Orthodoxy and Justification by Faith

Theodore Stylianopoulos on responding to the evangelical understanding of conversion, justification, and works, but you will have to go to the site to see the full exposition that sets the stage for these conclusions:

Let us sum up the main points.  The work of salvation belongs entirely to God.  It is God through Christ and the Holy Spirit, who has the divine power to rescue us from the forces of sickness, evil, sin, death, and the devil.  It is God through Christ and the Holy Spirit who alone provides justification, forgiveness, and new life to sinners who come to Him with faith.  And God provides salvation as a most amazing and unceasing gift to all sincere seekers.

From our side, the question is about receiving and using the gift of salvation.  The gift is offered, but if we do not receive it, we don’t have it, and certainly cannot use it.  God offers the gift.  We can choose to accept it or reject it.  As Orthodox Christians we do not believe in predestination.  Jesus said:  “Whoever wants to come after me, let him take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34).  The gift and the challenge to follow Jesus through a life of faith and works coincide.

The reception of the gift of salvation is not a one-time event but a life-time process.  St. Paul employs the verb “to save” (sozesthai) in the past tense (“we have been saved,” Rom 8:24; Eph 2:5); in the present tense (“we are being saved,” 1 Cor 1:18; 15:2), and in the future tense (“we will be saved,” Rom 5:10).  He can think even of justification as a future event and part of the final judgment (Rom 2:13, 16).  For Paul, Christians are involved in a lifetime covenant with God in which we work, planting and watering, but it is “only God who gives the growth” (1 Cor 3:7).  We are “co-workers with God” (synergoi Theou, 1 Cor 3:9; 1 Thess 3:2). (Not “co-workers underGod” as some translations would have it).  The mystery of salvation is a duet, not a solo.  It is a life-time engagement with God.  It has ups and downs, twists and turns, with opportunities to grow in the love of God, knowing that we can turn to Him again and again and receive forgiveness and a new birth.  When we come to Christ as sinners, we have no works to offer to Him, but only faith and repentance.  But once we come to Him and receive the gift of salvation, we enter into a sacred covenant to honor Him with good works.  We read in Ephesians:  “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God . . . [We are] created in Christ Jesus for good works” (Eph 2:8-10).

The teaching of the New Testament is that God’s grace, our free will, and our faith and good works, are intimately connected.  The Holy Spirit energizes in us both faith and good works as we thirst for and seek God’s grace.  Neither faith nor good works can be presented as merit before God, but only as return gifts in humility, love, and thanksgiving.  Let us not forget as well the sober words of James: “Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead . . . Faith is completed by works . . . A person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:17, 22, 24).  By free will, faith, and earnest labors, we work together with the grace of God in the awesome gift and mystery of salvation.  As St. Paul puts it:  “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling;  for God is at work in you, both to will and to work His good pleasure” (Phil 2:12-13).  To God Almighty, together with the Son and the Holy Spirit, be praise and worship forever.  Amen.

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  • Phil Miller

    I have some close friends who are Orthodox (one’s a deacon who went to orthodox seminary, actually), I’ve attended quite a number of Orthodox services, and I’ve read a bit of Orthodox writings. Not that I claim to be an expert, or that I would ever try to speak for them, but the one thing that seems to be rather consistent, at least from my perspective, is that the Orthodox view sin more as a sickness that afflicts us rather than a wrong we commit against God. It’s not a pure dichotomy, but I think it holds for a lot of things.

    So if sin is a sickness that Christ is healing us from, it bears to reason that yes, we are in fact powerless to heal ourselves, but yet there are things we can do that prevent us from partaking in the healing. If we look at analogies in the physical world, it isn’t much different than a person who has a curable disease but refuses to take the medicine or seek treatment. When a person does choose to take the medicine, we don’t say that he was healed by his own effort, of course. He was simply walking the path laid out for him to receive healing.

    To me, this sort of view makes a lot of sense. It seems to bypass a lot of questions that the more Reformed understandings of justification and sin lead to.

  • John

    Thanks for this report and link, Scot. Very helpful !! Lots of stuff here for important conversations, study and learning. Clearly, we evangelicals must move outside our “comfort zone” and engage with Christians and the traditions of their thought and theology.

  • josh carney

    if i ever quit being a baptist pastor, I’m converting

  • EricW

    “St. Paul employs the verb “to save” (sozesthai) in the past tense (“we have been saved,” Rom 8:24; Eph 2:5);”

    Actually in Ephesians 2:5 it’s the periphrastic perfect participle – which could indicate a completed state.

