, Coptics, and others here.

    I too have found much that resonates with me in Fr Stephen’s writings (& I had the privilege of hearing him live a couple of months ago!).

    We do hear in some R/E circles the “let go” message, but this should pertain only to our justification (standing before God in Christ).

    More often, we are counseled to press on in our progressive sanctification (growing in Christlikeness) which is not about our standing before God as his children.

    I look forward to hearing and reading more. Thanks for the “Corner” tip, Alan.

  54. Hugh McCann Avatar
    Hugh McCann

    Fr Stephen, sadly, this too often the thinking in our circles (and one point I cannot agree with!):

    A key difference, I think, is that Reform[ed] (and Protestant in general) salvations tends to be seen in a very “extrinsic” manner. It is a change in my legal status. The propitiation ultimately changes God, not me.

    Of course, the Father loves his own eternally, and has no wrath toward us to be appeased. His just law requires a sacrifice for sin (or sinless perfection*), it is true, but we are eternally beloved in the Son!

    * Which we are given in Christ.

  55. Hugh McCann Avatar
    Hugh McCann

    Is it fair to say that the phrase quote by Sam, “Christ paid the price for you, so stop trying,” DOES apply to our being accepted & loved by God?

    That Jesus Christ IS our life, acceptance, etc.?

  56. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    You are in error, viz. “His just law requires a sacrifice for sin.” This is simply Protestant forensic thinking, supported neither in Scripture nor in the Fathers. Frankly, Evangelical Protestantism, in its many guises, is simply in error on the atonement, and reads the Scriptures incorrectly in the matter because of its atonement assumptions. There’s not a nice face I can put on it. Protestants, ultimately need to junk their atonement thinking and relearn the faith in another manner. It is not reconcilable with the tradition or Scripture.

  57. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    “Jesus Christ is our life, acceptance, etc.”

    By itself, this is a meaningless statement. It could be used to mean a number of things, not all of them correct. It mostly just sounds like a slogan. Indeed, the language of “Christ paid the price for you” is very problematic. Paid who for what? He didn’t pay the Father. Nothing was owed to the Father. He didn’t pay the devil. That, according to St. Gregory the Theologian would be an outrage. But people throw that language around easily. Generally, it’s rooted in propitiation/legal/forensic imagery that is simply not Scriptural. Sacrifices are not paid as a payment. That’s not in the Scripture. It’s only in the mind of very late Christian thinkers – not the Fathers.

    Christ is our everything. In Him, we die. In Him, we live. But it is intrinsic, not extrinsic. We actually die. He doesn’t die instead of us. His death becomes our death, so that our death becomes His. His life becomes our life so that our life becomes His. But all of this means that we must die. We must take up our Cross. We must be crucified. We must descend into Hades. So that we may be raised and glorified with Him.

  58. Hugh McCann Avatar
    Hugh McCann

    Fr Stephen, I apologize for being so terse as to make a meaningless statement.

    “Jesus Christ is our life, acceptance, etc.” simply means that his was the perfect life the Father demanded (Matt. 5:48) lived FOR us, on our behalf. His perfection is given to us, as we are in him, united to him. We are to reckon ourselves dead to sin, alive in Christ, our righteousness being his/ in him. This is the language of the Apostle Paul in Romans and Galatians, not merely “those Protestants.”

    His life is IN us – John 14:6 and Gal. 2:20 ~ I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.

    I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly (John 10:10).

    “Christ paid the price for you” is very problematic. Paid who for what? He didn’t pay the Father. Nothing was owed to the Father. He didn’t pay the devil. That, according to St. Gregory the Theologian would be an outrage. But people throw that language around easily. Generally, it’s rooted in propitiation/legal/forensic imagery that is simply not Scriptural. Sacrifices are not paid as a payment. That’s not in the Scripture. It’s only in the mind of very late Christian thinkers – not the Fathers.

    We’re agreed that it is absurdly blasphemous to say that Christ paid the devil.

    But the language of Romans, Hebrews, et. al. make it clear that Jesus Christ paid for our sins on the cross: 13 Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree: (Gal. 3:13).

    St John says, and he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2).

    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 (Gal. 2:16).

    And, as you so often remind us, For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him (2 Cor. 5:21).

    As for Christ paying for our sins, of course it was to God the Father. The OT sacrifices pointed forward to his propitiatory/atoning sacrifice. Again, this is the language of St Paul & St John, not just the western church[es] or Reformers.

    Romans 3:21ff ~ 21 But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; 22 even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference: 23 for all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; 24 being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: 25 whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; 26 to declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus.

    Christ is our everything. In Him, we die. In Him, we live. But it is intrinsic, not extrinsic. We actually die. He doesn’t die instead of us. His death becomes our death, so that our death becomes His. His life becomes our life so that our life becomes His. But all of this means that we must die. We must take up our Cross. We must be crucified. We must descend into Hades. So that we may be raised and glorified with Him.

    Amen. And in him (in union with him by faith) we ARE, no?

    He of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption (1 Cor. 1:30; Col. 2:3), and we are complete in him (Col. 2:10).

    Are these ideas not orthodox?

  59. Alan Avatar

    Ah, Anselem of Canterbury. In the 11th century he was the first person to propose this idea that now all Protestants take for granted (satisfaction theory of atonement).

  60. Brian Avatar

    Actually, Hugh, no. They are not Orthodox – at least not as you are interpreting the Scriptures you have quoted. Since your post was addressed to Fr. Stephen, I will allow him to explain. It is so much better than that!

    I would like to say a few things, however.

    First, I very much appreciate that you are using a good translation, one that rightly reads, “…by the faith OF Christ…” (which is to say, His faith and His faithfulness toward us). This is often rendered – or almost unconsciously read – as “by faith IN Christ” (which is to say our faith in Him). It is a seemly minor, but crucial distinction.

    Second: the word translated “propitiation.” It is not a bad translation, but in non-Orthodox Christian circles the word is almost exclusively understood as appeasement by blood sacrifice. However in Wisdom chapter 18, speaking of the plague on Israel in the wilderness and Moses, we read.

    “Yea, the tasting of death touched the righteous also, and there was a destruction of the multitude in the wilderness: but the wrath endured not long. For then the blameless man made haste, and stood forth to defend them; and bringing the shield of his proper ministry, even prayer, and the propitiation of incense, set himself against the wrath, and so brought the calamity to an end, declaring that he was thy servant.

    Note here that incense, not blood, is a propitiation (and Moses is a type of Christ). Note also that Saint John does not write that Christ was the propitiation for our sins (that is, that His sacrificial death “paid our sin-debt”), but that He IS the propitiation for our sins: “Wherefore he is able also to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by him, seeing he ever liveth to make intercession for them..”

    Lastly, any concept of ‘payment’ is understood in terms of the priceless 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 defense of the homeland can rightly be said to have sacrificed his life and thereby ‘paid the cost of our freedom,’ but we do not infer from this that payment was made to anyone.

