How Good Is Your Will? Part Two of The Ontological Model


Suppose I give you a bicycle for the convenience of travel. Suppose, however, that the bicycle is broken: flat tires, missing spokes, a chain that slips frequently. Nevertheless, you figure out a way to make it go. The ride is bumpy and you often have to stop and fix the chain. You fear that one day the wheels will just come apart as the spokes yield to the weight. Nevertheless, in fits and starts, you bumble along the road. This, I suggest, is an apt model for the human will.

The will is not absent, but it’s broken. It’s more broken in some people than others.

For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do. If, then, I do what I will not to do, I agree with the law that it is good. But now, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find. For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice. Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. I find then a law, that evil is present with me, the one who wills to do good. For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man. But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? I thank God– through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, with the mind I myself serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin. (Rom 7:15-25)

St. Paul’s famous lament, “The good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice…” is a heartbreaking echo of every human heart. It is particularly frustrating in a culture that elevates the power of the will above all things in its strange perversion of liberty. We have a will, and it plays a role in our life. However, it is not the primary defining aspect of our humanity. Man as a moral agent is frequently little more than a fiction.

I have been writing about problems in the legal/forensic model of salvation. Juridical images have a place (primarily within preaching). They can easily become moralistic, describing the human condition as being largely about correct choices and the consequences for the bad ones. Indeed, in the legal/forensic model, moral agency is pretty much the only aspect of humanity that matters. Morality is about decisions. There are rules, warnings and consequences. We are then free to choose and suffer accordingly.

I will observe, parenthetically, that this same judicial model has come to govern almost every aspect of modern culture, particularly in liberal democracies of the capitalist world. For in those societies, there are winners and losers. It is quite comforting for those who have succeeded to assume that the failure of others is the result of their wrong choices. Indeed, the consequences of those choices, it is often thought, serve as a good lesson for all. America defines itself as a nation of moral agents, often presuming that it is the most moral of all nations.

However, the landscape of the nation points to one of the flaws of the juridical approach. There is, and always has been, an intractable portion of the population who fail to succeed. If you do historical studies you will find that the problem has existed in America since its earliest colonial days and has never disappeared.1 Successive political regimes have described the phenomenon in a variety of ways, but none have ever managed to make it disappear. Christ’s observation, “The poor you have with you always,” remains unchallenged. This intractable poverty is more than economic: it represents a failure of moral agency. Anyone who works with the poorest segment of society has to admit that there are some people who can never seem to manage their lives in a manner that avoids trouble and failure. Their own frustration is heart-breaking.

Moral agency generally divides people into winners and losers with the winners feeling somehow justified in their choices and decisions. But what if the will is like a broken bicycle? What if, in the lottery of life, the winners simply inherited a less-broken bicycle and only travel on well-paved, well-maintained roads? What if circumstances fail to reveal the brokenness of some while magnifying that of others? What if none of us is completely responsible for anything?

The ontological approach (I apologize again for the term) does not see human beings primarily as moral agents. First, we are beings. We have a will, but it is broken. The doctrine of the Church, as articulated in the 5th Council and its surrounding theology, describes our human nature as having a will (the natural will), but also notes that the natural will is impaired in its application through the mode of willing known as the gnomic will. The intricacies of this understanding do not have to be completely understood. If you want to try, then read St. Maximus the Confessor. He is the great Doctor of that Council.

The subtleties of this understanding go a long way towards describing the true frustration of the human predicament. St. Paul articulated it with his groaning, “Who will deliver me from this body of death?” The brokenness of the will is a problem of being, not a failure of moral agency.

Certain versions of Protestantism recognize the brokenness of the will, but remain committed to moral agency as the primary lens for understanding our relationship with God. For them, man is thoroughly corrupt, incapable of truly willing the good. That some seem to succeed while others fail is attributed to the sovereign will of God. Some are chosen, some are not. It has been a very compatible theology for the landscape of modern capitalist democracies. The Elect do well – “God shed His grace on thee.”

The ministry of Christ seems to have gone past the question of moral agency. Those who championed their choices (Pharisees) did not fare so well in their interactions with Christ. However, He seemed particularly drawn to those who occupied the broken layers of humanity marked by poverty, disease and bad choices. A woman taken in the act of adultery finds compassion. A woman living out-of-wedlock, having failed five times in marriage is engaged forthrightly and finds salvation. Christ seems to look past the moral brokenness and into the very heart of their existence. He answers with mercy even the failure of religious belief, “Lord, I believe! Help my unbelief!”

We are not autonomous moral agents running around shaping our lives and world by our choices. Our choices, having been exalted by modern philosophical theories, have reached an apex of absurdity. Justice Kennedy gave voice to the delusional view of modern moral agency:

At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life…

Human beings are first and foremost human beings. Our very existence is a gift from God. Existence itself is good and is intended to become even better moving towards true eternal being in union with God. We are human beings who have a will (broken and dysfunctional). But we ourselves are not a will. Modernity tends to think of human beings as a will that has a body. Of course, many human beings (infants for one) either have an impaired will or are not able to manifest the will as choice and decision. These odd creatures are a bother to moralists. They are flies in the ointment that are generally relegated to some less-than-fully-human status. It is not surprising that in the secular version of the juridical world, such people are easily put to death as non-persons.

 Our existence is always contingent – it is a gift from God and only continues because it participates in His existence. Sin moves us away from that participation and thus towards non-existence. The primary category of sin is death, or non-being. This death manifests itself in us in many ways, including those that are described as “moral.” It is of note that the Tradition describes us as being in “bondage to sin and death.” This is the primary image of Pascha (Passover), and thus of our salvation. God sends Moses into Egypt to lead His people out of bondage. He does not go there primarily to improve their role as moral agents. Christ enters our world in order to lead us out of bondage to sin and death. The healing of our will is, over time, part of the fulfillment of that Exodus.

How good is your will? It’s of use from time to time, but also seems to be pretty dysfunctional at other times. It is not the core of your being. God Himself is the core of our existence. The traditional focus of the Christian life is growth in union with God through Christ in the Holy Spirit. Christianity is not a moral improvement society. There are many to be saved who will seem like the worst moral failures among us. In His compassion, Jesus loved them greatly. They have suffered much, often at their own hands.

The excellence of moral agents, like the wealth of the successful American, is not a matter for boasting. Everything is a gift. We have earned nothing. The gifts of God are given to us for the purpose of giving Him thanks and to share with those who have less. The excellence of a moral agent is measured in deeds of compassion and self-offering, not in the fastidious adherence to a code of conduct that is often little more than middle-class conformity.

God give us grace!



Footnotes for this article

  1. An excellent review of this history can be found in Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash.

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.



, , , ,



149 responses to “How Good Is Your Will? Part Two of The Ontological Model”

  1. Allen Long Avatar
    Allen Long

    “How good is your will? It’s of use from time to time, but also seems to be pretty dysfunctional at other times. It is not the core of your being. God Himself is the core of our existence.”

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen. I needed those sentences today.

  2. Byron Avatar

    The gifts of God are given to us for the purpose of giving Him thanks and to share with those who have less.

    Glory to God! I have seen this recently in my life. I am very thankful.

  3. Don Wiley Avatar

    May you writing be shared on other fora (with link back, of course)>

  4. Dean Avatar

    Father, sometimes you pen pithy little gems that I need to memorize, such as–“The traditional focus of the Christian life is growth in union with God through Christ in the Holy Spirit.”
    Thanks Father for hammering home the truth of being taking precedence over all else. I’ve noticed the bumper sticker, ” Life is good!”, is usually seen on flashy newer cars. Well, yes, existence in Him is very good!, and not the insipid goodness of consumption.

  5. Karl Avatar

    But if ‘the excellence of a moral agent’ can in any way be measured this surely implies the exercise of a will that was not created by us in the first place, nor its strength or weakness chosen, so how can there be any merit at all? This is where Augustine and Luther surface with their concept of the bondage of the will.

  6. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Glory to God indeed. Several years ago my Bishop, his Grace Bishop Basil of Wichita, gave a homily on occasion of “Right to Life Sunday”.

    He is a staunch supporter of life but the core of his homily was that there is no “right” to life. It is a gift from God and therefore sacred. We have a responsibility to protect and nuture it where ever we find it.

    I have been pondering that kernal of wisdom ever since.

    Am I right when I surmise that any act of my will that damages myself or another is of the gnomic will regardless of the intent?

    Are not all of our disciplines an aid in the healing of both our will and our being?

    Does 1 Cor 3:15 come into play here as well as St. Paul’s lament?

