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Ransomed from Death, Saved by the Father’s Love
Written by David Wooten Monday, 29 January 2007 17:30
A Meditation on the Work of Christ
In the article “The Satisfaction of the Cross,” I attempted to show how the Orthodox view of what Christ did on the Cross differs from the popular Evangelical view of the same. In doing so, however, one inevitably has to field objections of our view not being “biblical” Christianity, while the Evangelicals still state that their view is, in fact, the simple biblical model of redemption, since the words used in the Evangelical “Plan of Salvation” sounds so much like a Pauline epistle.
The problem with this, however, is that simply using the same words does not guarantee that one has attached the same meaning to the words that the authors attached to them. In this case, calling a position “biblical” means little, if anything, since the understanding of what those words mean is what matters more than a set of vocabulary words. In other words, the point is not, “Who uses the words of the apostles?” but rather, “Who means what the apostles meant?” Nowhere is this seen more clearly, in my opinion, than in the area of salvation most hotly contended by Evangelicals and Orthodox—that of the “ransom” of Christ being “paid” to a certain entity. Was the ransom paid to an angry, offended God the Father, as some Evangelical groups would claim, as the Scriptures (so they claim) attest? Or was the ransom actually a destruction of the reality of Death, the very real enemy of humankind, as the Orthodox would state, thus allowing humans to see God (and His anger and offense) as He truly is, and not as our human passions would immediately have us believe?
Evangelicals often assert that the Orthodox view cannot possibly hold to this original meaning of the apostles, since our view has been expressed by many men and women who, holy saints of the early Church though they may have been, have wrapped so much external philosophical argument and pagan Greek thought around their interpretations that they can’t allow Scripture to present its own arguments. Upon closer examination, however, it could very easily be pointed out that Evangelicals specifically (and western Christians in general) wrap so much post-Enlightenment, rationalist philosophical arguments around their exegesis that they are the ones who do not allow Scripture to present its own arguments through the linguistic and cultural understanding into which it was born: that of Hellenic Judaism.
The fact of the matter is that St. Paul was not only a Jew, but also a Greek-speaking Jew who was intimately familiar with Greek thought, theology, philosophy, etc. It would not have been unthinkable for him to incorporate the ideas and vocabulary of his day into his explanations of the Gospel; and, indeed, we see him do this very thing in the book of Acts.
Much of this whole debate has to do with how each side perceives God the Father. Evangelicals in general believe in the preeminence of God’s righteousness and justice, and that these attributes are forever unified with His Love. We would agree with the observation of one Evangelical poster that “God's Love is not at odds with His Holiness.” However, Evangelicals see our insistence on God’s permanent love and lack of anger and offense as we know it—and thus say that the Orthodox take one attribute of God—His Love—and discard the rest, leaving us with a God without wrath. This, however, is completely inaccurate, as the Orthodox would say that we do indeed accept the attribute of Holiness, and even that of the wrath of God, yet we correctly understand the motivation behind them: that of the possibility of man’s redemption through Love instead of punishment through Justice because of offense. While we wholeheartedly accept that our sin is completely incompatible with God and makes Him our enemy, we would insist on an understanding of God’s reaction that is not based on our own understanding of “offense” and “anger.”
Since, then (we would say), God the Father did not need to be “calmed down” through the blood of Christ shed on the Cross, and since Christ did not die to rescue us from the offended vengeance of the Father, why did Christ die? If the offense of our sins were committed against the Holiness of the Father, how could mankind owe a debt to anyone or anything else?