  61. Hugh McCann Avatar
    Hugh McCann

    Thanks, Brian, but how do explain Paul in Romans 3, as quoted above?

    And here, in chapter 5 ~ 1 Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ: 2 by whom also we have access by faith into this grace wherein we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God.

    3 And not only so, but we glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience; 4 and patience, experience; and experience, hope: 5 and hope maketh not ashamed; because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us.

    6 For when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 For scarcely for a righteous man will one die: yet peradventure for a good man some would even dare to die.

    8 But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Much more then, being now justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him.

    10 For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life. 11 And not only so, but we also joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the atonement.?

    The language of atonement/ propitiation is throughout the Scriptures of both Testaments.

    And I think both sides agree that the clearer, didactic passages help explain more poetic or cryptic language, anyway.

    Also, Moses (or whomever) in the OT is typological of Christ so that any “tasting of death”* by any truly “righteous,” “blameless man,” defending others against the wrath/ calamity/ evil to come has to be pointing to the eschatological Lamb, our Lord Jesus Christ.

    As Paul said above and: how ye turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God; and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, even Jesus, which delivered us from the wrath to come (1 Thes. 1:9f).

    Christ is our Deliverer from God’s wrath (to come upon all who are not in Him).

    * 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 (Hebrews 2:9).

  62. Paul Foster Avatar
    Paul Foster

    Father Stephen,
    Thank you so much for your “true” words. As one who has made a journey or two down to those lonely/dark places where, you are left with no hope but in Our Lord, Jesus Christ……the meaning of shame and where it takes us, is simply put……a miracle. Of course….. we cannot see….until we have “seen”.
    God Bless you, Fr. Stephen.

  63. Janine Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    You write, “It is largely my efforts to avoid my shame that makes me judge my brother.” Oh boy, that is really something that rings for me, and I will have to keep thinking about it. Somehow it says to me that it is the avoidance of where He’s leading me that is really the problem. You know, in the prayer of St Ephraim we pray not to be give the spirit of “lust of power” among other things. I’ve read that translated as “meddlesomeness!” It makes sense if in our modern language I think about that as trying too hard to control everything.

  64. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    The atonement “story,” in which the Father’s justice or righteousness has a demand that must be fulfilled, we can’t but Jesus can, so He does it for us, and the Father accepts this on our behalf, is, indeed, not Orthodox, nor the teaching of Scripture. No where in the Scriptures are we told that the Father’s justice or righteousness has a requirement that must be satisfied. That is just a theory, more or less first advanced (in a very medieval version) around the year 1000 by Anselm of Canterbury. It has been repeated so many times, Scriptures reinterpreted in its light, that many think they see it when it’s actually not there.

    For example. “Propitiation.” The word does not occur in the NT. The word translated that way is “hilasterion,” literally “mercy seat.” It refers to the place where the blood is poured. But “propitiation” was used because of the substitutionary atonement model. The model comes first and is then read into the Scriptures. But it is not actually in the Scriptures. The whole extrinsic treatment (legal, forensic) that became a hallmark of Protestant thought is rooted in a metaphor that isn’t even in the Scriptures, but is only imagined to be there.

    God does not need to be satisfied. His righteousness does not make a demand of satisfaction. His justice makes no such claim. It’s nowhere in the Scriptures. Indeed, St. Isaac the Syrian says, “We know nothing of God’s justice, only His mercy.”

    But there’s this whole theory that has been invented and taught and sung and taught repeatedly such that it sounds like it’s true. But it’s not.

    You cited Matt. 5 and spoke of the “perfection required by God.” That’s not there. There is a command that says, “Be perfect.” But it does not say, “I can only be satisfied by perfection and only my Son can fulfill that.”

    There is nothing paid to the Father. There’s not a single verse that can be cited to support that a payment is paid to the Father. The only verses that can be cited are verses in which an assumption is being made that that is what they mean. And they do not.

    Indeed, St. Gregory, and the Tradition, say there is a “silence” over the matter of payment. Not to the Father, not to the devil. Indeed, St. Basil says that Christ “ransomed us from death,” but God does not ransom us from Himself. It’s an image, but not an actual transaction. The actual thing is trampling down death by death. The actual thing is becoming one with Christ, being united with Him so that He becomes what we are that we might become what He is.

    You are reading Scriptures in an extrinsic manner: “Christ our wisdom..etc.” Classical Protestantism sees Christ as being our wisdom, righteousness, etc. but external to us. But He is not external to us. He is those things in us, and imparts them to us. God does not merely “impute” them to us, only “considering us righteous for Christ’s sake.” We truly become wise, righteous, etc. because we are truly united with Him. We are saved by union with Christ, pure and simple.

    I suggest the new book by Fr. Patrick Reardon on the atonement (Ancient Faith Press), to see what the Orthodox think about atonement.

    Propitiation is not only all through the Testaments. It is only there in places where it is condemned. God cannot be paid. Such sacrifices are despised by God. He hates them. They are pagan. Again, the propitiatory imagery is foreign to the mind of the Church and only appears a thousand years after Christ. If it were “everywhere,” then why does it only appear in discussions as a theory 1000 years later?

    Nope. It’s not there. But it’s a very serious project of re-education to get free of it and see what is actually in front of you.

    I don’t mean to say these things in an adversarial manner. But they need to be said because it’s important to understand what the Orthodox actually believe.

    The first time these thought occurred to me was in the 70’s, when I was in seminary and was working through the doctrine of the atonement. I began to notice that the Fathers treated things differently, that the propitiatory model was simply not there. Reading Gustav Aulen’s Christus Victor (still a great classic by a great Lutheran scholar), I realized that I was not mistaken.

    I stayed on that trail rather doggedly for the next 20 years, learning during that period that the theology of the Orthodox Church has no such doctrine and never did. It is, in fact, an innovation. It had much to do with my embracing the Orthodox faith as the truth. That’s to say, this is really important to me (and should be to us all).

    But those long years were a slow re-education. Reading the Scriptures and asking, “If they don’t mean that (propitiation), then what do they mean?” The answer was like a constant light bulb. The gospel doesn’t actually make sense as propitiation, strangely enough. There are so many things in the NT that are, more or less, “adiaphora” (“makes no difference worth arguing over”) for most Protestants, because they can’t seem to figure out where they actually fit. Thus, the doctrine of the Church is adiaphora. The doctrine of the Eucharist is adiaphora. etc. But nothing is adiaphora. The faith is one, taught by Christ to His apostles and handed down once and for all to the Church. None of it was invented a millennium later.

  65. Hugh McCann Avatar
    Hugh McCann

    Thank you, Fr Stephen, for taking the trouble and time to answer me.

    Which of the Fathers would you recommend on Romans 3:23-26 & 5:1-10?