  7. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Pretty much every action and decision of our lives involves the gnomic will. It’s a mode of willing rather than a good or bad will. The “natural will” (the will of my actual human nature) always chooses the good. This is a way of saying that it always tends towards what it was created for. All created natures do this. We were created for a purpose and that purpose is manifest as the natural will. But there is a divide within us such that we have this mode of willing (called the gnomic will by St. Maximus) that does not choose “naturally.” It just chooses and in doing so, gets things wrong as often as not.

  8. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley

    If man is so ‘sick’, how can he step back and criticize or critique mankind? It seems he would be too numb or dumb to do so.

    When man is treated/cured, does that make him a doctor (like God) to the other sick? Can he now ‘practice spiritual medicine’?

    Thanks for the article. A first reading was easier than that of the last article. I think I understand more.

  9. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley

    Gnomic Will

    When a man ‘deliberates’, how does that show his weekness? I mean when he acts consciously and intentionally.


  10. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley

    God gave man a mind and a will which would not and could not function appropriately.

    God knew man would sin in the garden, and He allowed it.

    God set man up for the fall and all these ontological consequences.


  11. Rob Avatar

    As someone who has struggled with addiction to lust in varying forms over the years, this post resonates loud and clear. My will is clearly defective and unreliable; I take St. Paul’s lament to an extreme. I REALLY hate my actions and obsessions, but at times I’m just totally unable to restrain myself. “Turning myself over to the will and care of God” (as the Big Book of AA says it) on a daily basis is the only thing that works – and even then it is a daily reprieve. When I’m able to have even the slightest conscious thought of God, the day is a good day. If I begin the day (as I did today) without prayer of some form, I’m likely in for a difficult time. I suspect the case is such for many.

    Father, I’m open to your suggestions as to how one might better replace one’s own will with the Will of God.

  12. George Rozes Avatar
    George Rozes

    Father: Your commendable presentation is let down by your attempt to apply it to nations and faiths as a whole. Marxist elements in the white trash book and deterministic thinking may be accurate in India and China but are inaccurate in the US. My dad was one of many immigrants who found his life here exceeded any life he could have lived by farming rocks and fighting Germans and hunger in Greece. Horatio Alger may be damaged but he still animates many who wish to live a better life in the US.

  13. Byron Avatar

    God gave man a mind and a will which would not and could not function appropriately.

    God knew man would sin in the garden, and He allowed it.

    God set man up for the fall and all these ontological consequences.

    Man functioned freely in the garden; his mind and will functioned appropriately. The gnomic will (as I understand it; please correct me if I am incorrect, Father) is a distortion of the will which humanity entered into by turning away from God. God does not impose Himself upon us but that does not mean he “set us up”.

    Some of the Church Fathers postulate that Adam and Eve were essentially teenagers when they were in the garden; that they were in many respects children. Children fail but that doesn’t mean their parents set them up to fail. Instead, their parents pick them up when they fall; they love them even when they fail. God redeems us; he does not stop loving us or drawing us to Him.

  14. Jonathan Avatar

    Your post today was indescribably relevant to things currently happening in my life, especially your closing statement: “The excellence of a moral agent is measured in deeds of compassion and self-offering, not in the fastidious adherence to a code of conduct that is often little more than middle-class conformity.”

    As always, your insight has helped me, a recovering Protestant, put and/or keep life in the correct perspective.

  15. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley

    I do not believe, at all, that God set man up. It just appears to explain what happened.


  16. Paul Avatar

    Father, I really appreciate your insight and wisdom. I have been struggling with a grave sin I committed years ago but am recognizing that my contrite heart is a pathway to more compassion, more love, more grace to flow through me. Without that sin and its painful consequences, I would not have been able to experience his love and mercy as much as I have. I also whole heartedly agree that we should not be defined as our will or our minds as so much of modern or Western society forces us to. Our identity, our self, lies in our “being.” Thanks again for your wonderful words. God bless you.

  17. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley

    I just had a thought. 😑

    This is a theological discussion. It is the desire to make sense out of what does not make sense, or at lease the desire to understand it better.

    Ontology is just a tool to understand and explain what would otherwise not be understood and not explainable.

    Theology is not dogma; it is folks thinking and sharing.

    There appears to be other theologies and thoughts that just as honestly strive to do the same.

    The Catholic Church is scholastic, philosophical, and logical.

    On the other hand, the Orthodox Church is theological, mystical, and metaphysical.

    It is difficult to try and walk down both paths.


  18. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley

    The desire should not be to debate theology but to understand it.

  19. John Kemp Avatar
    John Kemp

    Thnx. This is a balm to a wounded spirit & soul.

  20. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I think it’s a fair observation. I don’t want to say “whatever floats your boat…” because there is a reality to “what makes sense.” What I know is Jesus. That is the starting point. The rest flows from there.

  21. Annie Dennee Avatar
    Annie Dennee

    Thank you. We have had our ups and downs in terms of the American success ideal and always felt that up or down it was a gift from God, but it’s hard to buck the guilt attached to “down” by our culture. I understand this better now.

  22. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    Thank you Father, as always your articles are illuminating.

  23. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    The success of Greek immigration is indeed a Horatio Alger story. It is a mistake, however, the generalize from that experience for everything in America. It’s a very mixed bag. The stories of the “white trash” (which had others names given to them), is very much part of my wider experience. I’ve spent my life within Appalachia, have plenty of family embedded in that experience. Though some escape, it’s a very complex story. Being human is a very complex matter. I dare say that Greece probably has its own counterparts to American “white trash…” In some parts of Eastern Europe it’s the gypsies (“Roma”). Reflecting on what it means to be human transcends cultures. If culture and good politics and economics were the answer, Jesus would have come as a politician. He didn’t. There is something else at work. I love my country. My people have been in America ever since we stole the place.

    There is no simple description of America – it’s a very mixed bag. I think the reason for that is that people are never really simple and the answers to our lives are never simple. It can be incredibly frustrating to work with certain segments of our culture. You want to throw your hands up and quit. And yet, I think Christ dealt directly with such people and saved them. I also think that the “successful” people in any culture are often (not always) fairly removed from salvation. Christ had warnings for the dangers of wealth. The greatest true poverty is for a man to forget God. Wealth can do that very thing sometimes.

    I’m no Marxist. I hate what the Communists did. But neither is the world black and white. That communism is evil doesn’t make capitalism all good. I know that I often write critically about our culture, and have read your notes regarding that. I do not champion some other culture over ours – but I speak about what I know and where I live. That, I believe is a good thing. It’s certainly quintessentially American.

  24. Psalti Avatar

    I was also thinking of addiction. All addictions corrupt the will. In this sense, they are perfect examples of humanities plight; its enslavement to the passions.

    How to escape? How to heal the will? Steps one and two of the 12 steps offer a clue. Surrender. Surrender ones corrupt will to Christ. Crucify oneself every day.

    Addicts are blessed in that they understand intimately the true plight we all face.

    We’re all addicts. Some of us understand it better than others. Life is hard. Every day.

  25. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Quite early in my Christian journey (over 40 years ago) I was given Ephesians 4 as a guide to my life and soul. Despite the context in which it was given was and it remains a gift of the Spirit to me.

    I just reread it and find a great deal there that resonates with much of what is being said here aside from convicting me of my own short-comings.

    That is juridical language but the conviction of which I speak is not a matter of guilt but a renewed call to wholeness and mercy. That is the true repentance, the metanoia, that restores the will.

    Metanoia. Now there is a word worthy of study I think.

  26. Michelle Avatar

    If I were going to liken our dilemma to a bicycle I would add a few things. First, I would state that it is a mountain bike, and as such it naturally desires to travel the rocky terrain set before it. This rocky terrain is the trail of Theosis. The dilemma came when the devil suggested a different road to travel. It appeared similar, and just as pleasing a ride as the other, but unfortunately when traveled it flattened tires, rusted chains, and bent frames. But it still enticed the bikes pleasures, pleasures that were meant for a different terrain. And the longer it was traveled the harder it was to turn back.

    For Adam the correct trail was the one towards God, and satisfied his natural desire to travel in a perfect way. The dilemma was the devil threw in front of Adam was a hazy vision of another trail. It to lead to a person, and in the distance this person even appeared similar to the Triune Person; Adam traveled toward himself. He was created in God’s Image, and thus traveling this road was similar enough to entice his desires, but different enough to damage him along the way. It was damaging because, while though Adam appeared similar to God, he had no real substance in himself apart from God, so to travel solely towards himself is to travel towards nothingness.

    We say our will is “broken” not so much because it functions improperly, but because it is directed at the improper object. What is “broken” about us is that we are born traveling down the wrong trail, so to speak. Like our father, Adam, we come into this world with hazy vision, not sure which object in front of us is our proper natural desire. We come with bends and twists that lean our desire towards ourselves. We gaze down the road wondering if the figure we see in the distance is God or us.

