Sin Is Not A Legal Problem – Athanasius and the Atonement


I often struggle when people speak of their “sins.” Indeed, it is not unusual to be asked, “Is ___ a sin?” The question always makes me feel like a lawyer.

Imagine that, instead of a doctor, you have a lawyer whom you consult for your medical problems. You are having trouble breathing. You’re short of breath and occasionally you cough up blood. You go to your doctor (lawyer) and he examines you. He doesn’t listen to your chest, take x-rays or do a scan. Instead, he asks you some careful questions.

“Have you ever smoked?”

“No,” You answer.

“Have you ever been exposed to asbestos?”

“No,” you reply again. His questions continue in a similar manner.

“Have you always tried to take good care of your health, eaten correctly, and exercised?”

“Yes,” you say.

“Well, then,” he concludes. “I see no problem here.”

“But I can barely breathe and sometimes I cough up blood.”

“Well, clearly it’s not your fault, so I wouldn’t worry too much about it. But how’s that bunion we discussed last time? Have you become truly sorry for buying those cheap shoes?”

Sin is not a legal problem because God is not a lawyer (and neither is a priest if he knows his business). Sin is a death problem. It’s far more like a disease than anything else. St. Athanasius offers this important observation in one of the most central texts in all of patristic thought:

But men, having turned from the contemplation of God to evil of their own devising, had come inevitably under the law of death. Instead of remaining in the state in which God had created them, they were in process of becoming corrupted entirely, and death had them completely under its dominion. For the transgression of the commandment was making them turn back again according to their nature; and as they had at the beginning come into being out of non-existence, so were they now on the way to returning, through corruption, to non-existence again. The presence and love of the Word had called them into being; inevitably, therefore when they lost the knowledge of God, they lost existence with it; for it is God alone Who exists, evil is non-being, the negation and antithesis of good. By nature, of course, man is mortal, since he was made from nothing; but he bears also the Likeness of Him Who is, and if he preserves that Likeness through constant contemplation, then his nature is deprived of its power and he remains incorrupt. So is it affirmed in Wisdom: “The keeping of His laws is the assurance of incorruption.”  (On the Incarnation, 1.4).

Though the words, “law,” “transgression,” “commandment,” are used in this passage, they do not govern its meaning. Instead, Athanasius gives them a different understanding. As many of the Fathers would do following him, St. Athanasius equates existence with goodness. God is the only truly existing One. Created in His likeness, we are created with a view towards eternal life. When we broke communion with God through sin, we let loose a principle of “corruption” (literally “rot”) in our lives. Sin is thus given the meaning of death and corruption, a movement towards non-existence, a return to the dust from which we were made.

That process of death and corruption is not a punishment – it is a consequence. God does not say, “In the day you eat of it, I will kill you.” He warns, “You will surely die.” Athanasius again:

But since the will of man could turn either way, God secured this grace that He had given by making it conditional from the first upon two things— namely, a law and a place. He set them in His own paradise, and laid upon them a single prohibition. If they guarded the grace and retained the loveliness of their original innocence, then the life of paradise should be theirs, without sorrow, pain or care, and after it the assurance of immortality in heaven. But if they went astray and became vile, throwing away their birthright of beauty, then they would come under the natural law of death and live no longer in paradise, but, dying outside of it, continue in death and in corruption. This is what Holy Scripture tells us, proclaiming the command of God, “Of every tree that is in the garden thou shalt surely eat, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil ye shall not eat, but in the day that ye do eat, ye shall surely die.”

“Ye shall surely die”— not just die only, but remain in the state of death and of corruption. (On the Incarnation, 1.3).

Again, the text here uses the term “law,” but his sense of it is not of a rule that is broken, but of a principle at work. Indeed, the translator uses the term “natural law,” though the Greek actually says, “the death which is according to nature.” Sometimes translators insert unnecessary confusion by the forensic mentality that has so governed Western Christian thought.

What should be noted is the interior of Athanasius’ thought. For many, the very hint of law would drive them towards the notion of rules broken and punishment incurred. As such, none of the language of death, corruption, being, non-existence, would be necessary or even come to mind. But the force of everything Athanasius is saying is predicated on ontology – the question of being. The “mechanics” of sin are understood in terms of being and the loss of communion bringing about a fall towards non-being. There is simply no use of the imagery common to forensic thought.

So, you go to your doctor and say, “I can’t breathe well and I’m coughing up blood.” He runs scans and tests, comes back and says, “You have cancer. I’ll need to operate and do some other things.” And you complain, “But I never smoked! I was never around asbestos! I took care of myself, ate well and exercised.” So the doctor says, “Well, then. Legally you shouldn’t have cancer, but you do. And if I don’t treat you, you’ll die.”

This is the true atonement. Being made one (at-one-ment) with the Living God, we have life, not according to reward, nor according to the law, but according to the God/Man who took our dying nature upon Himself and endured death. Trampling down death, He rose again that all who are united to Him might trample down death and rise as well.


About Fr. Stephen Freeman

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



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148 responses to “Sin Is Not A Legal Problem – Athanasius and the Atonement”

  1. George A Rozes Avatar
    George A Rozes

    None of this explains sin. If I have no guide I cannot chart a path. Criticize forensics but give us a guide. The ten commandments, the golden rule, love thy neighbor though I can dislike them, right? And when I pray for leaders, can I pray their policies fail or is that sinful.

  2. Alvin Rapien Avatar

    Fr, bless! I am interested to hear your thoughts regarding Fr Khaled Anatolios’ new essay on St Athanasius and Fr Florovsky in the upcoming work, On the Tree of the Cross. Anatolios claims that the ontological language and legal language in Athanasius’ work are synthesized, one could say “coexist,” though the grammar of Athanasius is largely ontological. In short, there is a legal aspect to atonement, though it is not the governing metaphor or analogy. However, you claim that the legal language is relativised by Athansius’ ontological grammar, thus upholding healing of humanity’s nature as the defining perspective of atonement. Would you say that there is any legal dimension to atonement?

    Is this a correct reading of your article? Looking forward to reading more.

  3. Thomas B Avatar
    Thomas B

    Thank you, Father! I love this analogy with the patient complaining about the “fairness” or forensic possibility of his/her illness. I could replace cancer with many other diseases that need curing…

    I quote St Maximus the Confessor here on sin, not so sure about the translation though:

    “As man I deliberately transgressed the divine commandment, when the devil, enticing me with the hope of divinity (cf. Gen. 3:5), dragged me down from my natural stability into the realm of sensual pleasure; and he was proud to have thus brought death into existence, for he delights in the corruption of human nature. Because of this, God became perfect man, taking on everything that belongs to human nature except sin (cf. Heb. 4:15); and indeed sin is not part of human nature, In this way, by enticing the insatiable serpent with the bait of the flesh. He provoked him to open his mouth and swallow it. This flesh proved poison to him, destroying him utterly by the power of the Divinity within it; but to human nature it proved a remedy restoring it to its original grace by that same power of the Divinity within it. For just as the devil poured out his venom of sin on the tree of knowledge and corrupted human nature once it had tasted it, so when he wished to devour the flesh of the Master he was himself destroyed by the power of the Divinity within it.”

    + St. Maximus the Confessor, Various Texts on Theology, the Divine Economy, and Virtue and Vice 1.11, The Philokalia: The Complete Text (Vol. 2)

  4. James Isaac Avatar
    James Isaac

    Great reminder of the true nature of the atonement, Father. I’ve been reading Fr. Reardon’s masterful work on the same and it is truly life-giving and refreshing, myself having been so steeped in legalistic thought for so long.

    I find it grievous that even the Western legal system (in particular, criminal/case law) is so coloured by this way of viewing things – i.e. that crime/”sin” requires punishment as a matter of justice (and not as a matter of restoration/reform). It sure doesn’t help a person struggling to forgive their offender when there is this background of retribution in our cultural matrix. (And it certainly doesn’t bring healing to the offender.) That matrix no doubt derives largely from the Roman and Protestant emphasis on the legal aspect as the controlling narrative of our salvation.