  66. Janine Avatar

    I see the use of “ransom” as meaning liberator, deliverer, savior. That is “ransom” as in freeing a captive. I believe the Cross/cross is often seen as payment but it is really what “the world” throws at us as stumbling block and scandal to go through

  67. Onesimus Avatar


    I appreciate your receptiveness to Fr. Freeman’s answer.

    Recently in writing a paper for seminary I was trying very hard to tie in the understanding of the OT sacrifices to the whole atonement. As I grew up in a Reformed background, I was constantly bombarded with the false teaching of penal substitutionary atonement, which still haunts me to this day.

    Fr. Freeman please correct me if anything I say is off track. During my writing of this paper and my research it became clear that there were two things happening in the annual rite of atonement (and the other various sacrifices offered). Firstly, in the First Temple period, the High Priest of the Temple liturgy was the King. The Davidic Kings were installed as the Melchizedek Priest – (Melchi-zedek = King of Righteousness) and were thus, Prophet, Priest and King. Once a year The King’s role as judge was subsumed into his role as High Priest on the Day of Atonement. On this day, instead of being a judge, he condescended from His high place of judgement on the throne and became one of the people, identifying with their weaknesses and interceding to God on their behalf, taking on the form of a bondservant and accepting the fate of the people as their representative; i.e. death. This was the image of the incarnation. This is explained in abbreviated form in Hebrews 2:10-13 and Hebrews 9. Quoting Psalms “I will declare Your name to My brethren; In the midst of the assembly I will sing praise to you.” and “Here I am with the children whom God has given me.”

    The King was still by right the judge and King of Israel, but voluntarily offered himself, sharing in the same conditions of weakness and humility before God that the people endured. Here, as High Priest, the King ritually purified himself on behalf of the people whom He ruled, ritually stripping them of all idolatry and wickedness in the courtyard as he approached, by stages, the Holy of Holies.

    The whole sacrificial system was not meant to be a blood appeasement demanded by the Father. It was a ritual acting out of the purification of the flesh from all defilement so as to be prepared to enter into the Holy of Holies into the presence of the Lord. Thus, the King — who sat on the throne of judgement for the whole nation, came down from that throne and dressed Himself in the garments of High Priest. He then stripped Himself of all those fancy garments, and purified Himself on behalf of the people’s sin, so as to enter the Holy of Holies to make intercession on their behalf.

    This was the sacrifice acceptable to God; “For You do not delight in sacrifice, otherwise I would give it; You are not pleased with burnt offerings. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; A broken and a contrite heart, O God, You will not despise.” In this sacrifice the High Priest prefigured Jesus who showed Himself to be “…a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God…since He himself suffered and was tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted…”
    “…for this reason, He had to be made like his brethren…” (Heb 2:17-18.)


    “…the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person…”

    The slaughtering of animals in Israel was a direct reference to doing away with the bondage of pagan worship, as the animals slaughtered were considered Holy by the Egyptians (Exodus 8:26) and were a liturgical cleansing from idol worship of their oppressor’s Gods. (The ram, the cow, the goat, etc.) The slaughter of the goat was indeed the representation of the death of the High Priest (a fill in was necessary for the liturgical act) and the High Priest then by His own blood entered into the Holy of Holies to intercede before God, having been stripped of all attachments of the “flesh” which lead to idolatry and sin. This was a form of purification, like all other purification acted out in the Temple. The symbolic death of the High Priest in the goat was a voluntary sacrifice of his life on behalf of His people. Where they sinned in ignorance and in deception, the King could strip Himself of all the trappings of the world, and having shared in their lowly condition by condescension from the throne and having purified himself and shed all chains of death in idolatry for the people, approached God the Father. As a pure intercessor then He could enter the Holy of Holies and then return (second coming) to heal the cosmos by His own blood — which was pure and offered freely to cleanse creation.

    The accomplishment of this healing at-one-ment was not in the “need of the Father for blood” but in the fact that the King of the universe had incarnated into materiality and had cleansed the material world by sharing in its suffering by death. (He “became sin” is synonmous with death, for sin is death.) Thus, incarnate matter (flesh and blood) sanctified creation and brought it back to life. “The life is in the blood.”

    Hebrews explains all of this…it is just opaque when one overlays philosophical theology as a matrix over the top of it.

    Penal substitution takes the Love out of the Gospel, beyond being blasphemous, and some of the early writings of the Church (Epistle of Barnabas) bear this out.

  68. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Are you referencing Margaret Barker on the 1st Temple Period? I’ve read her a little. It seems highly speculative, viz. King as Priest, etc. I’m sort of puzzled by her wide acceptance. Almost all historical conjecture about the 1st Temple period is just that, conjecture. It is interesting, but should not be used to interpret the Scriptures for the purposes of doctrine. The Fathers never used it. I would be cautious with this stuff, at least not citing it as settled fact.

  69. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    I am anxiously awaiting Father’s comments on your post as it is probably one of the most concise and pointed discussions on the subject of atonement that I have read. It seemed so useful that I saved it and if Father approves of it, I would like to make use of it is discussions with my Reformed friends, with your permission. Thank you for this post.

  70. Byron Avatar

    Father, this conversation certainly merits its own blog post (or three), IMHO. Or would you just recommend we read Gustav Aulen’s Christus Victor and the new book by Fr. Patrick Reardon on the atonement you mentioned?

    Onesimus, while your insight(s) may or may not be factual, they are fascinating and excellently considered. I too would like to use your post for reference with friends, with the caveat that it was for your seminary paper and is not official Orthodox doctrine (but it does align with Orthodox understanding of sacrifice in the OT; or am I incorrect there, Father?).

    Many thanks, all, for this discussion!

  71. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Onesimus, Byron, et al.,
    I’ll admit, I am behind the curve on Barker and the 1st temple stuff. I know she has garnered a lot of attention, including within Orthodox circles. It has puzzled me in that there is almost no historical/archaeological evidence for her construction of the theology of the 1st temple period. Some of the things she says are, frankly, bizarre (the Mother figure, etc.). I suppose that sometime I’ll have to engage some of my Orthodox scholar friends and see why they take any of her work seriously. I postdates my own scholarly study. But I know the Fr. John Behr is familiar with it. I’ll quiz him.

    Onesimus, what has been done with it in your seminary? Is it examined critically? Is it questioned carefully? Are doubts or caveats raised? Just curious. Really.

  72. Hugh McCann Avatar
    Hugh McCann

    Onesimus, Thanks for the lengthy exposition. Any work you especially recommend that was helpful as you left the Reformed faith for Orthodoxy?

    Also, all: How has the ancient church understood such verses as, Romans 5:8f ~ But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, being now justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him. ?

    And, 1 Thessalonians 1:9f ~ how ye turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God; and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, even Jesus, which delivered us from the wrath to come.?

    Are we not save from the wrath of God which is to come on those unbelieving?

    2 Thes. 1:7-9 ~ when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with his mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ: who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power…

    John 3:18f ~ He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.

