The following is my opinion. I believe I researched the answer correctly and I apologize if I do not explain something as well as it could have been explained, but allow me to try my best.
- In the Orthodox view, how does one’s sins become cleansed through the partaking of the Eucharist?
Sins do not become cleansed per se by the action of partaking in the Eucharist. In fact, sins can be compounded and added. So, I think you are seeing the Eucharist within the lens of “efficacy.” If the Eucharist “forgives sins” or is “efficacious” in your view, then something other than faith in Christ is efficacious–and this annihilates the Gospel.
Please bear with me, because we have an issue with our paradigms. The Western paradigm (Protestantism/Roman Catholicism) focuses on us repaying God back some sort of moral debt and this is not viewed as allegorical, but literal. This is not completely unjustified. The Scriptures say, “[Y]ou will by no means get out of there till you have paid the last penny” (Matt 5:26). In Protestantism one has wronged God by sinning and Christ has righted the wrong by paying the debt through suffering. One benefits from this debt transaction via faith in Christ, as faith allows one to take part in the accomplishment of Christ (the payment of debt) without actually doing what Chirst did (no works.) Hence, someone with no righteousness of life, but with faith, attains to the atonement.
However, with the atonement “out of the way,” God begins saving a person via works. As John Piper explains:
Justification is a point, like in geometry — a point where the Holy Spirit opens our blind eyes to see Christ for who he is and unites us to Christ by faith alone…But we are finally saved through sanctification — that is, through a real change in our hearts and minds and lives without which we will not see the Lord.
In short, in the Protestant paradigm, we are justified by faith alone (this is how the atonement occurs) and we are saved by both the atonement and the sanctification which proceeds naturally from the moment of justification.
This is a very long “aside,” but it is important to get into so I can unpack the Orthodox paradigm. In order to understand the Orthodox viewpoint one must move beyond the literal payment of debt. So, let me quote an Orthodox catechism (Saint Filaret of Moscow) on the subject:
Jesus Christ, in whom the Godhead is united with manhood, graciously made himself the new almighty Head of men, whom he unites to himself through faith. Therefore as in Adam we had fallen under sin, the curse, and death, so we are delivered from sin, the curse, and death in Jesus Christ. His voluntary suffering and death on the cross for us, being of infinite value and merit, as the death of one sinless, God and man in one person, is both a perfect satisfaction to the justice of God, which had condemned us for sin to death, and a fund of infinite merit, which has obtained him the right, without prejudice to justice, to give us sinners pardon of our sins, and grace to have victory over sin and death…For his part, he offered himself as a sacrifice strictly for all, and obtained for all grace and salvation; but this benefits only those of us who, for their parts, of their own free will, have fellowship in his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death. Phil. iii. 10 (See also Rom 8:17)…We have fellowship in the sufferings and death of Jesus Christ through a lively and hearty faith, through the Sacraments, in which is contained and sealed the virtue of his saving sufferings and death, and, lastly, through the crucifixion of our flesh with its affections and lusts.
Now, I know the preceding is very long, but it is very important because it is as “Western” of an explanation that has ever been provided by a saint of the Church–so it acts as a good bridge for us, with Western minds, to understand Hellenistic-Jewish thought (which is what Apostolic Christianity is.)
I want to point to what is in common and then speak about the differences. Obviously, if we take a narrow Western view of justification and the atonement, we see Saint Filaret locates “justification” at the same geometric point of time as John Piper: “Jesus Christ, in whom the Godhead is united with manhood…whom he unites to himself through faith.” Then we are “saved through sanctification…a real change in our hearts,” described by Saint Filaret as “a lively and hearty faith,” which is being conformed to Christ via suffering, mortification of the flesh, and the sacraments.
To me, this sounds identical to John Piper, but I am aware we are not in agreement, so let me exaggerate the main points of difference:
- Sacraments as being a means of living a hearty faith and drawing closer to God.
- The assent of our wills to the will of Christ, thereby conforming ourselves to Him.
I think the preceding requires two presuppositions, which you may not agree with, but it will help us understand the Orthodox teaching:
- The sacraments are a material manifestation of Jesus Christ in the life of the believer through the Holy Spirit, which for obvious reasons manifest a greater oneness of God in us:
- Baptism forgives sins as it joins us to the sinless one (Jesus Christ) by the Holy Spirit (c.f. Luke 3:16).
