Since posting on my response to Evangelicals and the substitutionary atonement, I seem to have got involved in some discussions with some Evangelicals. I am still trying to work out whether this is a good thing or not, but it has prompted me to want to post something on Orthodox understandings of salvation. I recently listened to a lecture on “Salvation in Christ” by Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) of Diokleia. This was part of The Way course, (which I have been meaning to post about, but that will have to wait). In any case, it seemed like a worthwhile introduction to the topic of how salvation should be understood in Christian tradition and so I decided to summarise it and make it available here. Part of my motivation in doing so is that many western Christians, perhaps particularly in South Africa, seem to automatically identify salvation with the substitutionary atonement theory. Or, when they come to reject that, they move into something totally subjective. And if I can help to make people aware that the Tradition is actually broader and deeper than these rather sterile alternatives, then that will probably be a good thing. In any case, I’m posting this here. It’s long, but is worth reading….

Metropolitan Kallistos begins recounting a rather typical story of being asked “Are you saved?” by a man on a train. How is one to answer such a question? And how are we to understand Christian salvation?

He then proceeds by pointing out that the New Testament does not provide a single way of understanding the saving work of Christ, but rather “a whole series of images and symbols set side by side. They are symbols of profound meaning and power, yet for the most part they are not explained but left to speak for themselves.” He suggests that we should not isolate any one image of Christ’s work but should rather view them together. In this talk he will highlight possible models of salvation, but these are not exhaustive.

Underlying all six models is one fundamental truth, namely that “Jesus Christ, as our Saviour, has done something for us that we could not do alone and by ourselves. We cannot save ourselves; we need help. … We could not come to God, so He has come to us.”

Metropolitan Kallistos then proposes four questions to help us evaluate each model.

  1. Does it envisage a change in God or in us? “Some theories of Christ’s saving work seem to suggest that God is angry with us, and what Christ has done is to satisfy God’s anger. But that cannot be right. It is we who need changing, not God. As St. Paul said, ‘God was in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself” (2 Corinthians 5:19). It is the world that needs to be reconciled to God, not God to the world.”
  2. Does it separate Christ from the Father? “Some theories seem to suggest that God the Father is punishing Christ when He dies on the Cross. I remember as a student in Oxford hearing that great evangelical preacher Billy Graham say, “At the moment when Christ died on the Cross the lightning of God’s wrath hit him instead of you.” I didn’t find that a very happy way of thinking of Christ’s work. Surely we should not separate Christ from the Father in that kind of way, for they are one God, members of the Holy Trinity. As St Paul states, in the words that I quoted just now, ‘God was in Christ’. When Christ saves us, it is God who is at work in Him; there is no separation.”
  3. Does it isolate the cross from the Incarnation and the Resurrection? “We are to think of Christ’s life as a single unity. So we should not think only of the Cross, but we should think of what went before the Crucifixion, and of what comes after.”
  4. Does it presuppose an objective or a subjective understanding of Christ’s work? “Does Christ’s saving work merely appeal to our feelings, or did He do something to alter our objective situation in an actual and realistic way?”

Model 1: Teacher

First of all, we may think of Christ as teacher, as the one who reveals the truth to us, who brings light and disperses the dark of ignorance from our minds: ‘He was the true light that enlightens everyone coming into the world’ (John 1:9). He saves us by teaching us the truth about God. This was exactly the way in which His disciples thought of Him at the beginning when they called Him ‘Rabbi’, which means teacher. Later, of course, they realized He was not just a human teacher but something far more. This first model was adopted in particular by the group of second century writers known as the Apologists, the most famous of whom was Justin Martyr.

Considering the four questions, Metropolitan Kallistos points out that it passes the first three questions, for the change is in us not in God, there is no separation between Jesus and the Father, and it does not isolate the Cross but embraces Christ’s whole life. However,

…difficulties arise over this fourth question. Christ opens our minds by His teaching, but does He then leave us to carry out His teaching simply by our own efforts? Has He actually changed our objective situation? More specifically, we do not merely need to be instructed, but we need to be saved from sin. So this first model embraces part of the truth, but not the whole, for it leaves out the tragedy and the anguish of sin.

