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Matters of the Atonement and Justification


I’ve pieced together parts of Facebook conversations I’ve had on these various issues. The view of the Atonement that I hold to, and which is most common in Eastern Orthodoxy is called “Christus Victor”. I hope the following piece is helpful.


I say that the doctrine of justification ala imputation makes the crux of the matter about abstract mental changes in God. Basically, how God sees you. The reason I’m putting it to the realm of the abstract is because, I don’t see an ontological grounding [basis in reality] for this imputation other than in name only. One may try and mention union with Christ and sanctification. But I think that’s putting the cart before the horse. Because given that on this (Reformed) schema, how we are made right with God initially, is by God regenerating us, which produces faith, uniting us to Christ, thereby bringing Christ’s righteousness to our account.

Why that misses the point, is because union with Christ is only salvific in the first place, *by virtue of* the imputation. No imputation, no salvation, no union, no sanctification, no Glorification. Unless you want to say that imputation is unnecessary and God could have done it another way but chose to do it so.

So it comes back to imputation, and as Luther said “Justification is the article upon which the church stands or falls.” So then what is the ontological basis for imputation? How is it that I’m imputed Adam’s guilt (though maybe you personally don’t hold to this)? But really, it is because it occurred with us and Adam in the first place, that it’s occurring with us and Christ. How is Christ imputed my guilt? How am I imputed his righteousness?

So the initial transfer of guilt is the template by which Christ’s imputation will function. Since both the imputationist and non-imputationist have to deal with Romans 5:19 ” For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous.”

So what grounds is there for the imputation of Adam’s sin/guilt to me:

a) Me and Adam are the same person, since guilt is a personal property

b) I inherit it at birth because evil is a substance. And I’m given Adam’s *evil* stuff at birth. Which I think is problematic. And confuses what is properly attributed to nature and what is attributed to persons (a personal property has been transferred to nature.)

c) God just says that these imputations happen, in order to allow for the substitution to occur, for his justice to be satisfied. Nominalism. In name only.

This touches on the nature of the atonement and what it was Christ was trying to achieve. But essentially, the satisfaction of God’s justice on this schema depends on the validity of the doctrine of imputation. And really, the doctrine does not teach that Christ was guilty due to anything he did. And it says that not a single iota from us counts towards our justifying righteousness. Thus making peace with God, grounded in abstract relations, of which union with Christ by faith, is a means for you to get on the positive end of these relations.

On another page, someone asked a question about the Atonement. I thought I would share my response and keep it for future reference. It’s by no means exhaustive and much more could be developed on the themes discussed.


Q: I saw the following on a Calvinist Facebook site and wanted to know what the Orthodox response would be.

“Answer the following question concerning the atonement. You can determine who you think should receive the glory in man’s salvation. Whose sins did Christ’s death atone for?”
A. All the sins of all men.
B. Some of the sins of all men.
C. All of the sins of some men.

Someone responded in the comment section by saying: “And whoever says that Christ died for all the sins of all men to make salvation possible for all men is guilty of blasphemy. Christ died for his sheep. Not for the wolves, cows, snakes, etc.”

A: The General Calvinistic view of the atonement is Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA), whereby Jesus faced the punishment for sin, which is no less than the wrath of God poured out. Basically the hell that we should have received. The argument goes that if Jesus receives this punishment for someone, then there is no Wrath/punishment left for them. In which case, anyone Jesus dies for, HAS to be rescued from hell, since there is no hell left for them. Because Jesus suffered it all, thus it would be unjust for them to suffer it. God would be punishing the same sin twice. So for the Calvinist, to say the Jesus can die for someone, and that person not be saved is akin to saying that his death wasn’t enough. And therefore it’s blasphemy.

A few quick responses,
1) PSA ends up causing Trinitarian divisions. The Father eternally loves and begets the Son. So then for the Wrath of the Father to be poured on the Son would mean a change in Trinitarian relations and separation. Due to the nature of PSA, either Jesus is separated from the Father so that he is not of one essence with the Father (Arianism) or Jesus is two persons, the divine Logos and the man, with latter suffering separation while the logos continues to be in union with the Father (Nestorianism).

Another problem is that Jesus being God entails that He would also hate sin and have wrath against it. And so would the Spirit. In other words, the divine wrath that would need to be satisfied, as it were, is Triune. So then what is it? Are Two members of the Trinity pouring wrath on the Logos, while the Logos pours His own wrath on Himself? Or are the three persons pouring wrath on the Man Jesus, thus splitting Christ into two individuals?