  27. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Terry I understand you dicotomy and have shared the same thinking myself. While it has some truth, there is more. I have come to see that such a statement is a miss categorisation of both RCC understanding and Orthodox understanding. Only use so far as it helps.

    True theology in Orthodox understanding is the fruit of prayer and communion with Jesus Christ; Not so much an effort to understand as to apprehend and participate in God’s unfolding life.

    It is experiential in nature. My son, who unlike me grew from infancy in the Church, apprehends the truth of the Church in ways I still have to work toward. For 11 years he served faithfully in the altar. He exoerienced the reality if God made flesh.

    He tells me that all the ‘splainin’ I do is alright but the better way is for folks to come and see. His outreach is founded on the Creed and an invitation.

    If someone asks him what he believes he recites the Creed with conviction. If they manage to listen to the end and want to know more, he invites them to attend Liturgy with him. He tells me that most people can’t make it past the “Who for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven and was Incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and became man.”

    Theology is about participating in His Incarnation. It speaks volumes to me that most folks stop listening at that point.

    There is an aversion in our culture to the reality of God Incarnate and indeed to virginity.

    We seem unable to bear either.

  28. Eric Avatar

    “There are many to be saved who will seem like the worst moral failures among us. In His compassion, Jesus loved them greatly. They have suffered much, often at their own hands.”

    Father Stephen, thank you once more
    Statements such as the above remind us that the Gospel is about Hope, whereas for so many it has been distorted to become a deceptive instrument of hopelessness. I was personally encouraged by it.

    My observation about the health of churches – insofar as such a thing is even the remotest of possibilities – is that the best Know this truth and are a truly Glorious mixture of folk who love Jesus together and seek to lift rather than lay burdens on one another

    Grace and Peace

  29. Michelle Avatar

    Karl mentioned Luther’s bondage of the will earlier. Luther proclaimed that his being was so bent towards himself that his will failed in all accounts, and was rendered utterly incapable of moving towards God. I believe Luther was seeking the ultimate expression of humility when speaking of the desperate state of his will. And as such, Im not sure that it is much different than the humility some of the Saints express, but what went wrong was that this existential experience of ultimate humility later became human theorizing turned dogma. A category was developed by men called “total depravity,” and everyone was thrown into in such a way that to deny this confession was to commit heresy. The problem here wasn’t that the Lutherans were to forensic in their language. Lutherans are actually quite ontological, and, though most now days may not realize it, they could abandon the forensic language altogether without doing harm to their confessions. Rather, the problem here is confessionalism; humility was systemized, then dogmatism, and, lastly, demanded pronouncement as a indelible confession.

    So, I guess ridding ourselves of the modern forensic ideal that sees us as solely moral agents solves a lot of our problem, and can definitely be a catalyst towards an ontological perception of our situation, but it doesn’t necessarily lead straight to truth. It just helps a little. I state this for all the Sacramental, more ontologically minded Protestants out there shaking their heads in agreement with Fr. Stephen’s article, who are left feeling still quite comfortable in the own confessionalists skins. The Scriptures speak a lot about extreme humility that could be rightly called “bondage of the will,” but it says nothing about turning this humility into theoretical dogmas of confession, and then declaring denial of these confessions as heresy.

  30. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley

    Michael B,

    Your posts always ‘calm’ and at the same time ‘provoke’ me to think.

    Having spent two years in Catholic thought and mass, and having spent two years in Orthodox thought and divine service, I will stick with my comparison of the two. It is interesting to see how some people explain the church fathers theologically and others explain them philosophically.

    If theology is something we do, then philosophy is also something we do. I prefer the word ‘practice’.

    I ‘believe’ the creed and Divine Liturgy. I have been ‘inspired’ by some liturgies.

    Everything you say, to me, appears to be mystical and metaphysical. And that is a positive observation, not a negative one. I see Orthodoxy and theology and ontology all as mysticism and metaphysics. And again that is not a negative statement. It is what it is.

    And, thankfully, I have never closed my ears or my mind to the Orthodox faith.

    I am an American, and proud of it. However, I have noticed historically how Orthodox people are not slow to relinquish their homeland, their citizenship, etc,. and ‘move on’. It shows their priorities. Perhaps, it shows their theology as well.

  31. Carol Sadosky Avatar
    Carol Sadosky

    Fr. Stephen, you wrote: “Our existence is always contingent – it is a gift from God and only continues because it participates in His existence. Sin moves us away from that participation and thus towards non-existence.” So in the final judgment it will be possible for people set on a trajectory away from God to finally cease to exist?

  32. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Eric, and all,
    Thinking about all of these things, I was in town (local city) after hospital visits last Friday evening. I stopped for tea near what is called “Market Square,” the local hotspot on the weekends. A thousand or so people milling about, enjoying themselves, Shakespeare on the Square, etc. As I approached there was a group of strangely robed young men arguing and yelling at another young man (not robed) who has angry beyond description…and a crowd stood about. It was a religious argument.

    I quickly by-passed this (especially since I was in cassock…). I got my tea and continued to think about all of these things we’re been discussing, especially about the lot of the poor. Making my way back to the car I was walking down a very busy sidewalk and saw a street guy, maybe my age, sitting on the sidewalk, pretty wiped out and at the end of his day. Everyone walked by…people tend to avoid such contact. He saw me coming and reached out his hand. “Brother!” he called. I stopped and took his hand. “I want to pray,” he said.

    “Do you want me to pray or do you want to pray,” I said. “I’ll pray,” he said. So, I held his hand and listened as he prayed.

    “Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, forgive me for all I have done!” And he seemed very moved, very emotional with the sadness of the world. “And please…” he hesitated trying to find the words, “Don’t let me be misunderstood.” I thought, “That’s a line from a blues song…but it works.” I stayed with him for a bit. He didn’t want money. I asked his name and we talked. I gave him absolution (what else could a priest do?). And I have been remembering his name.

    This man has stayed with me like a sacrament of brokenness. That night a group was arguing about religion. Everyone else was busy about their lives and entertainment. But one man sitting on the street was begging for the Kingdom of God. Like the thief on the Cross. I pray God grants Him paradise!

    I see lots of such people. Volunteering in drug and alcohol addiction and some other activities, I come into contact frequently with this underside of Appalachia (and it’s everywhere else). Social workers shake their heads because all of their efforts fall short. Such men will likely die (and soon) of one consequence or another of their lives. He is the argument against the moralists. Everyone else on the street that night was a mildly successful middle-class moral type. They were enjoying the fine restaurants and bars on the Square. Some of them were likely “hooking up” for that night’s casual sex (it’s now acceptable as middle class morality). But they probably have some pretty strict rules about who they sleep with and why. They also limit their drinking, and always have a responsible person to drive them home.

    They do what the street guy does, but do within the rules. And this allows them enough money to be self-reliant, and therefore successful. Only he, of all the ones on the Square that night, had failed so miserably that he had no pretense or excuse left. Sorrow for sin and a prayer for understanding.

    At Pascha, the Orthodox sing of Christ entering Hades, binding the strong man, bursting the gates and setting everybody free. That is salvation:

    Therefore He says: “When He ascended on high, He led captivity captive, And gave gifts to men.” (Now this, “He ascended “– what does it mean but that He also first descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is also the One who ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things.) (Eph 4:8-10)

    Some would argue (with one last plea for moralism) that this man on the street “made a decision for Christ” and that was his salvation. I think he was calling out for help, without a whole lot of the will being involved.”

    “I cried unto the Lord and He heard me.”

    What separated him from others that night was that he knew he was in hell and they didn’t. Salvation is knowing you’re in hell and asking for help. I don’t think it’s a lot more theological than that. There are not t’s to cross and i’s to dot for Christ. Just a cry for help. What we do theologically after that (if we have any life left), is to discuss how to “keep the mind in hell and despair not” – in the words of St. Silouan of Mt. Athos. The broken and contrite heart, God will not despise. The moral man, particularly the modern moral man, dangerously imagines himself not to be in hell. He’s doing all right.

    Some of us are blessed to be “high bottom” (that’s what AA calls those who get sober long before they’ve hit a low bottom). But the spiritual life then continues as we struggle to remember that everything we do is a gift of God. Every step we take in freedom is there because we were set free. And so we say again and again, “Glory to God for all things.”

  33. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley


    ‘Finally cease to exist’.

    Is that Orthodox dogma or more theology (more ontology)? I am learning the difference.

    Thanks. I know several ‘beautiful’ ladies named Carol.

