Good News – Your Debt is Being Cancelled

BrokenChains-500x285Recent conversations on the blog have bounced around the imagery of debt in the Scriptures. Contemporary Protestant thought often likes to express the notion of a “sin debt.” The idea runs that God’s righteousness and justice have proper demands. When we fail to keep the commandments, we create a debt for which God’s justice demands payment. Christ’s innocent self-offering on the Cross is seen as the payment for that debt. This imagery is absent from Orthodox thought. Indeed, I believe it is absent from the New Testament itself. It is, instead, an image that was created apart from the Scriptures themselves (originating as an atonement theory), and has been read back into the Scriptures, repeatedly misconstruing the actual meaning of the text. This reading has been a dominant part of modern Evangelical thought, and has been mined and minted so thoroughly, that many within the Evangelical mainstream treat it as a touchstone of Christian orthodoxy. It is not only not Orthodox, it is not orthodox. It is a false teaching.

First, a few thoughts about atonement theory.

The atonement treats the question of how it is that Christ’s death and resurrection are “for us.” What is it about them that frees us from sin and reconciles us? The word “atonement,” is uniquely English. It is a hybrid word, consisting of  three words: “at-one-ment.” It is that understanding of what it is that makes us one with God. But, as a hybrid English word, it is not found in the Scriptures. The closest thing in the Scriptures might be the word “reconciliation” (καταλλαγή). One of my favorite renderings of “atonement” is the German “wiedergutmachung,” literally, “making good again.”

Atonement theory refers to the story and explanation of how it is we are reconciled. It necessarily includes a theory of the nature of sin and human responsibility. It also includes a theory of why God would want to reconcile us in the first place. In short, atonement theory is the story of what is wrong with us and how God fixes it. For a newcomer to this conversation, it might seem surprising that the answer to such a basic thing isn’t obvious or clearly covered somewhere in the Scriptures. The truth is that the entire New Testament could be seen as an extended presentation of atonement theory. However, a short, neat description is simply nowhere to be found. Instead, there are multiple references, describing or inferring a “back-story,” that more-or-less form a theory of the atonement.

The Eastern Church, which means the Church whose history was rooted in the early Roman and later Byzantine Empire, is often described as having never developed an atonement theory. Of course, the notion that the Church of the first thousand years of Christian history had no explanation how what was wrong with human beings and how God fixes it, is patently absurd. There were a number of images used in the writings of the fathers and the liturgical prayers of the Church. But no one of them came to utterly dominate. What was not present, however, was the notion that sin creates a debt with God or His justice that must be paid.

The word “debt” and its cognates (“debtor,” “owe,” etc.) is actually quite rare in the New Testament. It occurs in Matthew’s version of the Lord’s Prayer (“forgive us our debts”). It occurs in the parables where a servant’s debt is forgiven by his master. It also occurs (depending on the translation you use) in Galatians 5:3 (“For I testify again to every man that is circumcised, that he is a debtor to do the whole law” King James Version). However that verse is far more accurately and euphoniously translated: “For I testify again that every man who is circumcised is bound to do the whole law.” The concept of debt in that context would be extremely abstruse.

That’s it.

What is clear is that this almost no mention at all. The parable regarding debt is a classic use of the rabbinical kal vachomer (וחומר קל) argument, which is called the “light to heavy.” Its logic is simple: If this is the case, then how much more should this be the case. In the parables, a man is released from a massive debt, but refuses to let a tiny debt to someone else go. When his master, who had released him from the massive debt heard this, he was angry and had him thrown into prison. It is a straightforward teaching. If someone does you an enormous kindness, you should certainly not refuse to extend small kindnesses to others. The parable in no way establishes some primary story for interpreting the whole of the gospel message. To claim that it does is absurd, and an abuse of the parable.

If you were looking for images that shape a mature, overarching account of how God reconciles us to Himself, you would certainly look for something that has a presence beyond an unrelated parable and a badly translated verse. The historical fact is that the God-as-Creditor (penal substitution) theory of the atonement is not Scriptural. It was a theory put forward first (more or less) by Anselm around the year 1000. His version used Medieval feudalism as its basis (without any pretense of being a Scriptural model). Anselm said that God’s honor had been offended and had to be compensated. In the feudal world of Europe where honor was the basis of government and war, it was, perhaps, an unsurprising fiction. Anselm’s fiction, however, was gradually changed into the penal/substitution model of the Reformation, in which mankind’s sin creates an infinite debt to the righteous judgment of God, deserving of wrath. Christ bears the wrath of the Father as payment of the debt we owe. However, this is a development of Anselm’s theory, not a reading of Scripture. Worth noting that at the same time holding debt was being elevated by Protestant teaching to a Divine attribute, Protestant teachers and rulers were abolishing the condemnation on usury that had been in place since the earliest Christian tradition. Debt is Divine and good business!

There are a couple of concepts involving debt-like matters that are worth examining. In one, Christ says “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. (Joh 8:34). This concept or image is not isolated. We are not made debtors to God, but we are enslaved by Sin. It is common in the New Testament to see Sin treated as though it were a person. Sometimes it almost seems to be synonymous with the devil himself, though we should not draw that conclusion. But it is seen as an adversary, one who enslaves us. Many people, influenced by the moralistic teachings of contemporary Christianity, are puzzled by this description of sin. For them, sin is simply something we have done wrong. They do not see it as somehow separate from themselves. But it is (cf. “You Are Not Your Sin”). St. Paul distinguishes between himself and “sin that dwells in me” (Ro. 7).

This bondage or slavery to sin is also similar to language applied to the devil:

Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same nature, that through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage. (Heb 2:14-15 RSV)

St. Paul elsewhere says that the “wages of sin is death.”  St. Paul places sin, death, the devil, all in this category of that which holds us in bondage.

This collection, sin, death, the devil, is not the imagery of debt, per se. Rather, it is the category to which debt itself belongs. Debt is something that binds us. Debt is an evil thing that God sets clear boundaries around lest it destroy His people. And, as we shall see, it is something He abolishes (He doesn’t pay it. He abolishes it!).

There are other passages that use this imagery of bondage:

While we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. But now we are discharged from the law, dead to that which held us captive (Rom 7:5-6).

The law is something from which we are discharged. And we accomplish this by dying. We die with Christ. St. Paul says, “He who has died is free from sin” (Ro. 6:7). St. Paul describes Christ as leading “captivity captive” (Eph. 4:8). That which held us prisoner is itself led as a prisoner. Sin, death and the devil and debt are trampled down by the death and resurrection of Christ. Christ does not set us free by paying our debt. He sets us free by dying and trampling down death. And this becomes effective in our lives because we, too, die, being “buried with Him in Baptism” (Romans 6:3). To bring the notion of a debt payment into the conversation of being Baptized into Christ’s death is just weird. It doesn’t fit or make sense in any manner.

Some might struggle with the personification of sin, of our being held in bondage by it and sin being destroyed, etc. But that is the consistent imagery of Scripture. Debt can be placed into that category and treated in that manner. But there is simply no Biblical imagery of God paying our debts.

In the Old Testament, the system of the Sabbath (Sabbath Day, Sabbath Year, Jubilee Year) was a system of abolishing debt. You could hold a slave for only seven years, then he had to be set free. No one paid for them. Land could be bought from someone, but all land and debts had to be cancelled in the 50th (Jubilee) year, at the end of seven cycles of Sabbath years.

On the Sabbath day in Nazareth, Christ takes up the scroll of Isaiah in the synagogue and reads this:

“The Spirit of the LORD is upon Me, Because He has anointed Me To preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, To proclaim liberty to the captives And recovery of sight to the blind, To set at liberty those who are oppressed; To proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD.” (Luke 4:18-19)

The “acceptable year of the Lord,” is a reference to the Jubilee year, which Isaiah raises to a cosmic level. There will come the “Day of the Lord,” and all debts will be cancelled. The captives will be set free. This is the heart (in its full cosmic sense) of what Christ means when he preaches, “Repent! For the Kingdom of God is at hand.” The coming of the Kingdom is nothing less than the Day of the Lord. Interestingly, the Jubilee year begins with the sound of a trumpet. It is that very thing that signals Christ’s triumphant return, “Then the trump will sound…”

But nowhere in this rich Biblical imagery, is there a notion of anything being paid. Christ doesn’t pay our debt, He destroys it! This is deeply important. The penal substitution theory runs the risk of treating the holding of debt to be a good thing, reducing debtors to the cast of evil doers. This is utterly contrary to Scripture where the opposite is true.

Look at this one last example of the destruction of a “debt.” Interestingly, it is a passage frequently abused in the penal substitution theory:

And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses, having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. Having disarmed principalities and powers, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in it. (Col 2:13-15)

I have heard this passage interpreted as Christ writing “Paid!” on our bill of debt and nailing it to the Cross. But, again, this is simply an abuse. The “handwriting” is the requirements of the Law, which have begun to work death in us because of Sin. Here, Christ nails them to the Cross. The handwriting isn’t a debt being paid. It is a bondage being “disarmed” like the principalities and powers over which He triumphed. Perhaps the most tragic aspect of the penal substitutionary theory is its habit of misusing one thing and ignoring another. This passage in Colossians is clearly about one thing, the destruction of what holds us in bondage.

Debt belongs to the realm of death, sin, slavery and bondage. Christ has come to destroy all of these things and lead us into His kingdom. You are free.

Glory forever!

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

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



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140 responses to “Good News – Your Debt is Being Cancelled”

  1. Byron Avatar

    Glory forever indeed! Many thanks, Father! This is a wonderful teaching.

  2. Mark Bratton Avatar
    Mark Bratton

    Probably explains the differences between the Greeks and the Germans in their attitudes towards the Greek debt crisis. Atonement theologies have a very long reach.

  3. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    …and yet we have a far reaching government policy that places almost entire generations into bondage as a ticket into the “job market” supposedly. Now, many go willingly simply because they are promised entry into the elite.

    Anyone who has struggled with debt unwisely assumed knows how binding it is. Even when it is appropriately assumed it diverts assets that could be used for almsgiving, building up the Church, etc.

    It is no accident that debt and consumption are inextricably intertwined in our economy from the consumer debt to institutional debt to national debt it is all justified in “creating” the opportunity to buy more and better stuff, etc.

  4. Wordsmyth Avatar

    “The penal substitution theory runs the risk of treating the holding of debt to be a good thing, reducing debtors to the cast of evil doers. This is utterly contrary to Scripture where the opposite is true.”

    Father Stephen, I’m confused. In this passage, are you saying debtors are being held up as heroes? “… reducing debtors to the cast of evil doers” leaves me puzzled.

  5. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Hmm. Maybe I could rewrite it and be clearer. But I mean that “debtors” (those who owe), are cast into the role of the wrong-doers. We owe God. But in the Scriptures, it is the holders of debt (creditors) who are the oppressors.

    Those in debt are not evil, they are captives, even if they got there by their own foolishness or bad choices. Our bondage is not of God’s making. And though we have participated in its creation, neither are we wholly to blame.