[In line with this kind of thought, somebody responded to me saying the following: //God is not punishing His Son for anything. He actually loves His Son, particularly for His willingness to give His life for His sheep. He experiences God’s wrath on our behalf. The wrath is not directed towards Him, but our sin which has been nailed to His cross.// My response was the following:

Sin has no positive (actual or real) existence. So it’s not a thing which wrath can be directed at. Sin may incur wrath, which would then be directed at an object. Natures don’t get punished, persons do. So if the Son isn’t getting punished, then who is? Would in your opinion the question be better rephrased as “what is being punished?” I think that confuses categories. And I don’t think it does justice to reformed theology, given the doctrine of imputation to treat PSA as Jesus simply facing the *consequences* of sin. Because imputation makes one *personally* charged with something. So in line with the doctrine, God would have to see Jesus as guilty and since he cannot find pleasure in sin, he must be displeased with the person. Anyways, I don’t affirm the doctrine of imputation. So I see a couple of options with the PSA wrath position:

a) Jesus isn’t being punished – but this doesn’t do justice to the nature of imputed guilt/righteousness where the *person* becomes liable/vindicated. Further more, if the wrath ceases to have a personal object then I fail to see how it’s any more than God just venting.

b) Jesus is being punished, which could only occur if imputation is legitimate. In which case the divine person is imputed sin.

This sin is either a real metaphysical and positive, albeit immaterial reality, which becomes a property of the divine person (and he ceases to be righteous). Or it is a nominal imputation (in name only), with no actual grounding in reality other than the fact that God decides to see it that way. This makes the atonement a matter of abstract relations in God’s mind. And implies a voluntaristic view of reality.

Either way, it still has a divine Person now being the object of wrath from at least one other divine Person. Changing the eternal triune relationship.]

2) The Orthodox understanding of the incarnation and atonement is that Jesus came to save us from sin and death. Sin cuts us off from God, bringing corruption and death. And since only God is immortal by nature, this would have meant a return to the nothingness from which we came. Jesus being a divine person, united Himself to human nature, thus healing its corruption and he died physically. And by his resurrection brought immortality to human nature. And so because of that, all human beings are rescued from death and resurrected. So human nature is redeemed and all who have it are redeemed on the level of nature. However, persons and natures are not the same. Nature simply gives options that are available for a person to choose, without determining which option they do choose (a point which Calvinists would deny). So while everyone by nature is rescued, they still need to personally repent. Their person still needs to be conformed to the Person and likeness of Christ. This is done by participating in the grace given by Christ by his incarnation and atonement. It’s synergistic, co-operating with God’s grace. Those who repent and believe will be made fit to enjoy their new natures and the consuming fire of God’s glory. Those who don’t, won’t be.

3) The other issue is about “who gets the Glory.” For the Calvinist, your nature determines what you do. Not just what you can do. Which means that the only way you can be saved, is if God changes your nature and gives you one that’s willing. God’s saving grace is the game changer and decides the outcome. If it’s present you *will* come to Christ for repentance. Which means that your salvation is 100% up to God. If then you said that Jesus died for someone, it means that Jesus intended to save that person. And given Calvinism, if Jesus intends to save someone, then that person will be saved. And He can guarantee that it happens because all he needs to being saving grace. So then to say that Jesus died for someone who doesn’t get saved, would be to say that God’s grace wasn’t powerful enough to change that persons nature. So that they would choose salvation. Or if their view, you choose salvation but God’s grace wasn’t the determiner, it means there was something about you which someone else lacked that made the difference. And so for Calvinists, it would mean that you should the glory, since you made the difference.
Reformed theology also seems to confuse natural properties with personal properties (what should be attributed to a nature what should be attributed to a person). So then before the fall, people were determined by their “good” nature. Good here not just as in functioning, but morally good. But after the fall, the nature changed and now became evil nature (essentially the doctrine of total depravity). Which brings up the question of how one who is determined by their “good” nature could sin in the first place? It is not for no reason that people often accused Reformed theology as indicating that God is the author of sin. Anyways, the idea of evil natures is misguided. Natures (substances/non personal parts) are only good or bad to the degree that they conform to their design. A good car works, a bad car doesn’t, none of which are of moral value. Evil comes about by the deliberate misuses of natural properties. All creatures from the moment of creation need to deliberate about what is good and how to go about that good. How to best use their natures. This state of uncertainty is called “the Gnomic will”. It’s the gnomic state of willing which involves deliberation and uncertainty. Which makes them deliberate about what is good since we lack experience/character. We don’t know how to will as we ought. It has to be learned hence sanctification. This gnomic will/state of uncertainty about the good won’t exist in the end/eschaton.

So our natures circumscribe or qualify our choices. But they don’t determine which choice is acted upon. That’s the Person who does that. Thus they’re choices are not just happenings or events in a long chain of causation, already determined. Rather the agent, determines what direction they will go in. Free will therefore must be agent causation not event causation. The question isn’t choice, but rather the nature of choice. Calvinism denies libertarian free will. And so nature is what moves the person to choice A or B. It is not just that desire arises out of nature. But nature itself determines which desire is acted upon by the person. *What* they are determines *who* they become. As opposed to what they are giving options as to who the person can become. Hence why there is a tendency to speak of a sinful nature in reformed theology. For nature drives person, and the unregenerate is driven by their nature to sin. Which is why I say that given nature drives choices. Again, I don’t see how Adam having a functioning nature oriented towards the good for which it was designed, should fall. Unless outside tampering were to occur.