    I stand by my previous assertion that PSA is indeed the doctrine of demons.

  5. Rick67 Avatar

    Thank you. I serve in an environment in which atonement theory (which touches on this subject) is a hot and disputed issue. Unfortunately, I see efforts to disarm penal substitutionary atonement theory end up turning Jesus into moral examplar, not God incarnate, not person of any Trinity, and did not have to die. A few years ago I taught a series on early Christianity, and was challenged specifically on Athanasius. (This parishioner arguing that early church fathers turned Jesus into God incarnate who died for us… because of atonement theory. Otherwise Jesus is fine as great teacher + exemplar.) He pointed out Athanasius sometimes talks about *penalty* of sin so… penal atonement. I read Athanasius again, noted the translation “penalty” in places, yet concluded that overall Athanasius explains the incarnation and death of Jesus not in terms of “legal-penal” but more in terms of “rescue from death… the consequence of rebellion”. If I understand you correctly, I might have interpreted Athanasius correctly.

  6. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    It does explain sin, at its very root. But, what you are describing and asking for are the “symptoms” of sin, which we often simply call “sins.” The commandments of Christ are easily the best tools for diagnosing our sins. The failure to love, the bondage to fear, a heart darkened by envy, our hiding from shame, these all produce many actions and decisions in our lives that point to the death and corruption within us. Confession is very important. The priest says, “Take care that having come to the Physician (Christ) you not depart unhealed.” We go to confession, and “bear a little shame,” revealing the darkness of our thoughts and actions. The grace of God’s forgiveness is given to us, and sometimes wise instruction, towards the healing of this darkness within ourselves.

    Pray for leaders – to that we are commanded. Pray that their policies fail? When their policies are wicked, absolutely! May God frustrate the plans of the wicked.

    Disliking a neighbor makes it hard to love. Praying for them is a place to start. If our own hearts were pure, love would cover everything, making “dislike” a moot point (it wouldn’t even come up). St. Luke (chapter 6) tells us that God is “kind to the evil and the ungrateful.” But start where you are.

  7. William Avatar

    This is beautiful! Thank you for this. Having recently left Reformed Theology behind, this is such a breath of fresh air. Thank you for proclaiming the gospel to me today.

  8. Jeremias Avatar

    I love this, and I love Athanasius, so it is for clarification not conflict that I ask if you can help me articulate the thrust of Paul’s language in Romans 5 (the epistle reading from Sunday), especially the reference to “wrath” in verse 9. I have long thought PSA folk ignore the language of reconciliation in favor of “law,” “trespass,” etc. (with their unwarranted modern, forensic preconceptions)–just as you have argued on many occasions–but I’m not very confident in my own ability to explain particular references to the “wrath of God” except by noting the idea in “The River of Fire” by Kalomiros that they explain not God’s disposition, but the experience of sinners when faced with intolerable love and goodness.

    I know you’ve covered this ground many times, and I can probably just search your blog for more help, so feel free not to approve this comment if you prefer the comments to go in another direction.

  9. Jeremias Avatar

    In the various branches of science “Laws” are descriptive, not prescriptive. Perhaps this is a helpful parallel as already implied above by the phrase “according to nature.” There are consequences if one ignores, for instance, the law of gravity–so it implies a set of behavioral guidelines, but the law holds by virtue of having entered the orbit and atmosphere of death, not simply by having broken the rules.

    Not sure if that is helpful or correct. Just processing externally.

  10. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I have ordered the book and look forward to reading it. The atonement and the forensic question has been a particular interest of mine going back to the 1970’s – saying, I’ve given it a lot of thought. It is never out of my mind when I am reading the Fathers.

    That said, I do not think there is an actual legal element in the atonement. There are sermon illustrations when preachers/teachers are engaging in moral instruction. This is why Chrysostom’s name comes up so often in this regard. Chrysostom is not a theologian – he’s a preacher. The use of an image to make a moral point is not at all the same thing as a dogmatic construction such as Athanasius is engaging in here. Here, he is talking about what sin is, not about behavior and the like.

    One reason there is no true legal element in the atonement is that legal things are extrinsic. They are about rules and rewards, and punishments concerning things we do. But they do not touch on who and what we are. Luther is said to have described the justified man as a “snow-covered dunghill.” Orthodoxy would cringe at such a description. Christ died in order to make us snow-covered snow hills.

    “He became what we are that we might become what He is.” No amount of legal status rearranging can turn “mud into a God.” St. Gregory of Nyssa said that “Man is mud whom God has commanded to become a god.” We are to be partakers of the Divine Nature, according to St. Peter.

    In forensic imagery, everything is predicated on God’s mind. He is righteous and just. We have sinned. His justice demands punishment. But He loves us, so He sends His son to take our punishment on Him. In light of that, we are “reckoned” as righteous (another mental image). But it is not mental images that save us. It is reality – true being – we are actually and truly changed. Legality is merely a change in status.

    It might be a useful illustration for a preacher, since people are always relating to the law. But it has no enlightenment, no discernment. It is the language of a slave.

    St. Anthony said that a slave acts out of fear, the hireling for a reward, but the son out of love. PSA is preaching to slaves.

    My point in using this passage of Athanasius, is to note how he gives ontological meaning to forensic terms. It is a marriage of sorts. But his entire argument turns on the ontological problem. Sin is “non-being.”

  11. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Sounds like it to me. This rescue from death, and the whole of the ontological approach, is the very heart of Orthodoxy. It runs through all of the Councils.

  12. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    I know this question reflects my own lack if gratitude and bondage to death but it is one that comes up everytime I read St. Athanasius:. Why did God not let us fall back into nothingness? Instead He sent His Son.

    Would not the appropriate legal judgement be return to the nothingness?

  13. Jeremias Avatar

    Michael Bauman,

    Your question reminds me of a bit of dialogue in Lewis’s Till We Have Faces:

    “I cannot hope for mercy.”

    “Infinite hopes–and fears–may both be yours. Be sure that, whatever else you may get, you will not get justice.”

    “Are the gods not just?”

    “Oh, no, child. What would become of us if they were?”

    No doubt the Psalmist had something like this in mind when he writes, “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared.”

  14. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Another thought. Note that Athanasius’ treatment of the atonement occurs in a document whose concern is to give an account for why God became man. And Athanasius’ concern in that is to understand that Christ is homousios with the Father. It is said that all of the Councils are ultimately concerned with our salvation – even the Trinitarian Councils. Athanasius shows us why. The Trinitarian and Christological Councils were purely discussed in terms of ontology (being, nature, persons, etc.). There is no forensic content there at all.

    St. Gregory the Theologian famously said (refuting the Apollinarians): “That which is not assumed is not saved.” This is not forensic thinking. For in forensic thought, the atonement words only because God made a rule that said it would. There is no connection of necessity at all, other than appeasing God’s demand for a righteous payment (which is abhorrent).

    Again, many illustrations might be used in preaching, but the dogmatic presentation of the faith is always in ontological terms. That is the language and thought of the Councils.

  15. Jordan Avatar

    I have found that being under the dominion of sin is like having a constant belligerent judge demanding that I provide an account of myself, that I justify myself. And I can not. This voice is almost always in the background; sometimes it is very much in the foreground of my mind, incriminating me over and over again, sometimes for things that happened years ago. This judge aims to convince me that I am made up of my choices, and often succeeds.
    I do not think that I owe that judge anything, and I do not pray to that judge for mercy. I pray for God to have mercy, to rescue me.

  16. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    It is difficult for my hardened heart to accept real mercy. Yet here we are despite the fact that if God were just, as we think of justice, we would not be.

    At the heart of the modern project is the longing for nothingness not the utopian dream.

    In the end Nietzsche’s Ubermensch is totally alone having slain everything even God and his own soul. The is no one and nothing to say “the sacred yes of creation” as Nietzsche postulated in Zarathustra.