Let us take a look at the original sin of Adam and Eve. Our forefathers ate the fruit that God had warned them not to eat, with the statement that if they ate of the fruit of the tree, they would surely die. Notice, however, that God did not tell them that if they ate of the fruit that God would kill them in His anger, but rather simply that they would die. Death was not bestowed upon mankind as a punishment from an offended, angry, vindictive God; it was merely the end result of Adam’s and Eve’s action. Put it this way: God did not “create” Death anymore than a light bulb “creates” darkness. If a person unscrews an active light bulb, his end result is darkness (and a burned hand), for he has severed ties with the Light. Likewise, when Adam and Eve ate from the tree of knowledge of good and evil in order to “be like God,” they tried to be deified without the Deity, and, in severing themselves from their Life, Death (the “burn” experienced by their nature) was the result. They were no longer fit to eat from the Tree of Life and live forever, for to live forever in a state of death and decay is something God would not stand for (in this case, Death is seen as a mercy of sorts). Adam then had a child, not in God's image, but in his own, and that son was mortal, as are we all. We are all bound to death, and this is the thing from which we need salvation, for fear of death has caused us to engage in all manner of atrocities against one another.
God, however, has not given up on our race. He who is Life—the Second Person of the Trinity, the Logos, known as Jesus Christ—set all this right by taking dead flesh upon Himself and reuniting it with the divine Life of God, thereby killing Death. When Christ died on the cross, Death tried to take a hold of Him, but in doing so, thinking it found a man, found nothing but Life Incarnate, and was trampled down forevermore. We now must unite with Christ—for just as it was His physical body that was enlivened and Christ defeated Death in the flesh, so we as the physical Body of Christ are united to Him in physical baptism and the communion of His physical Body and Blood so that we can share in the divine Life that was shed out for us on the Cross—for us and for the life of the world.
All this sounds plausible to many an Evangelical, but those who are bound to believe only that which is expressly spelled out in Scripture may wonder where the threat from Death as an actual person might come from. St. John’s Apocalypse spells out clearly the vision of Death that he had:
I looked, and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death, and Hades was following close behind him. They were given power over a fourth of the earth to kill by sword, famine and plague, and by the wild beasts of the earth (Revelation 6:8).
The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what he had done (Revelation 20:13).
Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death (Revelation 20:14).
We then see, through the testimony of Scripture, that Death is a reality that has a claim on all mortal flesh. Because we are sons of Adam made in Adam's likeness (instead of God's—Gen. 5:3), we are mortal, and we therefore owe a debt to Death: our own life.
So, then, Christ died on the Cross, spilling His blood—human blood which had been united to divine Life and thereby redeemed to its former state (that of Eden)—and thereafter sprinkled that blood and placed that flesh before the heavenly altar, not so the Father would feel some sort of resolution and grant us passage into heaven, but rather so that there would be a redeemed sample of humanity that would actually be able to experience the presence of God as refining joy and peace, and not as torment. It is this sample of redeemed humanity that the Father has judged “not guilty,” for indeed, Christ is the only One who truly is not guilty.
As we unite ourselves to this sample of redeemed humanity through baptism and Eucharist, we are continually changed, body and soul, into what the God-man was by nature, and therefore receive the “not-guilty” merits of the sacrifice of Christ and can, because of our participation in this universally available “not guilty” verdict given to Christ for the sake of man and not the Father, experience the Life of God in our bodies, turning us into men and women who are also no longer damaged by sin, death, hell and corruption, even to the extent that Christ is free from these things. Instead of a merely “covering” of our sins—God thus sees Christ instead of our sinfulness, which remains—we are changed into the actual holiness of Christ—becoming truly holy instead of merely being declared so.
Allow me to offer one more explanation—using Scripture as my text—of how our Orthodox view of salvation through the Incarnation, Cross, and Resurrection of Christ can be seen to be in perfect harmony with the Bible. In my dealings with one very eloquent and courteous Evangelical Christian on this forum [OrthodoxChristianity.net—Ed.], the passage 2 Corinthians 5:18-19 was brought up as a possible proof text of Christ’s atonement being to the Father, with death being nowhere mentioned. The passage reads thus:
And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation; To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation.
Taking this passage bit by bit, we see the Orthodox view of salvation unfold effortlessly. The first part reads, “And all things are of God,” and here I think we'd agree that God is the source of all things. Everything created by God is good and has the potential to be used for His glory.