  34. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Terry and Carol,
    No. The actual teaching of the Fathers (starting especially with St. Athanasius) is not that we ever cease to exist. That would be God willing our sin. Existence is God’s gift to us, He never takes it away. Our cooperation, however, is part of the life moving from being to well-being to eternal being (that’s the description of both St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Maximus the Confessor, as well as others). At worst we have what can be called “relative non-being.” In Greek, you can say “non-being” in an absolute sense (ouk ousia) or in a relative sense (me ousia). It is this latter term used by Athanasius. There is no annihilationism in Orthodoxy. We read that “God is not willing that any should perish…” And that God did not create death. We can try to not exist, but that is not in our power, nor is it ever given to us.

    The devil hates existence (especially his own). Thus he is said, by Christ, “to be a murderer from the beginning.” God will not cooperate in this drive towards destruction and non-being. He came that we might have life, and have it more abundantly.

  35. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley

    Father, if brokenness ‘saves’ one, where does that leave baptism and the other sacraments?

    They are really not needed, and the church is not really needed.

    Regarding the broken man you spoke of. God accepted him, and you absolved him, outside the church. That is indeed a puzzle to me. It leaves the church as being indeed helpful, but not at all necessary.

    It that all a part of ontology? Is it theology and not dogma? Is it descriptive but not explaining things totally?

    Puzzling. Thanks, father.

  36. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Terry, it is our brokenness or rather our acknowledgement of it that allows us to be healed. The Church is one of the few, if not the only place, where we can enter into the awareness of our own brokenness in safety and as the doorway to ressurection.

    Just remember we are usually far more broken than we assume. The street person Fr. Stephen encountered knew his brokenness, acknowledged it and will almost certainly enter the Kingdom before me.

  37. tess Avatar


    Thanks for your thoughts on the bicycle analogy. Much appreciated!

    Especially this: “He was created in God’s Image, and thus traveling this road was similar enough to entice his desires, but different enough to damage him along the way. It was damaging because, while though Adam appeared similar to God, he had no real substance in himself apart from God, so to travel solely towards himself is to travel towards nothingness.”

  38. Dean Avatar

    Terry, a medical doctor coming upon a wreck may save a person’s life. But hospitals are still needed. Because of Fr. Freeman’s ordination, he is an extension of Christ in this broken world. He was doing what we see Christ doing in the gospels, as he went about healing and pronouncing forgiveness of sins as he came upon the wreck of their lives. Yet he still established the Church, the hospital par excellence.

  39. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley

    Michael B,

    The street person recognized that something was lacking. He admitted it and was absolved of his sin.

    All of a sudden he is guaranteed a place in the kingdom of God, without the church.

    No matter how you slice it up, the church is not necessary. That goes contrary to all I see and understand on this topic.

    Thanks, more thinking is ‘provoked’.


  40. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I’m not outside the Church. The Church came walking down the street and he stretched out his hand to it. It was my priesthood (the cassock) that he saw and reached out to. Baptism is the normative means for being plunged into union with the death and resurrection of Christ. The Eucharist is the normative means of feeding on His Body and Blood. But God is a good and merciful God and uses whatever He uses. He has not said, “I bind myself to only using these means.” Instead, He has told us that these are sure and certain means. They are for us. Many early catechumens were martyred before they could be Baptized. It was said in the Church that they were “Baptized in their blood.” There are, I suspect, many such Baptisms that we know nothing about. The Fathers referred to the tears of repentance as a “Second Baptism.” The man’s tears may very well be seen in such a manner.

    Whenever I’m hearing confessions, and someone begins to weep, I think to myself, “The sacrament is already there and has been fulfilled.” I still say the prayer of absolution. But I can see that repentance is already there. Such tears, I think, are even more efficacious than the prayers of a priest – at least I’m bold enough to suggest such a thing. Just as the words of a priest carry very little weight if they are not being received by a broken and contrite heart. It’s not judicial. Repentance and forgiveness are real, solid, true, palpable.

    “Ontology” is simply a reference to how we think about these things in our efforts to understand. I think it speaks about as accurately as possible.

    The Church is real. It’s not an organization or just the 4 walls or the things we associate with institution. It is the living Body of Christ and not a set of juridical boundaries.

  41. Onesimus Avatar

    One should always “provoke” their heart to “think” before they have their mind “provoked.”

    The mind can only apprehend what the heart can apprehend.

    The heart can only apprehend what it surrenders to God.

  42. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Terry, the dicotomy is not without utility.

    I am not sure what you mean by mystical and metaphysical but I will accept what you say that you don’t mean them in a pejorative way.

    As to your observation of the slow movement away from ethnic roots, you are correct that has a number of reasons, some good, some more worldly.

    Think about this. There are families in my home parish Lebanese and Ethiopian who can trace the Othodox Christianity of their families back to Apostolic times. The lands where they come from have been consecrated and baptized by the blood of martyrs known and known only to God. That is still ongoing.

    They have buried generations of their ancestors in consecrated ground even when they died naturally. Many saints have also hallowed the ground.

    Our Patriarch had to flee Damascus for his safety where he and his predecessors have resided for a long time on a street called Straight .

    The Greeks and the Slavs have similar stories. An interesting story to read is that if St. Demetrios of Thessaloniki.

    Westerners, particularly Americans, have little such understanding. We Othodox have a couple of martyrs but they are not widely venerated.

    The very first recognized Christian martyr on now US soil was Fr. Juan Padilla who came into what is my state, Kansas, with Coronado. He stayed behind to minister to his growing congregation but was killed by those who favored the old tribal ways (or so the story goes) There is a large cross next to the highway west of Lyons, KS a couple of hours from where I live. I have been there several times and find it moving.

    The other part of what you observe is, or can be, ethnic pride and stubbornness. Another thing fundamentally unknown to Americans. We have become as tumbleweeds (shoot, we even monetize those. You can buy tumbleweeds to decorate your home or business–imagine the profit margins).

    Everything is for sale and even our identities are subject to change anytime we feel like it.

    The Orthodox Church is incarnate in the lands from which most came, but not yet here or not very much.

    The real difference between Othodox and the RCC is not so much the dicotomy you purpose but in this: The RCC is, IMO, only incarnate in the Pope. It is “universal” where the Orthodox Church is local and particular but as the Body of Christ and through His Blood we are one.

    Each of us “sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit”. Unworthy though I am I have that in common with all of my Orthodox family, past, present and future. Just as it says in Eph 4.

    That is real. I don’t find it mystical or metaphysical. Indeed the longer I am Orthodox, the less mystically inclined I become. If you have not read Father Stephen’s book Everywhere Present. That illustrates the reality of the Orthodox Christian life.

  43. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley


    In your example the doctor saved the victims, and the hospital was not necessary.

    That is what I’m confused about.


  44. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I think you’re taking a very narrow reading of what I’ve said and making a false conclusion. I do not conclude that the Church is not necessary. “Church” is the name for being in union with Christ. My assumptions regarding this man are only intuitional. If someone said to me, “Are you sure he was saved in that moment?” I could not answer with certainty. How could I? What I am certain of is what I saw, on the one hand, and the goodness and generosity of God, on the other. I have confidence, but not certainty.

    Everything (literally) that is saved can ultimately be described as “in the Church.” When St. Paul says that “God is gathering all things to Himself together in one through Christ,” he is describing what is going on with “Church.” Church is God’s in-gathering of all creation. “The” Church is a formal part of that (recognizable in its sacramental life, etc.). It was clearly established by Christ and is the vanguard of that in-gathering. To declare, “Church is not necessary,” flies in the face of what I’ve said. In my opinion.

  45. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    “Hospital not necessary.” Mistake. It was in the person of the doctor, a mobile unit of the hospital. 🙂 This doctor (me) makes housecalls. The hospital said I was supposed to.

  46. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley


    The stranger in the street was not under the threat of martyrdom or any other death. He should enter the church normally, I think.

    Why must I be a catechumen, and he is not.

    What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

    What you shared is so close to the Protestant view of a ‘personal experience with Jesus’ and all that entails.

    Father, I am not trying to be disrespectful, thinking out loud, or in typed words.


  47. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley


    The doctor does not have to have an affiliation with any hospital.

    He might not know any of the administration or other staff.


  48. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley


    Confidence is not certainty. I understand.

    It’s just you sound so certain in what you said, with all due respect.

    My background has a high, high regard for the Bible and for the church. That is ingrained in me. I can’t see either as being secondary or not necessary.


  49. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley


    I went out and set on a street corner and pondered my wretchedness and my brokenness.

    You came along and I shared this and ask for us to pray.

    You absolved my sins.

    Does that mean I am now saved/healed forever, ‘here and there’? I need nothing else, forever?


  50. Onesimus Avatar


    You are making far too many assumptions about what happened or didn’t happen between Fr. Freeman and this man.

    You’re jumping to conclusions that are unhelpful to the conversation, to your own struggles, and are making judgements you have little information about.