    It is indeed God’s Word that continues to reverberate throughout all of creation especially in our own hearts when we bother to listen.

    His word is everywhere in the tress, the rocks, the sea and the wind as well as in each of us.

    Nothingness is the dream of the damned which is what PSA describes IMO.

    The fact that we exist disproves it’s tenants.

  17. Byron Avatar

    So many wonderful comments! And such a wonderful post, Father. Many thanks.

    None of this explains sin. If I have no guide I cannot chart a path. Criticize forensics but give us a guide.

    A guide, George? I think that is rather like trying to find a guide, or a map, to gaining a wife (there are a ton of books out there on this, I believe)! There really isn’t a guide though. We can keep the commandments, that will help. Mirror the Saints, that will help. But in the end, we have to fully invest and take part in relationship with God. Tradition, of which scripture is a part, guides us, but we have to actually do it. Pray constantly in love for your neighbor. That’s a start that, I think for me, may take the majority (or even all) of my life to accomplish! Blessings and God’s Grace to all.

    I do not think that I owe that judge anything, and I do not pray to that judge for mercy. I pray for God to have mercy, to rescue me.

    How could we love such a judge? How could we trust him to have mercy on us? Well stated, Jordan.

  18. Ryan Hill Avatar
    Ryan Hill

    I’m not entirely clear on why death follows from disobeying the Commandment of God. I have two questions – these have come up in speaking to my secular friends, to whom the Genesis account makes little sense. Perhaps you could shed some light on them, Fr. Stephen?

    1) Why does death follow as a natural consequence of disobedience to the Commandment? (i.e. what is it about human nature that makes our continued existence contingent on *obedience*, and doesn’t that make God a bit tyrannical?)
    2) What is it specifically about the knowledge of good and evil which was poison to us?

  19. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Think of it this way. My continued existence is contingent upon breathing.

    God is the source of our existence and our continued being. Union with Him is the ultimate path to eternal being. This is His purpose for us and His continuing commitment. When we broke communion (through breaking the commandment), we separated ourselves from the very Source of life (this is St. Athanasius’ contention). Having done so, we move back towards our nature, which came from nothingness. God created all things from nothing. If He does not sustain us, we would indeed cease to exist.

    It was not the specific knowledge of good and evil that was poisonous. It was, however, the only tree given in the Garden that was not given to us for food. As such, we could not give thanks for it and eat it. You can only give thanks for what you have been given, not for what you have stolen. In that manner, we ate without communion, without connection or reference to God.

    Mind you, it’s a primitive story, profoundly true theologically, but if pushed too far in a literal direction it just becomes problematic. It is not its purpose.

  20. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Paul generally connects wrath to the judgment of God at the end of all things. That’s when the theology begins for us. It could be read in the literal manner of the PSA, but it produces something of a caricature of God. The River of Fire cites examples of the Fathers treating the fire of God in a cleansing manner, etc. The on-going conversation about retributive versus curative is a conversation about the nature of that wrath. Does it burn in order to heal? etc.

  21. Karen Avatar

    Jeremias, I think you’re onto something with the language of the “law” of God in the Scripture being a dynamic principle of being, not the external imposition of a legal code.

    Father, thanks so much for this. The lawyer/doctor analogy is quite on point. It breaks my heart to see the blinders Reformed PSA puts on people’s understanding of both the Scriptures and the Fathers. This is all the more true when I see how this mentality about God has the ability to drive people to atheism, rather than embrace such a monstrous account of the “God” of Jesus Christ.

  22. Renewal Avatar

    Karen, you’re right about what those pictures of God can drive people to. I hope the actual God is okay with people healing from those, & making progress in trusting him incredibly slowly & in incredibly small steps as those are all I’m capable of. Sometimes not quitting entirely is all I can manage.

    Would welcome prayer for God to heal some of my anxieties about him always being angry.

  23. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    Thank you Father. This post is a refreshing reminder of why forensic thinking is rational discourse and not true theology.

  24. Theresa Avatar

    Thank you for your article. My parents used to say, “When you choose the action, you choose the consequences.”

    The different ideas of atonement figure also in the different view Islam has of God. They seem to see him as the ultimate avenger, punishing sins.

    Please tell, what is PSA in this context?

  25. MichaelPatrick Avatar

    Ryan, I like your questions and want to say something about human nature’s dependence on obedience:

    First of all, obedience is not arbitrary. It is a loaded word meaning simply that we should do what is natural for us. If we don’t our nature rots to death.

    Human nature is dirt designed to embody God. We are created in Christ’s image and our destiny, having disobeyed, is to partake of His life Who overcome death and become children and friends of God. This is what our nature is meant for. This is a heady notion but true! We are to be gods intimately related to Christ God as by marriage.

  26. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    It’s shorthand for “Penal Substitutionary Atonement”

  27. Dino Avatar

    The ontological basis of the English word ‘atonement’ [at one –ment] – indicating our unity with God rather than any forensics – was new to me and noteworthy.

  28. Byron Avatar

    This has generated an interesting FB discussion.

  29. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    The root of obedience is to listen, to hear. So to he obedient to God is to hear His voice and follow Him for He is good and the only lover of mankind. If we don’t listen, then we fall into darkness, anger, despair and look increasingly into the abyss of nothingness putting our faith in lies.

    It is a seductive darkness calling us with a siren song that lulls us into belief that we have our own separate existence apart from God.

    The evil one’s false promise that we shall be like gods has not changed. We still fall for it.

    All of modern utopian visions are built on that lie from “buy this and you will be young and sexy” to “vote for me to be a solution for change or renewal or a better life or greatness”. Never trust anyone who tells you he can build a better world. Who is he/she going to kill to make that happen.

    Listen to God, follow(obey) and you will live.

  30. Wordsmyth Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    The cursed ground requiring toil, the pain of childbirth, and the flaming sword meant to keep Adam and Eve from the Garden … these all seem to have a penal aspect.

    God drove them out of the Garden. They were prohibited from eating of the Tree of Life lest they live forever. Why do you see death as merely a consequence instead of as a punishment?

  31. Alvin Rapien Avatar

    Thank you for your responses, Fr Stephen! I look forward to further reading and interaction.

  32. Anthony Avatar

    The tripartite ‘fear of God’, as you referred in a comment, is somewhat misrepresented. Fear is for all three categories, it is fear of punishment that is of the slave. Fear of no reward for hireling, and fear of displeasing the Father for the sonship. All are received as acceptable stages, but we are always called to the higher one. We mustn’t disregard the language of the liturgy, which itself calls us slaves on multiple occasions, one of which during communion, “The slave of God [name]…”. It is in this continuation of the paradoxical nature of Christ’s Incarnation, Death and Resurrection (through death, we find life) that we can be slaves, yet free. Avoiding the language does more harm than good, as the language brings us to the greater reward having seen the fruitlessness of the Old Man in comparison. While overt legalism is no way to the Kingdom, neither is its denial. His Law is a different Law, it is the way of the Gospel. Didache describes Two Paths, as does the famous Law of God, by both Fr Seraphim and Fr. Daniel Sysoev. When dealing with the Final Judgement, and our own self-accusations, we MUST think of it as cut and dry legality, without forgetting the compassion of a loving Father and the intercessions of His beloved Saints. One without the other would be of not benefit.

  33. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I have no problem with punishment, per se. I have a problem with punishment as retribution. Retribution for its own sake (or the sake of justice) is not something I would attribute to God. It is immoral and absurd (as far as I can see). Punishment that is curative – yes, of course. Everything God does, including punishment, is for our salvation. The question for me, is “getting inside” punishment and “sin” in order to speak about and understand them in a manner that makes good theological sense.