    Thank you!

  73. Hugh McCann Avatar
    Hugh McCann

    Oh, Onesimus (& Fr Stephen) – I meant to include this in my question on the Orthodox Church’s understanding of salvation:

    He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him. ~ John 3:36.

  74. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    As I have been reading the questions in your recent posts, this following link appeared in my FB news feed from Fr Jogn Peck. I thought you might find it thought provoking. Fr Patrick’s book is excellent by the way.

  75. Janine Avatar

    Hugh (if I may step into this discussion) regarding the statement that “Christ died for us” in Romans 5:8 & 9, a lot depends on what we make of the translation here as “wrath.” This is kind of a tricky word in Greek to my (not so expert) understanding. If we think of Christ as liberator and deliverer, as head of a particular force, then we see the world as spiritual battleground. There are forces of opposition which work to afflict and oppress. The “drive” of God would be a liberating force for human beings, and essentially a nature of love, wanting the good for human beings, true health on all levels. What that means is that whatever opposes that particular drive (“passion” is another translation for the same word as “wrath” here, and is the root of “orgy”) is going to suffer the natural consequences of opposition. Furthermore, if as Liberator “the prince of this world” demanded Christ’s death on the Cross, Christ went to that death — in order precisely to defeat it — this would still be a “sacrifice” on His part, but not a payment demanded by God. Christ becomes the ultimate witness in Judgment; He is fully innocent. I see it as related to “shame” as discussed often by Fr Stephen; Christ becomes stumbling block and scandal to this world and its values — but He goes to the end in faith as Liberator for all of us.

  76. Hugh McCann Avatar
    Hugh McCann

    Thank you, Nicholas! But it’s not showing on FB…

  77. Hugh McCann Avatar
    Hugh McCann

    Nicholas – this?

    “In this new video by Theoria, Fr. Pat explains why the word Atonement doesn’t appear much in Orthodox theology, and how we should be using it, and not using it.”

  78. Hugh McCann Avatar
  79. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Hugh, et al
    The subject deserves lots of articles…

    Here is a frustration about certain passages in Scripture. The questions generated by the Protestant treatment of Scripture are often unanswered, or not directly answered in Patristic writings because they are new questions. For example, Romans is not a terribly important work until Luther makes it so. Chrysostom even skips over some of the passages that you asked about! in his commentary. Romans becomes important because Luther is re-framing the entire Christian story. There is a “shift of gravity” that occurs in the Reformation, almost like the earth had moved on its axis.

    When you think of the atonement, the most important and central place you would expect to see it handled is in the Eucharistic Anaphora, that most central prayer in the life of the Church in which the story of our redemption is recalled and recited. St. John Chrysostom, St. James, and St. Basil do wonderful treatments of the atonement story (especially Basil who is so wordy that he leaves almost nothing unmentioned). But the substitutionary propitiation and such imagery are not even obliquely present. The main thing in St. Paul that gets lots of play in the Fathers is his treatment of Adam. But their Adam is nothing like the later treatment seen in Protestantism. Listen to St. Basil:

    [Christ], being the Radiance of Your glory and the Image of Your person, upholding all things by the word of His power, thought it not robbery to be equal to You, the God and Father. He was God before the ages, yet He appeared on earth and lived among men. Becoming incarnate from a holy virgin, He emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, being conformed to the body of our lowliness, that He might conform us to the image of His glory. For since through a man sin entered the world, and through sin death, so it pleased Your only-begotten Son Who was in the bosom of You, the God and Father, born of a woman, the holy Theotokos and ever-virgin Mary, born under the law, to condemn sin in His own flesh, so that those who were dead in Adam might be made alive in Himself – Your Christ. He lived in this world and gave us commandments of salvation. Releasing us from the delusions of idolatry, He brought us to knowledge of You, the true God and Father. He obtained us for Himself, to be a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation. Having cleansed us in water, and sanctified us with the Holy Spirit, He gave Himself as a ransom to death, in which we were held captive, sold under sin. Descending through the Cross into Hades that He might fill all things with Himself, He destroyed the torments of death. And rising on the third day, He made a path for all flesh to the resurrection from the dead, since it was not possible for the Author of Life to be overcome by corruption. So He became the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep, the First-born of the dead, that He, Himself, might truly be the first in all things. Ascending into heaven, He sat down at the right hand of Your majesty on high, and He will come to render to each man according to his works.

    Here the imagery is of us being held captive by death. Christ “gives Himself as a ransom to death.” This “ransom” is nowhere treated as a payment to God. Indeed it is a “ransom to death.” He dies that we might live. That is the exchange. He destroys death that we might lives.

    The imagery is consistently one of us being held captive (like the children of Israel in Egypt).

    The theory involved the demands of divine justice being satisfied is just not there.

    The question of wrath is a lot like death. Wrath is that state of being opposed to God. A number of Fathers are quite clear that the wrath of God and the love of God are the same thing…the difference being our state of being. The “wrath of God,” is, to a large extent a metaphor of the consequence of sin. Sin is a move towards self-destruction (death). But God, we are told in the Scriptures, is not the author of death. He does not punish us with death (St. Athanasius discusses this in De Incarnatione). Instead, He rescues us from death.

    But the later theories in the West, take the metaphor of wrath and read it back into God Himself and make God our punisher and destroyer. Essentially in this view, God saves us from Himself! This is justified with notions about God’s “righteousness” or His “justice.” Some say things like, “He cannot deny His own righteousness,” and “His righteousness demands xyz, etc.” We cannot say such things about God. There is no necessity in God. He is utterly free. There is no opposition in God – His justice and His mercy are two poles of His character. Indeed, I personally think that God’s justice and His mercy are one and the same thing.

    I’ll try to do more with all of this. This weekend I am away in Wichita, KS, leading a retreat at the Antiochian Cathedral. I beg your prayers. We are drawing near to Holy Week, and my writing and commenting time are likely to be limited for a while.

  80. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I recall in seminary reading the classic work, Early Christian Doctrines, by JND Kelly. In his chapter on the atonement, he actually said that the East “never developed a doctrine of the atonement.” Of course it’s ridiculous to say such a thing. The atonement is the story of how we are reconciled to God. Imagine the entire Christian East never speaking about such a thing.

    Instead, he should have said that the West evolved a novel theory and changed the Christian gospel into something that was unknown to the Fathers of the Church.

  81. Brian Avatar


    Others will doubtless offer better answers, but I think it is accurate to say that the wrath of God in the Judgment is understood as His unmediated presence. We normally associate wrath with anger, but the passion of anger cannot rightly be ascribed to God.

    Saint Paul writes that the ungodly will be “destroyed…” – not actively (as it were), not in anger as we understand anger – but “…by the brightness of His coming” and “from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power.” (the passage you quoted).