  6. John Stamps Avatar
    John Stamps

    I have a theory about atonement theory. When we separate lex orandi (the rule of prayer) from lex credendi (the rule of believing), we end up with theological abstractions. This is true even with confessions that celebrate Holy Week. You’d think that any tradition that celebrates Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday would be immune to the temptations of atonement theory. But you’d be wrong.

    But how much worse for churches that don’t celebrate Holy Friday before Easter Sunday. You have to impossibly compress Cross + Resurrection into a 1-hour service with a 20-minute sermon. You have to say too much too quickly.

    The alternative of course is to celebrate and pray our theology.

    We still must reflect on what we’re actually doing when we worship the crucified and risen Jesus. But the rule of prayer must always drive our theological reflection.

    St Anselm’s theological reflections don’t inflict that much damage if you still celebrate the mysteries of Holy Friday and Holy Saturday. And arguably you can still read penal substitution language in St Athanasius’s “On The Incarnation.” It’s the worship context where we speak about the crucifixion that is … well… crucial.

    The priority of worship during Holy Week from Lazarus Saturday to Pascha creates necessary apophatic space to avoid too much idle speculation about the mechanisms and transactions between God the Father, Jesus of Nazareth the God-Man, and sinful human beings.

  7. Chris Avatar

    Thank you for this, Father. As a protestant, it confused me that Christ’s death and resurrection simply cancelled a debt. The implied message seemed to be, “you’re let off-the-hook for your bad behavior because of Christ; God is no longer mad at you.” I now see the bankruptcy of this view of the atonement. Everything happens outside of you. Very little, if anything, happens within.

  8. newenglandsun Avatar

    I like St Anselm and his concept of why God became man though it is a) highly confusing and b) trying to avoid making penal language of Christ’s death as a punishment from the Father that we deserved grants much power to the Devil as well.

    St Hildegard of Bingen also encounters this problem in her atonement theology as well granting too much power to the Devil. To express Christ’s death as our freedom from the Devil both though assert we put ourselves under his power.

    There’s a lot of complications but that’s why it’s important to not get too caught up in one atonement theory. Christ’s death did reconcile us to the Father though.

  9. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    newengland sun,
    What does it matter that you like St. Anselm’s theory? It’s not Scriptural, it’s not part of the Tradition. It has been increasingly abused until it borders on pure heresy. What’s to like?

    The Orthodox don’t have “one atonement theory.” But we do not have the penal substitutionary debt/payment theory at all, because it is simply make-believe, without any warrant. In Anglican terms, “It is a vain thing, fondly imagined…”

    It is, also, indefensible.

  10. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I do not find any penal substitution language in St. Athanasius. In II.9, there is a passage that is sometimes rendered “satisfied the debt,” but it’s a bad translation, reading an entire theory into somewhere that it doesn’t exist. It’s just not there. The passage would be more accurately rendered, “Completing what was required.” The translation in question is an antique Roman version, a riddled with penal substitution nonsense as its Protestant counterparts.

  11. Matteo Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    Thank your for this. If you can, please clarify the imagery of Christ being the sacrificial lamb found in scripture and the link between He who was the unblemished sacrifice and the concept of sacrifice in the Old Testament.

    Also, the theory of justification in the western church rides heavily on penal-substitution theory. Can you explain the Orthodox approach to justification?

  12. Byron Avatar

    Christ’s death did reconcile us to the Father though.

    I think the concern with this statement is that it can include the implication that we were cut off from God in some way. In the same way, I can see the importance of stating “all debts were cancelled” as this doesn’t imply a separation from God and His Love; instead it speaks to, as Father has said, a captivity of ourselves.

    Forgive me, as I’m not trying to nit-pick. But I think these fine points may be where many stumble.

  13. Byron Avatar

    If you can, please clarify the imagery of Christ being the sacrificial lamb found in scripture and the link between He who was the unblemished sacrifice and the concept of sacrifice in the Old Testament.

    Matteo, Onesimus posted a very insightful post on this very subject in the comments of the post “Getting Your Mind Right”. I don’t want to copy the entire post here but you can find it in that blog post.

  14. Gregory Manning Avatar
    Gregory Manning

    “Vain thing(s), fondly imagined” sounds like the excuses and justifications I make up during confession. Of course, they too are “also, indefensible”. Sigh.

  15. Byron Avatar

    Woops! Please forgive me: Onesimus’ comment appeared in the blog post “The Ladder of Divine Ascent and Moral Improvement”. I posted too quickly.

    Father, feel free to correct my note above and remove this one or just delete both if you wish. My apologies!

  16. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I recommend the book on The Atonement by Fr. Patrick Reardon, by the way. It’s a magisterial treatment of all of this from an Orthodox perspective by a very good scholar.

    First, no sacrifice in the Old Testament is ever seen as satisfying anything with God. It is not seen as a substitute for us. Generally, it is an offering to God, giving up something of value (bull, goat, lamb) as an act of worship. It is sanctified by being offered to God. But God doesn’t need the blood of bulls and goats. They satisfy nothing. Their blood (which is “the life”), is used for sanctifying and cleansing. Perhaps as a life that has been offered to God. But there is no OT theory of satisfaction. Any such notion is a later “preacher fiction” being read back into the text.

    First, there are lots of kinds of sacrifices, not just one. Christ, I believe, somehow gathers them all into Himself. But as the “Lamb of God,” He seems most closely associated with the Passover Lamb. That lamb is not seen as a sacrifice. It’s blood is used to mark and protect the doors of Israel from the “angel of death.” But there is no sense in the text that this protection is associated with the lamb as sacrifice, or with the lamb as a substitute victim.

    There’s a lot of nonsense jabbered about when it comes to the OT. Lots of Christians telling Jews what they believe and such. Much of OT interpretation, particular since the Reformation, has been driven by reading the debates of Protestants versus Catholics back into the Old Testament. It distorts the text. It distorts Judaism. It’s make-believe.

    Again, I highly recommend Fr. Reardon’s book (and there’s 2 more volumes on the way).

    As to justification. First, Protestants make a big deal out of a minor point within St. Paul’s arguments against the need for circumcision. This is done, again, mostly as anti-Catholic polemic. It is neither good interpretation nor good doctrine.

    The only time I’m aware of a major invocation of justification in Orthodox liturgical services is in Holy Baptism. The person who is Baptized, is then Chrismated. At the removal of the holy chrism (during the rite of ablution and tonsure) the words are used: “You are justified. You are illumined. You are sanctified. You are washed: in the Name of our Lord, Jesus Christ, and by the Spirit of our God.” It is generally treated as synonymous with the other words. It means being made righteous, through union with Christ in Holy Baptism. We are baptized into His death, raised in His resurrection, clothed with His righteousness, sanctified by the Holy Spirit, etc. And that is all one thing, not separate discrete moments. Since Orthodoxy does not see sin as a legal problem, we do not see justification as a legal remedy. Righteousness is a word that describes the very life of God Himself. It what He is. Our problem is ontological (a matter of our actual being) and not legal. What we need is the restoration of our communion with God who alone is Life.

    Justification is “righteous making” in the Greek. We are made righteous by “putting on Christ.” And, we are told, “As many as are Baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” (Gal. 3:27) All of the justification theory of Luther, etc., is of little value within the scope of the Tradition. It was the mountain he made out of a mole hill in order to have somewhere to stand and shake his fist at Rome.

  17. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    It’s a quaint phrase from the 39 Articles (the Anglican summary of doctrine). It was in the article referencing veneration of relics and saints, etc. A very anti-Roman article. The phrase “vain thing and fondly imagined” was popular when I was in seminary. It was the equivalent of a raspberry.

  18. Dean Avatar

    Fr. Freeman,
    Not sure how all this fits into our being made righteous before God. But this interesting O.T. tidbit showing God’s mercy to the poor. If one had sinned, he was to bring a sin offering of a lamb or goat. If these could not be afforded, a pigeon would do. The blood of the animal was offered as a sin offering. Now God’s condescension to the poor. They could offer instead of the blood of an animal, an ephah of fine flour for a sin offering. Lev 5:5-13. No blood required for the forgiveness of sin. Just God’s wonderful mercy…all this prefaced by one confessing his sin before God (vs.5).

  19. Sophia Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    Thank you for this article. I always read your blog but never have commented. For the first time I would like to ask a question. I really appreciate your thought on this.
    You said above that:
    In one, Christ says “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. (Joh 8:34). This concept or image is not isolated. We are not made debtors to God, but we are enslaved by Sin. It is common in the New Testament to see Sin treated as though it were a person. Sometimes it almost seems to be synonymous with the devil himself, though we should not draw that conclusion. But it is seen as an adversary, one who enslaves us. Many people, influenced by the moralistic teachings of contemporary Christianity, are puzzled by this description of sin. For them, sin is simply something we have done wrong. They do not see it as somehow separate from themselves. But it is (cf. “You Are Not Your Sin”). St. Paul distinguishes between himself and “sin that dwells in me” (Ro. 7).

    I have read from other Orthodox authors that sin literally means “missing the mark”…..

    Could you please expound a little bit more clearly your concept (or understanding) of what sin is?
    By the way I read your blog post “You are not your sin” and I liked very much. But now I am somehow confused by the idea of Sin as “person” or “entity”…….I’ve always thought that sin is an action, is an act of will (knowingly or unknowingly) and is a consequence of our perverted passions and natural impulses.

    Thank you so much for your work and God bless you.
    Please forgive my long comment.

    With love in Christ,

  20. Peter Avatar

    Father, you write that Anselm’s theory “borders on pure heresy”.” If I may, why the hedge? The theory as it is used turns God the Father into a monster. For example, here it is as popularly applied in, of all things, a popular children’s Bible story book:

    “Jesus is telling His disciples that He must soon die. He died for you. He died for me. We have done bad things that God must punish. But Jesus asked to be punished for you. God punished Jesus instead of you. Jesus didn’t do anything bad but God punished Him.”

    If this isn’t heresy, straight-up, what is?

    I’m not trying to stir the pot, but I know that you speak carefully and have good reason for doing so.

  21. John Stamps Avatar
    John Stamps

    Hi Fr Stephen!
    There is the following curious passage in On the Incarnation in section XX.2:

    “But beyond all this, there was a debt owing (to opheilomenon) which must needs (edei) be paid (apodothhnai); for, as I said before, all men were due (wpheileto) to die. Here, then, is the second reason why the Word dwelt among us, namely that having proved His Godhead by His works, He might offer the sacrifice on behalf of all, surrendering His own temple to death in place of all, to settle man’s account with death and free him from the primal transgression.” (page 49 in the old St Vlad version)

    I couldn’t find a Greek text online I could easily copy + paste. So I transliterated as best I could from my Frank Leslie Cross edition.

    To me, the issue with atonement “theory” isn’t a matter of finding proof texts one way or another. Rather, it’s the weird christological gymnastics you must jump through when you’ve abstracted your view of Jesus’ death from its proper setting in the life of worship. Penal substitution just looks bizarre and truncated from the perspective of Holy Week, especially Holy Saturday and Pascha. He’s giving us flesh to eat as food!
    My $.02.