  34. Anthony Avatar

    From St. Justin Popovich on 1 John 3:4:

    Sin defiles man and his being, which is in the divine image of God and God-given. It is the fundamental impurity, porto-impurity, and the origin of all impurities. Purity is, in reality, purity from sin and its impurities. That is holiness. For only through the help of the holy energies, which are received through the Holy Mysteries and holy virtues, is man able keep himself from sin. For such purity, such holy purity, is the divine law of man’s being. This purity is achieved and maintained by living in goodness, in love, in prayer, in righteousness, in meekness, in fasting, in self-restraint, and in the rest of virtues of the Gospel–simply put, in holiness, conceived of as the synthesis and unity of all the holy virtues and grace-filled energies. In opposition to purity, to holiness as law, to the divine law of man’s being, stands sin as the first and fundamental lawlessness. Sin, with its entire being, tells God defiantly: I do not want your law; I do not want to know of it or of you; I want to be far from you and outside of anything that is of you. In sinning, man breaks all of God’s laws and brings about lawlessness, and through lawlessness comes anarchy, disorder, and chaos. Sin is the transgression of the law, it is transgression of the law of God. The law is from God, while lawlessness is from the devil. The law of God is the Gospel; lawlessness is in. Its only law is to be without the law of God and against the law of God. In essence, the law and that which is lawful is only that which is divine and of the Gospel; lawlessness is everything that is in opposition to that which is divine and of the Gospel. This is sin and the father of sin–the devil. He is the only truly lawless one; but lawlessness among people came about from sin and through sin. What is the law for God? Holiness, love, righteousness, goodness, wisdom and the rest of the perfections. Such is the law for men because they are beings in the image of God. There is one law for God and for man: the Gospel. That is why our people call the Gospel the law, and the foremost mighty act of the incarnate God–Holy Communion–they call the law. “I have received the law” is what our people say when they commune (1). Whosoever does not live by this law is a lawless one. Sin is lawlessness, virtue is the law. Whosoever committeth sin committeth lawlessness also.

    (1) Fr Justin is referring here to a local Serbian tradition.

  35. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Fr. Justin is, of course, correct. But sin as “impurity” has a content that is more than extrinsic – it’s not simply a juridical problem.

    Say you have two men. They are twins. One robs a bank, the other gives to the poor. One is impure and the other is righteous.

    But if we examine them, how do they differ from one another. In a juridical analysis, we might say that one is guilty, the other innocent. But St. Athanasius describes sin as a process of corruption, of decay, at work in us – dragging us toward non-being. Though these two men may not differ in an outward way, they do differ on the level of their existence (in the imagery of St. Athanasius). One has a process of corruption at work in him, he is moving toward non-being. The other has the process of life at work in him, he is moving toward true being (eternal life).

    When we say sin is an “impurity” – it really is. Not just a juridical problem, but a true stain, a darkness of non-existence dragging us toward that non-being (this again is the imagery of St. Athanasius).

    These images are not opposed. But I think the juridical language needs to be understood in more concrete terms (as St. Athanasius does) and not interpreted as merely describing a legal status. Just as St. Justin describes the virtues as “grace-filled energies,” so lawlessness is the absence of grace-filled energies. Without the grace-filled energies of God, we move towards non-existence. God alone sustains us in being. To break communion with God, to become lawless, is to live apart from Him.

    This is how I understand St. Justin.

  36. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I do not suggest we disregard the language. I suggest that St. Athanasius’ approach, which is similar to that of the Cappadocians and of St. Maximus, be used to interpret the language. There is no conflict here for me.

  37. Michael Lynch Avatar

    Thank you, Father Stephen. That explanation of the nature of sin may contradict a lot of what many of us have learned (especially those of us who received most of our theology from the evangelical Protestant tradition). But, it makes a lot of sense, and makes the grace of Jesus seem so much more reasonable.

  38. Subdeacon John Kennick Avatar
    Subdeacon John Kennick

    Father bless:
    Being a man of simple understanding, is perceive sin as a disease leading to death (temporal and eternal)and the Church as the hospital where we may be treated for this disease with the medicine provided,
    i.e the services, prayer, confession, fasting, alms giving, ect. As I am faithful to partake of this medication, I find I desire more for the peace and joy I find. In the story of Peter Pan, they talk about one’s “happy place.” Mine is to be at the altar serving in His presence. God bless you father for your most encouraging work.

  39. Dino Avatar

    After the long conversation on the rational yet absurd construct of the PSA theory [a ‘tradition of men’ that was adopted by the Protestant break with the living Tradition of the God-bearing Saints] in the “Reading Scripture in the Kingdom” thread, I am afraid I start to see how intensely someone steeped in Western Protestant thought fails to realize that all the talk of “transgression and disobedience receiving a just recompense” or “God’s righteous judgment being revealed.” actually speaks of nothing but the inescapable Spiritual law of createdness [i.e.: speaks ontologically and not legalistically], saying, as Athanasius does, that since God is Life eternal , and His free-willed creatures, (created from nothing), can only have Life eternal in communion with Him/Life, sin/disobedience [the breaking of this communion] is merely the cause of the creatures’ movement back to nothingness/death. The apparent inevitability of this ontology is misinterpreted by them as a forensic, justice issue, staying on the surface of such scriptural passages. In Greek there’s a pertinent and unusual expression that ‘every depth has a surface [we must direct our heart to the depth] but every surface doesn’t have a depth [so we mustn’t loiter on such surfaces]”

  40. Thomas Avatar


    I read the story differently.

    God did not ‘drive’ Adam and Eve from paradise. Because they could not bear His presence (they hid from Him), putting them outside paradise was a great mercy. God also gave them ‘skins’ for their protection.

    By allowing sin and death into creation by their sin, creation was subject to futility (difficulty of farming, the pain of childbirth, etc.). It was a consequence of the decay introduced into creation, not a punitive act.

  41. Maria Avatar

    Fr. Stephen Freeman to your post on

    July 12, 2016 at 8:07 pm

    I’ve never read it in words out in the open like you stated it in your comment, but the way you wrote it is absolutely correct. Thank you for putting it into words. Many blessings to you and a big Thank You. You are helping me so much as you also help me increase my English vocabulary with words I did not possess regarding my faith. It is a weakness (not my faith, but speech) and was a tool for the evil one to manipulate and silence me to the none-being of my/the faith, because I was unable to articulate who’s I am and was. I truly thank you for all the writings here and bringing me back to life. I don’t think right now a Church will, or could do this, but eventually I will and must be there. Peace

  42. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    It is accurate in a psychological manner. The shame that Christ bears, however, has a true spiritual, theological reality that is not addressed in the article, or is only treated as a psychological stigma. In that sense, it’s a secular treatment. The shame addressed, for example, in the writings of Sophrony or Fr. Zacharias of Essex, or, for that matter, in St. John of the Ladder, has a different understanding. St. John says, “You can only heal shame by shame.” The writer makes a distinction about shame versus vulnerability or humility, etc. Its account of shame would not make sense of how the tradition speaks about shame. It is taking psychology and trying to make it into theology. As such, it falls short of the conversation found in many of the Fathers on the topic.

  43. Maria Avatar

    Fr. Freeman said in last comment:

    As such, it falls short of the (shame) conversation found in many of the Fathers on the topic.

    I can only imagine why. It is a highly personal subject and shameful to confess one is shameful.
    What troubles me when it comes to shame is that we/I often carry the shame of others, like someone in the family, the person I had married and his actions. Some felt the shame in themselves for their action and I could easily forgive them, others they never get to shame and bypass it. Like the actions of an alcoholic. We just say he is sick, and that may be so. I’ve also read that shame is a religious inventions and should be outlawed. Like we no longer need to feel shameful if we are gay/lesbian etc. , but accept it all to a human condition unchangeable, and that is just the way God made usl, with warts, deformities, illnesses, emotional and intellectual limitations, and on and on.
    To what degree is SHAME appropriate, and should we carry the shame of our parents, their divorce from a time when it was still against Church doctrine, etc.
    I feel like I am ashamed of a lot of things, most of the times things I did not even do, like for instance, the Holocaust and what my birth-country did before I was born, or parents divorce, alcoholic husband, kids boasting as they father did of drinking, party-life etc. which is just abhorrent to me. Why and what shame do I bear in this not being a party to it, but feeling ashamed.
    Do you have answers or would you say go see a Psychologist. He probably say get rid of your religion. What do you say? Can you give some understanding?
    I hope this is not too much to ask for and thank you.