    It is true that those who hate Him will likely experience His unmediated presence as wrath/anger, but if so, it is not be because God hates them or is angry with any anger that we can understand. He does not hate sinners; He hates the sin that causes their destruction.

    One sees this manifested even now in the self-condemnation of those who love darkness rather than light because their deeds are evil. God loves all unconditionally, unreservedly, and His desire is to save. But because some (like me) cling to darkness, we often experience His presence as wrath/anger. His holiness and glory constitute a penetrating accusation against my deeds. But God Himself accuses no one. It is we who accuse ourselves and condemn ourselves. As you quoted the words of Chirst, “This is the judgment: that light has come into the world…” A corresponding Pauline passage is Romans 2:12-16.

    “… (for not the hearers of the law are just in the sight of God, but the doers of the law will be justified; for when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do the things in the law, these, although not having the law, are a law to themselves, who show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and between themselves their thoughts accusing or else excusing them) in the day when God will judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ, according to my gospel.”

  82. Onesimus Avatar

    Father bless,

    The connection between the Davidic King as High Priest is the only thing that could be said to be drawn from Barker. Your cautions about the academic and speculative nature of this are spot on. I do not offer this as Orthodox doctrine by any means. Personally, lack of archeological evidence does not bother me since we have only recently found things which troubled German scholars so much in the 18 and 19th centuries that they labeled them fictions, only to have archeology then discover proofs. I often wonder if the Von Harnacks of the world would recant or if they were simply secularists posing as theologians.

    Other sources included the Mishnah and Targums, philo, Josephus, etc. there is some reliance on 11q melkizedek from Qumran, Barnabas, Justin Martyr, etc.

    As far as seminary goes, this particular paper received very little critical feedback, which I think was part of this professor’s style. The paper itself only tangentially had anything to do with what I wrote above, but I spent quite a bit of time on this rabbit trail because it intrigued me so much. It was not a historical or intertextual examination of the subject,so the ideas outlined above were only presented in abbreviated form as they related to themes of suffering in Hebrews.

    Nicholas & Byron,

    I’m glad that the post was appreciated by you both, and you are free use these concepts; but of course….they are not settled fact as Fr. Freeman has rightly noted. In the face of PSA however, they are, in my estimation at least a foot in the door to dislodging blasphemous concepts from those who have never been presented an alternative. Personally, I would prefer that if you are going to use these, that you simply run it by your own spiritual father first for a blessing.


    I’m short on time, so I will answer your questions tonight, unless Fr. Answers them first…which would be a much better source than I.

    The short answer is that “wrath” is an anthropopathism. It does not describe God any more accurately or factually than an anthropomorphism. It is pedagogical, not descriptive. The term in Greek “ogri” would indicate to me a firm, fixed position rather than an active passion. An opposition from a fixed place. I’ll elaborate later in a way that might ‘translate’ to Reformese.

  83. Hugh McCann Avatar
    Hugh McCann

    Brian, Good stuff, thanks. Yes, God’s unmitigated presence will be “hell” (the terrible “lake of fire”) for those outside of Christ.

    It’s not “away from” the presence of the Lord, geographically, but it’s the destruction that comes from his very presence.

    Nicely put – you echo Hebrews 12:25 See that ye refuse not him that speaketh. For if they escaped not who refused him that spake on earth, much more shall not we escape, if we turn away from him that speaketh from heaven: 26 whose voice then shook the earth: but now he hath promised, saying, Yet once more I shake not the earth only, but also heaven. 27 And this word, Yet once more, signifieth the removing of those things that are shaken, as of things that are made, that those things which cannot be shaken may remain. 28 Wherefore we receiving a kingdom which cannot be moved, let us have grace, whereby we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear: 29 for our God is a consuming fire.

    As well as Hebrews 10:26 For if we sin wilfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins, 27 but a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries. 28 He that despised Moses’ law died without mercy under two or three witnesses: 29 of how much sorer punishment, suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy, who hath trodden under foot the Son of God, and hath counted the blood of the covenant, wherewith he was sanctified, an unholy thing, and hath done despite unto the Spirit of grace? 30 For we know him that hath said, Vengeance belongeth unto me, I will recompense, saith the Lord. And again, The Lord shall judge his people. 31 It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

    These are not beloved of God, for we are loved in Christ.

    See (for example) Psalm 5:
    4 For thou art not a God that hath pleasure in wickedness: neither shall evil dwell with thee.
    5 The foolish shall not stand in thy sight: thou hatest all workers of iniquity.
    6 Thou shalt destroy them that speak leasing: the Lord will abhor the bloody and deceitful man.
    7 But as for me, I will come into thy house in the multitude of thy mercy: and in thy fear will I worship toward thy holy temple.
    8 Lead me, O Lord, in thy righteousness because of mine enemies; make thy way straight before my face.
    9 For there is no faithfulness in their mouth; their inward part is very wickedness; their throat is an open sepulchre; they flatter with their tongue.
    10 Destroy thou them, O God; let them fall by their own counsels; cast them out in the multitude of their transgressions; for they have rebelled against thee.

    And, Psalm 7:11 God judgeth the righteous, and God is angry with the wicked every day.
    12 If he turn not, he will whet his sword; he hath bent his bow, and made it ready.
    13 He hath also prepared for him the instruments of death; he ordaineth his arrows against the persecutors.
    14 Behold, he travaileth with iniquity, and hath conceived mischief, and brought forth falsehood.
    15 He made a pit, and digged it, and is fallen into the ditch which he made.
    16 His mischief shall return upon his own head, and his violent dealing shall come down upon his own pate.

    And Psalm 11:5f ~ The Lord trieth the righteous: but the wicked and him that loveth violence his soul hateth Upon the wicked he shall rain snares, fire and brimstone, and an horrible tempest: this shall be the portion of their cup.

    There is no hope for the likes of Esau, Pharaoh and Judas.

  84. Hugh McCann Avatar
    Hugh McCann

    Dear Fr Stephen,

    I confess utter disagreement here, as well as confusion over your perspective: God does not need to be satisfied. His righteousness does not make a demand of satisfaction. His justice makes no such claim. It’s nowhere in the Scriptures. Indeed, St. Isaac the Syrian says, “We know nothing of God’s justice, only His mercy.”

    Of course, *we* know only his mercy, because our Lord satisfied God’s justice. Jesus died for our sins, for heaven’s sake! He gave us rebels at-one-ment with the holy God, no?

    But there’s this whole theory that has been invented and taught and sung and taught repeatedly such that it sounds like it’s true. But it’s not.

    You cited Matt. 5 and spoke of the “perfection required by God.” That’s not there. There is a command that says, “Be perfect.” But it does not say, “I can only be satisfied by perfection and only my Son can fulfill that.”

    As our righteousness had to exceed the religious of their day (Matt. 5:20), we had to forgive to be forgiven (6:14f), or we’d not be!

    Yet, Paul tells us that we ARE forgiven, and uses that as the basis (post-Calvary) for our forgiving others, Eph. 4:32. Things changed at the cross.