  22. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Sin is not a person, but is spoken of in a manner that almost borders on it. As accurately as we can state it: Human beings are created with the gift of being from God. His intention is for us to move from being, toward well-being, and ultimately to eternal being, which is union with the life of God. That’s a breakdown that the Fathers give. Sin is moving away from that mark, the path towards well-being and eternal being.

    So, I do something wrong. Let’s say I tell a lie. That is a movement away from well being, etc. Indeed, since a lie has no truth to it, it is a movement away from just regular being.

    But then (think of this in physical terms). When an object is moving in a particular direction, it tends to keep heading that way. In physics this is called inertia. Sin is like that. Having turned myself away from God and towards something else (away from True Being and towards non-being), there is a sort of inertia set into motion. It tends to pull me along whether I want it or not. Not completely, not entirely, but it seems to have its own force.

    That’s an analogy for how sin works in a manner that is separate from our actions, though related to our actions. St. Athanasius saw our sin as a violation of God’s commandment, and that then we died, as God had warned. But worse than that, it unleashed death into the world so that we not only died (literally), but a process of death began to work in us. That process was called “corruption” (literally the word for “rotting”).

    That process of death, a tendency and pull or inertia towards missing the mark of eternal being, union with God, is at work in the passions. It is at work in many of the situations in the world. It works in such a manner that we find doing doing good to be difficult, even though we were created for good works.

    Hope that helps.

  23. Hugh McCann Avatar
    Hugh McCann

    Father Stephen, Thank you for this thoughtful (though repetitive) piece. We are sure now that you find the “debt” reprehensible. OK.

    You say, The penal substitution theory runs the risk of treating the holding of debt to be a good thing, reducing debtors to the cast of evil doers. This is utterly contrary to Scripture where the opposite is true.

    God & his law are “holy, just, and [all] good.” That may not make us debtors, but it renders us hopeless apart from Christ.

    Are we not required to keep all of God’s law, which law-keeping Jesus Christ did on our behalf?

    And in commenting, you say, Those in debt are not evil, they are captives, even if they got there by their own foolishness or bad choices. Our bondage is not of God’s making. And though we have participated in its creation, neither are we wholly to blame.

    Are we not BOTH: Captives to sin, as well as evil (Psa. 51/50; Jer. 17:9)?

    Falling “short of the glory of God” IS damnable, no?

    Are we not all “cast as evil doers” after the fall, in the divine drama? Sinners saved by God’s grace in Christ?

    Finally, are not all our sins cancelled at Calvary? Is not our “debt” then & there fully cancelled?

    Thank you.

  24. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    But look carefully at what you’re seeing. He uses this debt image, but the debt is “to death,” not to God. The PST is very abstracted and doesn’t fit with everything else.

  25. Sunny Avatar

    Father, bless.

    Just want to also mention Col 2:13-15

  26. Onesimus Avatar


    As I prayed (not thought) about the posts between yourself and Fr. freeman, and my interjections….I found it interesting that the following dos not seem to hold any place in your conceptualization.

    The law is a “schoolteacher” but it cannot justify.

    So…what is it that justifies? One can say faith alone, but this is soundly rejected in both James and in 1 Cor 13. Love is greater than faith; nd faith can only work theough Love. (Gal 5:6)

    The “glory of God” is not the law…but Christ Himslf…who is Love…the “logos” of God…his “the exact counterpart of His Person.” (Herb 1:3) The law points to Him who is the fullfillemt of the law, but the law itself can do nothing but point us to Him and His love. Thus, the law point to Love Himself, and requires that we surrender ourselves to live the same life of Love. Where Christ’s sacrifice makes the Union of human natue]re and the Divine nature a reality for all, it can only be lived into by participating in Love which is self-kenotic and follows the prototokos into death. (Heb 3). The Spirit operates in us as we surrender; “your will and not my will be done.”

    Reading the law in a juridical framework misses the point that the “law was added because of trespasses” and that it is not death to us. (Rom 7:13).

    Only by jettisoning the centrality of love as a living ecclesiology within which to read the Scriptures “in the Spirit”, one is simply grasping at mental constructs.

    The mental constructs you have been indoctrinated into and will not allow yourself to let go of is the notion that God is appeased through the law. But this is not so, He is appeased through that which is “like” Him – I.e. Christ-likeness. (Ps 51:17).

    What is impossible for us to live in; Love – is a gift of the Holy Spirit.

    Those who do not abide in Him (Love) will not allow Him to abide in them.

    Love is not a notion of good intentions or positive feelings; it is the crucifixion of our own flesh as we follow Christ in kenosis, which He alone ,makes possible.

    When we cling to our own minds and our own constructs of “scripture” we are not abiding in Love…but rejecting it in exchange for a forensic imputation of the very thing we are called to live in; Christ-likeness.

    When I Love the other in the Spirit, I seek reconciliation at the cost of my will.

    All Western theology has degenerated into the embrace of individual reason and “distinctive so” which set each other apart. Love seeks unity and oneness at the cost of self…in the path of the cross.

    ‘You will know they are Christians by their love.”

    The fruits of the tree verify Love and its telos. Protestantism seeks, above all, the fallen “reason:” and fallen mind and its opinions over Love.

    ‘Those who do not gather with me, scatter.”

    The impulses and desires of Protestamtism have scattered it and the proof is in its Fruits.

    The Orthodox Christian Faith seeks unity in Love above all things. The faith of the West seeks “triuth” in its own machinations and its own ideas….and as a result does not abide in Love, nor seek to abide in Him, but in its own concepts.

    “You search the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have life, but you refuse to come to Me so that you may have life.”

    Only by destroying our ego and the ego of false notions can we hope to be transformed from “glory to glory” into the Image of the Son.

    Love is the key…not rationalism. Without the former…no one can read scripture and hope to make any sense of it…and will fill in logical syllogisms and systematic speculations to fill in for the Love which is not being lived.

    One can only read the law through Love.

  27. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    In the final analysis, we have very different views of God. “Damnable,” is just weird. God doesn’t want to damn anyone or anything. We are captives to sin. But you have to be careful when you say we are “evil.” Human nature was created good and remains good. In our fallen state we find ourselves unable to live in accordance with our nature. But we are not evil in the sense of an evil nature. For that matter, not even the devil is “evil” by nature. Everything God created is good by nature. There could be no such thing as an evil nature.

    You seem to think that bad things need and deserve to be damned. That’s just juridical nonsense. We are victims as much as we are perpetrators, and probably more so. God doesn’t hate us. He pities us. We are saved by grace, the true Life of God. Our sins are not a collection of wrong-doings. That sort of legal understanding of sin is simply shallow and unable to support the weight of how “sin” is used in the Scriptures. Sin, like death, is destroyed in the Cross. But, like death, we still experience it. It’s ultimate power is broken (we are forgiven), but “we do not yet see all things under His feet.” Sin is not a legal concept such that God says, “I’ll let you go, or consider your debt paid.” That would be saying that sin is a concept in the mind of God. It is not.

    Sin is real (see the answer to Sophia). PSA thinkers treat sin pretty much like my legal “debt” to society. If a judge lets me off or someone pays my fine, then it’s “forgiven.” That is not the imagery or teaching about sin in the Scriptures. Christ likens forgiveness to healing. He basically says “What’s the difference whether I say your sins are forgiven or rise take up your bed and walk.” In the legal notion of sin, the only way to construe that would be to say that the mans palsy is a punishment for sin. And that is not true.

    God is not our enemy. God’s righteousness is not our enemy. We are not our own enemies. You’ve just got the story twisted around.

    All things will be made new in the resurrection. It is there that sin and death will have their final destruction. We do not have a legal problem with God, and we never did. We have a death problem (called sin).

    Speaking of being repetitive. You seem to want to persist in parsing words so that, if possible, some tiny bit of PSA (debt theory) can stick it’s nose in the tent. But what you do not do is actually engage a larger conversation. You do not step back and see that PSA simply is not the story of Scripture. You don’t address its novelty and late composition. You want to parse terms like someone trying to win an argument. That’s not a conversation.

  28. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yes. I mentioned it. The handwriting is nailed to the Cross. Not paid for. It was crucified.

  29. Hugh McCann Avatar
    Hugh McCann


    Of course the law is not death to us, but we are (apart from regeneration) dead to it. Dead in trespasses and sins.

    The law exposes our sin, which, as Paul says, “works death in us.” The law is perfect, good, holy, etc.

    We are none of the above apart from Christ.

    Romans 7:7 What shall we say then? Is the law sin? God forbid. Nay, I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet.

    8 But sin, taking occasion by the commandment, wrought in me all manner of concupiscence. For without the law sin was dead.

    9 For I was alive without the law once: but when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died.

    10 And the commandment, which was ordained to life, *I found to be unto death.*

    11 For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it slew me. 12 Wherefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good.

    13 Was then that which is good made death unto me? God forbid. But sin, that it might appear sin, *working death in me by that which is good;* that sin by the commandment might become exceeding sinful.

    14 For we know that the law is spiritual: but I am carnal, sold under sin. 15 For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I. 16 If then I do that which I would not, I consent unto the law that it is good. 17 Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me.

    18 For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not. 19 For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do. 20 Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me.

  30. Onesimus Avatar

    reformed theology and Western theology as a whole holds to ;

    …” a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof:

    ….from such turn away…

    They are “always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.just as Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so these men also oppose the truth, men of depraved mind, rejected in regard to the faith.…

    But they will not make further progress; for their folly will be obvious to all, just as Jannes’s and Jambres’s folly was also.

    Just turn away from such men Hugh….

    ‘Gird up the loins of you mind….”

  31. Hugh McCann Avatar
    Hugh McCann

    Father Stephen,

    Of course God is not our enemy. We were his, however. Hateful and hating one another, and certainly no lovers of the all-holy God! His righteousness was odious to us until he changed us. Is this not true?

    Is not our sin quite damnable?

    Is that not why the likes of Judas, Esau, Pharaoh and others are sentenced to eternal damnation/ divine cursing. These ARE hated, as God repeatedly says?

    Don’t people ultimately go to hell for not being in Christ? Being estranged from God our heavenly Father?

    ALL: Can we PLEASE question and answer one another without pejorative attacks on one’s tradition, or read into our responses things that we’re not saying?

    FATHER: I am not advocating for “debt.” I am asking why it’s a wrong idea.

    Nor am I (yet) promoting the penal substitutionary atonement (PSA) of Christ. So please stop accusing me of things I am not doing or attempting to do.

    ONESIMUS: You sound like Patrick Barnes! 🙂

    This is at the end of the day NOT a forum for free speech and exchange of ideas you (al) deem UnOrthodox and unorthodox; I realize that. But I am honestly trying to ask WHY my position is wrong.

    If it’s merely that I and those agreeing with me are just entirely wrong-headed/ wrong -hearted, then there really seems little purpose in my interacting with you here.