    You assume far too much and fill in the gapS with your assumptions.

  51. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Terry, God does not deal in necessities neither is He a minimalist. He created at least 10000 species of spiders for Pete’s sake. God is about fullness, wholeness and immensity in eternity. He is all in all but He also proscribed certain forms for us and for our sake that He takes pleasure in filling. Human beings are that as well as the sacraments and the Church herself.

    Part of our falleness is the inability to see the fullness of all things. My father was uniquely blessed to apprehend a bit of that and tradition that to me. It is from him I get what you call mystical approach. However if you had called him mystical he would have thought you were crazy and told you do. He was a cowboy, gussied up as a doctor and a world class epidemiologist but first and foremost a cowboy not far from the description in Willie’s song-ironic my father was a doctor too, no?

    Mysticism is an illusion if it is not organically connected to the real and the seen. A demonic delusion.

    The man Fr. Stephen met on the street may be more a part of Fr Stephen’s salvation that the other way around. God knows. Glory to Him regardless. Jesus comes to the broken. Remember the women who begged scraps from the Masters table. What did she received. The street person showed contrition and humility far beyond what I normally exhibit.

    God grant Him his place in the Kingdom.

  52. Michelle Avatar


    I don’t know the brokenhearted man on the street personally. I have no idea what vices clench his heart, nor the sincerity of his repentance. But I have an imagination, so I will imagine that this man was so enslaved to his vices that he was paralyzed by them, rendered incapable of this choice you expect of him. You want him to get off the curb and walk himself into a church, get baptized, partake of the Eucharist, and continue on the same road that you and I are presently on. But in my imagination his vices have cut off his spiritual legs, and he is incapable of walking this walk you expect of him. In fact, he’s so mutilated by sin’s sharp knife, all of his extremities have been butchered save his tongue. So he speaks. He cries out, and God hears him, sending him an ministering angel in a cassock.

    I must ask, what requirements, exactly, are on this check-off list for salvation of yours? do you believe would be necessary for this broken man on the curb to achieve salvation?

  53. Michelle Avatar

    I meant to say, “What* do you believe would be necessary for this broken man on the curb to achieve salvation?”

    And, furthermore, what makes you believe this man is capable of achieving salvation in the manner you expect?

  54. Michelle Avatar

    My first comment is in moderation, but my second comment, correcting my first, posted right away.

  55. Sophia Avatar

    Dear Terry,

    For it what might be worthy I would like to offer a response on your last comment and question.
    Father Stephen, please forgive my audacity.

    “Does that mean I am now saved/healed forever, ‘here and there’? I need nothing else, forever?”

    Bishop Kallistos Ware once told this story:

    He was asked: Are you saved?
    And he replied: I trust that by the Grace of God I am being saved.

    Please also find here two links: One is the short video when he offers this simple response and the other is a wonderful exposition on how the Orthodox Church understands salvation.
    Please forgive and hope it helps.

    Pray for me.

    With love in Christ,


  56. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley


    I am broken and wretched. What must I do to achieve salvation? Why can’t I simply follow the street man’s example? I just don’t see one way for me and another way for him.

    What makes you think the man is not capable of achieving salvation in the ‘normal’ manner?

    Why didn’t father make him a catechumen, after teaching him more? I don’t see this man as special; he’s simply being and doing what is expected of him.

    Again, thanks.

  57. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley


    Thanks for your assessment of me.

    I’m sure you are 100 % correct.


  58. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley


    When you or father or anybody else proclaims someone is saved or healed, isn’t that an assumption and drawing conclusions.

    Being saved outside the church is a problem, to say the least.

  59. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    All that would be fine if it were possible. Sometimes it’s not. You sound pretty clear in your head but not in your heart. Was I being poetic in my description of the encounter? Sure. It’s how it struck me. Should I have stayed on the street with him all night and see if he had been baptized? That, too, I suppose would have been possible. I don’t know the rest of his story. I do know, however, that a prayer is not wasted. I know the Church of Christ, especially on the conservative end, os pretty darned mechanical and rigid about how all of it works. Where does the language of “achieving” salvation come from and what on earth does that mean?

    After I got around the corner that evening, I wondered about what I should do, or should have done. Was there more to do? I thought I prayed and I finished my evening.

    “What is expected of him.” Gosh, there’s a lot of judgment in that, a lot of expectations, and perhaps a bit of hardness. It was the end of a very long, tiring day for him. It ended with a prayer and a kind word from a stranger. I gave him what he asked for and a little more. The notion of salvation as doing what is expected of us is part of the whole morality notion. Sometimes it works. T’s are crossed and i’s are dotted. Sometimes the guy gets baptized, the preacher gets another notch in his belt, and nothing human passed between them. Orthodoxy, as I have known it, is not terribly mechanical. It’s just real. If there are only mechanics and no heart, who cares? We’re just things, the furniture of the world, doing what’s expected.

    My awareness of him, and the point in the article, is of a world people where the expectations are failed. A woman is taken in the act of adultery. Expectations failed. Jesus spoke to her and didn’t condemn her. Why didn’t He Baptize her or send her off to the disciples so they could Baptize her? How was the thief on the Cross saved? He never became a Catechumen nor was he baptized. It is not that these things have no necessity about them – but they are tools. I’ve fixed a few things using a screwdriver as a hammer. It’s not as good as a hammer, but if that’s what you got, that’s what you use. The point is salvation. Union with Christ. He has given us the means, the normative tools in our lives – but the greatest tool that should accompany everything is love and simple kindness. Occasionally a screwdriver will do the job.

    I’ve spent a fair amount of time with street people – outcasts. The get pretty hardened to all of the preacher-guys coming along to save them. They’ve heard it all. I’ve seen a lot of “by the Book” ministry. Some of it is the cause of the despair of people like him. I’m not interested in adding to the despair. I’m interested in his salvation. Do you suggest that next time I pass him by since there isn’t the possibility of making him a catechumen and teaching him what’s expected of him?

    Maybe your experience is simply not like mine.

  60. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    It is also the case that if you truly recognize what is lacking and call out to God for help that He will hear you and you will be saved. But salvation is often a very messy thing. St. Augustine once prayed, “Lord, save me! But not yet!” I think your two years of conversations and all of the wrestling you’ve done and heartache you’ve experienced is part of what salvation looks like for you. You’re not a street guy at the end of his life (and his liver). Why does God save some in one way and not in another? Who knows? But that’s how it looks. I’m certainly still “being saved.” And it’s been more than a little messy from time to time. But we “work out our salvation from day to day with fear and trembling…” Sometimes salvation writes a blog. Sometimes it reads it. But no matter, it has to be lived. The Church is a way of life, certainly not anything less. Orthodoxy is an invitation to the way of life. Nothing less. The point, though, is life. God alone is life.

  61. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley

    Thanks, father.

  62. Eric Avatar

    I must say that in a strange way that I cannot put my finger on, working with – better, ‘being with’ – those whose lives are seemingly unmanageably chaotic and broken is as much a vehicle of my own healing – not through merit, but by touching something unseen. there is a Realism to their lives, which calls forth something from me. I realise my own deep need for mercy

    the tobu ba bohu is the place of the creative healing of the Spirit of God

  63. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    For those who do not read Hebrew, “tobu ba bohu” is the “void and empty” in Genesis 1.

  64. Matt Avatar


    How would you articulate the distinction between this:

    Everything (literally) that is saved can ultimately be described as “in the Church.” When St. Paul says that “God is gathering all things to Himself together in one through Christ,” he is describing what is going on with “Church.” Church is God’s in-gathering of all creation. “The” Church is a formal part of that (recognizable in its sacramental life, etc.). It was clearly established by Christ and is the vanguard of that in-gathering. To declare, “Church is not necessary,” flies in the face of what I’ve said. In my opinion.

    with the “invisible Church” theory of the Protestants? I assume and believe there is a distinction and a difference but it’s very tempting to let someone dismiss it as too fine or semantic.

    (These comments have been an amazing and beautiful read by the way, thanks to everyone who took part in it)

  65. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley

    Questions to all who have spoken to me:

    Does one have to agree with ontological salvation to be Orthodox?

    Can one hold to the legal model and be Orthodox?

    Can one use both models to explain salvation and still be Orthodox?


    If the answers are what I think they will be, what we are doing here is sharing and defending opinions.

    Some hold their opinions dearly. Some are willing to fault others for their opinions.
    Sometimes this exchange is not healthy. Most often, I hope, it is healthy.

    Am I right or wrong?

  66. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Terry both are models, but what is the spirit that animates them and how are they normally used, what is the effect?

    In and of themselves neither grants salvation.

    Only Jesus Christ can do that.

