In trying to figure out what divides Christendom, it is easy to get caught up on issues such as Mariology, prayers to saints, and ecclesiology. However, the most relevant and serious issue to most Protestants is the doctrine of justification, and ultimately, how one is saved.
The following is my attempt to honestly portray the positions of each group so that what is similar, and different, can be easily discerned. As for the Biblical and traditional merits for each position, this can be argued about elsewhere.
Ed: This article was made when I was a Protestant and upon greater learning and reflection my thoughts have evolved. However, this list was compiled with the help of an Orthodox priest.
|Justification Upon Conversion||N/A, Orthodoxy does not view justification in a chronological sense, but it is possible to have faith alone if not enough time elapsed for works (i.e. deathbed conversion)||By faith alone||By faith alone|
|Justification after conversion||Must have works that flow from faith||Must have works that flow from faith||N/A–Justification is a one time event|
|Sanctification||N/A–Part of justification, being made righteous/just is the same as being transformed into the likeness of Christ||N/A–Similar to Orthodoxy, accrual of merits needed for salvation takes place||Includes works, theoretically a linear process but usually has peaks and valleys, no bearing on justification|
|Merits||Inconsequential to salvation or justification, salvation is not earned–the question of how sins of varying degrees which are left unrepented of is unanswered||Necessary to accrue to satisfy God’s justice in light of post-baptismal sin, salvation is in part recompense for works–any demerits must be corrected in Purgatory to satisfy God’s justice and make man holy for heaven||Accrued by Christ and satisfies God’s justice, salvation is recompense for Christ’s work–purgatory unnecessary|
|Treasury of Merits||N/A||Merits of saints can be acquired by the believer and in so doing satisfy God’s justice||N/A–Closest analogue is that Christ is this treasury|
|Works||Accomplished by the grace of God without violating the free will of man||Accomplished by the grace of God without violating the free will of man||Accomplished by the grace of God without violating the free will of man|
|Efficacy of Works||Proves that faith is real, increases reward in heaven, improve faith, forgives sins||Proves that faith is real, increases reward in heaven, improve faith, forgives sins,in part earns salvation as recompense from God||Proves that faith is real, increases reward in heaven, forgives sin (baptism among Lutherans and Anglicans)|
|Sacraments, including Sacraments by Desire||Necessary to partake in God’s divinity, which is synonymous with justification||Same as Orthodox view, also needed to achieve a state of sanctifying grace after post-baptismal sins||Not necessary for salvation, but necessary for the sake of obedience|
|Works and Salvation||Those who are saved must perform good works, but salvation is not a reward for works in any degree||Those who are saved must perform good works, salvation is in part recompense for works||No bearing on salvation, but they evidence saving faith and improve one’s lot in heaven|
|Grace||Uncreated, it is man’s literal participation with divinity||Created, sanctifying grace is an effect wrought by God on the believer’s soul||N/A, the state of the believer’s soul is judicially decided by God, grace is merely a reference to God’s dispositions and actions|
|Judgement||Good rewarded, evil punished–both in varying degrees according to works wrought in the body||Good rewarded, evil punished–both in varying degrees according to works wrought in the body||Good rewarded, evil punished–both in varying degrees according to works wrought in the body|
|Salvation||Can be forfeited||Can be forfeited||Depends on group. Reformed assert that all of those who are justified can never be lost. Others believe that salvation can be forfeited.|
Let me offer the following observations:
- Protestantism is obviously a rejection of the Catholic tradition that salvation is on some level earned. Yet, Protestantism is ultimately a system of merit, it was merely revised so that the merit of the individual believer would not be taken into account for anything other that the degree of reward or punishment.
- The key difference between Protestant and Orthodox soteriology is that the Orthodox do not separate justification from sanctification. To speak of sanctification without the existence of good works is an absurdity to the Protestant. In the same way, speaking of justification without good works is absurd to the Orthodox. Justification, in the Greek, simply means “righteous-fication.” The Orthodox believe one is righteous by a literal union with God accomplished by the indwelling of the Spirit. We grow in righteousness the longer we walk with God is similar to the Reformed idea that we grow in sanctification the longer we believe. So, the good works are part of a growth in righteousness resulting from an increased growth in the Holy Spirit. These are fruit of the Spirit that do not earn salvation, because salvation is an on-going process of growth in the Spirit–one is already saved to begin with but one is also undergoing the process of being saved/redeemed in Orthodoxy in real time. These works are indispensably part of salvation. This is why the Orthodox will confess works are absolutely necessary as part of salvation, that works are not merely proof of salvation, and that works do not earn salvation. Protestants find this hard to understand because they 1. differentiate between sanctification and justification and 2. still concern themselves with the issue of merit vis a vis the Roman Catholics.