- The Eucharist forgives sins as it indwells us with the Body and Blood of the sinless one, which gives us life (c.f. John 6:54). This gives us communion with the Holy Spirit (Canon for Preparation for Communion, Ode 3, Troparia; Communion Prayer of Saint Basil the Great) and occurs because of “the descent of the Holy Spirit” (i.e. epiclesis, see Prayer of Symeon Metaphrastes).
- It would be superfluous to cover the other sacraments, but I hope this gives you a general idea.
- The assent of our will with the divine will makes us more like God, which thereby manifests a greater oneness.
The main paradigm difference between the West and the Orthodox is the idea that our union with Christ exists on a spectrum. We can have a deepening union with Christ in such a system. Compare this with the Protestant view where our oneness with Christ is either on or off, like a light switch: You are one with Christ and “you’re saved,” or you are not and “you’re damned.” Hence, we really do not get “more Jesus.” We do get more righteous via the “sanctification process” in the Reformed system, but not a greater manifestation of His righteousness in us. Otherwise, we would both have infused righteousness and imputed righteousness, and no Protestant believes this.
So, to quote a recent martyr (Father Daniel Sysoev):
Faith in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, in God the Father who sent Him, and in the Holy Spirit justifies a man, making Him righteous. Faith in the Trinity and the redeeming sacrifice of Jesus Christ the God-Man is the sole means of our justification…
Salvation requires Orthodox faith, a desire to live according to the commandments, and repentance of sins. Thus, salvation has already been received. All our sins are washed away from us [in baptism], and the ancestral decay that originated with the first man is destroyed: the evil that is stored up in our souls is obliterated…Salvation must be assimilated.
Hence, Orthodoxy includes both justification and the assimilation of salvation attained at the time of justification. This “assimilation” (normatively) begins with baptism for the Orthodox and proceeds as our the transformation into Christ via the means Saint Filaret of Moscow spoke of. In 2017, Archbishop Michael of New York, a gentleman I’ve had the honor of speaking with several times, taught the following on the subject:
Baptism is not an act of magic. The great mystery which the Holy Spirit accomplishes in Baptism becomes part of one’s consciousness only through “synergy” – literally, working together with God – on the part of the baptized person. In order for the baptized individual to truly attain the image of Christ, to really become a Christian, a whole lifetime in the Church is needed. During this lifetime of faith, the action of Christ and the Holy Spirit in cooperation with the baptized person can gradually penetrate into all the nooks and crannies of the Christian believer’s heart and soul, body and spirit.
In short, the sacrament of baptism becomes efficacious by living out our baptism by faith. Hence, we need to “own” the sacraments by a sincere faith. This does not make sacraments the sole means of salvation, because in fact they cannot be. However, the sacraments are the normative means which we husband our faith along with the mortification of the flesh and a sincere devotion to God.
Finally, now I can answer your question. You ask how “one’s sins become cleansed through the partaking of the Eucharist?” The answer would be that our sins have already been entirely cleansed by our faith in Christ, which makes our baptism efficacious. The Eucharist, therefore, is an additional means of conforming ourselves to God which makes the atonement increasingly applicable to us, just like Godly suffering and mortifying our flesh. We are “heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him” (Rom 8:17). Our inheritance of salvation through the atonement depends not only upon redemptive suffering, but the whole life of God in us.
This sounds nuts, and I can only tell you from experience, but the Eucharist is the chief means of attaining to the life of God, though not the only one. Many of us may have half-hearted repentances, pitiful prayer lives, and divided minds–but with the simple desire to draw closer to God, the Eucharist is like a spiritual performance enhancer. It opens a whole new world of faith which I honestly think cannot be understood apart from experience. Perhaps, imagine one own’s “born again” experience and reliving that on a frequent basis.
- Is it [communing and attaining forgiveness of sins] a continuous endeavor?
In one sense, yes–but it is in a sense you already agree with. Saint James speaks of the sacrament of confession in the following way: “if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven” (James 5:15). Saint John says the same thing: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). I am sure you agree that there is some sense we are continually forgiven sins. Otherwise, praying “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” would be superfluous.