    I want to, but not to be constantly attacked, with no recourse to answer in kind. It’s up to Father Stephen and you all.

    I honestly wish you all a most meaningful and moving Great & Holy Friday and a Glorious Pascha.

    He is (so thankfully) risen indeed!

  32. Mark Avatar

    Wow! Thanks again Fr. Stephen.

    Luke 17:11-19 relates the cleansing of 10 lepers. I think it’s pretty well agreed that leprosy is a type for sin. Jesus tells the 10 to go and show themselves to the priests and as they go, they are healed.

    In Leviticus (14:1-7), priests were given instructions regarding the cleansing of lepers. Part of the ceremony involved two birds, one of which was to be slain in an earthenware vessel over running water (I think the Jews called it “living water”). The living bird was to be dipped into the blood of the slain bird (baptized into its death?) and then it was to be set free over the open field.

    And this was to be a witness to the priests.

    I may be trying to read too much into this, but it appears to me that there isn’t any idea of debt (or even obligation) involved in the bird set free.

    Someone once noted that love coerced isn’t love.

  33. Karen Avatar

    Peter, the children’s story you mention is reflecting the later Reformed Penal Substitution theory, not Anselm’s theory, though PST is built upon aspects of Anselm’s theory. PST says Jesus took God’s punishment for our sin. Anselm said Jesus restored God’s honor by offering Himself on the Cross.

  34. Ben Marston Avatar
    Ben Marston

    Yet the lack of honor we have offered to God was not a debt to be solved in God but a debt in the created order of things, from a reading of Cabasilas I have seen. I was praying about epiation. God, I said, ‘teach me about expiation’. At work I was drinking a coconut water. While I was out, a lady thought it was hers and she drank my coconut water. When I discovered it and pointed it out, I did so having already forgiven her and she didn’t need to pay for the coconut water. She accepted the forgiveness but then said ‘but I still feel wrong.’ So, I allowed her to pay for the coconut water, not to resolve a debt on my behalf but to resolve the sense of unsatisfaction she had in the created order- her inner sense of oughtness. My allowing her to pay for the coconut water did not expiate anything in me, but in the order of human nature and human justice, after the order of the Divine. Likewise, the legal problem we have with God is not owing anything to God, but is rooted in our creaturliness- Christ’s expiatorial work expiated that need in us, not in God.
    Justification, after all is a forensic category. We are working too hard to explain away the sacrifice of Christ for us. There is something in our creatureliness that requires that blood be shed to expiate the shedding of blood. It isn’t a problem in God; it is a problem in us, rooted in our having been made in the image of God.

  35. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I would not use the term “sentenced to eternal damnation.” Again, the imagery (backstory) determines the language. The whole “penal” thing is in the language of “sentenced to eternal damnation.” Hell is a matter of deep conversation. Whatever it is, it is not, I think, a matter of eternal punishment for wrongdoing. It would, in that case, actually be unjust. In legal terms, the “sin” is not so great as to merit eternal suffering. But there is hell and it is real. I have no idea about Esau, Pharaoh, not even Judas in the final analysis. I do not understand the language of “hate” to mean anything similar to what we mean by hate. God is love.

    The backstory of debt is simply not present in the Scriptures in the sense you seem to want to use it. That’s it’s problem. And it carries with it an entirely different way of understanding the problem of sin, the nature of forgiveness. It is, in that sense, an alternate gospel. That’s why it’s wrong. It is not how the Church speaks. It’s not the grammar of the Fathers or Orthodoxy. And it matters how we speak about these things. That’s what’s wrong with it. I’m not certain how to explain that in any other way. Why is it wrong? A. It’s unscriptural B. It’s contrary to the Tradition C. It presents an alternate way of understanding the nature of sin and redemption that leads people astray.

    Thank you for the well-wishes. It is a blessed three days coming up.

  36. Peter Avatar

    Ah, thank you Karen.

  37. Byron Avatar

    Don’t people ultimately go to hell for not being in Christ? Being estranged from God our heavenly Father?

    Not to open a new can of worms here but, as I understand the Orthodox concept of hell, it is not estrangement from God. It is God’s love shone upon those who turned away from Him; the greatest Love of all. It is their realization of what they’ve lost (St. Gregory, I think) and even (still) hate. This loss is like fire to those who still turn to themselves and not to God. But it is not separation from God; He never leaves us.

  38. Mike H Avatar
    Mike H

    Thanks for this.

    I don’t see PSA as “one-side of a multi-sided diamond” as I’ve heard it said. Nor in the end is it a sort of harmless theological oddity. I think it’s dangerous and destructive and wrong. It very nearly destroyed my faith, and yet it is tough to shake.

    I think it fundamentally misrepresents the human condition and the nature and character of God. And I appreciated the thought that “atonement theory” cannot be concisely understood in a clean set of, say, 4 propositions. It touches on everything. That’s why it’s so important.

    A few requests, and perhaps you’ve touched on these previously Father.

    What do we do with the language of “ransom”?

    And what do we do with the language of “forgiveness”? How is this to be understood ontologically? With this one in particular, I often see an ontological view of life and salvation combined with a forensic view of forgiveness. Eventually, that forensic view embeds itself, even within ontological imagery.

  39. Yaro Avatar

    Sorry but I’m having a hard time understanding the purpose of this article. Is it to say that we are not all under sin? Is it to simply say that all Orthodox are right and Protestants are wrong? Seems like word tricks. The Bible teaches we are all under sin and a substitutionary sacrifice is necessary. This is the point of animal sacrifices in the old testament, this is why Christ became a sacrifice in the new. To atone for sin. How you word it seems irrelevant. Or did I miss something?

  40. Hugh McCann Avatar
    Hugh McCann

    Thanks Byron.

    Our God is a consuming fire, and his presence is the eternal torment of the wicked.

    Hebrews 12:29 & 2 Thes. 1:7b-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….

    But we disagree, I know. You make a reply; I will not. Bye….

  41. Hugh McCann Avatar
    Hugh McCann

    Dear Father Stephen & Co.,

    Thank you. The more we write, the farther apart we evidence ourselves to be.

    I’ll leave with 1 Cor. 15:1-4, and again wish everyone a blessed end to a Great Lent.

    Moreover, brethren, I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand; by which also ye are saved, if ye keep in memory what I preached unto you, unless ye have believed in vain. For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; and that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures….

    With this, I will bow out and get off the blog.

    I have greatly enjoyed and appreciated the help you’ve all been in your individual ways, and yet, all from within your faith tradition. I look forward to continuing to read this great blog as well as other Orthodox writers.

    I do not want to usurp Fr Stephen’s authority or try his grace & patience any more than I already have.

    Thank you,

    FWIW: I am reading Protopresbyter Michael Pomazansky’s Orthodox Dogmatic Theology. His comments on salvation and original sin are helpful. (So too, the lengthy footnote on sin by translator/ editor Seraphim Rose.)

  42. Onesimus Avatar


    I get what you are saying and where you are coming from.

    The issue I’m trying to point out is that you will never be satisfied until things meet up with your brain and its ideas.

    There can’t be movement forward if you are submitting to your fallen intellect and not the Spirit of love.

    I say this only as one who has struggled with my own mind (and continues to) and had to in the face of a clear experience with God (while still Protestant) jettison my own rules and frameworks for underetanding God on my terms.

    I came to Orthodoxy as an opponent….

    And here I am….

    I still oppose…

    But I’m learning the difference between my own thoughts (and the thoughts of the evil one) and the mind of Christ.

    I’ve given you plenty of opportunities to engage with me off this board where you can take off the gloves.

    If you are here to try to see something, great!

    But if you are here to stiffen your own resolve because things don’t comport to a later Christian heresy you’ve been taught….

    “You will be ever seeing but never perceiving….ever hearing but never understanding.”

    You’re trying to get your. Ind around a thing without surrendering yourself to it.

    That’s not an attack…that’s Orthodoxy.

    If you want to understand Orhtodox love, you have to contend with that.

    If you want to wrangle over Johnny-come-lately theological speculations which deny that the mind and reason are subject to sin and deception….you’ll never be on the ground to come to terms with the faith we speak of.

    So in the end…you need to ask yourself why you are here….if it’s to make things Fit into your readings of Scripture, which are already for,Ed by presuppositions we do not hold….and will never hold….you will continue to not understand.

    Medicine is bitter, but it’s purpose is to restore.

  43. Matt Avatar

    Father, just a few typos, please feel free to delete this comment after they’re fixed:

    > What is clear is that this almost no mention at all.
    missing “is” after “this”

    > “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. (Joh 8:34).
    missing end quote

  44. Matt Avatar


    “PST says Jesus took God’s punishment for our sin. Anselm said Jesus restored God’s honor by offering Himself on the Cross.”

    Thank you for this clarification. I think you’ve simultaneously redeemed both Anselm and the notion of honour in my mind! (Especially when this is re-read in the context of Ben’s anecdote about the coconut water)

  45. Onesimus Avatar

    Btw Hugh,

    You ask WHY your readings of Scripture are wrong, but when offers an Orhtodoox answer, you want to see it as an attack. The bottom line is that the reasons I’ve offered you are the reason according to Scriptures and the life of the Church in Christ.

    I’m sorry that this is a problem for you….but it’s the answer….

    You want me to explain to you why you can’t rationally understand a love letter than presupposes that one is living and surrendering to that love in an Orthodox (Christ-like) manner.

    You throw out scriptures but assign to all of them your own definitions….and every time we attempt to tell you that is incorrect….you say “agree to disagree” or I don’t read it that way….

    You’re not trying to understand Orthodoxy…you are holding your round and dismissing what we tell you.

    I love you…but love also includes the truth. The truth is that the mind runs rampant with over human love must as much as ramp and sexuality runs over the love in the gospel. The foundation of the gospel is selfless love. Therefore, one who is not trying to be selfless as the Church has always understood and lived that life cannot “get” intellectually what is only found in a life of love.

    With that said, I am going to bow out of conversations here with you….and should you wish to reach out to me…you know how to do it.

    God bless you.

  46. Alan Avatar

    Onesimus, you wrote: “Love is the key, not rationalism.” This is a great point that you make. It’s one the things that turned me away from the Evangelical / Calvinistic movement. I grew tired of a faith that was pretty much all between the ears. Those who were deemed to be most spiritual were those who had read the most and could argue the best. I always thought that the thief on the cross would never have been accepted by those in my former church, as he seemingly knew little theology. The key though is that he had an actual encounter with the living God.

    Fr Andrew Stephen Damick made a great observation in his book/podcast “O & H” when he noted that modern day Evangelicalism is highly gnostic. As many have noted on this blog (in the comments), pretty much all of Protestantism can be learned by reading books. Not so with Orthodoxy.

  47. Dino Avatar

    Our God is a consuming fire, and his presence is the eternal torment of the wicked.

    A child that shuts eyes and ears not to hear their father speaking ‘I love you’ for they have come to love their sinning against their father more than him is not being punished by their father but by their own self-mania.