- The Orthodox view of the atonement is probably why their view of justification is not merit based, unlike the Roman Catholics and Protestants. In Satisfaction and Penal Substitution, Christ is paying back justice rightfully owed to the Father. This need for payback necessitates merit on some level. Recapitulation, put simply, is the idea that Christ redeemed man’s nature as the image-bearer of God by undoing all the damage done by Adam and subsequent sin. Christ did this by living a perfect life and conquering death. Those who have faith in Christ are given the ability to participate in the life of Christ, in which they are transformed and slowly redeemed into the image-bearers God intended them to be.
- Some Protestants, as well as Roman Catholics and Orthodox, maintain that works play a role in forgiving sins. Protestants are careful to note that while this may occur in baptism via implied faith, sins are otherwise not forgiven in any ultimate sense because they are completely forgiven upon justification. Sins can be forgiven in a temporal sense (i.e. sickness as a punishment for sin), however. The Scripture says, “[I]f we walk in the Light as He Himself is in the Light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin…If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:7, 9). The work of Christ on the cross forgives all sin, but a continuing walking in the Light is what makes this forgiveness happen. Orthodox and Roman Catholics believe this continuing walk includes the sacramental life of the Church.
Please contact me with any improvements with the above list. I am trying to condense what each group believes to the best of my ability so if I have fallen short, I am sorry.
Ed: This article was made when I was a Protestant and upon greater learning and reflection my thoughts may have evolved.
As I understand, merits and rewards are correlative. To merit is to merit something, namely, a reward. So I find it interesting that there is so much divergence in the section on Merits, and yet much similarity in the section on the Efficacy of Works (namely, they all include increasing reward in heaven–something that I am not sure all Protestants would agree on).
Max, long time no talk. I checked out Orthodox column with the Orthodox and the RCC column with Catholics. While it is hard to get one’s finger on all Protestants, I hope the table is illustrative of the differences between all the groups. But, to my surprise the Orthodox do not have a system of merits. Salvation is participation in the Godhead, works do not earn this, but works are consistent with such participation. As I speculated, I think the different emphasis in the atonement explains the divergence.
“As I speculated, I think the different emphasis in the atonement explains the divergence.”
I think you’re right about that. A satisfaction view where Christ merits are infinite to counteract all of humanity’s sin (and are in fact infinitely greater than humanity’s sin) is much more conducive to the Catholic position on merit. I actually wanted to probe a bit more on the protestant understanding here than what we did in our recent talk lol. As I understand it, the reformed protestant view of the atonement is 100% reliant on Christ’s perfect obedience to the moral law of God. When Christ is imputed with the sins of the elect, the elect in turn are imputed with Christ’s active obedience to that same moral Law. That would make Christ’s atonement a work…of the Law…
Am I missing something there?
Yes, the above would be 100% correct. To be fair, Athanasius himself endorsed this view in explaining this is why the Jewish Law is no longer applicable in the New Covenant (“the righteousness of the Law is imputed to the mass” in his words.) However, as we were referring to, this still leaves works that Eph 2:10 speaks up, charity as you put it. Then the question becomes whether these works play a role in justification. Everyone says “yes,” so the question is their efficacy. Protestants settle with “proof of salvation” while Orthodox add “literal participation with salvation i.e. doing good is what it is like to be Godly” and the RCC adds to both “earn necessary merits.” It is a matter of debate which view is lacking or adding something unnecessarily.
My point about the protestant position there is that it seems to, quite ironically, run smack into Romans 3:28 and Galatians 2:16. It seems that “works of the law” are completely excluded from the picture, which would include active obedience to the moral law. Which would mean that Luther doctored the wrong part of Romans 3:28! Instead of adding in the word “alone” after faith, he should have just crossed out “of the law” lol. That understanding better fits the orthodox/Catholic theosis paradigm because in that paradigm, sinlessness does not equal participation in the Divine Nature. Being simply sinless is not sufficient for entrance into the Kingdom of God. This is why a lot of protestant thought can sound very pelagian to me (the whole “covenant of works” idea). Protestant thought is that the only barrier between humanity and God is sin and they forget about the natural barrier between the finite and the infinite. A sinless human being is still finite and cannot by their own natural power bring his/herself to participation in the Divine Nature. If humans could participate in the Divine nature…by nature, then we would by nature be…Divine (ie Gods). But that is of course ridiculous.
Well, works of the Law are excluded specifically because they have been fulfilled in Christ in every sense of the term “fulfilled.” He fulfilled their requirements, and He also was the fulfillment of their prophetical character.