  • Dan

    This Orthodox view is 100% consistent with the Catholic view (the two are very close theologically), for the record.

  • Scott E

    @Dan #7 – I’m not sure that’s true. Western Christians tend to think in terms of merit. One of the things that separates Catholic and Protestant theology is how they understand merit – mostly whose merit matters most. Orthodox Christians do not think in these categories. This is foreign to their theology. Even in the article itself the author said, “Neither faith nor good works can be presented as merit before God, but only as return gifts in humility, love, and thanksgiving.” This does not seem to me at all consistent with Catholic theology.

  • Scott E

    Oops! That should have been @Dan #5. Sorry.

  • Percival

    It’s funny how looking at this, many of us see our own soteriology reflected back at us. A Catholic sees Catholicism, a Baptist is almost ready to convert, and I see my Methodist roots. I wonder who really would object to this summary other than Calvinists.

  • Dan, looking at the image in the article clearly indicates the Orthodox and the Catholic Churches’ similarity, but reading the post makes me alienate the two, as the Orthodox’ view of salvation sounds to me closer to that of the Evangelical Church’s view rather than that of the of the Catholic.

  • Dave

    Percival #8 I was thinking along the same lines. Laying aside the possible differences that Phil #1 has mentioned, this seems very consistent with many of the Methodist authors I’ve read. I know Ben Witherington uses the same phraseology for the tenses of salvation quite often.

    I also thought, as you, that the only people I know who would reject this outright are Calvinists. Other traditions I’ve interacted with would maybe disagree on certain nuances.

  • Rick

    Dave and Percival-

    There is a good paper in the Asbury Theological Journal that can be found at the Duke Divinity School website, titled “John Wesley and Eastern Orthodoxy: Influences, Convergences, and Differences”, by Randy L. Maddox. Soteriology is one of the topics covered.

  • Tim

    Percival #8 and Dave #10, I’m a Calvinist and there is much in the Orthodox summary I agree with. Try not to paint with too broad a brush, please.


  • Percival

    I will try to shrink my brush. Now I suppose only a few Muslims and atheists would disagree with the summary. Maybe that’s a little too shrunk.

  • John Loppnow

    I’m interested in how Orthodox view atonement. Penal substitutionary atonement specifically.

  • Val

    I am wondering too.

    I like the Orthodox view of atonement. The Christ Ransom theory just fits the NT so much better, for me, than the Penal sub. atonement theory does. Not sure what the difference is between Christ Ransom and Christus Victor, or if the E.O. Church sees it or accepts it.

    Do they accept Penal sub. atonement? I don’t find the two theories that compatible, others say there is barely a difference between the two, or both can describing various aspects of what happened on the Cross, but I think one theory would nullify the other theory.

  • Derek DeVries


    These audio podcasts offer an Orthodox view on atonement:

    Recovering the Scandal of the Cross




  • Dave

    Tim #12. Maybe I paint with too broad a brush for all Calvinists out there, I don’t know. I do, however, attend a reformed/Calvinist church (though I’m not a Calvinist myself) and so I know those in our church leadership would reject much of this outright. That is, unless it is so heavily reinterpreted as to mean different things.

    The whole thrust of the article’s description of salvation being a process, “a duet, not a solo,” the tenses of salvation, and the idea that you can choose to accept it or reject it would be antithetical to the view of salvation held by the Calvinists at my church.

    Bottom line, if I am guilty of painting with too broad a brush, I apologize. My intent was not to be negative towards Calvinists however, just to point out differences. After all, I attend a church full of them and consider them my brothers and sisters in Christ.

  • Phil Miller

    Val, #15 Regarding the Orthodox view of atonement, I think historically, the Christus Victor model aligns quite well with how salvation is portrayed in the Orthodox Church. If you ever have the opportunity to attend a Pascha (Easter) liturgy, you’ll see the whole idea as Christ the conquerer of sin, death, and satan front and center. Perhaps the Orthodox view could be summed up by the Easter hymn, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and on those in the tombs bestowing life!”.

    As I mentioned earlier, I think if we start thinking of sin in terms of sickness or something that causes a break in relationship between man and God, we’ll be on a track that leads us to a different view of salvation and atonement. I also will add I think we need to be careful about saying something is “the” orthodox view. There’s quite a bit of diversity in orthodox theology when it comes to these discussions. You won’t find statements of faith in bulletins at Orthodox Churches (other than the Creed). But I do think that you’d find that most Orthodox Christians don’t find a penal substitution model of the atonement very helpful.