    Jesus obviously “upped” the law’s requirements in the sermon on the mount in order to show us our spiritual bankruptcy, our complete moral failure. He takes the law’s external obedience and shows that it’s not enough – that inner perfection (thoughts of the heart) is required.

    The only hope is Him for us, no?!

    I look forward to reading more from your side. Blessings on your ministrations in KS.

  85. Alan Avatar

    My life was so easy when I was a Calvinist. I mean, you get to just dismiss all of the teachings in the NT. Kind of funny that the Calvinists claim to just “take the plain teaching of scripture.” LOL…..they dismiss all of them because after all, I’m part of the elect, therefore, none of these apply to me. As Hugh just said, none of Christ’s teachings in the sermon on the mount were intended to be followed, they were merely to show us how bad we are. Well now, how convenient. What a complete farce, so glad I got out of that nonsense.

  86. Hugh McCann Avatar
    Hugh McCann


    I never do not assert that “none of Christ’s teachings in the sermon on the mount were intended to be followed.”

    That is a misrepresentation of my beliefs. I apologize if I gave that misimpression.

    To the contrary, they are kingdom dictates for all us who follow Christ.

    I don’t know what kind of “Calvinism” you were subject to, but please, don’t put words in my mouth to malign your former theological tradition.

    Christ’s sermon is ALSO to show us how bad we are.

    Indeed, and how we need Another (Him!) to save us.

    But please, I also did not say that they were “merely” for that purpose.

    I ask you to please ask me my position, instead of assuming it, and attacking the straw man you find offensive.

  87. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    But you’re ignoring the point. The notion about God’s justice making demands is itself not Scripturally supported. It is a conclusion or conjecture, but not itself Scriptural. And my point is that the Fathers (particularly in the East) never every entertained the notion of God’s justice having to be satisfied. They never entertained it, because it’s only a conjecture and was not conjectured until quite late in Church history, and then only in the West, and primarily in Reform theology.

    What I am saying is that all of these things (atonement) are good questions – i.e. how are we reconciled to God, what does it mean to be reconciled to God, etc. However, if the answer to those questions is itself a non-Scriptural conjecture, a theory or hypothesis upon which verses are cherry-picked and placed on it as support (instead of actually generating the theory itself), then there’s a problem.

    It is a very, very significant question to ask, “How is it possible that the Fathers of the Church who produced the Creeds, etc., who knew the Scriptures backwards and forwards, indeed, speaking the very same language as the Scripture, never see anything in them that is the very bulwark of Reform theology?”

    The most obvious conclusion is that it simply isn’t there and that Reform thought is misreading and misusing the texts. So then what do the Fathers actually do? Well, they did Orthodox theology, because that’s what they are (were).

    Obviously, our sins are forgiven. But you’re not even asking the question of what is meant by the word “sin.” There are so many unexamined assumptions within Reform/Evangelical thought that are simply sui generis. The reason, frankly, is because they mostly talk among themselves and often don’t realize how bizarre their thoughts seem to the mainstream of the Christian Tradition. The Orthodox even condemned certain elements of Calvinist thought as heresy in the 17th century.

  88. Onesimus Avatar


    I will likely get a little pushback here from some Orthodox for suggesting this, so I offer it with the caveat that some Orthodox do not like the style or “orthodoxy’ of Paul V of Orthorev.

    Personally, I would say that as a bridge to understanding, Paul is probably the best bet for appealing to the methods of examination and logic that Reformed Christians are accustomed to, as well as to the style of polemnic which they sometimes embrace; a la James White, etc. he uses rationality and scripture which is what a reformer wants.

    So…if you want to get a grip on some of this….id listen to the series of podcast about PSA vs the Orthodox view of atonement by Orthorev. If you take Paul’s humor with a grain of salt, and understand that he is part of the most rationalistic part of Orthodoxy, and is not officially endorsed (that I’m aware of) and only represents Orthodoxy as he understands it, you’ll get a lot out of it I think.

    Fr. Please do not post if you demur.

  89. Onesimus Avatar

    PS — it ought also be noted that the material I spoke of earlier regarding the atonement sacrifices as the eschewing of idol worship was a product of listening to OrthoRev and reaching out to Paul for sources. He’s done a lot of good work which will cut to the heart of PSA.

  90. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I do not think the purpose of the Sermon on the Mount is to show us how bad we are. Again, that’s a conjecture that presumes things that aren’t actually in the text. The Tradition treats those statements far differently.

  91. Hugh McCann Avatar
    Hugh McCann

    Thank you, Father.
    (Strange that we’re all communicating here and none are posting at the blog.)

    If we define nearly every term differently, I guess we’ll have a hard time communicating. Now you say that even our definitions of “sin” differ? Oh, dear.

    What, then, IS sin, according to Orthodoxy? Is it not falling short of God’s glory? Missing the mark of his holy laws? Of failing to keep his righteous statutes? Maybe more – but it is less than this?

    And would you please explain what Romans and Hebrews (&/or others) mean when they speak of Christ
    atoning for our sins,
    paying for our sins,
    saving/ redeeming us from God’s wrath?

    You dismiss us without telling me quite how to read the texts that you say we’re utterly misunderstanding. “It’s an Orthodox thing. You wouldn’t understand.” 😉

    Merely telling me that I’m ignorant or misreading things doesn’t help me much.

    I certainly agree with you against any “non-Scriptural conjecture, a theory or hypothesis upon which verses are cherry-picked and placed on it as support”!

    But I am asking then, just how to understand the salvation that is ours in Christ Jesus.

    For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God…

    But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace ye are saved;) and hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus: that in the ages to come he might shew the exceeding riches of his grace in his kindness toward us through Christ Jesus. For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast.

    …the gospel according to the power of God; who hath saved us, and called us with an holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace…

    …after that the kindness and love of God our Saviour toward man appeared, not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost; which he shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Saviour.

    P.S. I don’t mean to be impertinent, but it’s “Reformed theology,” not “Reform.” That’s an entirely different deal! 🙂

  92. Karen Avatar

    Hugh, Fr. Stephen has written quite extensively on an Orthodox understanding of the “wrath” of God. You could use the term in a search at his site. One relevant entry is here:

  93. Hugh McCann Avatar
    Hugh McCann

    Fr Stephen, Onesimus, Karen, et. al.,

    Thank you for the links, clarifications, etc.!

    I want to apologize to all (esp. to you, Fr Stephen) if I am too zealous or pushy at times.

    I am honestly trying to understand your positions on things, while sharing what I believe to be the gospel of Christ (that he was delivered up & crucified for our sins according to the Scriptures, etc. (Rom. 4:25, 1 Cor. 15:3).

    I do not mean to pester you, or make myself any more odious than I already have.

    Thank you, Father, for you gracious hosting of this page, your answers to me, and for bearing with me in love. I trust you will reprove me if I am breaking rules here.

