Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Ninth Year Anniversary

Today marks the ninth year anniversary of my family's reception into the Orthodox Catholic Church. Looking ahead at the tenth year, I can only say what I've said all along: it is by far the best decision we have ever made.

For those reading who are Lutheran, Reformed, or some other Protestant, I encourage you to genuinely explore the Christian faith lived and taught by the canonical Eastern churches. If reformation is to be the answer to Rome's claim on the Christian faith in the West, then the Orthodox East is the genuine reformation Rome needs.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

The Crucifixion of Jesus Christ in the Orthodox Church

Inevitably Orthodox believers in the West are approached about their faith by curious Westerners. The questioner usually expects an answer that relates closely to other Western Christian answers widely in play today ... but usually finds the answer is more complicated than that. Perhaps one of the most distressing topics for a Western, non-Orthodox Christian to ask Orthodox Christians is the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. This question has definite and specific answers in the minds of many non-Orthodox Christians, and so the same caliber of answer is expected from our Orthodox neighbors and friends.

Our Orthodox answers, though, can be very confusing. For example, the following answers might be encountered:
  • I don't know.
  • His death was to prove His humanity.
  • It was NOT a sacrifice for sins.
  • It WAS a sacrifice for sins.
  • It was to bait Satan.
  • It was to trample down death by death.
  • It was so He could rise from the dead.
  • It was to be an example for us.
  • It was because He loved us.
  • It was to outweigh our sins with His righteousness.
  • ...and so on...
If you ask the question and receive all of the above answers from all sorts of different people, the sane conclusion would be that the Orthodox do not know what they believe. That may sometimes be true, but that is hardly much different than any other Christian group. What is troubling is not so much that some Orthodox people (including clergy) cannot answer well, but that they do not have a clear answer to a question that is so important to us. Why is it not important to them?

The short answer is that the crucifixion of Jesus Christ is so hugely integrated into Orthodox spiritual life - that is, the life all Orthodox Christians live as Christians in the Church - that they do not see it in abstract terms. They see it instead as going to Church, as celebrating the Eucharist, as being baptized, as wrestling with the sinful passions, as going to confession, as showing love and forgiveness to one another. Orthodox Christians emphasize the cross as a way of life first and foremost. It is the life of Christ become our life.

The difficulty with answering the non-Orthodox question, "What do you believe about the crucifixion of Christ" with the answer I just gave is that for the non-Orthodox, Western Christian all those things I listed under "the cross" do not get at what the Western Christian needs to know about Orthodoxy and the crucifixion of Christ in order to make basic sense of the Orthodox Church.

No Penal Substitution

I speak a lot with traditional-minded Lutherans, and something important to Lutherans - even if they do not use this term - is this thing called Penal Substitution. They use it to mean that God enacted a great exchange on the cross between Christ and the rest of humanity. Christ took on the sins of everyone that ever lived and ever will, and he suffered the penal requirement for those sins, i.e. the punishment. In exchange Christ offers to the world His righteousness so that those who believe in Him can be excused from everlasting punishment and enter into eternal life with all its benefits. Luther went so far as to claim that Christ somehow suffered the punishment of everlasting hell on the cross, at God's ordaining. Well-taught Lutherans have a hard time conceiving of a cross that does not revolve around Christ suffering the agony of hell mystically on the cross in our place.

Penal Substitution boils the atonement down to merit, specifically to a transfusion of merit from Christ to the sinner. The premise is that we do not have our own righteousness, and that God will not accept us unless we are righteous. Penal Substitution teaches that it is enough to have the credit of righteousness transferred to us in order to be accepted by God, provided the punishment that our sins would have deserved is paid off also. Penal Substitution teaches that Christ suffered whatever punishment was due to us for our sins, thus clearing the ledger to fill with the credit of His righteousness, i.e. His merit. Christ will enact this great exchange and transfusion of merit to anyone who will believe in Him as their Lord from the heart (not just outwardly or carelessly so).

Orthodoxy does not know the first thing about Penal Substitution. It never has. Atonement has never been understood as a transfusion of merit in Orthodox Christianity. Nor has there ever been a teaching about Christ suffering the agony of hell mystically on the cross in our place.

Right here it is easy to see why many Lutherans might think Orthodoxy does not have a teaching on the atonement. Many do not know that their belief about the atonement is something unique to them - unique to Martin Luther and the Reformation age, and uniquely flowing from that time in Western history. Many do not realize that salvation by "faith alone" is actually a belief in the transfusion of merit/credit from Christ to the believer. "Faith alone" merely describes the condition by which that transfusion takes place.

Orthodoxy boils the atonement down to life, specifically to a transfusion of life from Christ to the sinner. The premise is that we do not have our own righteousness, and that God will not accept us unless we are righteous. Orthodoxy teaches that we must be reconstituted as righteous beings in order to be accepted by God. Orthodoxy teaches that Christ offered His pure, righteous life to God for the purpose of transfusing it to us, and thereby reconstituting sinners as righteous beings. Anyone who believes from the heart can receive this transfusion of life for free by entering the Church.


Given everything that has just been said, the essential purpose of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ is one thing for the Lutheran and another for the Orthodox. For the Lutheran it is transforming his status. For the Orthodox it is transforming his being.