    It is one’s encounter with Him on as regular a basis as possible that draws you into Him.

    Does one or both or neither help you with that or hinder you?

    Keep in mind that our interrelation with Jesus is communal and personal not individual and autonomous.

    There is a judgement but what is the nature of that judgement? Is it about retribution and the human concept of justice or about penance, restoration and wholeness?

    Salvation as revealed in the Church as union with Christ- an ever deepening union that has as it’s nearest human cognate, marriage.

    Don’t know what your experience of marriage is but mine shows me that a legal approach does not help union.

  67. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley

    Thanks, Michael B,

    But you did not answer the questions.

    You are in the mode of explaining/defending ontological salvation.

    That is not what I asked. I look forward to your answers to the questions.


  68. Karen Avatar

    Speaking of those who are broken, would you offer a prayer for my friend, L., who is wheelchair bound in a nursing home and in constant pain? Her 65th birthday is later this month, and a few friends and I are helping her celebrate Sunday. She has just started a new pain medication regimen, and she wants to feel well enough to enjoy her party. Thank you!

  69. MichaelPatrick Avatar

    Terry and all,

    I just discovered to my delight that Fr. Hopko’s wonderful talk on “The Word of the Cross” is on Ancient Faith as a podcast, with a transcript, and it’s been there, apparently, since 2011 ! Now anyone can hear it !

    In it Fr. Hopko says “Thomas Merton who was a famous monk said, “To know that we are made in the image and likeness of God who is love is enough knowledge to last us endless eternities.” You don’t need any more information. That’s enough. If you go on a need-to-know basis, that’s all you need to know: that we’re made in the image and likeness of God, who is love.”

    In this lecture he also explains what this means for each of us in practical, day to day terms.

    I’m sharing this because converts from various kinds of Protestantism, like me, need a complete reset in how we think about the gospel. This talk gave me that reset over 20 years ago and I still listen to it because Fr. Hopko’s words are like fresh clear water. The real gospel never gets old.

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

    I will pray for your friend, L. Karen.

  71. Onesimus Avatar

    When you or father or anybody else proclaims someone is saved or healed, isn’t that an assumption and drawing conclusions.

    Being saved outside the church is a problem, to say the least.


    You are misinterpreting events and making judgements about what you do not understand or have proper reference for. “Being saved” is a process…it is not a destination one arrives at or is “proclaimed” by anyone. We are all constantly being saved.

    Christ has saved ALL humanity. ALL will be resurrected. Everyone is saved from death. Not everyone is saved from themselves however. We work out our salvation with fear and trembling in cooperation with the Holy Spirit. We are always being saved.

    Father Freeman served as a witness for a penitent in confession before Christ according to his charism. He confirmed one sacrament among many for the working out of salvation. This is not a fiat declaration of “salvation.” Fr. Freeman did not declare him saved. He conferred upon a penitent a sacrament.

    Fr. Freeman is in a better positition that you or I to have conferred his absolution in accordance with his preistly office and his evaluation of the person and situation. The prayer of absolution (depending on which one is used) makes clear that the act is one of reconciliation for a penitent. It does not confer “salvation” as such.

    To wit; one of the prayers of absolution reads;

    “My spiritual child N., who hast confessed to my humble self, I, humble and a sinner, have not power on earth to forgive sins, but God alone. Yet through that divinely spoken word which came to the Apostles after the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, saying, Whosoever sins ye remit, they are remitted, and whosoever sins ye retain, they are retained, we too are emboldened to say: Whatsoever thou hast said to my most humble self, and whatsoever thou hast not succeeded in saying, either through ignorance or forgetfulness, whatever it may be, God forgive thee in this present life and that which is to come.

    God it was Who forgave David through Nathan the Prophet when he confessed his sins, and Peter weeping bitterly for his denial, and the sinful woman in tears at His feet, and the Publican, and the Prodigal Son, may that same God forgive things, through me, a sinner, both in this present world and that which is to come, and set thee uncondemned before His dread seat.

    And now, having no further care for the sins which thou hast declared, depart in peace.”

    You also have no idea what this person’s relationship to the Church is. We are all penitents with Him. Our struggle is no different than his. You assume he was not baptized Orthodox and that he is not part of the Church. You assume too much. His repentance in the moment with Fr. Freeman is not for you to second guess and criticize.

    Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling and come to confession with the same humility as this penitent did to Fr. Freeman. I’m sure this man has much more to do. So do I. So do you. (I probably have more to do than both you or him.)

    You are conflating many things and drawing false conclusions about something you know very little about and are clearly having difficulty comprehending.

    Does one have to agree with ontological salvation to be Orthodox?

    Can one hold to the legal model and be Orthodox?

    Can one use both models to explain salvation and still be Orthodox?

    The “ontological” is not simply a “model” or “opinion” to be contrasted or set against a “legal model.”

    It is the phronema of the Scriptures, the Fathers, the Ecumenical Councils, the Liturgy, etc. It is the mind of the Church. “Ontology” as such has no “model.” The Orthodox Church does not have a systematized “model” for what is an organic reality otehr than the life of the Church. The life of the Church has many relevant aspects.

    That does not mean everything expressed here actually represents that phronema well…but we are having exchanges largely between lay people guided by our host.

    The legal language of the Scriptures, the Fathers and the mind of the Church exist as well and can adequately convey the Gospel to one weak in faith. But they are not the whole phronema.

    PSA is a perversion of the legal language of the phronema. I do not believe PSA can be taught by an Orthodox in good conscience. Legal emphasis can be held and can be useful. PSA cannot.

    You seem to have made the conclusion that this is not a dogmatic aspect of Orthodoxy and that it is simply opinion. While many here have expressed opinions in order to help you understand — the ontological aspects of salvation are dogmatic and are clearly expressed in the whole content of the faith.

    Do you have to understand them to be Orthodox? No. You must live them. Living a thing and understanding it are not always the same. Can you teach contrary to them or cause division by teaching that the ontological teachings of the Church are simply “opinion.” No.

    The ontological is the Gospel and legal language supports the ontological. They are both adequate in unison. But they are not different models one can simply choose from. PSA and legalism without ontological content is not the Gospel and is not Orthodox.

  72. Karen Avatar

    Thank you, Dee!

  73. Michelle Avatar

    To be Orthodox is another way of saying ‘to be saved,’ or at least ‘becoming saved’ (i.e. becoming God by grace). I can’t imagine speaking of being or becoming God by grace without using language about ‘being.’ And ontology is just that -language that is concerned with ‘being.’ It seems indispensable.

    Forensic language may make for good metaphors that help explain the nature of this being or becoming like God, but you’ll notice it is only an additive used to assist us in understanding this ‘being.’ In other words, forensic language merely enhances ontological language.

    I’m not sure that we could ever call the concept of ‘being God by grace’ a mere metaphor for salvation. Maybe it is, since God is beyond all human concepts. But even still, I don’t have the foggiest clue how we could even begin to talk about what salvation is if completely do away with the language of being. I think all Christians, whether Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox, agree that we ‘become’ (ontological language) like Christ.

    However, I’ve heard many do a fine job of describing salvation in terms completely void of the forensic 😉

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

    Hi Terry,
    I am not capable of answering your last question. But it hooked me. It brought back memories. It is the question that students would ask me when they were trying to solve a problem that they couldn’t figure out. Instead they came to me with a conclusion that one had to be right and the other wrong. Depending on the circumstances sometimes they were both wrong, sometimes both right, sometimes one was wrong and not the other. But the point for me as their teacher was not say who was right. That would circumvent the process they needed in order to learn how to problem solve and take responsibility for the process.

    In circumstances like this they wanted me to act as the authority or judge, but I wouldn’t yield to an authoritative position– that did little to help them develop the means to find answers and how to do it (the scientific method for example). My response frequently aggravated them. But what I would do is engage in their recounting how they got ‘hung up’. It was a deliberate pedagogical approach. In the end they would figure it out with my guidance and the memory and the social circumstances of the process of figuring it out would stick in their minds and became part of the way they approached and solved problems in chemistry.

    If becoming Orthodox is all about opinions or authority I’m not sure whether I would raise questions–I probably wouldn’t want to bother. I’ve dealt with enough opinions and authorities in various ways that I would resist a culture based on that form of interaction. I didn’t come into Orthodoxy in this way– I wasn’t seeking opinions nor authority.

    I’m not sure I’ve got the ‘chops’ to answer your questions in the direct manner you ask. I’ll offer my experience, that’s all I really have so far.