  94. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Please forgive me if I’ve been too heavy-handed in my responses. Some of it comes from years of being hammered myself. But you’re obviously a good man and have a good heart and sincere questions.

    It’s actually true that almost everything winds up having a different meaning, and it really does make communication difficult. The present book I’m working on treats a lot of this (working title: The Grammar of Orthodoxy: Classical Believing in a Modern World). Or something like that.

    A lot of what I’m doing works with making the words and ideas of Orthodoxy clear in the context of the modern world and its concepts a thoughts. Oddly, the modern world shares most of its concepts and thoughts with Protestantism, because the two came into existence at nearly the same time and in the same place. Of course, modernity would gladly do without God, but they would still have a secularized version of a Protestant world. Evangelicals are, because of this, far better at engaging modern poeple. If someone walks into an Evangelical Church, they have no misgivings about what to do. It seems pretty straight-forward to them.

    But the world of Orthodoxy, almost everything about it, would seem odd. They would feel awkward. They would misunderstand many of the things we do and why. However, Orthodoxy simply represents the continuation of early Christianity in the world. What we do, the Fathers did. Sometimes we’re even doing it in the same buildings.

    It is indeed a very large ethos – an entire culture. The culture of Orthodoxy. It’s not Greek or Russian, etc. It’s just Orthodox wherever it might be. But it’s your heritage as well. This is the common world of all Christians, even if they don’t know it yet. It’s your mother-tongue.

    There’s a lot to learn – to understand. Be patient with me, and I’ll be patient in return.

    I would be taking a lot more time with this, and will soon. I’m flying out before dawn in the morning to a speaking engagement. I’ll be flying back into the busiest 2 weeks in the Orthodox year. But, we have nothing better to do in our lives than to share these things with each other. Be well. Pray for me.

  95. Hugh McCann Avatar
    Hugh McCann

    Thank you so much, Father Stephen.

    Again, blessed travels, and I am honored to pray for you!

  96. Onesimus Avatar

    Dear Hugh,

    I for one can see the efforts you are making to understand. Please forgive us as well. Many of us who have come out of the Reformed tradition know the zeal of our brethren, but at the same time carry the scars of what we now know to be a dry well- indeed a roadblock – for the life that Christ came to give to us. In time I trust this will be revealed to you by God. We are still fallen sinners, and please forgive us if you become the target of unintentional angst or impatience. We should all remember be here to serve you as you try to grasp “what is the breadth and length and height and depth” of God’s love as we have come to experience it.

    We have become a little scattered here, and there are so many questions that won’t make sense to you because the language is loaded with meaning. We say Original Sin and it means something entirely different that you mean. We say Salvation and it means an entirely different thing. So when we discuss item F and G – but items A and B aren’t the same – then the whole thing becomes a jumbled mess for you because you assume and project your traditions ideas onto common language.

    We need to slow down a bit and take things a step at a time. I’d love to answer all the questions about Scripture you have asked, but sometimes it’s putting the cart before the horse.

    In your response to Fr. Stephen @ 5pm today you get to a central aspect of the problems we are going to face. So let’s start there…with Step 1.

    As Reformers, our theology told us that God demanded perfection from His creation. Since we were created in His “image and likeness” it is assumed in Reformed theology that we were perfect as God is perfect. (insofar as a creature can be in relationship to the creator) This rubric posits humanities “likeness” to God in terms of an absolute. This absolute is seen as moral. Thus, for Reformed theology following Augustinian and Anselmian theological idiosyncrasies humanity is created with a strictly moral ontology. What makes us what we are in God’s sight is our moral perfection.
    The Orthodox faith – held by the West in unison until about the 8th century, is more all encompassing. Orthodox theology sees humanities created “nature” in the “image and likeness” of God as being an ontology of relationship and Love rather than an ontology of mere morality. Morality is certainly part of relational ontology, but it is not the single determinative factor.

    Our nature as created beings has two elements, the image and the likeness – which Western theology tends to treat as the same thing – assuming a kind of repetitiveness here for emphasis. In the West, following the Aristotelean philosophical tradition, this image and likeness was primarily considered to be a matter of intellectual and “rational” similitude. Thus, free exercise of reason can bring us to “know” God, either by reflection on nature (as in Thomas Aquinas) or in the rationalization about Scripture alone (as with the Reformers). The intellect becomes the primary manner in which God is known and words and concepts about Him are paramount. Reformed “orthodoxy” then becomes a matter of having the right formulations of thought and the need for moral perfection. Salvation depends on thinking rightly about God’s salvific plan.

    Contra the above, the ancient Church has always maintained that the “image” and “likeness” are two different things. I don’t want to get too far into that here, so See HERE for more on this.

    It is the “likeness” to God which we want to concern ourselves now. In Orthodoxy, our “likeness” to God is not predicated on moral perfection, and therefore on a demand of “justice” by God, but upon our “likeness” to what He is ontologically. It is impossible to know God intellectually – but what we do know about God is that He has revealed Himself as Love. Thus, the very manner in which God “exists” is Love. He is not loving, an anterior aspect of character, HE IS LOVE. This is why Trinitarian theology is vital to a right working life in Christ. Relationship between the three persons of the Trinity “constitutes” God’s ousia (substance).

    Thus, being created in the “image and likeness” of God entails our living in selfless Love toward the other and seeking union and “peace” with the other at the cost of even our own lives. We are to suffer as Christ suffered, love as Christ loved. His condescension from the place of divine impassibility to restore humanity shows the humility and Love we were created for. We were created with a nature that was meant for selfless, co-suffering Love by which we would always be other centered – not self-centered.

    John Romanides explains this perfectly;
    “If man was created for a life of complete selfless love, whereby his actions would always be directed outward, toward God and neighbor, and never toward himself—whereby he would be the perfect image and likeness of God –then it is obvious that the power of death and corruption has now made it impossible to live such a life of perfection. The power of death in the universe has brought with it the will for self-preservation, fear, and anxiety, (Hebrews 2:14-16) which in turn are the root causes of self-assertion, egoism, hatred, envy and the like. Because man is afraid of becoming meaningless, he is constantly endeavoring to prove, to himself and others that he is worth something. He either seeks security and happiness in wealth, glory and bodily pleasures, or imagines that His destiny is to be happy in the possession of the presence of God by an introverted individualism and is inclined to mistake his desires for self-satisfaction and happiness for his normal destiny…He can become zealous over vague ideological principles of love for humanity and yet hate his closest neighbors. These are the works of the flesh of which Saint Paul speaks. (Gal 5:19-21) Underlying every movement of what the world has come to regard as normal man, is the quest for security and happiness. But such desires are not normal. They are the consequences of perversion by death and corruption, through which the devil pervades all creation…”

    God does not demand moral perfection in our view – but instead “perfect Love” which carries moral implications and leads to moral perfection. One follows the other. Thus, God’s concern is that we share in and become “partakers of the Divine nature.” This is Trinitarian, selfless, co-suffering Love…which “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things…”
    Going further, this relational ontology of humanity is the very basis of our existence as contingent creature who are the “crown of creation.” God is Love. God is life. God is being. Our very being depends on that “likeness” to God’s being.

