There is a perceived debate among Orthodox over what system of the atonement we believe in and how Christ acted as a substitute on behalf of sinful man on the cross.
However, there should not even be a debate. The Church’s most explicit and authoritative teaching on the subject is found in Saint Filaret of Moscow’s Longer Catechism, which states succinctly:
[I]n 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…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 3:10)…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. (Questions 208-210)
The elements of the preceding can be summed up as follows:
-Mankind is sinful and liable to death “in Adam.” As we learned elsewhere, through Adam we have inherited gnomic willing and therefore corruptibility and death, because these things cut us off from the vivifying grace (energies) of God.
-Christ’s “voluntary suffering and death” in effect cancels death for those who must involuntarily die due to Adam’s sin (i.e. all of us; c.f. Sir 41:4). Jesus Christ, who could never die because He both never sinned and is the source of Life, voluntarily took upon what was not normally possible for Himself (see Saint Maximus on this subject here and here), thereby canceling the Law of Nature. To summarize, the “Law of Nature” is that man must inevitably die due to his tendency towards disobedience not permitting him to be vivified by God’s grace–something only perfect obedience allows. If One who is sinless and cannot die chooses death, then the ones who are sinful and must die without a choice are no longer inevitably going to die provided they are in Christ.
-The “voluntary suffering and death” of Christ is a “perfect satisfaction to the justice of God [the Father].” This is the most controversial passage in section, but it is not in reference to God the Father having a blood lust satisfied. Rather, it pertains to “the justice of God, which condemned us for sin to death.” Hence, satisfying the justice of God pertains to canceling the Law of Nature (“condemned us for sin to death”), specifically as detailed above.
-Christ’s “voluntary suffering and death” (and I personally would add, life) is for Christians, specifically, “a fund of infinite merit.” This is because it can only be tapped into by conforming oneself to Christ’s death by dying onto oneself (cf 1 Cor 15:31) through faith and mortification of the flesh. Hence, atonement is applied in proportion to one’s faith and good works.
The above paradigm as laid out by Filaret is foreign to so many Orthodox, because they have not seriously invested themselves into the all-important doctrine of the voluntary death of Jesus Christ. For those who want more details on this I recommend Jesus: Fallen by Father Emmanuel Hatzidakis as it is perhaps the most comprehensive treatment of this subject in history. (Use coupon code “Truglia” to save 10 percent on the purchase price.) This is something that, God willing, I will treat in more detail in the future.
The Importance of 1 Peter 2:24. Much of the preceding could be understood if we spend some time learning about how the fathers understood one verse of the Bible. Saint Peter taught succinctly that Jesus “bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness.” (1 Pet 2:24) There can be no doubt of a substitutionary atonement due to this verse. We can also surmise that, similar to Filaret, the bearing of sins makes it possible to “live for righteousness,” hence the Greek word “might live.”
The whole debate then seems to be over how exactly did Jesus bear sins in His body? To answer this question, we will allow the saints to interpret the saints.
First, let’s look at history’s earliest exegesis of the passage in Saint Polycarp’s Letter to the Philippians. Traditionally, he knew Saint John and other apostles personally, which lends credibility that he authentically preserved the Apostolic teaching of the atonement. He writes of the atonement as follows:
Let us then continually persevere in our hope, and the earnest of our righteousness, which is Jesus Christ, who bore our sins in His own body on the tree, 1 Peter 2:24 who did no sin, neither was guile found in His mouth, 1 Peter 2:22 but endured all things for us, that we might live in Him. 1 John 4:9 Let us then be imitators of His patience; and if we suffer Acts 5:41; 1 Peter 4:16 for His name’s sake, let us glorify Him. For He has set us this example 1 Peter 2:21 in Himself, and we have believed that such is the case. (Epistle to Philippians, Chap 8)
As we can see, Polycarp understands Christ’s bearing of sins as enduring “all things for us that we might live in Him.” We literally see him presupposing the model of the atonement we see fleshed out by Filaret. We also see Polycarp cite 1 Pet 2:22, which shows he is aware that Christ having no sin is specifically what makes the whole atonement possible. This, implicitly, is a reference to the Law of Nature.