  44. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    A good therapist is very much worth considering. There can also be particular conditions of the brain that make people more prone to shame, particularly irrational shame. It’s good to seek help in such circumstances. The sort of shame discussed in the Fathers, and that I have previously written about, is not the toxic shame of popular psychology, and should be distinguished from it.

    It’s difficult, as I have done, to attempt to write about shame in its spiritual form. It’s like suffering. No one should willingly cause someone else to suffer. And yet, voluntarily bearing suffering is redemptive and deeply powerful. It is the mark of a great soul. On some level, everyone will suffer and needs to learn the spiritual skills of bearing it in a healthy and life-giving way.

    But there is so much that is dark about suffering that writing about it in such a manner can easily be attacked or dismissed.

    The same is true about shame. Only voluntarily borne shame is of use, and that is with great difficulty. I am becoming more and more convinced of its necessity, and yet of the need of a caring, gentle and supportive guide.

  45. Maria Avatar

    Fr. Freeman, basically what you are saying/conveying is that we must learn to bear it, just or unjust suffering and shame. I don’t think there is such a thing as irrational shame as such, if personal it is rational, irrational only as it is hammered into an individual from the outside, to which the inner must repulse or withstand, nevertheless it is shame forced upon by another’s irrational perception. And the Church thru excommunication, rejection or punishment has caused much to this affect of irrational shame in whole Generations. What is your opinion? For anything irrational to exist there was somewhere a cause for those human beings who could not fetter or muster the force of condemnation.

  46. James Isaac Avatar
    James Isaac

    It seems to me – and I don’t claim this to be an original thought – that bearing shame is fundamental to our salvation. After all, if we can learn anything from the Genesis narrative it is that shame, hiding, and blaming everything but one’s self is the primeval reaction to the realization that one has sinned and fallen short of the glory God intends for us.

    It also seems to me that we can only become aware of and deal with our shame a little bit at a time…and God, being ever-merciful, knows this and helps us along at whatever pace we are able to go. I would say that the toxicity of shame is likely proportional to how un-ready/unwilling one is to bear it – if indeed the shame is one’s own and not something we are not responsible for.

    The brighter the sun shines, the more darkness it reveals – and so the nearer we draw to God, the more we suffer internally until our hearts become ready to take the next step, as it were. Dying to pride and embracing our inner weakness trusting in God’s lovingkindness. At least that’s my experience: sort of a desolation-consolation pattern which seems to get [somewhat] more emotionally stable over time. (I’m pretty sure I’m just finally synthesizing the content of many blog posts and their comments on here…)

    All of this nevertheless makes me fearful of the Judgment – not of punishment per se, but of whether or not I will be able to handle the brightness of God’s full[er?] presence. Yet I believe that even if I’m not *ready* when I am called, the prayers of the Orthodox faithful here and departed from this life will assist in adjusting my eyesight, as it were – and not simply dimming the light with cheap sunglasses as so much ‘theology’ and psychology is wont to do. Those prayers, and the unlimited patience of God, give real and solid hope to us still stained by sin.

    And I suppose in this light, “fearful” can possibly transition to “reverential” – or maybe “deeply respectful” – of the Day when the books of our lives will be opened…Lord, have mercy. Blessings in Christ to all.

  47. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I recommend reading some of the articles I’ve posted on shame. They are essentially presentations of the Elder Sophrony on the topic.

    Shame is “how we feel about who/what we are.” Guilt is about how I feel about what I have done. Or, that’s an easy way to think about them. Shame is extremely painful (feeling bad about who/what I am) and generally unbearable. When someone is causing such feelings in us, it can be extremely painful, even toxic (life destroying). Many people have been deeply shamed by life and their experiences.

    There is, however, in the presence of God, our own awareness of our failures. That awareness is itself experienced as shame, most of the time. We feel unworthy in God’s presence. But Christ joined Himself to us, and “bore our shame.” He accepted our unworthiness and took it to the Cross and into Hades, being raised again in glory.

    The Elder’s teaching to his monastics was to “bear a little shame.” When we are aware of our weaknesses and failings, in order to come to God, we need to not pretend, but to acknowledge the truth of ourselves. There is no “shaming” coming to us from God. He does not try to shame us. But when we “bear a little” He comforts us and a healing can begin. This generally happens in confession and in good and supportive relationships.

    We generally are only able to bear a little shame when we feel very safe.

    Here’s an article.

  48. Dino Avatar

    I find the healthy version of shame is unlike the toxic one because it is counterbalanced at all times by the awareness of God’s love and mercy. In fact it is this love and mercy, being abundantly and continuously poured out on our sinfulness, (way more than we could possibly ever be worth of even if we were utterly pure) that brings healthy, ontological shame about. The toxic, psychological shame is something entirely different and lacking in that transformative power of Grace which the healthy shame contains.

  49. Dino Avatar

    I agree with your reading of Genesis in your comment to Wordsmyth. Spot on.We do need to keep the overarching, Paschal knowledge of Christ at hand in everything, in order not to fall into the more petty interpretations that are possible… The grand claim of Orthodox theology concerning Jesus Christ does not fit into any juridical notions, especially since the apostolic and patristic perspective is that Jesus Christ is the foundation of all history and centre of creation, according to His image we are made – and eternally He is the crucified one, the ‘Lamb slain from the foundation of the world’ (Rev.13.8), destined before the foundation of the world but made manifest at the end of the times for our sake (I Peter 18.20).
    There is actually a peculiar traditional belief I once heard [I don’t know what to make of it but it’s quite didactic theologically] that says that the first fall of the angel (the devil) was precisely when he found out that God, I AM, is to be incarnate, and the angel was too proud to bow down before a Man, too proud to prostrate before such manifest humility (and even voluntary shame). Once we hold this foundation in our hearts, sciptural passages are seen under a different light, and St Athanasius comes across even more sublimely ontological in his use of the ‘substitutional language’:

    through this union of the immortal Son of God with our human nature, all men were clothed with incorruption in the promise of the resurrection… the solidarity of mankind is such that, by virtue of the Logos’ indwelling in a single human body, the corruption which goes with death has lost its power over all…. For the human race would have perished utterly had not the Lord and Saviour of all, the Son of God, come among us to put an end to death.

  50. Renewal Avatar

    Father, how do you get to the point of feeling safe with God, let alone very safe?

  51. Dino Avatar

    There’s good safe (unshakeable trust grounded in God’s love) and bad safe/”cheek” («παρρησία» is the correct patristic term).
    Repeating myself again here but it’s a key point: Our awareness of our unworthiness must always be equally combined with the awareness of God’s love of us. In fact, His love is the primary awareness and our unworthiness the secondary, but we must stay on the tight-rope.

  52. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    First, ask God for this. He’s not watching you expecting you to make it happen. It is also very likely on account of a wound or wounds you have experienced in your life. Identifying and working patiently on healing those things can be useful, too.

    For me, I keep the image of the Crucified Christ always before my eyes. I remember His kindness to the thief and His words of forgiveness. Remember your servant, “Renewal,” O Lord, when you come into your kingdom!

  53. Renewal Avatar

    Thanks Father, I do find my lack of trust agonising & it definitely comes from various wounds, which made me feel God doesn’t want good for me & is therefore unsafe.

  54. Agata Avatar

    Thank you Father, Renewal and Dino for this conversation on trust and surrounder to God. It’s something I struggle with, and Father’s words “First, ask God for this.” are the most beautiful reminder… Fr. Zacharias from Essex often says in his books that “Christ is our teacher of everything… We should always ask Him for help and instruction first”.

  55. Agata Avatar

    If I may share this simple and beautiful prayer to give ourselves to God in everything we do (it’s a prayer by Fr. Anthony Coniaris, a wonderful Orthodox author and priest in MN):

    “Lord, Your fullness for my emptiness, to Your greater Glory!”