    The concepts of debt, vengeance, torment, etc, when unreservedly espoused and heedlessly hurled around – as they are in the characteristic Western manner you seem reluctant to object to – are, regrettably, the real seeds of modern atheism and anti-theism.
    They also provide a perilous lens, through which one’s interpretation of things – as Onesimus pointed out – becomes an immense hindrance to the advent of that Christ-like Love that loves its enemies. The commandment to unconditionally love our enemies as God does would make no sense at all if we also wanted to retain notions that this commandment’s Giver is vengeful, or requires conditions, and if we want to maintain that such [‘harsh’] scriptural phrases are literal rather than anthropomorphist expressions.

  48. Alan Avatar

    “We do not have a legal problem with God, and we never did. We have a death problem (called sin).” I love this Father. Thank you.

    The Orthodox are fond of speaking of The Church as being a hospital.
    It seems that for the reformed folks, they might refer to their church as being a courtroom.

  49. Onesimus Avatar


    Indeed…I go to an evangelical seminary. Late;y, I’ve had the dubious honor of having two southern baptists try to bring me the “gospel.”

    When I tell them that the I,age and likeness of God is love….not the mind…they absolutely go bonkers. God is rational! God is logic!

    But of course by this they mean logic as it was handed to them by the Enlightenment (which makes rationalism and individual reason their tradition).

    When I bring up the mentally handicapped or the boy born without a brain and ask how these are still the image and likeness of God if they don’t use “reason” like they do….they cry that I’ve brought up a logical fallacy by appealing to emotion.

    They are more content to believe that baby’s are damned to hell and cannot participate in Gods love until they can reason through it than accept that their own propositions have led them to deny Love Himself.

    “I praise You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants.”

    In the end, it truly does take an act of self crucifixion to bypass our fallen minds and its psychological hang ups and trust the “body of Christ” and take on his mind.

    It must be said also, that we struggle even as Orhtodox in this…and are no better that our Protestant brethren. The gift we receive is not our own.

  50. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Hugh, I cannot comment on the vast majority of the specifics of you questions and presuppositions. I was never a Protestant. In some ways I was worse a syncretist who ended up with a plate filled with bits and pieces of many if the classical heresies.

    These things are not simply matters of opinion that we can agree to disagree about. Heresy is literally a matter of life and death. So we contend with you not out of malice but exactly the opposite.

    It probably feels like an attack but it is more like seeing some one about to step over a cliff into an abyss. Gentle words do not usually help. However a shout–stop! You are going to die might get the attention or roughly grabbing some one to turn them away.

    You did not come here by accident. Listen, I beg you.

  51. Dino Avatar

    Based on one of Father Alexander Schmemann’ [quite anti-PSA ] description of tomorrow’s services I am reminded that Christ offers His Death to His Father to annihilate death, (that men be saved from it according to the Father’s will). And to us because in truth Christ dies instead of us. Death, being the natural fruit of sin, is what man comes across (having no life in himself and by himself) when he chooses to alienate himself from God. Yet there is no sin/alienation and, therefore, no death in Christ. It is He Himself that wilfully accepts to die, only because of His love for us. He wants to assume and to share our human condition to the end. He accepts the worst consequences/punishment/hell of our alienated nature, as He assumed the whole burden of the human predicament. He dies because He has truly identified Himself with us, has indeed taken upon Himself the tragedy of man’s life. His death is the ultimate revelation of His compassion and love. And because His dying is love, compassion and co-suffering, in His death the very nature of death is changed. From punishment it becomes the radiant act of love and forgiveness, the end of alienation and solitude. His death is a saving death because it destroys the very source of death: evil. By accepting it in love, by giving Himself to His murderers and permitting their apparent victory, Christ reveals that, in reality, this victory is the total and decisive defeat of Evil. To be victorious Evil must alienate as well as annihilate Good, prove itself to be the ultimate truth about life, discredit the Good and show its own superiority. But throughout the whole Passion it is Christ and He alone who triumphs, never giving in to not co-suffering, never becoming alienated from neither man nor God no matter the alienation he is faced with. His Glory becomes all the more obvious in his loving communion of our predicament despite His innocence and our murderousness.

  52. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Dino, et al
    If I were teaching seminary (I’ve thought about this before), I would require students to write out a summary of the gospel – the good news – what is wrong with us, how we got there, and what Christ does for us and how. Essentially being able to do, in their own words, what St. Athanasius does in On the Incarnation of the Word. And they would not graduate until that became passable. Better yet, when they could tell it in a winsome and persuasive manner. For they’re not prepared for the priesthood until that can be done. It is the soul of a priest’s work.

    In my catechesis, it is essentially what I do. I do it every week all year long and I never stop. It is the work of the gospel.

  53. Byron Avatar

    Sorry but I’m having a hard time understanding the purpose of this article. Is it to say that we are not all under sin? Is it to simply say that all Orthodox are right and Protestants are wrong? Seems like word tricks. The Bible teaches we are all under sin and a substitutionary sacrifice is necessary. This is the point of animal sacrifices in the old testament, this is why Christ became a sacrifice in the new. To atone for sin. How you word it seems irrelevant. Or did I miss something?

    Hello Yaro. You have indeed “missed something”. It appears you may have missed the teaching of the atonement, based on this post.

    If you have not yet done so, I highly recommend going back and reading on this blog. It is only four posts back so you’re not really “delving into the archives”. The discussion that led to this post began there and there are a great many excellent comments in it that will be extremely helpful in framing this post for you. It should help you better understand the Orthodox view of the Atonement.

  54. Sophia Avatar

    Thank you Father Stephen. It helped a lot.
    Have a blessed and joys Pascha!


  55. Fotina Avatar

    Father bless,
    Good News!
    The Word of the Cross
    “And, by the way, here you have a wonderful sermon of Saint Augustine, and a very similar one I found in Saint Symeon the New Theologian (in the 11th century, Augustine in the 5th century), where he said this: “Christ — the Logos, the Divine Son of God — is the one by whom, through whom all things were made; he’s the one [in] whose image we are all made; he’s the one in whom everything holds together.” And then he said, “But he’s the one who emptied himself and came upon the earth.” And then he picks up the Matthew 25 parable of the Last Judgment, and he says, “Jesus is the bread of life. But he comes on the world, and he said, ‘I hunger.’ So that hungering with those who hunger, he could feed them with the bread of life through his hungering.” Then he said, “Jesus is the one who hangs the earth upon the waters, who sends the waters upon the earth to bring fruit; who sends the living water into the hearts of the disciples. But he comes on the earth, emptying himself, hanging on the cross, and he says, ‘I thirst.’ And by his thirsting, he satisfies every thirsting person with the water of life that flows from his side from the tree of the cross. So by thirsting, he becomes the water of life.” Then he said, “Everything belongs to him, and he comes on the earth and is alienated, ‘I had no home,’ he said, ‘Birds have nests, foxes have dens, the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.’ And so he comes into the world, rejected by the world, outside the walls of Jerusalem, hanging on the cross, so that by his rejection, we could all be taken home again, and overcome all alienation in communion with God, and living in a house with many mansions forever and ever with God. So by his alienation and estrangement, he takes us home.” And then he said, “He’s the one who clothes the world with light as with a garment. He’s the one who feeds every living thing,” and so on. And he says, “He who clothes the world with light as with a garment, who clothes us with the robe of salvation, how does he do it? He does it by coming on the earth and being naked. Naked in the Bethlehem cave. Naked in the Jordan River. Naked hanging upon the cross. Naked in the tomb. That by his nakedness we could be clothed with divinity.” And everyone baptized in Christ clothes themselves with Christ, and then he becomes himself the robe of salvation. But he only does it by being naked first. And then he says, of course, “He is the one who heals everyone. But how does he heal? By being wounded. By his wounds we are healed. His wounds become our wounds. Our wounds are connected to his wounds, and that’s the way we get healed. And then ultimately, he’s life itself, and how does he give life to the world? By dying. And through his death, life comes.” So if you take that parable, “I was hungry, I was thirsty, I was naked, I was in prison,” and he was in prison, he was arrested to set us free, he undergoes all of that. That’s why he can say, “If you did it to the least, you have done it to me.” Because he is everyone.”
    -Fr. Thomas Hopko–Memory Eternal

  56. Karen Avatar

    Beautiful, Fotina! Thanks for that. It reminded me of one of my favorite hymns for this week:

    Today is suspended upon the Tree, He who suspended the land upon the waters.
    A crown of thorns crowns Him, who is the king of the angels.
    He is wrapped about with the purple of mockery, who wrapped the heavens with clouds.
    He received smitings, He who freed Adam in the Jordan.
    He was transfixed with nails, who is the Son of the Virgin.
    We worship Thy passion, O Christ.
    Show us also Thy glorious Resurrection.

  57. Eleftheria Avatar

    “Devotion is one thing, reverence is another – just as Eastern Orthodox devotio differs from Western European reverence. Devotion has divine Grace, while reverence is of the human mind.” – Saint Paisios

    I’ll take devotion anytime, especially this week!
    Kali Anastasi to all!

  58. Karen Avatar


    Along with Orthodox Dogmatic Theology, allow me to suggest a slow, prayerful devotional reading of the Gospels (i.e., reading for the purpose of drawing nearer to Christ in communion) alongside reading, or better listening to, the prayers and hymns of the Orthodox Church connected to major events in the Gospels, especially its 12 major Feasts. Much of this is available on my jurisdiction’s web site at I frequently use it myself as a convenient way to follow the daily Scrpture readings of our lectionary.

    If you do this with the sincere intent to know and conform yourself to the heart of our Savior–who is Himself the fullness of the Truth–above all else, it will surely bear good fruit! God bless you!

  59. Hugh McCann Avatar
    Hugh McCann

    Thanks for the heartfelt concerns, Onesimus & Michael.

    Amen, Yaro.

  60. alienus dilectus Avatar
    alienus dilectus

    All sacrifices are representatives not substitutions. Adam should have offered himself in obedience to God in the garden, but he disobeyed and could not achieve theosis. Adam, as head of humanity, failed in his representative offering. Abel’s sacrifice, the first recorded in Scripture, begins the long foreshadowing of the representative shedding of blood through sacrifice pointing to Christ. The slain animals of the Old Testament sacrifices represent the one who offers the sacrifice; it is not a substitute for him. The exterior shedding of blood is representative of the interior self-sacrifice; therefore, we have, as Aquinas says, the Old Testament sacraments.

    Christ is the second Adam in whom humanity is recapitulated, re-headed. Christ represents humanity in offering his perfect obedience, culminating in the shedding of his blood on the cross. He’s not being punished, he’s not being a substitute for us, he’s being our representative as mediator between God and man.

    Insofar as we allow Adam to be our representative, we will share in his sin and death. Insofar as we allow the second Adam, Christ, to be our representative, we will share in his obedience, life, and resurrection.

    How do we share in Adam’s dead life of slavery? Through the disobedience of sin.
    How do we share in Christ’s living life as sons? Through the obedience of faith.

