You may have wondered what the Orthodox Christian teaching of salvation is. To paint with a broad brush, the Protestant answer is that we are justified by “faith alone.” The Roman Catholic view may be roughly approximated to “faith and good works.” What is the Orthodox view? How similar is it to either the preceding competing views?

What is justification?

“Justification” in the Greek is very similar to its meaning in English. It can mean:

  • Being declared “just,” such as in a court of law.
  • Being seen as just, or in other words “vindicated” in the sight of others.
  • Actually being just, such as a someone who
  • is just in his dealings.

As a subset of actually being just, we may speak of something once being not just and then being made just. This is usually within the context of correcting oneself or something else. For example, we speak of “justifying margins” when using a word processor.

None of these meanings are esoteric in either Greek or English. Someone can be declared, seen, or simply be just. In all of the preceding, the term “righteous” can be used in a way synonymous with “just.” The only seeming exception to the preceding is “correcting oneself,” but in English we do use the term “right” to mean the same thing (i.e. “righting” a wrong).

The reason the preceding should not surprise us is because the Greek word “just” and “righteous” are exactly the same. To be “justified” is the same as being “righteousfied.” This is important to point out, because if one were to be made just in an actual way, he was in effect made actually righteous. Due to the term “righteous” not being a strict legal terminology like “just,” it is more difficult to limit its meaning as is often done with the word “just.”

The Protestant View of Justification

Before we apply the preceding to Biblical examples, let’s discuss why these meanings are relevant to the issue at hand. It would seem unexceptional to presume that a term in Greek, with a range of meaning the same as its English equivalent, should be interpreted with the same range of meaning. However, it is worth pointing out that in common parlance in the West, the Protestant view of justification is often assumed.

When one presupposes upon the Protestant definition of justification, what occurs is that in theological discourse only half the range of meaning is actually discussed. Specifically, Protestants believe that justification in the Scriptures only has a “forensic” (i.e. judicial or legal) meaning.

Reformed Protestant theologian Francis Turretin, puts it succinctly:

Is the word Justification always used in a forensic sense in this argument, or also in a moral and physical? The former we affirm, the latter we deny… (Forensic Justification, Introduction)

The late R.C. Sproul, an anti-ecumenist Reformed Protestant which all would consider as an authentic representative of his theological tradition, defends this view:

Justification is forensic, which means that it is legal. We are declared just in God’s courtroom because Jesus lived an obedient life and paid the penalty for our sins. We receive this justification by faith alone, because there are no good deeds we can do to earn it. Because justification is wholly by faith, apart from any good works of ours, we are simultaneously just and yet sinners. Sinfulness still resides in us, yet we are cleared in God’s courtroom. (Liogner.com)

Sproul’s definition makes the Protestant view clear. Man is not declared just in “God’s courtroom” because man is vindicated before God in some way. Man is justified “by faith alone” as any just verdict cannot be “earn[ed]” by “good deeds.” Because of this, Christians “are simultaneously just and yet sinners,” merely imputed as righteous but in fact sinful and not actually righteous.

How could God truthfully declare someone as righteous without being a liar in such a system? God declares a Christian righteous because man, by faith in Christ, has a kind of righteousness: “imputed righteousness.” Hence, man contains a seemingly invented kind of righteousness. “Imputed righteousness” is simply righteousness given by God to man’s account. This means man does not really have righteousness that belongs to him, but he does have righteousness imputed (i.e. credited) to him. According to Sproul:

When Paul develops the doctrine of justification by faith alone, he is saying that when God counts somebody righteous on the basis of faith, it is not because He looks at them and sees that they are inherently righteous. Rather, they have been clothed by the imputation, or transfer, of the righteousness of Christ to that person by faith. This is why we say that the single meritorious cause of our salvation is the transfer, or counting, of Jesus’ righteousness for me. (Liogner.com)

“Imputed righteousness,” with its transfer of righteousness from God’s “treasury of merits” to man’s, has obvious financial and legal undertones. A simple illustration of this is a rich lady marrying a poor tramp with a terrible credit report, but after the marriage the tramp’s credit is now good as his joint assets with the rich lady. This makes him in the eyes of the creditors “rich.” In the same sense, Protestant soteriology (i.e. theory of salvation) teaches that men are sinful “tramps,” but the riches of Christ’s righteousness are credited to the tramp. The tramp is never actually wealthy, but he has full access to Christ’s “bank account of righteousness.”