    Here is more or less my ‘witness’ as some people express it. I came into Orthodoxy via Orthodox theology based on the ontological model. Prior to that I had completely rejected all of Christianity based on the legal model. All accounts of the legal model I was given, in various ways by various denominations were repugnant to me (please forgive me and understand I’m only speaking about my circumstances) I blamed Protestants themselves for it. To this day it is difficult to read the Bible without hearing the derogatory slant I was given throughout the years. Later, when I became a professor, the students who had difficulty ‘accepting’ science (that’s the way they put it) were Evangelical Protestants. This put more ‘fuel’ on the fire regarding my view of all of Christianity.

    While I was studying some data, it was actually data regarding space that I alluded to in a previous post, it became apparent that Death and Resurrection had an ontological reality. I also realized that if death and resurrection had an ontological reality so must salvation. (I’m glossing over the details of the data itself. Please forgive me. I’ve tried to explain it directly to my family and have failed.) I was dumbfounded and didn’t know what to do about this realization. But I had to deal with the fact that I was wrong about Christianity. Then I began the search to find the theology that best seemed to fit the data. (this is an honest story- Lord have mercy). Eventually the search led me to Orthodox theology. But it would be about two more years of reading theology before I would have the ‘jam’ to step into an Orthodox church. My family thought and still think I’m crazy and have gone “religious”. This isn’t an easy life, but I believe it and live it with God’s Grace.

    Like you said in a previous post, we all have baggage. I’m grateful that my parish family are predominantly former Protestants. Their positive support heals my heart.

    Again, Terry, these are only my reflections. My prayers for you are that you find peace in your decisions, whatever they might be. As you can see despite years of reading I’m no theologian.

  75. Alex Volkov Avatar
    Alex Volkov

    Karen, may the Lord bless, help and heal your friend, L., delivering her from sickness and pain.

  76. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley


    You are so gentle and kind. I am always touched by your tenderness.

    I am not asking these questions to find authorities to solve the problems raised by this discussion. It’s not which is right and wrong. I don’t see that either model is wrong.

    My question is can they coexist in the same Orthodox society/economy.

    Frankly, can I be Orthodox and believe and teach the legal model, as well as the hospital model? That is ‘the question’.

    In spite of this thread and the last thread, I am not convinced that the hospital model totally depicts the salvation picture in the Bible. There is much legal thought in the Bible, and some would use ontology to conventionly explain all legal language away, with all due respect.

    I don’t ‘buy that’. I say that not to encourage further debate. It is me at the present. And I don’t necessarily believe I will become ontologically oriented once I become Orthodox.

    Just simply, can I be Orthodox and not totally be ontological and at the same time maintain my legal thoughts and understanding.


  77. Michelle Avatar

    Tery, you said, “I just don’t see one way for me and another way for him.”

    I hope I can explain my thoughts here comprehensibly. I’ve pondered these questions many times -why does one person find God through such and such experience, while another finds God in a completely different manner? I believe the answer has to do with each of us being unique creations, with intimately unique relationships with God. Each marriage is personal and intimate, involving two lovers who come together, giving their life together a unique shape. I know what it is to be loved by, and to love my husband. You do not know what it is to be loved by, or to love my husband in the way that I do (at least i hope not, lol 😁). The story of how we met, and ended up walking down the aisle together is unique to just us. It’s a messy story, and maybe not the ‘normal’ way two lives end up together, but in our particular lives, it is the only way me and my husband could have come together.

  78. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley


    Thank you for sharing that personal story. My wife and I have been married 45 years.

    Would you compare marriage to being saved and salvation?

    Thank you very much.

  79. EPG Avatar

    “He answers with mercy even the failure of religious belief, “Lord, I believe! Help my unbelief!””

    Thank you, sir, for this reference to one of my favorite episodes in the Gospels–one that I ponder often.

  80. EPG Avatar

    Sir — In response to your observations about the vapidity of the current understanding of the self in our consumerist culture, I thought you might enjoy the following from Matthew Crawford’s “The World Beyond Your Head:”

    “According to the prevailing wisdom, to be free means to be free to satisfy one’s preferences—but the preferences themselves are beyond rational analysis . . .”

    Crawford warns that, in the absence of strong cultural referents, our attention, and therefore our wills, are more easily manipulated . . . often with a view to making a profit out of our “choices.” I am not that far into the book, but it is clear he is making a point about the extent to which our wills are unreliable, precisely because they are impaired. He is not writing from a Christian perspective (let alone an Orthodox perspective), but his book made me think of some of your writings, and this most made me think of the book.

    Your post also made be think of lyrics by Texas singer-songwriter Jimmy Dale Gilmore:

    My mind has a mind of its own
    Takes me out a-walking when I’d rather stay at home
    Takes me out to parties when I’d rather be alone
    My mind has a mind of its own

  81. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Good question. I think the Church is quite concrete – its sacramental boundaries are clear – and they are for our salvation and that of the whole world. The Protestant invisible Church is stated to simply obliterate the Church as a meaningful word to avoid their own ecclesiological failures. Ephesians 1 is the authority for understanding the “all” of the Church in the end. I could have added 1 Cor. 15, the “all in all.” It is essentially about communion with God. Can there be communion with God apart from the sacrament of Baptism? Ultimately, in some manner, I believe. For example, all those who have never heard the gospel – some, at the very least, will be saved, and yet will not have been Baptized. Perhaps they will have been Baptized in God’s mercy. But if they belong to God, then they are in the Church. The “Body of Christ” does not suggest Christ without His Body. Perhaps I sounded to definitive in my confidence about the man on the sidewalk’s salvation. My confidence is in the love of God and His response to a cry for help. Not a confidence in extra-sacramental backdoors.

  82. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    One can be Orthodox and have very little understanding about anything. We’re not saved by understanding. It is certainly the case that someone holding a forensic model can be Orthodox. There are ways of holding the forensic model that are *not* Orthodox. It is also true that the forensic model ignores some of the most basic statements and teachings on salvation by many of the greatest of the Church fathers. So, though the model can be used, it remains inadequate as an account of the fullness of the Church.

    My purpose and writing on the topic is not to express my opinion. It is to present a model of understanding, rooted in the Patristic teaching of the Church and in Scripture, that is generally neglected and unknown by many Christians in our modern world – largely for historical reasons. The ontological model is not an opinion – it is the clear teaching of the Church as exhibited in her liturgical life, the Scriptures and many of the Fathers.

    The forensic model is a way of speaking about salvation that finds expression, particularly among a number of the preachers of the Orthodox faith (such as St. John Chrysostom). It is not found in the Conciliar teachings and dogmas of the Church. Those who teach, for example, that the death of Christ took place in order to appease the wrath of the Father are on very slippery ground. I have heard that condemned repeatedly within the authoritative life of the Church. Forensic notions such as double-edged predestination is, in fact, condemned as a heresy by the Council in Jerusalem (1672).

    When the Church engages in debate and discussion concerning certain matters surrounding salvation – such as the manner of receiving converts to the faith – (do we chrismate or baptize, etc.) – the conversation generally takes place along the lines of the ontological model. That is the more definitive way of speaking in the Church.

    So, to conclude, the forensic model can be used, but will result in a very shallow Orthodoxy, not engaging the primary language of the teaching of the Church. The ontological model, certainly the terms and concepts that belong to it, are the language of the Great Councils and the Fathers when they speak definitively about the nature of our salvation. It’s not an opinion.

  83. Stephanie Avatar


    I saw your comment to Michelle imploring about salvation and marriage. I thought of Elder Aimilianos’ sermon on “Marriage: The Great Sacrament” that I like to read from time to time. It helps me noetically see my marriage ontologically in it’s fullness, a journey to God. God Bless you on your journey.

  84. Drewster2000 Avatar

    Dee of St. Herman’s,

    I just wanted to say that I appreciate your perpetually humble approach to all you address here. We need more of that in the world.

  85. Michelle Avatar

    you ask, “can I be Orthodox and not totally be ontological and at the same time maintain my legal thoughts and understanding”

    Some people may define their marriage as a contract, some as an ontological union, and some as both. And for some of the more simple hearted folks, it may not occur to them to try to put their marriage into words at all.

    If a man thinks of his marriage to his wife in the wrong terms it does not nullify the marriage. His marriage may suffer from it, and a right understanding may help to heal any wounds that were created by it, but the marriage can still exist, though, likely, imperfectly. A bruised and/ or dysfunctional marriage doesn’t necessarily have to end in divorce. But that is not to say all definitions of marriage are harmless. It is possible for ill definitions to lead towards divorce.

    I know someone close to me whose marriage was defined by faulty terms of domination and submission, based on misinterpretations of Scripture, that did, in fact, play a major role in its dissolution.

    And this is also not to say that all relationships referred to as “marriage” are really marriages at all. If a man “hooks up” with a woman and calls it marriage he is simply wrong.

    I would say that the forensic position does not nullify a marriage to God, but it can do harm, possibly to the point of divorce. But I would not equate the forensic model with “hooking up” with God.