    We are born into Adam through our natural births. We are born again into the second Adam by baptism, chrismation, and the eucharist.

    Christ didn’t die so that we wouldn’t have to suffer and die. He died as our representative, so that our suffering and death becomes transformative insofar as we are mystically united to him as sons. “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of sonship. When we cry, Abba! Father! it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Rom 8:15-17).

  61. Richard Avatar

    Literally translated the word tetelestai means, “It is finished.” The word tetelestai was also written on business documents or receipts in New Testament times to show indicating that a bill had been paid in full. The Greek-English lexicon by Moulton and Milligan says this:
    “Receipts are often introduced by the phrase [sic] tetelestai, usually written in an abbreviated manner…” (p. 630). The connection between receipts and what Christ accomplished would have been quite clear to John’s Greek-speaking readership; it would be unmistakable that Jesus Christ had died to pay for their sins.

  62. Dino Avatar

    Although that connection is something to perhaps consider (in a non-PSA manner however, as it is also used in the last part of the salutations to the Mother of God explaining the ‘tearing apart of sin’s obligation’), as a native Greek I would somewhat disagree with such an assertion’s pre-eminence at a very fundamental level. At hearing “τετέλεσται”, it would be equally -if not more so- likely to interpret it as “it is completed”, or as “it is finished”, the least likely would be to ever come up with the interpretation “it is paid” however, irrespective of the connection between receipts/bills (at a later date when the written word took the centrality we now assume) with tetelestai, such an interpretation would be particularly strained.

  63. Matt Avatar


    Fr. Stephen was a bit quick to dismiss that alleged use of “tetelestai” (actually a slightly different version of it) in another comment worth reading, but did not give a source.

    Of course, it’s very hard to give a source to prove a negative like that, so I’m trying to Google now. (The fact that this “fact” has such different particulars in that other thread should itself be at least a yellow or very deep orange flag, however.)

    Here’s a good discussion on StackExchange, which also discusses the alternate Roman prison version in the replies.

    It also links to this more direct rebuttal.

    I don’t know anything about Moulton and Milligan, though Strong’s has (c) I pay, so there’s still a payment reference there though to hang all of PSA on this feels like taking Darwin’s reference to distinct species (modern evolutionary theory does not consider species to be very distinct) and concluding that he was actually a creationist.

    In any event, I don’t think the root word telos is, without significant supporting context, used primarily to refer to payment of things? (Its use when loaned into English is generally nothing of the sort.)

    (Also, the word I usually see on receipts nowadays is “RECEIVED” – imagine going through all the uses of that in the Bible and reinterpreting all the soteriology and Christology from a monetary perspective!)

  64. newenglandsun Avatar

    “What does it matter that you like St. Anselm’s theory? It’s not Scriptural, it’s not part of the Tradition. It has been increasingly abused until it borders on pure heresy. What’s to like?”
    I didn’t see your comment until just now. I wouldn’t say that I like St Anselm’s theory per se (at least the way he explains it). I like his theology. It’s not part of the Eastern tradition but there are many things the Byzantine Church affirms that the Assyrian Church of the East and the Oriental Orthodox would say are not part of tradition either.

    I’m not saying his theory is scriptural either.

    In addition, David B Hart has also proffered a more Eastern Orthodox understanding of Anselm’s view of the atonement here:

  65. Joseph Barabbas Theophorus Avatar


    The Bible teaches no such thing about substitutionary atonement. No one is saying we don’t struggle with sin or need healing from it—quite the opposite. But the words substitute, substitution, and any other form are not *anywhere* in the New Testament—neither in the account of The Gospels nor The Epistles which are so often used to support that novel theory (I checked the KJV, NRSV, DRB, NIV, and a few others—check yourself if you don’t believe me). Fr. Stephen already showed how few places the word “debt” is found, and that it is not something that is good or righteous or just. Clearly, substitutionary atonement is *not scriptural*; it is pure eisegesis. I second Byron’s suggestion to reread Fr. Stephen’s recent post The Ladder Of Divine Ascent And Moral Improvement; there are others that will help, too: just search for posts tagged with “Atonement” (under the “Doctrine” menu) and try other tags when you finish those posts.

    Since there are a lot of very good comments that are clarifying what is not in The Bible, I would like to provide another positive answer to what the Orthodox believe using the very fruitful metaphor of The Church as a hospital. Sin is like a disease, even losing a limb. It is not a legal problem. Even if you try to force it into that unbiblical mold, forgiving it in some Western, juridical sense does nothing. Ok, you forgive the person who lost the limb (for what? I don’t even know. Maybe he did something silly to lose it? But maybe he didn’t: sin—like losing a limb—needn’t be intentional or voluntary in the Orthodox view.). But, even with that legal pronouncement of “It’s null and void, you’re in the clear, you’re not guilty!”, does that do *anything* to bring back the man’s limb? Nope! And that is why a view of salvation that teaches such a thing—that Christ came to give court pronouncements or take care of some kind of legal problems we were having—is not only unscriptural but completely bankrupt. It does nothing to save, nothing to heal, and, whatever the “ruling”, does nothing to change reality. In contrast, Orthodoxy teaches that salvation is the *healing* of the limb. Sin is not something that has any existence in itself; it is a lack of existence, a failure to truly be. Likewise, the lost limb is not an infraction, broken commandment, or some fault that needs to be declared “All good!” (though all these things lead to “broken limbs”, as The Law witnesses), but rather a deficit or debt (if you want to use that scarcely-biblical language) that needs to be healed. It is not a debt in the sense of modern capitalism (that is just anachronism—again, *not* in concert with the Fathers’s teachings on the matter) or economics generally but in the sense of lacking. Think about it: to whom does the man with a missing limb owe a debt to? Certainly not God—God doesn’t have it stowed away somewhere in some heavenly limb warehouse, ready to return it if the man just finds some way (or someone) to repay The Father. Satan doesn’t have it secretly stashed somewhere. The closest thing we could come to saying is that Death has it—but not in the sense that Death has it hidden away or that the man can strike a bargain to get it back. Remember, Death is nothingness: that limb is gone. There is no way the man can even make a deal: how do you pay Death, how does it give back the limb it has swallowed? That is the correct meaning of debt in this context. So, what does Christ do? The only thing that can be done: he restores the limb. He doesn’t talk about it, change His (or His Father’s) mind about it, or sacrifice Himself to “pay” for it or some other nonsense: He really and truly restores the limb.

    Why the sacrifice on The Cross? There is a lot that could be said (to grossly understate the significance of The Cross) but, keeping with the metaphor, we don’t just have a spiritual missing limb: we have all sorts of maladies that pull us towards non-being. Our nature is still good, yes, but we have marred the likeness so much that our nature can become a trap for us: even the good things that God gave us—the need for food, the ability to direct anger at non-being, our rational minds, etc.—have been affected by sinful passions to a large degree and become sources of more non-being (Sin, Death). We need healing down to the deepest parts of us. And so Christ entered into every single one of those parts—he became sin for us and even entered into the depths of Death—in order to bring healing restoration on those things. By uniting Himself, The God Who cannot see death and corruption and incompleteness, with us, who are dust becoming dust and the very definition of inconsistency and infirmity, He brought that Life and Completeness to the entirety of our being. Again, there is no payment, no substitution going on here—who/why do you pay and what in the world do you need a substitute for? Christ isn’t sick, you are! He doesn’t need healing Himself, you do! His Blood is not a payment to The Father (nor were the animal sacrifices in the OT—again, that is *not* what the OT says; actually, it says *the very opposite*: “with whole-burnt offerings Thou shalt not be pleased.” (Psalm 50 (51))), but Life Itself: He gives us His Blood because that is how we get healed. He gives us His Body because His Body Is Immortality. And that is what is going on throughout the Epistles: all the language you see about Christ’s sacrifice for sins is speaking about this. Christ didn’t come to fix The Father, He came to fix *us*—and not fake fix us (e.g., in The Father’s mind, in some juridical declaration, or according to some external standard), but actually shower *literal* healing and *true* restoration on all. The only way to fight Death is with Life (not more killing!), and He gave His Life—True Life—so that Death is not only defeated, but completely destroyed for all men.

  66. Joseph Barabbas Theophorus Avatar


    The myth of tetelestai referencing a bill that Christ paid has already been debunked by Fr. Stephen in a comment in his post Getting Your Mind Right:

    I strongly suspect what you’ve heard is a bit of Evangelical “urban legend” style preaching. The verb can indeed carry the meaning of a debt being paid. It’s just interesting to think of the Roman prison system operating in Greek. Roman law was decidedly a Latin affair.

    Also, I would trust and stand by Dino’s opinion of this word’s translation—as a Greek and regular commenter, he is certainly more qualified and has a more traditional interpretation than a modern scholar who is not only trying to ram the PSA train through places where payment is mentioned [in any context] but even places that have nothing at all—even remotely—to do with it!

    As I understand The Gospels, the synoptics are going to give you a more familiar, historical picture of Christ and his ministry. They are *not* literal nor are they they historical in the modern sense but, compared to John, they contain a lot of day-to-day details and material that might be easily recognized by contemporary eyewitnesses. John, on the other hand, is not written this way—it is written expressly from the perspective of Pascha, in the light of the revelation of The Resurrection. Just look at how it starts: it’s not about a birth—even a long-prophesied birth from the Davidic line—but about the workings of The Godhead, the creation of the world, and the unquestionable Divinity of The Son. Similarly, it omits a lot of details you’ll find in the other accounts and replaces them with a “behind-the-scenes” vision of what really took place: it reveals the inner thoughts of the people, the significance of many events, and makes it obvious that Jesus Is God, in total control of every event, throughout the narrative. For example, what is happening when, according to St. Luke, Jesus is sweating Blood? He is praying His high-priestly prayer for the life of the world—if He is sweating Blood, it is His Life-Giving Blood which Is Poured Out, even before the foundation of the world, not in fear but in Divine, Suffering, Self-Giving Love! So, when St. John writes about something that is not in the other Gospels, it is not some mundane detail that the others missed but, more than likely, a spiritual revelation of what *really* happened. So when Christ says “It is finished”—we don’t even know if this is something Christ said verbally, given how St. John writes—He isn’t talking about something insignificant, external, and foreign like the Roman legal system. He was a Jew, and this is a revelation of something hidden in The Scriptures. Like I said to Yaro above and as Fr. Stephen (and many valiant others) has repeatedly demonstrated, the language of debt, substitution, etc. is not part of the narrative—or even present in any way, in the case of the word substitution. What he is talking about is the creation of man. As you’ll note a few verses later, in 19:34, St. John also records the fulfillment of the prophecies in Genesis 1:2, 2:6, etc. (where did you think the water came from, the water present with (before?) Creation and which, quite literally, made Creation grow?)—clearly, the language hearkens back to the creation story. Fr. John Behr has given many talks about this kind of thing which you might find very edifying. Here is one of the more extensive: . The audio is not the best (especially for the first talk), but this should help you see how to interpret things in the way of The Early Church. (Sidenote: His 3rd talk is a bit confusing, probably because he hasn’t studied the mystery of marriage as much as other contemporaries (such as Fr. Josiah Trenham) and thus he seems to read euphemisms into St. Paul that aren’t there, etc.. It it is still a worthwhile talk, just note that the Orthodox idea of marriage is *very* different than the modern one and that Orthodox marriage is supposed to reflect Christ’s marriage to The Church, His relationship to The Theotokos, and so on—there is no modernistic idea of using fire to put out fire or a related license for pleasure. But that is another topic unto itself!) So, I think that—the connection with Creation—is what St John’s readers would have understood in the words “It is finished”, especially since his Gospel was (and still is) used as a catechism and a guide for Christians to understand the OT correctly.