Let’s proceed to a more lengthy treatment by Saint Ambrose of Milan. He was Saint Augustine’s great teacher in the fourth century and he writes the following in the first book of On the Holy Spirit:
Therefore do you also crucify sin, that you may die to sin; he who dies to sin lives to God; do you live to Him Who spared not His own Son, that in His body He might crucify our passions. For Christ died for us, that we might live in His revived Body. Therefore not our life but our guilt died in Him, Who, it is said, bare our sins in His own Body on the tree; that being set free from our sins we might live in righteousness, by the wound of Whose stripes we are healed. 1 Peter 2:24 (Par 109)
“Christ died for us that we might live in His revived Body” and “our guilt died in Him” appear to be Ambrose’s key passages for undersanding 1 Pet 2:24. Jesus Christ did not literally become a sinner on our behalf, but by voluntarily dying in our place He “killed” our guilt. The application of this, like Filaret, is that this makes it possible to live a resurrected life in union with Christ. Let’s allow Ambrose to continue explaining himself:
That wood of the cross is, then, as it were a kind of ship of our salvation, our passage, not a punishment, for there is no other salvation but the passage of eternal salvation. Whilst expecting death I do not feel it; while thinking little of punishment I do not suffer; while careless of fear I know it not. (Par 110)
In short, Ambrose is connecting the atonement to Christ’s admonition: “let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.” (Matt 16:24) He has no fear as long as he is following Christ, because of what the atonement accomplished.
Who, then, is He by the wound of Whose stripes we are healed but Christ the Lord? Of Whom the same Isaiah prophesied His stripes were our healing, Isaiah 53:5 of Whom Paul the Apostle wrote in his epistle: Who knew no sin, but was made sin for us. 2 Corinthians 5:21 This, indeed, was divine in Him, that His Flesh did no sin, nor did the creature of the body take in Him sin. For what wonder would it be if the Godhead alone sinned not, seeing It had no incentives to sin? But if God alone is free from sin, certainly every creature by its own nature can be, as we have said, liable to sin. (Par 111)
Ambrose gets into more explicit detail, asserting that “His Flesh did no sin, nor did the creature of the body take in Him sin.” Hence, bearing sins is not actually becoming a sinner, but taking upon the consequences of sinners. This is an important distinction, as it makes clear what the atonement is. It’s not a satisfication of blood lust where someone sinful must die because God is shaking in anger and can’t take sinfulness anymore. Rather, it is an intentional undoing of the Fall in Jesus Christ.
Adam had life and voluntarily lost it through sin, not knowing its natural consequences. Christ, under no obligation to corrupt and die because He is sinless, voluntarily assumed a corruptible body and death so that the punishment would be done away with. Death cannot destroy sinlessness, so Christ through assuming weakness was able to definitively defeat sin by dying and raising from the dead.
Lastly, a contemporary of Ambrose, Saint Cyril of Jerusalem, gives us a teaching on the atonement in light of 1 Pet 2:24:
For we were enemies of God through sin, and God had appointed the sinner to die. There must needs therefore have happened one of two things; either that God, in His truth, should destroy all men, or that in His loving-kindness He should cancel the sentence. But behold the wisdom of God; He preserved both the truth of His sentence, and the exercise of His loving-kindness. Christ took our sins in His body on the tree, that we by His death might die to sin, and live unto righteousness. 1 Peter 2:24 Of no small account was He who died for us; He was not a literal sheep; He was not a mere man; He was more than an Angel; He was God made man. The transgression of sinners was not so great as the righteousness of Him who died for them; the sin which we committed was not so great as the righteousness which He wrought who laid down His life for us — who laid it down when He pleased, and took it again when He pleased. (Catechetical Lecture 13, Par 33)
As we can see, the atonement “cancel[s] the sentence” of death. But how does God do so without becoming a liar, as He has said, “the soul that sins shall die?” (Ezek 18:20) Sinners must die because of transgression, therefore God speaks the truth when He punishes Adam with death. Yet, transgression’s penalty has been dealt with in Christ. “The transgression of sinners” was not greater than the infinite fund of merit, which is “the righteousness which He wrought.” Hence, the infinite sinlessness and righteousness of Christ cancels death when He both died and resurrected “when He pleased.” As we can see, the doctrine of Christ’s voluntary death is central to the atonement.