    May the Lord keep and guide you towards this life-giving surrender into his arms…

  56. Agata Avatar


    (I ask the general audience for forgiveness for so many posts, but Renewal’s question of being “very safe” and in giving our life to God really resonated with me).

    I share your search for understanding of how to feel safe in giving my life to God’s care, especially since my life circumstances continue to force me to be apparently strong and independent and self-sufficient, and that goes against my personality very deeply: I want to be taken care of and made safe by somebody else. But there is nobody… There is only God’s loving care and kindness and assurance (even if rather silent and subtle).

    Bearing a little shame is very helpful, but as Father says, it’s only possible when one feels very safe… And one can only feel safe in the presence of a spiritual father… Dino often speaks to it. To actually experience it is very life changing.

    What I am trying to say is that I encourage you to keep looking for a spiritual father… It is a worthwhile search, even if often very difficult and time consuming. It’s one thing to have a confessor to go to regularly, but it’s even more therapeutic to from time to time be able to pour our your soul to the person that knows and cares about you deeply (Fr. Tom Hopko even put it in his 55 maxims)…. Keep looking, among your priests, in monasteries that you can visit. It is such a worthwhile search…

  57. Maria Avatar

    Thank you Fr. Freeman, so kind of you to respond with patience. You gave me a very good set, and an explanation to differentiate shame, guilt, and your mention of being safe, which is, or is a place in confession, as a starting point to express sin and feel some shame. You also intended, I believe, to send a link or article along with your comment about shame, but it does/didn’t show.
    Am I mistaken?
    In any case, you’ve been so patient with my inquiries, I almost started to write to you addressing you as “Father”, which I know some month ago I said I would never do. Kindness does go a long way, and you have been most kind to everyone here on your blog, and your patience with all of us is remarkable.
    I realize for as long as I can call you Fr. Freeman, I can put distance between us, to call you Father, oh my, it would mean I would let you into my world and possibly get hurt/reprimanded by an authoritarian figure . And as a European, we are very reserved and very much afraid of Authoritarian figures. My Ancestors followed one that did not turn out so well for them. Maybe that helps in understanding my slowness to proceed. Don’t want to burn….it hurts, but then hell does too. (a little humor to ease the seriousness)

  58. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Try this:

    It is a very sad thing that for some, the name “Father,” is surrounded with caution and pain. It marks one of the great crises of our time that familial names are associated with difficulties. Family is easily that most intimate and safe places, under normal circumstances. But the circumstances of the world are anything but normal now. We can point to so many things and offer them the blame, but it is no single thing, it seems.

    I’ve been reading a lot of Solzhenitsyn lately, both his writings and a biography. It strikes me as interesting that this man was not only a great Christian, great writer, but a great father to his sons as well. His first marriage failed, mostly under the pressure of Soviet regime. But his second marriage was quite the opposite. His sons seem to be amazing men. It’s so rare, it seems, to find in a great historical figure the combination of family, well-done. It is a life without irony.

  59. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Agatha for someone who is already feeling unsafe the search for a spiritual father must be conducted with caution. Unfortunately there are wolves in sheep’s clothing.

    If anyone volunteers it advertised themselves as a “spiritual father” they are unlikely to be one.

    Pray for one and be alert. Go to monasteries simply to go to monasteries. Before you go get the blessing of your priest.

    God provides.

  60. Agata Avatar

    Thank you Michael,
    Very wise words. Prayer is always the answer. Like everything in spiritual life, a spiritual father is “revealed” to us, and does not come from any advertisement.

  61. Maria Avatar

    Yes Fr. Freeman, the word Father causes me to break out in tears. A person I loved so much and thru him I learned to love Christ. He himself was a WWI Orphan and raised by protestant nuns. Yes, they did exist, and the Mother Nun that raised him became my Grandmother. When I left Germany she would write me every year on my birthday till she died. It seems like I had been under both of their protections. But my father sinned greatly and divorce followed and all us children where taken out of Church. Our life’s changed for ever. Raised from the cradle in Church and then thrown out to the world and to the wolfs I started to hate my life and didn’t know how to get back. The shame struck us in a culture where divorce was still not very common.
    I lost my family and sibling whom I all loved to early, I lost my Church when I needed them most, I lost my country and became a stranger in a strange land, and then loosing my children to a world/ country/culture that was secular and foreign. I am heart broken by all, but somehow God is holding on to me thru all this, when I could hold on to no one.
    Thank you Father Freeman I will read your link, learn and renew my strength and fly like an Eagle God willing.

  62. Ben Avatar

    Dear Stephen,

    A friend directed me to your interesting and encouraging article. I agree with your statement that “Sin is a death problem”. Certainly the Bible is clear that God if life and separation from God (caused by sin) brings death (Rom 6:23).

    But I would disagree with you statement that “sin is not a legal problem”. It is also a legal problem. In the course of providing mercy and grace God must also demonstrate His justice and condemnation of sin. (Rom 3:23-26) and also Lev 16.

    I think your analogy breaks down a little because there is no one of whom it can be truly said that, “Well, then. Legally you shouldn’t have cancer [i.e the wages of sin – death], but you do. And if I don’t treat you, you’ll die.” Everyone needs the application of the saving blood of Christ, which, when received through faith as the payment for our sins, not only cleanses and achieves atonement, but does so in a way that vindicates the righteousness and justice of God.

    May God richly bless your ministry.

  63. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    If “legal,” were rightly understood, I would agree that sin is a legal problem. However, in most modern treatments, “legal” is treated within the context of Nominalism, making it purely extrinsic and ideational. That is filled with problems. When I say that sin is not a “legal” problem, I am addressing modern listeners, for him “legal” is nothing more than one more nominalist construct. Essentially, underneath my argument, is the assumption that a Nominalist who says, “This is legal,” is not saying the same thing as St. Paul, or any of Scripture.

    I’m continuing in this series to address this question.

  64. Stephanie Avatar

    From “The Feedom of Morality” by Christos Yannaras

    [In the Orthodox Church] sin is identified not with transgression and guilt, but with failure and “missing the mark”. The idea cultivated in western Christendom, which identified sin with legal transgression and salvation with individual justification and atonement, linked Christian ethics in people’s minds with a host of psychological complexes offering no way of escape. The striving for individual justification and atonement leaves man still enslaved to his autonomous individuality, separated from the possibility of life and existence….The egocentric fear of transgression, and the tendency to gloss over sin or to reach an accommodation with it are extensions and consequences of the psychological guilt complex, and neither has any place in the spiritual climate of Orthodox ethics…..

    In man’s sin, in his failure to be what he is called to be, the Church sees an affirmation of the truth of the person: personhood is affirmed even in man’s capacity to say no even to life and existence itself, to say no to God, although relationship and communion with Him are all that makes existence into a hypostasis of life. In man’s sin, the Church sees the tragic adventure of human freedom….Sin is the measure of our awareness of separation from God, of separation from life – it is the measure of our conscious recognition of death… Thus sin becomes a starting point for repentance, metanoia. This word in Greek means “change of mind”, in other words a change in man’s whole attitude….

    Christ’s assumption of human nature is an event which brings the Church into being. What Christ has assumed is all of us who make up the body of the Church, burdened as we are with daily failure: and He shows us to be partakers in His life, in His own mode of existence….Participation in the theantropic body of Christ, in the existential unity of the communion of saints, is not secured by individual merit or the objectivity recognized “virtues” of the individual: it is secured by repentance, by the new attitude of trust in God…..

    Repentance is a change in our mode of existence: man ceases to trust in his own individuality. He realizes that existing as an individual, even a virtuous individual, does not save him from corruption and death, from his agonizing existential thirst for life. This is why he takes refuge in the Church, where he exists as someone loving and loved. He is loved by the saints, who give him a “name” of personal distinctiveness and take him into the communion of their love despite his sinfulness; and he himself strives to love others despite their sinfulness, to live free from the necessities of his mortal nature. He struggles to overcome his individual resistances, his individual wishes and autonomous impulses, not in order to “improve himself” individually, but in order to measure up to the “frenzied love” of Christ and the saints, to the preconditions required for personal life as opposed to natural survival. pp. 38-42

    My husband read this excerpt from “The Bible and Holy Fathers For Orthodox” last night, and I thought it was very good, as I am still chewing on it. I thought it applied in many ways to this conversation.