An astute observer may perceive that the Protestant view intellectually developed from the Roman Catholic view of a “treasury of merits” which through good works, almsgiving, and other means men can acquire other people’s (or God’s) goodness through the mediation of the Roman Catholic Church. This is often called the system of “indulgences,” where man is made righteous via “vicarious merit.” Thinkers such as Martin Luther, who began the Protestant Reformation in opposition to the preceding view, simply cut out the middleman and all the saints, getting right to the Source. We will leave this issue aside for now, but merely point it out for the sake of helping one situate the historical context of how the idea of “imputed righteousness” arose.

The preceding poses us important questions. Do the Scriptures, the Protestants’ only undisputed upon source of religious tradition and authority, teach a solely “forensic” view of justification in which only ”imputed righteousness” enables man to be declared just by God?

Scriptural Usages of the Term “Just”

It should not surprise us that the full range of meaning for the term “just” can be found in the Gospels alone, let alone the entirety of the Scriptures. For example, the idea of being “declared just,” most closely approximated to the forensic view of justification, can be found in passages such as the following: 

  • For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned. (Matt 12:37)
  • And when all the people heard Him, even the tax collectors justified God, having been baptized with the baptism of John. (Luke 7:29)

In both of the preceding, it is clear that something or someone is being declared as just. Words will result in people being justified and condemned in one example. In the other, God Himself is declared as just. What is interesting in both undisputable examples of declarative justification is that with those who are declared just, it is done so with good reason. Men are declared just because of correctly spoken words—something they did. God is declared just as a recognition of His gracious forgiveness of the penitent. What we cannot find in such examples is an “imputed righteousness.”

We also have examples of “just” being used in the sense of the term “vindicated.” For example:

  • ‘Look, a glutton and a winebibber, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ But wisdom is justified by her children. (Matt 11:19) 
  • But he, wanting to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29)
  • And He said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is highly esteemed among men is an abomination in the sight of God.” (Luke 16:15)

The preceding would not be inconsistent with Protestant soteriology, so we will not belabor the part further.

Nevertheless, we also see the term “just” being used to speak of the intrinsic moral quality of people. In other words, these people are not judged as righteous because it is merely imputed to them, but they are actually righteous:

  • He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. (Matt 5:45)
  • So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come forth, separate the wicked from among the just. (Matt 13:49)
  • Now behold, there was a man named Joseph [of Arimathea], a council member, a good and just man. (Luke 23:50)

We also have a passage where it is not clear how the righteous person is “justified.” For example:

  • I tell you, this man [the Publican] went down to his house justified rather than the other [the Pharisee]; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted. (Luke 18:14)

A Protestant may read the preceding passage and conclude that the Publican is just because of no righteousness of his own, but rather because God imputed righteousness to him due to his faith. At the same time, the Orthodox Christian would see that God declared the Publican just because his humility is evidence of profound sanctity and is actually righteous.

Before asserting the Orthodox interpretation of Luke 18:14 is correct, it may help to read an illustration that Saint Nicolai of Zica gives of a similar episode.

Humility is Righteous in the Eyes of God

In the Prologue of Ochrid, Saint Nicolai has a reflection for each day of the year. On October 18, his reflection was in fact a story:

Can a sinner repent of his sins in ten days? According to the immeasurable compassion of God he can. During the reign of Emperor Maurice, there was a well-known bandit in the vicinity of Constantinople. He inspired fear and trembling both within the capital and without. One day, the Emperor Maurice himself sent the robber a cross as a sign of faith that he would do him no harm if he surrendered. The robber took the cross and surrendered. Arriving in Constantinople, he fell before the feet of the emperor and begged for forgiveness. The emperor kept his word, had mercy on him and released him. Immediately after that, the robber became gravely ill and sensed that death was drawing near. He bitterly repented of all his sins and tearfully prayed to God that He forgive him, as the emperor had forgiven him. He shed so many tears at prayer that his handkerchief was completely soaked. After ten days of weeping and praying, the repentant man reposed. The same night he passed away, his physician saw a wondrous vision in a dream: when the robber had given up his soul, there gathered around him black, manlike demons with pieces of paper on which were written all his sins. Two radiant angels also appeared. The angels set a scale between them, and the joyful demons placed all those papers on it, weighing down their side of the scale; but the other side was empty. The angels held counsel: “What shall we place on it? Let us seek something good in his life!” And then that handkerchief soaked with tears of repentance appeared in the hands of one angel. The angels quickly placed it on their side of the scale and it outweighed all the demons’ papers. Then the black demons fled, howling sorrowfully, and the angels took the soul of the repentant thief and carried it to Paradise, glorifying the man-loving God. (October 18)