But according to the protestant view of the atonement, it’s precisely Christ’s work of the law that is imputed to the believer for justification. I guess that protestants make an exception to Romans 3:28 and Galatians 2:16 as long as it is specifically Christ’s work of the law?
They would say Rom 3:28 and Gal 2:16 work is because that Law is fulfilled in Christ. If it wasn’t it, they would still apply.
Paul seems to say as much when he says in Gal 2 that it is not he who lives, but Christ in him.
Yeah i don’t think that flies because Abraham wasn’t justified by works of the law either. I suppose someone could try to say Christ’s active obidience was imputed to Abraham in advance but Genesis and Romans are pretty clear it was Abraham’s faith that was credited to him as righteousness. “Active obedience” is not mentioned either by Genesis or St. Paul. The only thing mentioned that justified Abraham was his virtuous faith. This faith wasn’t opposed to charity/agape but active obedience isn’t what is being imputed.
Two things to consider:
1. Abraham was theoretically still under Law, the Law of Nature. The Fathers would attest to this.
2. Gal 2:16 states, “knowing that man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ.” Notice, not the faith in Jesus Christ but of Jesus Christ. Of course, faith in Christ is salvific, but in Gal 2:16 why would Paul fail to put the word “in” which he does not fail to do in Gal 2:20 (“the life which I live in [ἐν] the flesh I live in [ἐν] faith in the Son of God”)? Perhaps, Paul was trying to emphasize the profundity of what being in Christ entailed. The Orthodox Study Bible (p.1590) states: “It is the faith of Christ–His beliefs, His trust, His obedience–that justifies us, not our faith as such. Christ’s faith is seen in His entire life on earth, not in just a few of His crucial works.”
My point in quoting this is not to reject that our faith justifies us (Acts 26:18 explicitly says in the Greek that faith in Christ sanctifies us), but active obedience is how this faith has efficacy in both the Protestant and Orthodox views–faith in Christ creates union with Him. This union is what makes use righteous and sanctified.
To quote Athanasius:
Date: June 1, 2015
Author: Craig Truglia
Some Catholics and Eastern Orthodox like to say Martin Luther invented the concept of the “Great Exchange.” The Great Exchange, in short, teaches that Christ bore the punishment for our sins, thus satisfying God’s need for justice, but at the same time credited us Christ’s righteousness.
A graphic representation of what 2 Cor 5:21 amongst other Scriptures teaches about the Great Exchange.
The Scripture is abundantly clear that Chris bore the penalty for our sins:
But He was pierced through for our transgressions,
He was crushed for our iniquities;
The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him,
And by His scourging we are healed (Is 53:7).
My Servant, will justify the many,
As He will bear their iniquities (Is 53:11).
Yet He Himself bore the sin of many,
And interceded for the transgressors (Is 53:12).
When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross (Col 3:13, 14).
To doubt that Christ bore our iniquities and paid their penalty on the cross, is in my mind, is completely unthinkable. Being that there are Catholic apologists that for whatever reason reject this plain statement of fact, my response to them is that this is not an idea Luther invented.
The Epistle to Diognetus, written in the second century, understood the ramifications of Christ baring the burdens of our sins, if not also crediting us His righteousness:
He Himself took on Him the burden of our iniquities, He gave His own Son as a ransom for us, the holy One for transgressors, the blameless One for the wicked, the righteous One for the unrighteous, the incorruptible One for the corruptible, the immortal One for them that are mortal. For what other thing was capable of covering our sins than His righteousness? By what other one was it possible that we, the wicked and ungodly, could be justified, than by the only Son of God? O sweet exchange! O unsearchable operation! O benefits surpassing all expectation! that the wickedness of many should be hid in a single righteous One, and that the righteousness of One should justify many transgressors (Chapter 9)!
The underlined is where we may infer that the Epistle taught the positive imputation of Christ’s righteousness. However, because it is inferred it is not convincing to Catholics or Eastern Orthodox who find it hard to believe that unrighteous men like us can really be credited fully righteous as Christ.
It is not an idea that is explicit in the Scripture. We may infer it from passages that speak of us being “in Christ” and others such as Eph 5:31-32 which speak of the Church’s literal union with Christ. The idea is, if the Church (with its believers) are literally one with Christ, they my be accounted as righteous as Christ upon judgment.
Indeed, this is an interpretative stretch, but one that appears justified by 2 Cor 5:21 which states, “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” Christians are not merely made righteous or credited as righteous in a theoretical sense, but really “become the righteousness” specifically “of God” and not their own, an “alien righteousness.”