    This is where we get to the nitty gritty. In Reformed theology, God’s demand for perfection is not obeyed, and as a result He condemns us to death. He creates death and imposes it upon humanity as a punishment for moral sin.

    In Orthodox theology — always consistent for 2000 years — death Is God’s enemy, and the very antithesis of His Loving will, and that it is a work and power of the devil. (Heb 2:14) The Reformed concept would be unthinkable since Scripture tells us that this is so. (1 Cor 15:26) Wisdom 1:12-16 and the beginning of Chapter 2 (which had to be jettisoned from the Canon to match Reformation dispositions) tell us unequivocally that God has nothing to do with death – only life.

    “Do not bring on your own death by sinful actions. God did not invent death, and when living creatures die, it gives him no pleasure. He created everything so that it might continue to exist, and everything he created is wholesome and good. There is no deadly poison in them. No, death does not rule this world, for God’s justice does not die.

    Ungodly people have brought death on themselves by the things they have said and done. They yearn for death as if it were a lover. They have gone into partnership with death, and it is just what they deserve.”

    In Orthodox theology the “problem” which we are being saved from is not an angry God who demands perfection. The “problem” is sin and death, which are the work of the devil.

    Because God created us to live and share a life of His Love – and because our very being is predicated on the “likeness” to Him – which is itself LIFE — when we sin, we “corrupt.” The Reformers take this to mean “become morally depraved.” The Orthodox know that this is a description of the dissolution of ontological being. It is the movement away from LIFE HIMSELF – which can only result in non-being. This “non-being” is death. We are not eternal…but contingent being…contingent on ONE THING and ONE THING alone; Love — for God is Love and God is Life. So, Love is Life.

    Sin and death then is in opposition to God’s eternal will for us and is “against nature.” Because God loves us, He seeks us out and reunites us with His nature in Christ, and “imputes” righteousness to us by grace, so long as we do not “quench the Spirit.” There is cooperation and synergy here, not a legal declaration.

    What follows then about salvation becomes all the more important for us to understand when it comes to living a Christian life. Because for us the core problem of the false doctrines of Reformed theology is not reduced to moral turpitude, but rather is ultimately about the Love, we clearly see the true problem of false doctrine and heresy.

    In Reformed theology “thinking” the right things constitutes Orthodoxy – for to not “despair of yourself” and your own works is tantamount to rejecting the moral perfection of Christ.
    In Orthodox theology the only problem with false doctrines is not the “wrong thinking” itself — but the fact that the concepts themselves lead to a repudiation of relational ontology – of ecclesial love and unity which allows us to become partakers in the “divine nature.”

    The unity and love of the Church are not as important then as “being right” about concepts and words. The faith becomes objectified and the Church is fractured from within….Love cannot be achieved within the person without the BODY of Christ where it is manifested and this knowledge forms the basis of all faith. If our “knowledge” (gnosis) of God becomes centered around ideas and concepts of Him rather than upon experiential knowledge (epignosis) (the distinction is throughout Scripture, but obscure in English and translated the same) of Love in the ecclesial Body, by which we become more Christ-like. Thus, from the Orthodox POV – the faith is stripped of all its true meaning – Love and LIFE —Christ Himself and relational ontology (righteousness) in the “image and likeness” of our Trinitarian God are repudiated in exchange for concepts which reduce the faith to imputed forensic righteousness and the need to be correct thinking about doctrine.

    Doctrine only ever serves praxis — and praxis only serves to make us Love and be united in one will, just as the Trinity is united in His ousia. Humanity, created in the image and likeness of God is also created as persons who share one ousia when we Love. Without that Love, our unity in ousia is shattered and we become fallen individuals, with no reference but our own will. We become inner centered, not interested in co-suffering Love, but in ideas and concepts and we seek to replace true Love and relational ontology with forensic and moral ontology because we cannot experience the former.

    When we “fall short of the glory of God” the glory of God must be understood as Love, not moral perfection, for the glory of God is Christ Himself, who LOVED us and gave Himself for us.
    This is Step 1. Once you have this in your mind, we can move to Step 2.

    Any Questions?

  97. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold
  98. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    Yes Hugh. To get the full picture, one must read his book

  99. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    I, for one, High, am enjoying the conversation and am learning from it. Thank you for hanging in there.

  100. Justin Avatar

    I usually don’t weigh in this type of discussion, but having come from where you are, I may be able to offer a couple thoughts which might help.
    First, forgiveness (where debt is concerned) is defined as cancelling the debt. This is not only what the word “forgiveness” means (consult a dictionary and/or common sense) but also the clear teaching of Christ Himself (see his parables). The opposite of forgiveness, by definition, is demanding the debt be paid (even by a substitute).
    Reformed Philosophy teaches that God (the Father) cannot forgive (cancel the debt) because He is “just” by nature, therefore He – by essence – demands the debt be paid (the opposite of forgiveness).
    And herein lies the problem – the Reformed god is UNFORGIVING BY NATURE. He CANNOT forgive. Ever. Eternally. Immutably. (God cannot change).
    Ergo, the work of Christ is NOT to bring the Father’s forgiveness to man – the Father has NO forgiveness, no capacity to forgive (God is immutably eternally unable to cancel the debt – instead He must demand it be paid).
    Christ’s work, therefore, is NOT to reconcile God to man (this is impossible), but rather to reconcile man with the ETERNAL UNFORGIVENESS of god.
    In other words, “Christ pays the debt” means God the Father remains unforgiving, while man dodges the consequences of this unforgiveness. God shoots a bullet at us, and Christ jumps in front of it.

    In stark contrast stands the Holy Scriptures. Since it is amazingly difficult to shed the Reformed lens, once one has learned to perceive through it, it is perhaps best to start with the parables of Christ on the issue.
    It is interesting that, in the few instances Christ parabolically utilizes the image of someone to whom a debt is owed to represent God the Father, the debt – now observe carefully – is NEVER PAID (not by a substitute, nor the party who owes it, nor the son of the Father figure). Instead, the debt is – observe carefully – ALWAYS CANCELLED. Nobody pays it. Ever.
    Christ NEVER told a single parable in which the figure representing God the Father demanded something of anyone else (much less his own son) for the purpose of letting someone off the hook.
    And there’s more – in EVERY teaching of Christ, the Father figure is never owed anything when wronged. Do we read that the Prodigal Son’s father refused to receive him unless the elder brother first paid the prodigal’s “debt”? In fact, the only hint that the Prodigal owed anything to the Father was evilly made by the elder brother himself (and refuted by the Father).
    I hope this helps.

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