    This video is a good, short summary: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WosgwLekgn8

  • Jerry

    Dave, Percival and Rick–spot on regarding the Methodist connection. I was once at a training conference with an Othodox priest and got to discussing the Wesleyan concept of sanctification. He said, “Sounds like theosis to me.”

  • Dana Ames

    Thanks, Phil. The only thing I would disagree with is that there is not “quite a bit of diversity in Orthodox theology” about salvation/atonement. There only seems to be diversity, but it is not really diversity- it is that “salvation” – as EOrthodoxy understands it – is so much BIGGER than PSA (which EOrthodox reject, not simply find unhelpful). It encompasses *all* of those other views (except PSA) and so much else, so Orthodoxy speaks of all those other views, not in contrast to one another, but as they each and all are aspects of “salvation.” And, pace Scot, the overarching crown of everything, what gives every point its meaning and surpasses them all, is indeed Pascha/Christus Victor. As Fr. Stephen Freeman writes, “Christ did not come to make bad people good, but to make dead people live.” The ontologic problem has been solved; all else falls into place. A good short treatment is by K. Ware, “How Are We Saved? The Understanding of Salvation in the Orthodox Tradition.”

    Finally, if anyone wants to know “the Orthodox view,” it will not be found in theology books produced by a teaching magisterium (we don’t have one), or the canons, of which there are actually very few. It is found in the words of the services, which fill nearly 3 dozen volumes of various thicknesses. If you want to know what “the Orthodox view” of the Incarnation is, read through the texts from the vigil service for Christmas or the Annunciation. Likewise, if you want to know “the Orthodox view” of what happened on the cross, read through the Vespers of Repentance which begin Lent, the Bridegroom services of the first 3 days of Holy Week, and of course the Vespers and Matins of Holy Friday. As for the meaning of the Resurrection, the services for Holy Saturday are positively aquiver with what is about to happen! And then, of course there is Pascha…

    So in Orthodoxy, it really is lex orendi, lex credendi.


  • Phil Miller

    Thank you for your corrections. I think if I was less forceful about my assertions than I should have been, it’s only because I don’t want to overstep in trying to speak for the EO side. I’m not EO myself, but it is something that has captivated me for a while. When it comes to salvation and atonement, especially, it seems to me these are things the EO church has had right, well, for a long, long time.

  • Dana Ames

    Thanks, Phil. I too have to guard myself against overstepping, for other reasons…



  • scotmcknight

    And Dana, how does one reduce Orthodoxy to Latin expressions?!!!

  • Steve Robinson

    The problem with “soteriologies” is that they all overlap and have some metaphorical bases in Scripture. I think the issue is when one metaphor becomes the overarching definition and dividing line, which the pen-sub view has become in Western protestant fundamentalism. The Orthodox has no issue with pen-sub as ONE metaphor of salvation, but it does have an issue with it as a “dogmatic assertion” about how salvation works because it ultimately makes God the Father a pagan “Volcano god” that demands sacrifice to be appeased of his wrath against those who offend him. As mentione, the Christus Victor model fits more closely with the Orthodox view. For a more in depth discussion of the Orthodox view of “synergy” and the cooperation of man/God and the meaning of “grace” I’d recommend http://www.ourlifeinchrist.com and the series on RELICS. Relics are the tangible evidence of the truth of synergy and the Orthodox view of grace.

  • Dana Ames

    Scot, all I meant was that I can’t go with your “bouquet view” of all atonement metaphors being equal, or your “golf club” view that even allows for “specialization.”

    Even before I was considering seeking reception into EO, reading the Apostolic Fathers made a deep impression on me. Among that 2nd generation of Christians, PSA is not even mentioned. If PSA is what Paul is intending to describe anywhere in the Epistles, why wasn’t that that teaching in the writings over the next couple of hundred years that were recognized as orthodox? (little o intended) Nope. There was some discussion of ransom, to be sure, and even a bit of of substitution, but CV always rises to the top as the rationale for even those.

    I could be wrong. You have the advantage of being able to read all that in Greek. But, I cannot live within a theological framework that includes “penal.” Just can’t. It divides the Trinity to the breaking point for me, and also what Steve @24 said re the Father.


  • I should have pursued my seminary studies, I could hardly decipher some theological terms you’ve all been mentioning here 🙂