Now, Catholics and Eastern Orthodox reject this for legitimate interpretive reasons, but also because of its ramifications. If believers are in union with Christ, and this happens upon faith in Christ, then good works wrought in holiness really do not make one more righteous in any way. Instead, it is Christ’s righteousness that really makes us righteous, not us conforming or doing something in accord with Christlikeness. Hence, we can be really unchristlike, but be accounted fully as righteous as Christ due to our union with Him.
This does not mean that by necessity all Christians achieve equal awards in heaven. The Scripture mitigates against this as does the interpreters of the early church, specifically Jerome in his letters against Jovanian.
However, it does mean that our justification is a completed act because of what Christ done, not an ongoing event. Our union with Christ does not increase in time, rather it gets consummated specifically upon Christ’s second coming.
This is why Protestants teach “Forensic Justification,” which in short means that justification is a completed and not a ongoing act. We simply can point to Scripture that uses the words “believed” and “justified” in the past tense to show that the event already occurred. Catholics and Eastern Orthodox accuse of of preaching a novelty. However, let our argument be based upon the Scripture and not tradition, because we are not the first to traditionally to espouse the idea. Cyril of Jerusalem writes:
Oh the great loving-kindness of God! For the righteous were many years in pleasing Him: but what they succeeded in gaining by many years of well-pleasing , this Jesus now bestows on you in a single hour. For if you shall believe that Jesus Christ is Lord, and that God raised Him from the dead, you shall be saved, and shall be transported into Paradise by Him who brought in there the robber. And doubt not whether it is possible; for He who on this sacred Golgotha saved the robber after one single hour of belief, the same shall save you also on your believing (Catechetical Lecture 5, Chap 10).
Chrysostom concurs in his exegesis of Rom 3:26:
He does also make them that are filled with the putrefying sores of sin suddenly righteous. And it is to explain this, viz. what is declaring, that he has added, That He might be just, and the justifier of him which believes in Jesus. Doubt not then: for it is not of works, but of faith: and shun not the righteousness of God (Homily 7 on Romans).
Now, because all of this seems a great deal more theoretical than the negative imputation of our sins onto Christ, Catholics and Orthodox will accuse us Protestants of coming up with an innovation. I must respectfully disagree.
For one, Augustine interpreted 2 Cor 5:21 as teaching the positive imputation of Christ’s righteousness:
He does not say, as some incorrect copies read, He who knew no sin did sin for us, as if Christ had Himself sinned for our sakes; but he says, Him who knew no sin, that is, Christ, God, to whom we are to be reconciled, has made to be sin for us, that is, has made Him a sacrifice for our sins, by which we might be reconciled to God. He, then, being made sin, just as we are made righteousness (our righteousness being not our own, but God’s, not in ourselves, but in Him); He being made sin, not His own, but ours, not in Himself, but in us, showed, by the likeness of sinful flesh in which He was crucified, that though sin was not in Him, yet that in a certain sense He died to sin, by dying in the flesh which was the likeness of sin; and that although He Himself had never lived the old life of sin, yet by His resurrection He typified our new life springing up out of the old death in sin (Chapter 41, Handbook on Hope, Faith, and Love).
Many Protestant interpreters like to say that Jesus Christ was fully obedient to the letter of the Jewish Law, henceforth fulfilling the Law and its righteous requirements on our behalf. Not all ECFs affirmed this idea, but Athanasius did and he writes specifically that it is this righteousness that is credited to the Church:
It is necessary therefore it is necessary to believe the Holy Scriptures to confess him who is the first fruit of us to celebrate the philanthropy of him who assumed our nature to be struck with wonder at the great dispensation to fear not the curse which is from the Law for Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the Law Hence the full accomplishment of the Law which was made through the first fruit must be imputed to the whole mass.
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law being made a curse for us Properly He was not under the curse because in all things He perfectly fulfilled the Law And therefore in the matter of debt our debt has been paid off by his curse so that He should set free from all obligation those who pass over to faith (Comment in Epist ad Galat iii).
Lutherans believe imputation but they believe that it is a living faith that will produce works. There is also the Finnish interpretation of Luther that Christ is present in faith similar to the Orthodox view of Theosis.
Yes the Finland Lutherans are the same as orthodox on this issue
This is absolutely phenomenal and has shed a lot of light on a very complicated topic. I am in the process of converting to Eastern Orthodoxy (from Reformed Protestantism) and have struggled with Orthodox Soteriology. Specifically with the topic of what happens to the believer upon death when the sanctification/deification process is incomplete. The Catholics, as you point out, have Purgatory and, in the Protestant paradigm, Christ imputes His perfect righteousness (blotting out sins). However, the Orthodox, again as you point out, don’t have much to say on the topic. it is a mystery.