This God, says St. Paul, “hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ.” Let us note what the passage does say, and this will put us in a position to determine what it does not say. All this says is that God has reconciled us to Himself. The Evangelical definition of this is that God has legally “squared us with the house,” as it were; he has settled accounts with sinful mankind so that humans no longer “owed Him.” One could, however, look at it also in this way: God, in His holiness, knew that to approach us as we were—sinful and bound up in death—would mean our torment, because our dead nature was incompatible with His pure Life. So Christ, the Logos, reconciled our human nature with the divine nature by uniting them in His one Person, thereby taking away the enmity that existed not only between Jews and Gentiles (Eph. 2:14-16), but also between our fallen human nature and the Father's holy divine nature. So now, by uniting ourselves to Christ's redeemed humanity and His divine nature, we can now approach the Father.
Notice, now, that the “demand” of the Father (and it can and should be called that) was satisfied by the reconciling of fallen human nature and holy divine nature in the Logos, but notice especially the motivation behind said reconciliation. This is the main point of our difference: not that the Father doesn’t demands that we come to Him through the sacrifice of Christ (for He most certainly does), but that we come to Him through the sacrifice of Christ because He knows we can not enjoy His presence any other way, and this is what He wants for us. Christ died, not because of some external demand of an offended Father who seeks to regain His own honor and so He might have an airtight case in justifying letting us into heaven (as if this were the Father's problem), but rather because He was not going to change one iota of His holiness when all things (us included) were submitted to Him, and this would, by natural consequence, mean our torment. So His demand stems not from wounded honor, but from selfless love for those who once were alienated from His divine nature and union therewith, but who now have access to the throne of Grace through the divine sacrifice of the Logos, whose very Person has reconciled the fallen creation with its divine Creator.
Once “God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself,” then, all creation and matter was made compatible once again with God, as I said, and instead of consuming the flesh of the Virgin which He took from her, the Logos infused it (and her) with His divine Life, and this avoiding of the natural consequence of human contact with the divine is what we refer to as God’s “not imputing [our]trespasses unto [us],” since normally divinity would have consumed flesh as a natural consequence of coming in contact with it, much as fire would with chaff. In the cases of the Virgin Mary and the Lord Jesus, however, not only was the “chaff” of their humanity not consumed by the fire of divinity, but it was also changed in its very nature so that it could unite with the divine fire. In the same way, our flesh is still fallen and dying, and only by joining ourselves to Christ through baptism—dying His death—and the Eucharist—eating His real Body and Blood—the trespassing of our flesh into the realm of death is not only forgiven and passed over when the blood of the Lamb of God entered in through the doors of our bodies through the Eucharist, but our flesh is also healed of death.
As I hope it has been made clear, the atonement was in a sense to the Father, but the motivation behind said reconciliation needs to be made absolutely clear: We were not reconciled for the benefit of the Father's honor or justice or satisfaction or anything else; we were reconciled to the Father so that we would be saved from death and healed of sin. This sin and death issue, then, is not the Father's problem, but ours, yet He, through the sacrifice of the Logos, did what we never could do: He changed our very nature into something completely different—he brought us back to Eden's goodness.
I’ll close this essay with a quote a Church Father who is respected by many an Evangelical: St. Athanasius the Great, one of the key players in expressing the Christian belief in the Trinity when that belief was being challenged. Regarding Christ’s ransom of mankind, he says the following (emphasis mine):
But beyond all this, there was a debt owing which must needs be paid; for, as I said before, all men were due to die. Here, then, is the second reason why the Word dwelt among us, namely that having proved His Godhead by His works, He might offer the sacrifice on behalf of all, surrendering His own temple to death in place of all, to settle man’s account with death and free him from the primal transgression. In the same act also He showed Himself mightier than death, displaying His own body incorruptible as the first-fruits of the resurrection. (St. Athanasios the Great, De Incarnatione, 20).
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