Model 2: Ransom

The second image is that of Christ paying a ransom on our behalf, for “The Son of God came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). The point of this metaphor is that whereas we were previously enslaved to sin, now we are liberated, for “Christ has set us free” (Galatians 5:1). This is a costly ransom, involving the laying down of Christ’s life on the Cross. However, Metropolitan Kallistos continues,

Let us remember that this is only an image or metaphor, not a systematic theory; and let us therefore not attempt to press the metaphor too far. It is wise not to ask: To whom is the ransom paid? In fact, the New Testament does not actually ask that question. If we say, “the ransom is paid to God the Father”, then we are in danger of separating Christ from His Father, and of thinking of the Father as angry and vindictive, and demanding payment. Surely God is not like that: He does not require payment, but forgives us freely. Should we then say that the payment is paid to the devil? That is an answer that the Fathers, Greek and Latin, have often given; but it creates major problems. It seems to suggest that the devil has rights or claims upon us, and that cannot be true. The devil has no rights; he is a liar. The essential point of the ransom metaphor is not transaction or bargain but liberation. It is better not to ask who is being paid, but to stick to the basic point: Christ has set us free.

Applying his four questions of evaluation, Metropolitan Kallistos concludes that there is no problem with the first, for the change is not in God but in us. There is no problem with the second as long as we don’t see Christ as paying a ransom to the Father, in which case there will indeed be a danger of separating them. In terms of the third question, while the ransom model concentrates on the Cross, it need not do so exclusively, for it is His whole life which has set us free. And the fourth question shows the strength of this model compared to the first model, for “In setting us free, Christ has indeed altered our objective situation.”

Model 3: Sacrifice

With the model of sacrifice Metropolitan Kallistos argues that “we enter deep waters”. Today the idea of sacrifice has lost much of its meaning, whereas in the ancient world it was taken for granted. The Old Testament knew different kinds of sacrifice, yet we do not find a definition of it, or of how it works. In the New Testament

Christ is seen as fulfilling the sacrifices of the Old Covenant more especially in two ways:

i. “Christ our Paschal lamb has been sacrificed” (1 Corinthians 5:7); “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Here Christ is seen as the Paschal Lamb, eaten by the Jews at the Passover in memory of the Exodus from Egypt (see Exodus 12). Christ’s death on the Cross and His Resurrection is the New Passover.

ii. “He is the atoning sacrifice (hilasmos) for our sins (1 John 2:2). This recalls the sacrificial ritual on the Jewish Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), when the people were sprinkled with blood to cleanse them from their sins (Leviticus 16:23, 27-32). In a similar way the blood of Jesus, sacrificed for us, cleanses us from all sin (1 John 1:7). The sacrifice on the Day of Atonement is recalled in particular when our Lord institutes the Eucharist, saying: “This is my blood of the (new) covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28).

Metropolitan Kallistos suggests that in order to understand the meaning of sacrifice we need to understand:

  • that a sacrifice is an offering or gift made to God;
  • that a true sacrifice involves the offering not of some object or animal, but of ourselves;
  • that the true purpose of sacrifice is not death but life. “If the victim is slain, that is not because its death has value as an end in itself, but so that its life may be offered to God. According to the understanding of the Old Testament, the life of an animal or human being resides in the blood; and thus by the pouring out of the victims blood, its life was released and made available, so as to be offered up to God.
  • a true sacrifice must necessarily be voluntary.

Applying this to the sacrifice we can say that Christ is offered up to God, that He offers Himself in sacrifice, that He dies that we may have life, something that is made clear by the linking of His Cross with His Resurrection, and that He laid His life down freely on our behalf.

Underlying this idea of sacrifice as voluntary self-offering is the all important factor of love:

Why does Christ lay down His life? Out of love: “…having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (John 13:1); “For Go so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16). Love, then, is the key to the key to the whole idea of sacrifice. Sacrifice is voluntary self-offering, inspired by love – love to the uttermost, love without limits.

Recalling our four questions, we may say: there is indeed a danger of stating the “sacrifice” model in such a way as to suggest that the change is in God, not us (question 1), that Christ is separated from the Father (question 2), that the Cross is to be isolated from the rest of our Lord’s life (question 3). But this danger is largely avoided if the element of love is emphasized. In that case, Christ’s sacrifice is seen as an expression of God’s unchanging love; the sacrifice of love alters us, not God, there is no separation between the Father and Son. Moreover, the whole of Christ’s life, from the Incarnation onwards, is a sacrifice or offering to God; so the Cross is not isolated.