Conclusion. In the preceding, we have found that the Orthodox teaching on substitutionary atonement is not obscure. It borders on conciliar (as this is how Filaret’s catechism was treated in its time) and all of its important points were preserved since the earliest centuries of the Church. Christ, who was sinless and all-righteous, voluntarily took upon Himself the consequences of death, as the Law of Nature placed Him outside those consequences.
This, in effect, nullifies the Law of Nature. This Law is only nullified for those in Christ, as they have conformed themselves to the one who broke the Law, so that sin’s consequences would not affect those who “died” onto themselves and have lives “hidden with Christ in God.” (Col 3:3) They have died and resurrected with Christ in baptism, and by living out this baptismal reality are joined with Christ in escaping that Law. (cf Rom 6:4-10)
Orthodox specifically reject that Christ creaturely bore human sin or that He, in John Calvin’s words, had our “guilt imputed to Him.” Rather, He bore the consequences of sin, voluntarily. Hence, the atonement is not a satisfaction of the Father’s blood lust, but the attainment of justice. The Father in creating the universe did so by establishing the natural Law that through obedience man attains to Life and Theosis and through disobedience man through sin cuts himself off from the Godhead’s vivifying energies and consequently dies. Christ makes things right (i.e. attains justice) by providing a way for now fallen man to connect himself back to God’s divinizing and vivifying energies. Hence, the atonement is the literal undoing of death and the restoration of man to a state before the Fall where He is vivified permanently (in the eschaton) through God’s grace.
What are we to make of “other” models of the atonement like Christus Victor or the Ransom (to Satan) model? As we can see, these models of the atonement are the same, but merely emphasize individual aspects of the substitutionary model.
In the preceding, Christ indeed “triumph[s] over the evil powers” who have sown death in man “and establishes a [re]new[ed] relationship between God and the world,” as the Christus Victor model demands. Further, Jesus Christ, by voluntarily assuming the penalty of death, in effect “paid” a ransom to Satan. How so? Those who do evil “sell” themselves (1 Kings 21:20, MT) to Satan and by Christ saving these people, he “ransom[s]” them. (1 Tim 2:6). By taking upon Himself the consequences of evil for those who are owed death due to their “selling” of themselves to Satan, Jesus in effect “ransoms” them by giving Satan something far more valuable in exchange for those same men. Unknown to Satan, the fact that Christ broke “the Law of Nature” would force him to release his captives and Christ Himself. To quote Saint Maximus:
[T]he Lord placed His flesh around the fishhook of His divinity as a lure to deceive the devil, so that the insatiable, intelligible dragon would swallow it (since by nature the flesh is easily overcome) and thus be caught on the fishhook of the divinity, and, by virtue of the holy flesh of the Word that He took from us, would vomit out the whole of human nature that he had already consumed. (Questions of Thalassius, 64.20)
In closing, the Orthodox Church has been incredibly consistent and offers a doctrine of the atonement which actually answers how Christ’s death and resurrection truly conquers death and bestows life. The Church has done so without turning God into an arbitrary death dealer. In light of the preceding, one can easily surmise how western theories of the atonement miss the mark and why their debates rage on. Their theories are unsatisfying, unlike Orthodoxy’s, which has the matter settled and so does not dwell too much on it.
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