As we can see, the wicked works of the bandit’s are kept as “papers,” similar to the books of all the condemned men’s wicked deeds spoken of in Rev 20:12. Yet, all of these wicked deeds were outweighed by the bandit’s contrition. Hence, Orthodox believe that when “we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad,” (2 Cor 5:10) that the sincere repentance of the Thief on the Cross and other humble men are judged accordingly. They have done “well” as “good and faithful servants” (Matt 25:21) and are rewarded with Paradise.

After all, God does not need our good works. Elihu reminds us, “If you are righteous, what do you give him?” (Job 35:7) This is why we are saved by grace through faith, not of works so no one may boast. (c.f. Eph 2:8-9) Pride ruins a lifetime of good works as humility brings salvation to one with a lifetime of wickedness. Saint Nicolai illustrates this in another reflection:

[A]n old ascetic and renown spiritual father was dying and he called for a priest to administer Holy Communion to him. Along the way a robber joined the priest and desired to see for himself how a holy man dies. The holy elder peacefully received Holy Communion and peacefully talked with the priest. The robber then wept and said: “Blessed are you! Alas, what kind of death will I be worthy of?” The holy elder suddenly became proud and responded to him: “Be as I am and it will be to you as it is to me!” The robber returned along the road weeping all the time and lamenting over himself and, at that moment, dropped dead. Then the people saw a “fool for Christ” as he weeps over the holy elder and dances and sings over the robber. When he was asked the reason for this, he replied: “By the pride of that one [the elder] he lost all merits; the repentance of this one [the robber] he reaped all the fruits.” (June 26)

Hence, Orthodoxy teaches that if good works do not husband actual Christlikeness in an individual, they are mere “filthy rags.” (Is 64:6) Yet, unlike the Protestant paradigm which would assert that God sees nothing actually righteous in the humble individual, Orthodoxy affirms common sense and upholds that true faith and humility are indeed righteous. And God, being righteous, judges the faithful accordingly.

Saint Paul’s Teaching on Justification

While unpacking Saint Paul’s view of justification from a single book of his may take a book of its own, for our purposes here we will simply review some highlights from an Orthodox perspective. Many Protestants will assert that Saint Paul has a view of forensic justification. After all, consider the following from Saint Paul from a Protestant perspective:

Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin. (Rom 3:20)

Good works cannot commend us to God, the Law only makes us aware of sin.

[A]ll have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (Rom 3:23-26)

Some may object that the Law might not make Christians righteous, but good works still do. No! For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Their justification is freely by God’s grace and is not determined by works, but by the propitiatory sacrifice of Jesus Christ through faith. This demonstrates God’s righteousness, not ours, and so God is the just and justified. Not man.

Some may still object that the preceding is out of context, as Paul is critiquing the Jewish view of salvation and that the works of the Law are the only works under dispute. However, Paul gives a case study for what he just taught that disallows such a critique:

What then shall we say that Abraham our father has found according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt. But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness. (Rom 4:1-5)

As we can see, Abraham was not justified by works, but rather by faith. The Law did not exist. The reason he was not justified by works was so there would be nothing to boast about, because justification by works would indebt God to man. And so, God justifies him who does not work but believes in Him. This faith, and not works, is accounted/credited/imputed as righteousness. Hence, “imputed righteousness” is how man is justified. This is why, “David also describes the blessedness of the man to whom God imputes righteousness apart from works.” (Rom 4:6) God credits righteousness irrespective of good works, of the Law or otherwise.

How are Orthodox to respond to this? A simplistic critique as posed beforehand fails, as Paul’s overall argument disallows for it. We have to, in brief, look at what the Scriptures teach about Abraham and David and apply this to Paul’s teaching.

Concerning Abraham, Saint James surmises that “faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:17). Abraham did not have dead faith, but “perfect” faith. He was vindicated by his works.

Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect? And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” And he was called the friend of God. You see then that a man is justified [i.e. “vindicated”] by works, and not by faith only. (James 2:22-24)

Saint Cyril of Alexandria explains the passage in this way:

What can we say to those who insist that Abraham was justified by works because he was ready to sacrifice his son Isaac at the altar?…Abraham piously believed that all things are possible with God and so exercised this faith…So even if Abraham was also justified by his willingness to sacrifice Isaac, this must be regarded as an evident demonstration of a faith which was already very strong (Explanation of the Letter to the Romans, quoted in Ancient Christian Commentary on the Scripture, New Testament VI, p. 110).

Saint Clement of Rome likewise surmised that term “justified” in James 2 pertained to “vindication:”

Abraham, who was called the friend of God [James 2:23], was found faithful [1 Macc 2:52 or Sir 44:20], inasmuch as he rendered obedience to the words of God…and in the exercise of obedience, he offered him as a sacrifice to God on one of the mountains which He showed him (1 Clement, Chapter 10).

For what reason was our father Abraham blessed? Was it not because he wrought righteousness and truth through faith? Isaac, with perfect confidence, as if knowing what was to happen, cheerfully yielded himself as a sacrifice (1 Clement, Chapter 31).

The “vindication” reading of James 2 is rare in the modern day theological debate due to Roman Catholic apologetics, but the fathers would have been faithful to 1 Macc 2:52 which states:

Was not Abraham found faithful when tested, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness?

As well as Sir 44:20 which likewise states:

[H]e was found faithful in testing…

In fact, we can see that Clement was citing either of the preceding passages alongside James.

Read in this light, one realizes James is not arguing that “faith and works” justify in the sense that both give merits to man and thereby demand salvation in recompense from God. If this were true, what would “the blessedness of the man to whom God imputes righteousness apart from works” be?

Rather, we can see that God justifies man by grace through faith, but this faith is “by works perfected.” In layman’s terms, works are faith performance-enhancers which give to man the sort of faith that actually saves. In Abraham’s case, according to Saint Paul:

By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac. He who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son, of whom he had been told, “It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named for you.” He considered the fact that God is able even to raise someone from the dead—and figuratively speaking, he did receive him back. (Heb 11:17-19)

Hence, the sacrifice of Isaac provided Abraham the opportunity to exercise his faith in God’s ability to raise the dead—a central tenet of the Gospel.

How about in the case of David that Rom 4 speaks of? David is quoted as saying:

Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, And whose sins are covered; Blessed is the man to whom the Lord shall not impute sin. (Rom 4:7-8; c.f. LXX Psalm 31:1-2)

What kind of faith is God imputing man with righteousness apart from works? One merely needs to continue reading David’s Psalm:

Because I kept silence, my bones waxed old, from my crying all the day. For day and night thy hand was heavy upon me: I became thoroughly miserable while a thorn was fastened in [me]. I acknowledged my sin, and hid not mine iniquity: I said, I will confess mine iniquity to the Lord against myself; and thou forgavest the ungodliness of my heart. (Ps 31:3-5 LXX)

As we can see, the blessedness of the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin comes from tearful repentance. Hence, the kind of faith that Saint Nicolai of Zica spoke of in the above illustrations is being invoked. It is a faith of genuine love and contrition, containing an actual righteousness.

Conclusion

Now, let’s return to Luke 18:14, which speaks of the Publican going home justified instead of the Pharisee. Clearly the contrition of the Publican is akin to that of David. Just as a lifetime of merits can be lost due to pride, so also a lifetime of merits can be acquired by tearful repentance. Good works, such as Abraham’s, perfect this sort of faith. This is why Saint Paul taught:

For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but faith working through love. (Gal 5:6)

Faith must contain something tangible, that is good works (i.e. “love”), or it is dead. It must work through love and good works to avail anything, for “even the demons believe—and tremble” (James 2:19). Mere belief is insufficient. Demonic faith cannot be salvific.

So, when answering the Protestant objection to the Orthodox view of justification, it was important for us to begin with “breaking” the Protestant paradigm of Forensic Justification. Having done this, in our next part we will cover the conciliar and patristic teaching of the Orthodox Church on justification and how it authentically communicates the holistic view of the Scriptures’ teaching on the subject.