  67. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Richard and Matt,
    If you look at Kittel’s (Strong’s is academic junk), the word is indeed used in the sense of payment, but only in the sense that the payment is “complete.” We would say, “paid,” but it says, “It is completed.” It has many other meanings as well, including any kind of generic, “It is complete.” It’s from the word that means to “end” something, related to “telos” “the end.” To read the English “paid” into it is a mistake. To read PSA into it is also incorrect. It would be weird to suddenly see the appearance of such a concept in John’s gospel where there is no hint of it elsewhere. And, no, Jesus isn’t announcing PSA from the Cross. He’s speaking in John’s gospel. The question is, “What, here, is being finished?” The obvious and traditional answer is “creation.” John’s gospel begins with creation and here Christ completes that which was begun in Adam. Now Adam is truly fulfilled and complete.

    This is the problem with PSA exegetes. They never read what’s there and always read things into a verse, without any regard for the rest of the context. To read a sudden reference to Roman solider’s bill stubs is just perverse.

  68. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Hart is far too generous, I think, with Anselm. But Hart’s an interesting piece of work.

  69. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Hart is much more generous with regard to Anselm. Actually, I think Hart likes to be slightly contrary and banging on Anselm has long been a favorite Orthodox sport. Hart likes to show that he’s read more than the rest of us and understands more, both of which are quite true. It’s not Anselm who is the problem. He was just working to teach something. It’s what got developed afterward into the PSA that is the problem.

    Problematic, I think, is any version of the atonement in which God is changed, or in which God, God’s honor, God’s justice, etc., is the object of the atonement. As Met. Kallistos Ware has said, “In the atonement, God does not change. Man changes.” Or words to that effect. It is essential to saying anything about the atonement correctly. It’s the doctrine of God implied in the PSA theory that is heretical. It is like the most anti-Marcionite position possible. Marcion rightly recognizes the problem with the portrayal of the OT God. That portrayal is dealt with largely through reinterpretation in the Fathers. Marcion went Gnostic and said that the OT God was the devil. But the PSA people think that there’s no problem with the OT God, and they keep trying to read Him into the New. They need the mean Jesus, and the angry God, and they magnify that portrayal at every turn. This is contrary to the Tradition. I not only don’t like it. I positively loathe it. It creates atheists, frightens children, and speaks of a God not worthy of worship.

  70. Karen Avatar

    Wonderful summary, alienus dilectus, of the real nature and meaning of biblical sacrifice and of the nature of the gospel.

  71. Jeremias Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    In relation to your comment about completing or ending a debt, I wish to ask:

    I have often thought that Christ’s utterance of the first words of Psalm 21 (22), “My God, My God…” must be related to his later remark “It is finished” or completed/accomplished, which are the final words of the same Psalm (in certain translations anyway). Is there any warrant in the Fathers for assuming that Christ is both beginning and ending that Psalm on the cross?


  72. Karen Avatar

    “It creates atheists, frightens children, and speaks of a God not worthy of worship.”

    Yes, and this is why we loathe it, not because we want to make light of sin or of God’s “justice” or whatever. PSA makes God our Accuser and the One who condemns and destroys sinners, not the One who saves them–in short, it blasphemes God and presents people with an image of God that inspires hatred, fear and revulsion–the very opposite of what the vision of Jesus in the Gospels inspires. (Though, to be sure, this is quite unwitting on the part of most, if not all, PSA adherents.) The “God” imagined in PSA is simply not the One revealed in the Face of Jesus Christ on the Cross. “He who has seen Me has seen the Father.”

  73. Dino Avatar

    Funnily enough we were all just hearing John 17:4 already pre-anouncing the same tetelestai of John 19:30 (in the traditional understanding of “it is finished”, or it is completed/accomplished : ‘I have finished the work which Though gavest me’)

  74. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    There is another inversion in PSA that I think is prudent to mention: PSA, IMO, creates God in man’s image (fallen man) rather than allowing man to be transformed fully into who we are created to be. That, as Father Stephen points out, is what make it heretical: It says wrong things about God and about man as well. It postulates, it seems, that man cannot really change, even the power of God cannot change we evil slugs. Before our intransigent, sinful nature even God is impotent. It has always struck me this way–one of the reasons I never entrained becoming Protestant–though I had offers.

    I may be wrong, but isn’t that position kind of the position satan takes?

  75. Paddy Avatar

    I had many a debate with my protestant roommates during and after my conversion to Orthodoxy on this subject.

    One of the points I started with is agreeing on God’s command to “Be Holy; for I am holy.” (Leviticus 11:44) They agreed.

    Moving on, agreeing that Jesus said “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9) and that “If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also” (John 14:7), i.e. that Jesus is the perfect image and likeness of God the Father–the Father is not different from Jesus in nature. They agreed.

    I then asked them if, when they forgive someone, do they require atonement from some source other than the transgressor. Well, of course not, they would say; to forgive someone is to disregard the offense–we move forward as it never happened, so to speak. To be reconciled without demanding retribution.

    “Well, how is that “being holy as God is holy” if God’s holiness demands payment due to being unable to tolerate any transgression?” I would say. “Shouldn’t we become more intolerant of transgressions against us if we are becoming holy as God is? If seeing Jesus we see the Father, where do we find him being so holy that he cannot abide the presence of sin and must punish it?”

    It was at this point that my roommates had to come up with explanations like “The holiness God calls us to is different than His holiness.” or “Because we are sinners, our forgiving of others does not include substitutionary atonement.” In other words, the Scriptures don’t really mean what they say. But it goes to show that one runs into serious problems Trinitarian theology when the nature of Jesus’s holiness is not identical to the Father’s holiness. Penal Substitution creates a dualism within the Trinity.

    Looking at Christ and his Saints, to me, is what shows me that God cancels the debt of sin. It’s quite simple: Jesus is God, and his holy ones are like God. All the holy people I know or have read about have no such characteristic of demanding atonement for sins against them. There is no quality of extreme intolerance to being in the presence of sinners without exacting retribution upon them. They, rather, are able to forgive anyone and everyone, regarding offenses against them as nothing. They cancel the transgressions of others towards themselves.

    Either they are holy and are like God as He is, or they are not saints.

  76. James Isaac Avatar
    James Isaac

    As a former Lutheran I can say, Michael, that it’s not so much the view that God cannot change us, but that our change has little or nothing to do with our salvation. (Since salvation is understood primarily in juridical, legal terms – enabling God who apparently needed blood to make him willing to freely give the kingdom to those who trust in him. Yeah…) The hope there is that in the Eschaton we will be ‘magically’ transformed – not organically as I see the Orthodox understanding to be.

    In Protestantism there is perceived to be a huge discontinuity/gap between who we are now and who we shall be, whereas – someone please correct me if I’m wrong – the Orthodox belief is that there is actually much more of a continuity, no dramatic change in who we are from the moment we die until we meet and/or are raised by God. (For salvation is essentially an ontological, noetic, perceptual thing.)

    If I am right, then I rejoice that our true nature and essence as persons is hidden with Christ in God, lest seeing our filthy outer garments we despair of salvation…

  77. James Isaac Avatar
    James Isaac

    PS. PSA is paganism, pure and simple. Sacrifices to offer payment and appease are demanded by pagan gods, not by He who is Love.

  78. Karen Avatar

    Paddy, I love the simplicity of your process of reasoning from the Scriptures with your friends. It’s maddening how indoctrination in PSA (and the many other false teachings about the meaning of the Scriptures) robs us of the intuitive moral sense we were gifted with in our creation by God in His image to recognize the clear and true meaning of love and forgiveness as well as the meaning and implications of the most simple and straightforward teachings of the Scriptures, such as those in your illustration.

  79. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I’m not sure what translation you’re looking at. It is not in the ending in the Greek (LXX), or most of my English translations.

  80. Nicole from VA Avatar
    Nicole from VA

    From Elder Sophrony’s writing on St. Silouan in The Monk of Mt. Athos

    “I remember a conversation between him and a certain hermit who declared with evident satisfaction:

    ‘God will punish all atheists. They will burn in everlasting fire.’

    Obviously upset the Staretz (St. Silouan) said: ‘Tell me, supposing you went to paradise and there looked down and saw somebody burning in hell-fire—would you feel happy?’

    ‘It can’t be helped. It would be their own fault,’ said the hermit.

    The Staretz answered him with a sorrowful countenance. ‘Love could not bear that,’ he said. ‘We must pray for all.’ (Chapter 3, titled Monastic Striving page 32)

    and from Chapter 5

    “The Lord summed up the whole of Holy Scripture in one short saying” ‘Love God and thy neighbour.’ Yet the meaning of Christ’s word love will remain a mystery for the philologist to all eternity. The word love is the very name of God, and its true sense is only revealed by the action of God Himself.”

    St. Thophan in his Guide to the Spiritual Life explains that eating the fruit was a small thing, but the accusations Adam and Eve directed towards God were the larger sin.

    Father, forgive me, is this a correct description:

    Adam and Eve accused God of withholding from them, as we all do, and Christ the Bridegroom goes to the Cross and show us that He withholds nothing from us, even as we turn from Him, even as we mock Him, even unto death.

    We looked for a solution in the fruit of the tree to a problem that never existed. The ‘cost’ of redeeming us from our error was for Christ to show us that in all situations even unto death, He gives Himself fully to us and prays for our forgiveness rather than our eternal death.

    “The word of Christ is spirit and life eternal, the fulness of love and joy of the heavenly hosts. The word of Christ is uncreated diving light—addressed not to superficial logical reason but to the deep heart of man, and he who opens wide his whole heart in order to receive this divine light, and be made one with it, becomes in the likeness of God.” (page 72, The Monk of Mt. Athos)

  81. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    James, I appreciate your comment I see the distinction. I would only add that the transformation for us in Orthodox teaching is really complete. We are made new which, as I understand it, means that we are restored to the way in which we were created and, in fact, our communion with our Creator is even deeper because of the Incarnation.

    With your comment in mind, I come back to a thought that has occurred to me over the years: Protestant theology of this ilk essentially denies the Incarnation of Christ and Christ as God. I can’t help but think it is a residual effect of fact that much of the area the gave rise to Protestantism was ‘evangelized’ by Arians.

    Heresies abound in our minds and hearts and Arianism remains one of the most popular I think.