  65. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Indeed. Yannaras is an important Orthodox thinker in my estimation.

  66. Nes Avatar

    Hi Father, two questions:

    1) You mentioned in a comment:

    “…Having done so, we move back towards our nature, which came from nothingness. God created all things from nothing. If He does not sustain us, we would indeed cease to exist.”

    Do you understand Hell as being a place where God sustains us, but we are continually pulled towards nothingness, so we’re kind of like husks of our intentioned state? Or is it rather a soul who rejects God ceases to exist?

    2) I am troubled about the concept of habitual sin and what it means about the state of the soul. When a soul is constantly committing the same sin (often something like indulging in pornography), repenting, and then going back to it—what does this tell us about the state of the soul? Does our Physician really heal the soul when such a person repents, or is the person delusional and not really asking for healing in the first place when he goes to confession (saying “I’m sorry” but really knowing he will fall again).

    Specifically, I’m troubled with 1 John, 3:6-10: “No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous. Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning.”

    Does this mean that the one who continues to sin is living in a delusion, that the religion he practices is a mere pretense, and that he is truly nothing when he hopes to be something? I hope you might shed even a little light on this. Thank you.

  67. Dino Avatar

    On the one hand, one who continues in sin, returning to the same passions again and again proves that his repentance has a somewhat compromised earnestness lacking permanence and decisiveness and remaining in the vicious cycle of sin, but on the other hand, one who does not cease to mourn this sad state of his slavery manifests a decisiveness and permanence in the fact that he neither leaves the vicious cycle of repentance. There’s a beautiful story in the sayings of the desert fathers concerning a monk who continued in such a vicious cycle of ‘repentance and relapse’ (into depravity) for years [!] until the devil claimed him for his perpetuation ‘in sin’, yet God also claimed him and took him for his continuance in repentance…
    We do whatever is at hand.

  68. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Good questions. Following the fathers on the question of non-existence – we never cease to exist – existence is the gift of God and He never takes it back. So, He sustains us.

    Hell. It sort of depends on how you want to think of it. I do not think of hell in terms of retribution. God has no need to inflict punishment for the sake of justice. Rather, He works always to heal us, and for that reason never ceases to sustain us. Viewed in that way, hell describes our enthrallment to the “direction” or “movement” (“kinesis” in St. Maximus) towards non-being. There is a distinction in the Greek between two negative particles. One (ou) means absolute negative. The other (me) means a more relative negative. When speaking of this movement towards non-being, the fathers (Athanasius especially as I recall) uses “me.” We are therefore “meontic” in our sin – tending towards non-being. And it’s manifest as sin – corruption, disintegration, etc.

    Persistent sin. I think you are mistaking persistent temptation and repeated falls with persistent sin. Some sins, particularly those that are actually rooted in our nature, are very difficult. By “rooted in our nature,” I mean they represent something completely natural. Sex and sexual desire is completely natural. Just like hunger for food or thirst for drink. These will never go away and they are utterly good at their root.

    They are not “unnatural sins.” They are not, therefore, exactly sins against our nature. It is part of their power. The temptation generally perverts this power. With pornography, there is something like an addiction. True persistent sin would be wholly giving oneself over, without remorse, to a salacious and craven existence. Most Christians, even when they enthralled by pornography, are consciously aware that it’s wrong, but feel somehow powerless. They should leap to repentance and prayer as soon as possible, resisting the condemnation of the devil that always follows.

  69. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley

    Did Peter say, be baptized for the remission of your sins, or did he say so that your heart can be healed. It looks legalistic to me.

    Clearly the NT contains legalistic language in dealing with salvation. Perhaps the best way for us to understand salvation is to use both images. It doesn’t have to be an either or problem. Way can’t it be both? It appears that’s how the NT presents salvation, as a hospital and a court room.

  70. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    The language that appears “legal” when read with modern eyes, is actually something rather different. What we mean today in our legal imagery is rooted in the modern philosophical ideas of nominalism – which did not appear until the Middle Ages in the West. I’ve got an article coming on Thursday that looks at some of this in some detail.

    There is “legal” language and imagery in the NT, but it is a very different thing than our legal language. It is, interestingly, a more “medical” view of legal than we would ever consider.

    One reason it is not “both” is because the modern legal imagery is a wrong interpretation of those words, and also because the modern legal imagery leads to false ideas about God and salvation. We do not have a legal problem in the modern sense of the term.

  71. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley

    Thanks, father.

  72. Nicole from VA Avatar
    Nicole from VA

    Regarding being baptized for the “remission of sins”

    The way remission is used relating to cancer helped me understand a bit more of the the medical, Church-as-hospital sense of salvation. And salve, as in oil poured onto wounds, the oil of gladness, Christ the Good Samaritan

    St. Moses the Ethiopian repented and was forgiven by God, but never relinquished his own sense of himself as a sinner. He received forgiveness yet didn’t look at his sin as a legal debtors note torn up. He accepted forgiveness but continued to bear the shame with hope in Christ. The modern legal sense of atonement may encourage prideful, puffed up chests instead

  73. Karen Avatar

    Nicole, I like that connection of the nature of “remission” of sins with a disease state being “in remission.” I do think that captures the fully biblical and Orthodox sense.

  74. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley

    Interesting in these comments. Everybody is quoting the fathers, but I don’t think anyone has quoted the Scriptures.

  75. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I don’t think that says much, other than that the fathers are important. If you read the Scriptures apart from the fathers you will only misinterpret them. That’s why it’s often quite useless to simply quote the Scriptures alone. If I’m engaging the non-Orthodox, particularly certain Protestants, it’s almost impossible to have a conversation on the ground of the Scriptures, particularly the Scriptures alone. Their misuse is more than a minor problem. It is an unintentional misuse because their entire worldview, spiritually, makes them not see some of the most fundamental things about the Scripture. To a certain extent, I only ever write about the Scriptures. Every article, even when not directly addressing the Scriptures, is addressing the mind that is necessary in order to read them rightly.

  76. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley

    So, father, the church fathers are inspired equal to or even more than the Scriptures?

    So, why don’t all the fathers always agree, and why don’t all Orthodox scholars always agree on what the fathers say.

    It seems it would be wrong/a sin to misuse the fathers, if they are that important. And, if they disagree, they can’t be inspired.

    Just asking questions.

  77. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley

    Father, I am anti-Protestant in the sense that I don’t think God approves of the Protestant situation.

    In my opinion, the worst idea, and it came from Protestants, is that people have the ‘right’ to their own private interpretation of the Bible.

    The only interpretation that is ‘right’ is the God-approved, God-given one. So, the need is for the religious world to accept an absolute, proper interpretation. So comes the fathers and tradition.

    Many Protestants are too proud and self-centered or too ignorant to do that. I don’t want the word ‘ignorant’ to be read too strongly. There are lots and lots of innocent, misled Protestants.

  78. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley

    “I don’t study anything but the Bible.”

    Recently I attended church service with my wife, a Protestant church, where I used to attend.

    I offered to give one of the major teachers a book to read. He snorted, “I don’t study anything but the Bible” and danced away.

    I really didnt appreciate his arrogant, condescending, holier-than-thou attitude.

    In many moderate, progressive churches the members think they are better, holier, and much closer to God than older members and smaller churches and the more ‘conservative’ churches.

    “I don’t study anything but the Bible”, just smacks of arrogance to me. They will run you down for using Bible study aids, and you dare not mention the church fathers.

  79. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Terry, the Fathers writings reflect Jesus’ teaching that the Scriptures speak of Him.

    The Fathers give us the revealed interpretation of the Scriptures. Nevertheless, if they contradict the Scriptures, they are wrong.