Linked to the idea of sacrifice, Metropolitan Kallistos discerns two variants on this theme.

Model 3, variant 1: Satisfaction

This is the theory developed by Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) who applied the principles of feudal society to the atonement.

Human sin, he argued, has offended God’s honour; satisfaction must be given to the Father in recompense for His offended honour, and this satisfaction has been rendered by Christ on our behalf. For all its popularity, this theory has two grave disadvantages: 1. It interprets salvation in legalistic categories, rather than as an act of divine love; 2. The notions of honour and satisfaction, while reflecting medieval feudalism, are not to be found in the Bible.

Model 3, variant 2: Substitution

This idea, that Christ bears our sins in our person and suffers instead of us, does have biblical roots and is seen as fulfilling the Old Testament prototypes of the sacrificial scapegoat (Leviticus 16:20-22) and the Suffering Servant (Isaiah 53:4-7). Jesus is seen as taking our sins upon himself and enduring the punishment that we deserve to undergo.

Evaluating this model, Metropolitan Kallistos comments:

Now in this substitution model it is clear that the change is in us, not in God (question 1); but we must be careful not to understand the model in such a way as to separate Christ from God, as Billy Graham unfortunately did (question 2). Also there is a danger that the idea of substitution may turn Christ’s work of salvation into a transaction that is somehow external to us, in which we are not directly and immediately involved. Jesus does indeed suffer for our sins, but we need to be associated with His act of sacrificial suffering and to make that our own. It is legitimate to say “Christ instead of me”, but we should balance that by saying, “Christ on behalf of me”, and also “Christ in me and I in Him”. Substitution language should be combined with the language of indwelling.

Model 4: Victory

Metropolitan Kallistos describes this model as follows:

Here Christ’s work of salvation is seen as a cosmic battle between good and evil, between light and darkness. Dying on the cross and rising from the dead, Christ is victor over sin, death and the devil. This victory is summed up in the last word that He spoke on the Cross, Tetelestai (John 19:30), which is usually translated “It is finished”. But this is not to be seen as a cry of resignation or despair. Christ is not just saying, “It’s all over. This is the end”, but He is affirming, “It is accomplished. It is fulfilled. It is completed”. For other examples of the victory motif, see Collossians 2:15: “[God] disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it [through the Cross]”; and also Ephesians 4:8: “When He ascended on high, He led captivity captive” (quoting Psalm 68:18).

The Father who particularly uses the idea of victory is St Irenaeus of Lyons at the end of the second century. If you want to see the idea of victory lived out, then think above all of the Paschal Midnight Service, with its constant refrain, Christos anesti ek nekron, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death”. Think also of the marvellous sermon attributed to St John Chrysostom, read at the end of matins or at the Liturgy, with its overwhelming sense of triumphant joy. The same note of victory is found in Latin hymns for Pascha: “Death and life have contended in that combat tremendous. The Prince of Life who died reigns immortal.”

The advantage of this victory model is that it holds together the Cross and the Resurrection which are seen as a single event. Christ’s death itself is a victory, though it remains hidden. When the myrrhbearing women come to the tomb and proclaim its emptiness, and when Christ appears, the victory is made manifest.

The disadvantage of the victory model is that it can appear militaristic, portraying Christ’s work as some sort of coercive power. It is therefore important to point out that this is a victory not of superior force or of militaristic power, but of suffering love.

On the Cross Christ is victorious through His weakness, through His self-emptying, through His kenosis, to use the Greek term. So a victory, yes, but a kenotic victory.

This kenotic victory becomes clear when we link the cry of “it is finished” on the Cross to Saint John’s account of the washing of the feet where he described Jesus as loving them to the end. (John 13:1)

when Christ says “It is finished”, telelestai, the Evangelist intends us to think back to what was said four chapters earlier, “Having loved His own, He loved them to the end”, eis telos. From this we understand exactly what is finished on the Cross, what is fulfilled: it is the victory of love. Despite all the suffering, physical and mental, inflicted upon Him, Jesus goes on loving humankind; His love is not changed into hatred. We are to see the victory then not as a military victory but as the victory of suffering love, unchanging love, love without limits. As the Protestant theologian Karl Barth said, “The Christian God is great enough to be humble”. And that’s what we see above all in His victory on the Cross. God is never so strong as when He is most weak.