  82. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I think we largely sin in ignorance. St. Paul said that Eve was deceived. So, she was largely ignorant of what she was doing. We almost never (perhaps never ever) see the reality of what we are doing when we sin. We do not see paradise on the one hand and the yawning gates of hell on the other and say, “I like the hell thing better.” God is so merciful. The overly simplistic theories of human choice and free-will create silly accounts of heaven and hell and our eternal destiny. I prefer to see human life, its choosing, etc., as one great big terrible mess. Into this mess, Christ descends in order to rescue us. The foolish monk speaking with St. Silouan had a very silly, simplistic view of atheists. As if they actually know what they’re doing. Christ is utterly clear on the Cross that we do not know what we are doing. I take that word to be pretty much final.

  83. Pete Avatar

    This is for my brother Hugh,


    I understand where you are coming from and had many questions like yours. I understand your thinking and your approach to this I think. I will offer something that is more scripture laden than most of the other responses, because this was my approach as a Protestant enquirer as well. I think we Orthodox start thinking within our own framework and struggle to communicate within the framework of those around us sometimes.

    I will also say that I am very thankful for my Protestant experience. I understand completely your stance on wanting to stick to the words of Jesus and Paul. That is a very strong drive and makes sense. You to want maintain your fidelity to the Word of God. There is certainly nobility in that.

    I wish to lay out a series of scriptures and then review a few points.
    From Galatians 3:24 -25

    24 Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to Bring Us Unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith.

    25 But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster. ‘Something greater than the law is here’, this is quite similar to ‘something greater than the temple is here’ – Matthew 12:6. I think we have agreement on this point.

    Romans 3:27 Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? of works? Nay: but by the law of faith. The law of faith is something entirely different.

    It is a spiritual law. It is a spiritual law because it is Christ himself (you’re freed by Whom?) I think we have agreement here too if we stretch our thinking just a bit and allow ourselves to be challenged (for the only reason worth having; i.e., a quest for the truth)

    Fir this point is spelled out explicitly in Romans 10:4 For Christ is the end (telos) of the law (for righteousness) to everyone that believeth. Again, ‘One greater than the law is here.’

    As far as something ‘owed ’, we owe no one anything at all except love (the content of what is owed is communal/relational – eucharistic, ontological – i.e., the meaning of all of creation {salvation is bigger than ourselves}).

    This is expressed in Romans 13:8.

    8 Owe no man anything, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law (which law? Christians are under which law?) We are free to love; reborn to love. That is, the only ‘law’ that applies is now Christ. (What does The Church tell us about Christ during Holy Week, would be a great place to start to look for what That means)

    The content of what is owed (debt) is clearly not to be found in any financial or any legal model, but is found in the content of what is communal or relational (who we Are). It’s just that simple.

    It’s just that simple because we are Eucharistic beings, with an ontological root in Christ!! This is how our very salvation is constituted. This is how he has been revealed and how we become. The Church understands ‘walking in the spirit’ as living in just this way; Eucharistic life.

    The spiritual law that has freed us is Christ himself. Galatians 5:22-25.

    22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith,
    23 Meekness, temperance: against such there is no law.

    24 And they that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts.
    25 If (since) we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit.

    The real question for many Protestants (before we even get into all of this) isn’t, which came first, The Church (and what did they have & understand that we {as a Protestant} are no longer organically linked to? or did something called ‘Christianity’ somehow arrive first??

    The real question is; What is the faith of the apostles; i.e., The Church Christ established and why & how do we avail ourselves to it and how do we establish and maintain fidelity to that faith?

    Would something else necessarily usurp the content (teaching & presence) of what constitutes The Church?

    If so, why?

    The challenge is; what do we do with these things? (We are all challenged in our journey every step of the way – consequently, everybody must take heart.) That’s our part.

    May you possess the New Jerusalem on high Hugh.

    God’s peace be with you.

  84. Hugh McCann Avatar
    Hugh McCann

    Pete, Thank you so much!

    Please feel free to dialogue via email, if you wish. I will not reply here.

    hughmc5 AT

  85. Pete Avatar

    Yes, Hugh.

    I look forward to correspondence with you – to be sure. With the assurance that I have no agenda – only Christ’s love and a warm love “for brethren.”

    He is alive!

  86. Tom Pomeroy Avatar
    Tom Pomeroy

    I will be looking forward to your comments on the Ransom theory of atonement.

  87. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    In Orthodoxy, the Ransom theme is not uncommon. Oddly, though, it doggedly refuses to name anyone or anything to which the ransom is paid. Rather, we are “ransomed from death.” It is, an “incomplete” theory in the Fathers, and seems to be intentionally so. True insofar as it goes, but would become false if pressed too far.

  88. James Isaac Avatar
    James Isaac

    I should like to clarify that I do not consider those who hold to penal substitution theories to be pagans, but that such teaching indeed contains the Trojan horse of paganism. It is very difficult to break free from and see just how reprehensible it actually is because it is such a foundational teaching in most Western forms of Christian thought. I left Lutheranism largely because I could no longer accept in my HEART that God requires payment for sins on threat and pain of everlasting torture.

    Such is, I believed then – and was overjoyed to discover is the traditional, Orthodox teaching too – a form of deep psychological and spiritual abuse. “Believe in Me, or else! I love you” seems pretty confused and hollow at best to me now. So many good people have turned away from [this false view of] God as a result. Unfortunately, as with all abuse, the abusee has a very difficult struggle to even see their treatment as abuse – I can testify that I still have much recovery to do myself.

    I am very ambivalent towards my previous Christian experience. There is much to be praised in classical Lutheranism, and yet the deep scars I feel still from it linger. Please pray for me and for all who long to believe in and know a God who truly is Love in the most intuitive sense we can imagine.

    Forgive me, brothers and sisters.

  89. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    James, your experience and scars are not unusual. Unfortunately abuse occurs in the Orthodox Church, it is just not theological abuse.

    Glory to God that you found the Church. He will bless you with healing as you participate in the life of the Church.

    This too will pass away. Thank you for your words.

  90. Renewal Avatar

    Hello everyone. I’ve been reading here for a few days now, & am fascinated by this discussion. I’m wondering why I’m here, after reading iMonk for years & not clicking here before…

    But what I will say is that for one trying to escape from the Calvinist God, who burnt me out & terrified me years ago, so much so I left the church, what I read here is beautiful, & that scares me.

  91. Hugh McCann Avatar
    Hugh McCann

    Dear Renewal,

    I am sorry if your experience with Calvinism & Calvinists was bad. Much more so if your understanding of God was by these misinformed.

    But the terror of the (true) Lord is not problematic; Paul was thereby motivated to evangelize, 2 Corinthians 5:11.

    Properly understood, the fear of the LORD is actually quite healthy:

    The secret of the Lord is with them that fear him; and he will shew them his covenant. Psalm 25:14.

    The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom… Psalm 111:10.

    A most blessed Pascha, mañana,

  92. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I think the kind of fear being described is generally not healthy at all and is not what the Scripture means by the fear of the Lord. We do not fear God because He is able to hurt us. “Fear” means to have proper regard. The sort of fear being described is demonic. “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love.” (1Jo 4:18) It is just such torment that is easily demonic. And it is this caricature of God that borders on blasphemy. This misunderstanding is among the dangerous things taught by Reformed theology, and used to justify their error.

  93. Jeremias Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    Yes, you’re right. Very different in the LXX. Perhaps that is all the answer I need. In the NKJV and the ESV I guess it says “He has done it.” And the NASB says “He has performed it.”

    But your earlier remark about what is “finished” upon the cross being the completion of Adam and creation made me think of it. The context is a coming generation, a people to be made by the Lord. But there is no direct connection to the “It is finished” on the cross, you think? Just curious if the end of that Psalm, like it’s beginning, was being explicitly invoked.

    Also, thank you again for your words this week. You have been very instructive to me and my faith. My family and I were all baptized and chrismated today. Our parish had 14 catechumens enter the fold this afternoon. A few more hours to Pascha!

    God bless you!

  94. Onesimus Avatar


    May the Lord continue to bless you and keep you in His fold! So happy to hear of your entry into the Church along with others. It is the greatest moment in my life.

    God bless you.

  95. Hugh McCann Avatar
    Hugh McCann

    Father Stephen,

    I concur entirely, and meant no shortcut. All the Scriptures must speak. As you know, they are harmonious. I only meant that some lesser tradition screwing up the terror or fear of the LORD should not daunt us or cause us to shrink from studying it.

    I see it’s 15x in Psalms and 15x in Proverbs.

    The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom: and the knowledge of the holy is understanding. Proverbs 9:10

    And one glorious reference in Job 28:28 ~ And unto man he said, ‘Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil is understanding.’

    Interesting too how it’s often coupled with “depart from evil.”

    All blessings tonight and tomorrow as you celebrate His Great Day!


  96. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    So long as the correct meaning of fear is what is understood. But some seem not to know the right meaning, and they abuse it, and abuse those whom they teach. I would say that my children has a proper “fear” (though I would never use the word) of me, but I have never hit any of them. We do not fear God because He is threatening us. That fear is the sort St. John refers to. The Fathers call it the fear of slaves. God has not called us to be slaves, but to be Sons. We are not hirelings, for they labor for a reward. Sons act out of love.

    I worry that many have a perverted model of parenting based in a wrong understanding of fear as well. This stuff has such consequences in our lives. Bad theology has serious repercussions.

  97. Renewal Avatar

    Any advice on how to move away from the wrong kind of fear Father? I’d rather hear your voice than Hugh’s – which is not meant rudely, just tiredly.

  98. Tom (aka Volkmar) Avatar

    A very good article, with very good discussion.

    Thank you, Fr. Freeman.

  99. Nicole from VA Avatar
    Nicole from VA

    From Romans 15:5

    “May the God of patience and comfort strengthen you to be likewise towards one another according to Christ.”

    Blessed is the God of patience and comfort!

    Hi Renewal. Today is Orthodox Easter. I hope you will celebrate with us. It is a joyful thing to hear you are discovering the beauty of God more clearly in Orthodox teachings.

  100. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    It helps if you’re not be subjected to the other stuff all the time. For that, I would avoid certain Churches, teachers. Indeed, Orthodoxy is the place to start.

    That said, I think the process is a bit of a “reboot.” At a certain point in my life, I quit trying to figure out the “God” thing. I realized that there was no “place” I could stand from which to judge or decide things about God. Instead, I took a strictly Christian approach. I treated myself like I was a 1st century convert from paganism. I did not start with lots of already decided theories about the OT and the like.

    Instead, I accepted Christ’s claim to be the Son of God, Incarnate. I accepted the testimony of His resurrection. But, I also therefore accepted that we only know God because Christ reveals Him to us. “No one comes to the Father except by me,” Christ says. “No one knows the Father except for the Son.” Jesus became the measure, the revelation, my only means of knowing God.

    Thus, everything was weighed in light of Christ, his actions, his words. That has been the most helpful thing.

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