    It is, like much else in the Church both/and considered within a proper order. Rarely is it either/or.

    Such an approach can be difficult to learn for us binary moderns.

  80. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Terry, the Fathers are not superior to the Bible. They are superior in understanding to me however.

    The Christian experience is not monolithic nor linear. It is deeply human in the most comprehensive meaning of human.

    Given the vast differences in time place and culture in which the Fathers wrote it is remarkable that they agree as much as they do.

    I would be suspicious if they demonstrated perfect lock-step harmony and were never mistaken.

  81. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley


    How can the fathers be both right and wrong? If they can, they are not really trustworthy.

    Who decides who is right and wrong? Other men who can be both right and wrong!

    If the church fathers are not inspired, they are like any other man, offering an opinion.

    Again, thanks, Michael.

  82. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley

    It seems to me when we approach the church fathers, the ones who get the ‘most votes’ are right.

    My priest is always using and quoting the Scriptures along with the fathers.

    If all we use are the fathers, it is like relying on somebody else’s summary and analysis of a great novel and never reading the book itself.

  83. Karen Avatar

    Hi Terry,

    I’m trying to get a feel for where some of your questions are coming from, since many of them sound like those with which many Protestants “bait” Othodox Christians. Perhaps you are just trying to find better answers to offer some of your Protestant friends and family members? Are you having difficulty coming up with answers for why you have become Orthodox that your Protestant interlocutors can accept? If so, as a former Evangelical I can certainly understand being in that tension. I also suspect that there are some Orthodox answers the Protestant mind–being so modern–will just not be able to hear aright or accept. It has been difficult for me many times to come to terms with that, as I’m sure it has for many other readers here. It can be a rather arduous journey!

  84. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley


    The questions are sincere, and the answes are solely for me.

    Is it wrong on this blog to ask ‘hard’ questions?

    I did not become Orthodox and do not remain Orthodox simply because somebody said so-and-so.

    I like to ask questions; it is part of who I am.

    Nobody but the folks here know I am here asking questions. My priest and I have met once a week for 2-3 hours over a 2-year period. If he hadn’t endured my questions, I would never have become Orthodox.

    When I found this blog, I thought I had found a gold mine. Perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps I am not right for this blog. If I stay, I will always be full of questions. And they may come from both sides of the discussion.

    Until I am told to leave, I will stay and ask questions, with no evil or negative motive.

    Again, thanks, Karen.

  85. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    There is an inspiration in the fathers. They don’t always agree, except on the central dogmatic teachings of the faith. Where they disagree is relatively minor, as a matter of fact. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any disagreements of significance. But they are not equal to the Scripture, in the same way that downstream is not the same thing as the source of a river. Same river, just different positions.

    Orthodoxy is alive. It is not changing, in the same sense that my DNA doesn’t change. And yet it changes just as I do with the DNA remaining the same. That DNA is the Holy Spirit, the One who leads into all truth, and is primarily known in the continuity of the Tradition that is the very life of the Church.

    We are primarily immersed in the Tradition when we are immersed in the life of the Church. The liturgical life is itself the great combination of the fathers, hymnographers, Scriptures, etc. Bathed in those texts, in the contexts of the Feasts which are themselves liturgical expressions of the greatest truths of the faith, coupled with the life of repentance, fasting and prayer, we remain faithful.

    If we are truly immersed in that life, it becomes much easier to read, discern and understand. And even then, there is a living correction in the life of the Church in that no single one of us stands apart. Ultimately, the answer to things like authority, etc., is found in the immersion of the life of faith in the Orthodox Church. It cannot be had outside of it in the same way.

  86. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Your questions are welcome. Don’t be put off if some folks simply want to get to know you.

  87. Nicole from VA Avatar
    Nicole from VA

    Hi Terry,

    I have been so glad to see your questions and hope you will continue to participate as a reader and share questions.

    Years ago the phrase ‘the beautiful game’ was brought to my attention as the way people in Brazil describe their style of soccer.

    With every question that arises we can be sure that the answer, God’s Truth and intention and will, is the ‘beautiful answer.’

    This is part of how I realized penal substitution is false

  88. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley

    Thanks, father.

    I don’t mind revealing some of myself that’s pertinent.

    I have already revealed a lot about me in earlier posts.

    I may sound like a lot of things, but that is where I am at that moment.

  89. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley


    That is a neat thought.

    Thank you very muchin

  90. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley

    Thank you, Karen.

  91. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Terry, the Church decides based on Councils, the Holy Spirit, what is continuously revealed in the life of the Church over and within time.

    Jesus Christ is the measure of truth-for the Fathers and for the Bible itself.

    Was St. Peter inspired? Was he not rebuked by our Lord Himself, did he not deny Christ?

    The Father’s writings were not dictation. Often they were pastoral in very specific situations. Sometimes they made mistakes that were corrected by others.

    Part of the problem with the west is that the correction process was not operative so early on one voice, St. Augustine became dominant even when he overstated certain ideas.

    Origen was widely respected and authoritative when he was alive but later he was anathematised by the Church. Yet, much if what he wrote, when read within a wider context is profitable.

    The more one immerses himself in the life of the Church, the more is understood.

    Karen was not trying to run you off. It is that she was trying to understand so as to answer appropriately.

    Those who ask in doubt are different than those who ask in faith. Zacharias asked his question of the angel in disbelief and was struck silent.

    Mary asked a nearly identical question and received an answer overflowing with grace.

    On the internet it is notoriously difficult to discern tone which can distort meaning. Your priest could much more easily discern how you were asking.

    If you are asking out of humility, answers will come. Not always where you might expect them, but they will come.

    Sometimes the answer will come only over time as you contemplate what Father writes.

    I still have, Oh, that is what he meant, after years of reading and commenting. About 11 now. Sometimes I disagree but that does not mean Father is not writing in the spirit of Truth.

    Some of your questions do sound a bit like ones that devolve into pointless dual monologs.

    Don’t fault us for checking to be sure.

  92. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley

    Friend Michael,

    If I am guilty of asking questions that “devolve into pointless dual monologs”, sorry, but I don’t even know what you mean. It sounds like some kind of disease 😘.

    Wow, what an accusation. I promise not to ask anymore questions that “devolve into pointless dual monologs”, whatever.

    Thanks for informing me. I had no idea I was asking questions that “devolve into pointless dual monologs”.

    I suppose now I really need to go see a priest, maybe even confession.

  93. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley

    My last post was mostly tongue-in-cheek.

  94. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley

    Oh, Michael, I did see my priest today. We have discussions regularly. He is a very godly man, and both smart and wise. I have asked him the same type questions for the last two years.

    Now, I wonder why he answered them, from the Scriptures and from the fathers.

    Yep, it is different talking through a blog and talking face-to-face.

    I hope one day we can meet, and I can ask you lots of questions face-to-face.

    Christian love and blessings to you, my brother.

  95. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Terry, you are not. But there have been some on this blog quite recently who have been. Similar questions to begin with.

    I have often said that the only stupid question is the one you don’t ask.

    Forgive me for appearing adversarial.

  96. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley


    No problem. I understand.

    I still have no idea of what you ‘accused’ me. 👍

  97. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Terry, I don’t believe I accused you of anything but it is a good example of how easy it is to misunderstand in this medium.

    It would be good to meet face to face. If you are ever in Wichita, Ks on a Sunday, come worship with my wife and I at St. George on the corner of 13th and Broadmoor.

    You are always welcome.

  98. Karen Avatar

    Hi Terry!

    Thanks for the honest reply. Michael’s right–I was certainly not trying to “run you off”, just trying to get a better feel for what you are wrestling with. I don’t like to make assumptions–at least, I’ve had to learn how not to do that the hard way a few times, so I’m trying to practice checking things out, not just project my own issues.

    All that is to say, ask away! It’s how we all learn. 🙂

  99. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    Keep asking for if you do, one day you will be the one answering others questions.

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