I hope this blesses u:
this too: https://orthodoxchristiantheology.com/2018/07/07/the-afterlife-merits-and-orthodoxy/
Thanks SO much, Craig, for your honest attempt at representing these views fairly and clearly!!! Can you say anything about each group’s definition of the word “gospel”?
Sadly, it is bit of a loaded term when it comes to sectarian differences. All groups agree that the good news is that God became man, redeemed humanity by His life, and paid the penalty of death on the cross, and through faith in the work of Jesus Christ we are saved by being transformed into Him.
Ok, thanks. After poking around on your website some more, I realize you’ve definitely thought and written more about these issues than a “run-of-the-mill layman” has, as your “about me” page says! 🙂 So I think I’ll understand better as I read more of your posts. But can you tell me where you found the info for the chart on this page, and if there are any additional and well-respected resources on these comparisons of soteriology? I’m writing an academic paper on this topic and am looking for multiple sources, with succinct, precise summaries, as well as further explanations.
Christina, this will disappoint you but the resources in English are TERRIBLE. I had to ask a lot of clergy and, in fact, Seraphim Hamilton and I seem to be the only two people in English, other than Met. Kallistos Ware, to even write about it. I would recommend doing a website search here for “Sysoev.” He wrote a book on salvation which is extremely important and of recent vintage.
Is that “On Fear of God and Good Works” by Priest Daniel Sysoev? What languages are the non-English books in? Thanks for the other names too. I sure would like to see more dialogue than I’ve seen so far between these 3 streams of Christianity–I suspect that God includes that in the Scripture that says that the eye can’t say to the hand, “I don’t need you” (1 Cor. 12:21). Seems to me we all have a lot to learn from each other–thanks for facilitating that.
Fr Daniel Sysoev is thankfully in English–his widow has been just as evangelistic as him in trying to gets his works out there throughout the world as he was a huge evangelist. https://issuu.com/mission-shop/docs/prevu
I will have a series of articles coming out on the topic, if you like, I can send you the rough drafts. They are made for publication with a “jurisidiction” (i.e. an official church within Orthodoxy will be “publishing” it.) They are, sadly, perhaps our most succinct treatment of the subject in English as the east really does not engage in many written apologetics (I literally have Romanians and such listen to me in English for that rason.) Let me know if you are interested.
Yes, if you don’t mind sharing, I would appreciate it very much!!!
Please leave an email (say the word “at” so programs do not pick up the @ to spam you) and I or my wife will email you.
How can I leave my email without everyone being able to see it?
Also, would you say that all 3 groups define “salvation” in the same way? So far it seems that generally, they all agree that it’s how God rescues humankind from the damage done by sin through Christ. But in practical usage, it seems to me that Protestants are usually referring to the past event of when a Christian first became a child of God (justification, regeneration, etc.) which opened the door to their future salvation, meaning eternal life with God after death rather than suffering in hell (although more informed Protestants acknowledge that the Bible speaks of present salvation as well). It seems that Orthodox use salvation to mean the gradual change in becoming more Christ-like in this present life (what Protestants call sanctification), and that’s why they say they’re “being saved” rather than that they already ARE saved. And I don’t know about Catholics. These are just my impressions- would you say this is correct?
One reason I ask is that in the discussion of “how are we saved?”, if we’re using different definitions for the word “saved”, then it can lead to huge misunderstandings! If a Protestant used the definition of salvation that I’ve attributed to the Orthodox above (i.e. sanctification), then I think they would agree that we are saved by God’s grace through faith AND good works, i.e. obedience that comes from faith.
Only Orthodox believe that we actually are jsutified by God’s actual righteousness. We consider righteousness His “energy” (i.e. work) not His essence.
Your impressions are accurate and in fact, it is precisely the difference between each group’s view of what salvation is that affects their view of justification. Please email “email@example.com” and let me know when you did. The rough drafts of the article I wrote precisely answer the questions you are asking. It is about 13,000 words of so between 3 articles so it will take some patience. 🙂
Great! I emailed you. Thanks so much.
Of course the Protestant view of atonement involves merit. *Christ’s* merit. There is nothing Catholic about PSA.
“Recapitulation” is essentially what the Bible calls “Justification.” We are restored to the place God originally intended for his children to live in. “Recapitulation” is an unnecessary addition to the Order of Salvation that already includes it in a distinct action from sanctification. It would seem you are conflating justification and sanctification into an inseparable entity.
I would like to know what it is the reference, document or sort that support that is the official orthodox view of salvation?
The confession of dositheus