The Satisfaction of the Cross

The Satisfaction of the Cross

When I was in the midst of my catechumenate in the Orthodox Church, one of the most difficult issues for me to overcome was the different approach the Church had to understanding what exactly it was that Christ accomplished on the Cross. Unfortunately, I had quite the know-it-all attitude when I first voiced my opinions to my priest! Thankfully, Father was patient and let me work my own way through my thoughts, to the point where I saw and could appreciate the holistic beauty of the Eastern Orthodox view of salvation through the crucified and risen Christ.

It should be said at the outset that I have not thrown out completely the Evangelical view I once held. The view of the Cross that most Evangelicals have is not so much wrong as it is incomplete. This view—that “Christ died for us on the Cross to pay the price of sin [and that in] that act he continues to be a mediator for us who are sinful with God the Father who is holy,” as one poster on the [] forum put it—can indeed be understood in an Orthodox fashion. Indeed, it must be understood in such a way, for this difference in understanding salvation that separates Evangelicals and Orthodox is responsible for much of the difference in belief regarding God the Father Himself.

It is often said by Evangelicals that Christ died for us on the Cross to pay the price of sin. This is very true. Yet, what was that price we would have had to pay? Was it some payment to an offended God? We would say no, not principally; such a situation would turn God into the One from Whom we would need rescuing. Surely the Prodigal Son needed no saving from his father; surely the sheep needed no saving from the Shepherd. Rather, Death itself—the reality of our own mortality due to the sin of our forefathers Adam and Eve—is the source of our need for salvation, for the human race was thus cut off from communion with God who is its Life, and therefore death entered the world and spread to all of us, as can be seen, since all have sinned (Rom. 5:12). For us, the release from the sting and inescapability of death is the ultimate reason Christ died; He came to “free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (Heb. 2:15). To say that merely the remission of sin itself—in other words, to say that God merely declares that we are righteous in His sight instead of actually making us righteous and alive in Christ—is the ultimate reason He died seems to stop short of full salvation; our ledger is cleaned off, but nothing has been done to correct the very real effects of the transgression; mankind is still death-bound.

As mentioned above, Evangelicals will often further assert that, in the act of being crucified, Christ “continues to be a mediator for us who are sinful with God the Father who is holy.” This is also true, but understanding the motives of why God the Father set up such a dramatic sacrificial system in the first place is crucial to understanding the full purpose of said system. It is true—the writer of Hebrews affirms it—that Christ is the mediator between mankind and God. For the Orthodox, however, the distinction as “mediator” that Christ has is not only one of “pleading our case before the Father” but, just as we hold death to be the ultimate enemy and not just sin (which would be only part of what we need to be saved from), so we hold Christ’s mediation to be not just one of a cleanser of our sins, but of a defeater of our human nature’s mortality. It is not sufficient to be declared “saved” by the Father; we need to actually have our human nature renewed and brought to life again by being united to Christ Himself in body and soul. We do this by uniting ourselves to the actual death and resurrection of Christ (which we believe happens in the sacrament of Holy Baptism), and to the mystical Body of Christ (which we believe happens in the Holy Eucharist), as well as by living out our entire lives following His commands. He’s not only our Mediator, then, who stands in the place of “us who are sinful with God the Father who is holy,” but also our Mediator who stands in the place of “us who are dead with God the Father who is Life.” His mediation is not only one where an innocent man stands in for a guilty man so that the guilty man can be declared “off the hook” by the Judge; rather, His mediation takes the very nature of guilt and death and really transfigures it into the innocent nature of Christ Himself, so that we no longer seek to run after sin, death, and guilt.

What does this say about how the Orthodox view God the Father versus how Evangelicals portray Him? In our mind, God is not the angry, stern God that the western satisfaction theory makes Him out to be, the one who demands that we “pay Him back” for offending Him. To us, if God could be offended as if He had lost something and felt angered by this, He would be able to be manipulated and moved, and thus, He would not be God. If He were more concerned about our being declared righteous so that He could let us into “His Heaven” than whether or not we were actually made into someone who would enjoy His Heaven, His main objective would be self-serving and not done out of love for us.

Rather, instead of demanding something of us, He will simply come again to Earth one day, appearing as our Life once again, and we who have died and risen with Christ in baptism and have united themselves to Christ throughout their lives will also live with Him in glory (Col. 3:3-4)—those who are still dead in their bodies will feel the full force of He who is Love, Life, Peace and all the rest of it, and it will feel like Hell for those who are not renewed in Christ. The flames of Hell, we believe, are in reality the flames of the Consuming Fire that is our God (Deut. 4:24, Heb. 12:29), only felt as torment by those who are not Christ’s.

The issue of salvation from sin and death is radically different in the Orthodox Church from the salvation doctrines preached in many Evangelical confessions. Salvation, or theosis—the union of man with God through His grace—is now man’s decision, not God’s. God is always loving, always forgiving, always steadfast—nothing we do could ever “offend” Him as we are offended. He will do what He always has planned to do—save us through love and reveal Himself at the end to us in love. So we do not serve a God who demands repayment before He will let us into Heaven—rather we see ourselves as the ones who do not really want to go to a heaven our God literally died to give us. This needs to change—and thanks to the grace of God given us at the Cross and in the empty Tomb, it can—if we are ever to see our God as the loving Father He is…and even more, to be like Him (1 Jn. 3:2).