But, it’s not that the Eucharist, confession, or any other sacrament is “the magic bullet.” The whole life of God (the sacraments, the mortification of the flesh, and sincere faith in Christ) are 1. all one of the same and 2. in all of their manifestation magic bullets. Saint Peter writes, “love will cover a multitude of sins” (1 Pet 4:8). Saint Paul writes, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but faith working through love” (Gal 5:6). Faith working through love is the sole means of our salvation.
So, communing is simply abiding in love. This continual faith forgives sins and the literal action of communing, and the experience of Christ in us by communing, is part of this living faith.
I will not go into detail, but Orthodoxy is not legalistic about this. If you die before communing on Sunday, or before confessing a sin, or before manifesting one’s repentance (but one has resolved to repent, he just has not brought it to completion), we do not stand condemned. We must be careful not to look at the sacraments as check boxes we must fill in. God is not a check box.
- Depending upon your answer, how does this differ from the argument the author of Hebrews makes when he distinguishes the new covenant sacrifice from the old sacrifices that had to be repeated and brought a reminder of sins?
I will answer briefly. It differs because the Old Testament sacrifices 1. never cleansed sins (they pointed to how we are cleansed) and 2. had to be repeated. Let’s review the Orthodox prayer which began our conversation:
The Lord of old for our sake made like unto us once offered Himself as an offering to His Father, and is ever slain, sanctifying them that partake.
Jesus Christ is only sacrificed once. He is “ever slain” because just like we may call a “paschal lamb” a “sacrificed lamb” or simply a “sacrifice,” Jesus Christ is also a sacrifice, the “lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” However, unlike the Old Testament sacrifices, Jesus Christ did not stay dead. He despoiled death and Hades by His resurrection. And so, He forever remains a sacrifice but He is a different category–He is a resurrected “sacrificed lamb.” So, the Eucharist cannot re-sacrifice Christ, but rather mysteriously “brings down” the sacrificed flesh and blood of Christ to us from His resurrected Body (see Saint Ignatius’ Epistle to the Smyrnaeans, Chapter 7 and Decree 17 of Council of Jerusalem).
In summation, the Eucharist is different than the Old Testament sacrifices, because there is just one sacrifice–one resurrected Body of Christ. We are not sacrificing different animals or killing Jesus Christ over and over again. We anachronistically have many opportunities to partake in His eternal Body which was sacrificed 2,000 years ago and consume Him.
- If you must continually partake in [the Eucharist in] order to reap the benefits, it removes the emphasis away from Christ (if even partially) and puts it upon man.
I know what you are saying and what you think, but let me answer in two ways. One, if you only consumed the Eucharist once (or not at all, like the thief on the cross, all the Old Testament saints, etcetera) that does not undo our sanctification in Christ presuming we are not willfully avoiding fellowship with God in the plethora of opportunities for flesh mortification, sacraments, suffering, and prayer that He gives us.
Second, Jesus Christ Himself said “unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood you have no life in you.” So, just like we do not pray once in the normal Christian life, and this does not take away the emphasis from Christ, neither do we normally commune only once.
- Is it faith in Christ’s finished work on our behalf alone that justifies or is it those things [what things?-Craig] plus our continual partaking of the Eucharist?
Within the Western paradigm, it is the latter. But, the Western paradigm in wrong. Because, in the Biblical paradigm, this one Man’s death and resurrection is by faith (not according to me, I am quoting Father Sysoev) “the sole means of our justification,” but (these are my words) we must continually participate in this faith. We can’t just stop having faith and be saved. One cannot stop communing and avoid the life of God and claim he is participating in the faith.
- It seems that the Orthodox are trying to make the two things one and the same and I just don’t see it anywhere in scripture with regards to justification or how one is made right with God.
It is my hope and prayer that by unpacking the massive topic of sacramental theology in the preceding, quoting Orthodox authorities and the Scriptures, that you may see how this is “in Scripture” and that I am not twisting Orthodox theology.
I think the main hurdle for you is that the Western paradigm turns salvation into a set of rules–something Christ came to correct. We are not saved by legalism. However, are we saved by participating in the life of God? Of course, we must be–there is no other way we can be saved.
I will conclude by quoting Piper in the affirmative: “we are finally saved through…a real change in our hearts and minds and lives without which we will not see the Lord.”
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