Model 5: Example

This model is associated with another Latin writer, Peter Abelard (1079-1142/3) who sees Christ’s life and death as the supreme example of love in action and which evokes a response in us, drawing us to emulate this love. Metropolitan Kallistos points out that many modern western Christians have been attracted by this model, because it moves completely away from the notion of God as angry, jealous, vindictive, and blood-thirsty, and from legalistic categories like satisfaction. Moreover this model does not separate Christ from the Father nor does it isolate the Cross from the rest of Christ’s life.

But the difficulty comes in with question 4. If Christ has merely set us an example, does that mean we have then to follow that example by our own efforts? Has Christ objectively changed things?

Metropolitan Kallistos argues that, understood in the right way, this model can be understood as involving an objective change in our situation, for “love is an objective energy in the universe”.

love is a creative, enabling force. Our love alters the lives of others. And if this is true of our human love, it is much more true of the divine-human love of Christ our Saviour. By loving us He does not just set us an example but He changes the world for us, giving us a meaning and hope that we could not otherwise discover. So the love of another for me infuses into me a transfiguring force, a transformative power. Love enables, just as hatred depotentiates. This is true of our inter-human relationships, but it is much more true of the love poured out upon us by the Son of God. Where love is concerned, the subjective/objective contrast breaks down.

Metropolitan Kallistos then points out that it is this theme of suffering love that unites the third, fourth and fifth models when they are rightly understood.

What makes Christ’s death a redeeming sacrifice is precisely that He offers Himself willingly in love (model 3). The victory of Christ is nothing else than the victory of kenotic, suffering love (model 4). And the example of this suffering love alters our lives and fills us with grace and power (model 5).

Model 6: Exchange

This model is understood as a mutual sharing and takes the Incarnation as its starting point. In it, Christ takes on our humanity “and in exchange He enables us to share in His divine grace and glory.

As St Paul expresses it, speaking metaphorically in terms of riches and poverty: “Though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, so that through His poverty you might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9). The riches of Christ are His heavenly glory; our human poverty means our fallen condition, our alienation and brokenness. Christ shares in our brokenness – in our anguish, our loneliness, our loss of hope – and so we are enabled by way of exchange to share in His eternal life, becoming “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4).

St Irenaeus of Lyons expresses the same point in more direct terms: “In His unbounded love, He became what we are, so as to make us what He is”. St Athanasius of Alexandria (c. 296-273) is yet more succinct: “He became man, that we might become God”. We could also translate the phrase: “He became incarnate, that we might be ingodded”, or “He was humanized, that we might be deified”.

This sixth model encourages us to think of salvation as theosis or deification: salvation is not just a change in our legal status before God, it is not just an imitation of Jesus through moral effort, but it signifies an organic, all-embracing transformation of our created personhood, through genuine participation in divine life. Equally this sixth model can be spelt out in terms of healing. St Gregory of Nazianzus (329-389), or Gregory the Theologian, as he is known in the Orthodox Church, affirmed with reference to the Incarnation, “The unassumed is unhealed”. Christ, that is to say, has shared totally in our humanness – He has taken up into Himself our human nature in its entirety – and in this way He has healed us and transfigured us.

I am being saved

Metropolitan Kallistos concludes by pointing out that there are other aspects of salvation that he has not discussed here, especially its social and ecclesial nature.

He then returns to the question of salvation that he posed at the beginning of the talk: Am I saved?

I might have answered, “Yes, I am saved”. But might not that have been somewhat over-confident? Long after his conversion on the road to Damascus, St Paul expressed the fear that, “after preaching to others, I myself should be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:27). God is faithful, and He will not change; but we humans, as long as we are in this life, retain free will and so, up to the end of our life, we are in danger of falling away. As St Anthony of Egypt (251-356) warned us, “Expect temptations until your last breath”. I am on a journey and that journey is not yet completed.

However, it would be rather pointless for him to have answered that he was not saved, and

Thus I thought that the best way of answering was to say, “I trust by God’s mercy I am being saved”. In other words, let us use the present tense, but in the form of the continuous present: not “I am saved” but “I am being saved”. Salvation, that is to say, is a process. It is not just a single event, but an ongoing journey, a pilgrimage that is only completed at the moment of our death.