There is a transformation of being in Lutheranism. There is a transformation of status in Orthodoxy. For the Lutheran no transformation of being can take place unless first the sinner gains a status that allows God to deal with him in love rather than wrath. Only on this condition can God begin to transform the sinner's being toward righteousness, a goal that is not reached until all the dead are raised to life again. For the Orthodox no transformation in status can occur unless the human being is first remade into that which can embody the status. This remaking - in its total process - begins at Baptism and is finished when all the dead are raised to life again.


Both Lutherans and the Orthodox believe that Christ will return to judge the living and the dead. As has been said, Penal Substitution teaches that judgment fell on Christ on the cross. Orthodoxy does not teach this. If you hold to Penal Substitution, and you believe you have received Christ's merits to use as your own, then you expect Christ's merits to get you safely through the coming judgment. What is judged is faith clinging to Christ's merits as if they were your own.

On the other hand, Orthodoxy teaches that we will be held accountable for how we used the gift of transformation that was given us in Baptism. In that we have put this gift to good use, we will be rewarded. In that we have failed to exercise this gift we will suffer loss. If we have ignored or rejected this gift entirely, we will lose it altogether and be cast out among the unbelievers. What is judged is how your faith acted through love.

All that has been said so far only calls attention to some differences in approach that should be kept in mind when examining the significance of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ in the Orthodox Church. Those coming from a Lutheran tradition did not learn their perspective just by taking a class or reading a book. They soaked in it, maybe for a lifetime. The Orthodox Church is a different place altogether. Contrary to the opinion of some, it is a place where the cross is central. Due to expecting different results from Christ's crucifixion, though, what the centrality of the cross looks like in Orthodoxy will be different than how it appears in Lutheranism or other Protestant groups holding to similar ideas about the atonement.

The Centrality of the Cross

The Scriptures give us the account of Adam - his creation, his union with Eve, and their mutual fall from innocence. They are removed from Paradise, from that special place of abundant life and fellowship with God. They are exiled to extract what life they can from an earth cursed to reflect the power of sin and death at work in themselves. This is the divine explanation for the condition of our world, and for those who are born into it.  It is a world fallen from God.

It is not a world abandoned by God, though. The Scriptures of the Old Testament give ample witness to God's persistent desire for mankind to return to Him. He does not abandon Adam, even though He exiles him. He seeks out Noah, Abram, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, the judges, and the prophets. Exile is not abandonment.

The song of the unfruitful vineyard in Isaiah 5 and the parable of the wicket tenants in Matthew 21 describe God's persistence and disappointment. He plants, He builds, He nurtures, but mankind uses his freedom to render it all useless. So God tears down, destroys, and starts over. Mankind refuses to be rehabilitated, and God refuses to give up on us.

Jesus Christ is God's final solution to a recalcitrant humanity. In Jesus Christ mankind returns from exile. While the Incarnation is the foundation for that return, the crucifixion of Jesus Christ is the center of gravity that draws all creation into the resurrection of Christ. The cross remains the center of gravity for each and every human being who wishes to return from exile in Christ until the Second Coming. What is the significance of the crucifixion in Orthodoxy? To gather all mankind and all creation into Christ, so that in Christ all may be restored to God via the resurrection and remain with Him forever.

How can it be that the crucifixion of Jesus Christ is central in the faith and life of the Orthodox Church, when most Orthodox (clergy included) do not seem to be able to talk about these things? Let's turn the question around: who has needed this kind of answer before? who has held a differing view of Christ's atoning sacrifice that it needed such an explanation?

The cross is every Orthodox Christian's closest companion. I will enumerate just some of the ways this is so:
  • Holy Baptism initiates a person into the likeness of Christ's death on the cross, causing him or her to die with Christ and be sundered from the dominion of the Evil One
  • Chrismation bestows the Holy Spirit and seals the senses of the baptized by application of chrism with the cross
  • Absolution of sins is given during confession with the sign of the cross
  • The Eucharist is consecrated with the descent of the Holy Spirit and the sign of the cross
  • The sign of the cross is made often (even profusely) in times of trouble, thanksgiving, prayer, meals, entering or leaving a church or holy place, etc.
  • Prayer ropes to aid in praying the Jesus Prayer are tied in cruciform knots
  • Priests bless the faithful with the sign of the cross by hand or with an actual cross; such blessings happen outside of services as well as during them
  • Marriages are blessed with the cross as lives of holy asceticism
  • Reposed faithful are absolved and buried under the sign of the cross
  • The entire ascetic life of fasting, alms, prayer, and repentant struggle against the old Adam is the personal application of the cross of Christ over every nook and cranny of the Christian's life until he or she breathes his last
In short the life of the Orthodox Christian is a life under the cross of Jesus. Christ did not just die by the cross, though. He also conquered by the cross. The victory of His resurrection and ascension is intimately connected to His cross. The Church is the outgrowth of that cross and victory. The Orthodox Church is marked by the cross with all its hardship and blessedness combined - from the impressive outlines of history (especially in the Early Church and 20th Century Russia) to the small homes of the most average Orthodox families. And She is buoyed by God's Grace more so through it all. 

Our focus is on the experience of the cross. Participation in the spiritual life of the Church teaches more about the cross than anything I have written here, because in the end it is not the intellect that must finally come to terms with the truth of the cross as much as it is the totality of the human heart and experience. It's okay that some people need the intellectual answer about the cross. That's part of being human. It's just not necessarily the same thing as carrying the cross and following Jesus with it.