    The ontological model, I think, constitutes a healthy marriage. I can point out various harmful effects of the forensic understanding, but cannot think of a single harmful effect of the ontological. This is because the forensic model has its faults as an adequate definition of marriage to God.

    For example, the forensic model bases salvation on conditions; the wife cannot freely be forgiven by her husband without repartitions to him. It is a condition that is demanded of her by the husband. The fact that the husband fulfills these repartitions himself does not subdue the sting of the conditional demand in the first place.

    My husband forgives me freely, without demands or conditions. This reveals his love great, and underserved love for me. If he demanded payment from me for the times I’ve wronged him, with a threat of divorce behind it, I would feel a painful blow from him that I’m not sure I could relate to his love for me. Demands of repartitions would not heal a broken marriage, but would, rather, do more harm.

    So, your next question is what exactly does constitutes a marriage to God, which goes along with your former question to me of how do marriage and salvation compare. I will try to address these as soon as I can in my next post 😊

  86. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Terry, it would be the height of presumption and quite dangerous for me to defend anything. The truth needs no defense and what is not truth should not be defended.

    I am not debating anything merely reaching for examples based on experience and asking questions.

    At some point though, folks have to forgo the expectation of immediate discursive answers to frankly secondary questions and answer the one question that matters: is Jesus Christ calling you into the Orthodox Church right now?

    Only you can answer it. Your priest can help you discern and by grace a friend who is already in the Church.

    A close friend of mine spent two years as a catechumen, going through our classes twice asking questions, having doubts, etc.

    Then one day I met him in Eighth Day Books. I had just purchased a book for him that I knew would address some of his critical questions. Then he walked in. Coincidence? Naw.

    We talked. I presented him with the same question. We considered it together in Christ. Joy abounded.

    That Saturday he, at the last minute, decided to be Chrismated.

    His doubts and struggles did not suddenly cease, in fact they have intensified in some ways two years in. But he persists and his wife is considering becoming a catechumen.

    Don’t expect to have all your questions answered right away just the one needful.

    “…restore unto me the joy of thy salvation and steady me with a guiding spirit…”

    I was received into the Church 29 years ago on the Sunday of the Myrhhbearing Women. I am still asking questions. Every so often God sees fit to answer them along my journey more deeply into the Church.

    As C.S. Lewis wrote: “I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never new it till now…Come further up, come further in…”

    Everytime I walk into my parish especially for Divine Liturgy, that is what happens even the “I never knew it till now…” because Jesus makes all things new. Somehow joy is always a surprise.

    I keep responding to you Terry because that joy is present. It is no coincidence you are here.

    God is gracious.

  87. Michelle Avatar


    This is my attempt at comparing marriage to salvation:

    Christ said man and woman come together to form one flesh. This means a man and woman have the potential to unite in a way that reveals a “new” entity that is both singular, and whole, of one undivided substance. And yet this one substance is made up of two separate persons, who paradoxically remain unmixed, and unconfused. This is the kind of language we use to describe the One God in Three Persons as well.

    Now, keeping all this in mind, let’s talk about how a marriage can save a person. When I unite with my husband and become one, I then share possession of all that he is and all that he has -we are one substance, undivided. If my husband is kind (which he is), then he gifts that to me in marriage, and we become a single substance -an entity- characterized by kindness. We see this in real life when we meet a couple and say that they are kind in the singular. I think of my parents in the singular in almost all instances.

    But how does this coming together to form a single unit happen? I commit to, and enjoin a faithful bond through the work of my psyche, my heart, and my physical body -in other words, my whole being. I can’t explain the metaphysics of how this happens, but the glue that binds us into one unit seems to be love. And this love involves more than just our intellects, but our whole beings.

    So, how can we explain salvation in this way. Well, if being married to my husband gifts me kindness in our unity, then marriage to God gifts me what He is and what He possesses in our unity, which is Life Itself. To marry God is to become Life. Without this marriage I cannot become Life. To share the single existence, the single substance of Life by coming together with God, bonded to Him with my whole being, is what it means to be married to Him. This is how we compare salvation to marriage.

  88. MichaelPatrick Avatar

    Lovely Michelle. Thank you for that!

  89. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I will add to Michelle’s wonderful reflection on marriage. In the Orthodox sacrament of marriage, there are no vows. It’s not a contract, it’s a union. The couple are blessed and are united by God, and obviously their willingness to be united. In the course of the service, the most central action is the “crowning.” We place crowns on their heads. We sing a hymn that indicates the meaning of the crowns. They are marytrs’ crowns. The Church teaches that marriage is a mutual martyrdom – in which we lay down our lives for one another. This mutual self-emptying is indeed for our salvation. It is one of the best means in this life of allowing the work of salvation within our souls. It is one way to fulfill the commandment in Phil. 2:5-11 – that we should empty our selves even as Christ emptied Himself. That self-emptying is the very definition of love. It conforms our hearts to the heart of Jesus, made possible through the gift of the Spirit who makes this the ever transforming power of God in our lives for our salvation.

  90. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley

    Patience, patience, my brothers and sisters. I see the light. You have been very patient with me. I now see the light.

    But I arrived at it from a different angle.

    As I have said I am very anti-Protestant. I did some outside reading in the last few days and finally arrived at the conclusion stated here. Here is how I ‘got it’:

    I am anti-Protestant.

    The legal substitution model is Protestant (through and through).

    Therefore, I am anti-penal substitution.

    A crazy way to get here, but I finally arrived.

    What comes next is taking off my old-worn-out legalistic glasses and replacing them with my new healing/hospital glasses. Right now my new glasses seem a little out of focus. I need to get used to wearing them.

    Thanks everyone.

  91. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Amen to both Michelle and Fr. Stephen!

  92. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Ontological optometry…

  93. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley


    Right on.

    I visited the doctor.


  94. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley

    Please, a request.

    Share with me a list of OT and NT Scriptures that show the ontological model of salvation.


  95. MichaelPatrick Avatar

    I find it ironic that we cannot easily find God because He is close. We just can’t seem to put Him at the right focal distance for any of our perceptive faculties. He lives in us – a life giving union – yet frustrates by refusing to be any kind of object.

    The limitations are ours. He is accessible through self-sacrificing Love and thanksgiving, like the marriage so beautifully described earlier by Michelle and Fr. Stephen. Those words are moving, real and true.

  96. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley

    For me to study, please share a list of OT and NT verses that exemplify ontological salvation.

    Thanks to those who have responded and instructed me.


  97. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    It’s a tall order. It’ll take some time just to assemble a representative list. It’s very common throughout. The gospel of John is almost exclusively written in that manner. If I get some free time over the next day or two, I’ll see what I can do. Others can do the same. This will be a patient work, and useful.

  98. Terry Finley Avatar
    Terry Finley

    Thanks, father.

    And thanks to all.

  99. Stephanie Avatar

    The other day I came across a neat article on wedding rings in the Orthodox Wedding Ceremony and all of their significance. It was very special to me, as my husband and I were crowned in marriage this past year, after uniting to the Body the prior Pascha. God’s beauty always awaits on this journey…the sacramental life truly unites to Scripture.

  100. Onesimus Avatar


    I appreciate your journey and you sharing it with us. Please be patient with us too. I sometimes am overly direct and terse – this comes from my military background. (which I believe you share?)

    Re: Scripture and ontology. It is first helpful to know what one is looking for. What is the ontological “image and likeness” of God? Orthodoxy proclaims that the image and likeness are relative to Love.

    All other aspects of human anthropology pre-fall (intellect, logic, soverignty, etc. – that are highlighted in Western theology) are predicated on Love for Orthodoxy. Love is the ontological “category” which defines all being – for Love is the “mode of being” in which the Trinity chooses to eternalty live in. God is Love.

    With that backdrop, one can begin to read the Scriptures through a discerning lens.

    Others have mentioned this – and I know your reading list is immense – but the book Being as Communion by John Zizioulas is a life changer in this respect.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to blog via email

Support the work

Your generous support for Glory to God for All Things will help maintain and expand the work of Fr. Stephen. This ministry continues to grow and your help is important. Thank you for your prayers and encouragement!

Latest Comments

  1. Matthew, My apologies for the late reply–such a busy last few days (and another, very wonderful, article posted)! Michael is…

  2. Fr. Stephen, “The mystery of the Incarnation of the Word contains in itself the meaning of all the symbols and…

  3. Matthew, Given some of your own comments about the negative effects of certain Protestant theology you have experienced, I would…

  4. Thanks so much everyone. So … I have been hanging around here regularly for about 6 months now. I have…

Read my books

Everywhere Present by Stephen Freeman

Listen to my podcast