For the Orthodox, it’s simply a false either/or dilemma given the nature of human will. The nature/person distinction means that the nature doesn’t determine choices. The Person does. Nature only makes options available. The person is the final determiner of choice because that simply is the nature personhood. They determine their own character. Grace then makes the option of choosing good possible. But not necessary. Hence we see that God’s relationship to man was always synergetic. God’s making mankind free, just as he is, desires that people freely choose to know Him and be like Him. Keyword on freely. Not in the Calvinistic sense where nature determines actions, but it’s still considered free because it’s their nature. But free in the Libertarian sense, where their nature circumscribes possibilities without determining which one the person chooses. So the person who chooses and the person who doesn’t, wasn’t determined. It doesn’t not diminish God’s glory since without Him, none could be saved. And God’s glory is greatly displayed in image bearers, who just like him are free. If they were not, the glory wouldn’t be the same. Because they would not really be image bearers, since they would not really be persons.

One of the problems is that on the system of imputation, Paul is saying we are justified (made righteous) by faith apart from any works. We do not contribute anything to our moral standing before God. However we are required to have faith. So the faith must be something morally neutral. Otherwise we are contributing something righteous to our standing before God which this system says we cannot.

“But Yoshua, faith is not a work, so it doesn’t count towards our righteousness.” That misses the point. Because:

1) Paul doesn’t contrast faith and personal righteousness but faith and ceremonial righteousness. Aka having to obey the ceremonial law, in order to be counted as having right standing with God. The ceremonial righteousness isn’t a personal one because somebody could follow it to a fault and still not be considered right with God. Aka the Pharisees.

2) If you claim that Paul’s issue with the “works of the law” is about personal righteousness, then faith which is a required prerequisite for imputation, cannot itself be righteous. That’s why on the imputed righteousness system the faith we contribute is but a tool in order for Christ’s personal righteousness to be imputed to us. It has no intrinsic moral worth in itself, except God decides to treat it as if it did and so grant you righteousness. So imputed righteousness is not actual righteousness but Nominal (in name only). Making God’s primary concern not about actual righteousness but abstract relations that don’t reflect reality.

It comes back to ones anthropology and view of justification. Apart from God, in the flesh, we cannot please God. The divine love required to be in our hearts is lacking. But when grace is present in our hearts, faith and love as God finds pleasing is possible. Those are righteous. And they are what makes you righteous. Faith itself is not morally neutral.

“But of the Son he says, “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever, the scepter of uprightness is the scepter of your kingdom. You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness.” (Hebrews 1:8-9 ESV)

“By faith Enoch was taken up so that he should not see death, and he was not found, because God had taken him. Now before he was taken he was commended as having pleased God. And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. (Hebrews 11:5-6 ESV)”

In order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit…. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. (Romans 8:4, 8-9 ESV)

God doesn’t impute righteousness in order to be pleased with you. He actually makes you righteous (justifies) you the moment you have faith. Putting you in right relationship to himself. And no longer are the “ceremonial works of the law” a requirement for this relationship because Christ has come. The works we are exempt from are works of the ceremonial law. The works that don’t count towards God are those done in the flesh. But the works of which faith itself is a part of, are works of Grace by the spirit. So the faith is righteous and works of faith are righteous.

“Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” (John 6:29 ESV).”

“For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love. (Galatians 5:5-6 ESV)”

Justification is not God imputing you righteousness, but making you righteous. And so it’s both a positional thing, and ongoing. Because the fruit of the spirit grow. It’s fruit from its inception but it matures. So too we are transformed into a state of righteousness by grace through faith. And we grow in it by grace through faith.

God works with us and in us in order to make us pleasing to Himself. Salvation and righteousness is not Monergisitc (one energy/work) but Synergistic. With God both initiating it and being in the process. Not destroying human will but transforming it. So that we are actually made righteous and actually conformed to the image of Christ. And Christ is the image of God. And we were made to be living images of God. That’s why Saint Irenaeus in the second century said “The glory of God is man fully alive.”

“Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Philippians 2:12-13 ESV)”

“For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:10 ESV)”

“For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. (Romans 8:29-30 ESV)”

[Here are some really good insights on Old Testament Sacrifices from someone that I’ve conversed with. Respecting their wishes, the piece will remain anonymous.]

The book of Hebrews seems to speak over and over again of the sacrifices as being for cleansing, in a somewhat outward sense. Here’s my understanding… not much, but maybe it will help…

It seems to me we must distinguish penal, propitiatory, and expiatory views of the OT sacrifices. The animals (and other items) are not punished in our place, as though our guilt could literally transfer onto them; nor are they given to propitiate God via a meritorious action by means of which we earn divine favor and thereby avert his retributive wrath. Rather in being offered up to God, He blesses the sacrifice and transforms it into something which bears His purity and holiness, and which can thus be used to spread this to the people through presence, physical contact, or consumption. This cleansing made the Israelites capable of standing in the presence of God, thereby taking away His wrath in both senses – natural consequences (they could stand in the cloud of Glory because God had made them holy) and correction/prevention/deterrence (when they were cleansed God no longer had to administer discipline to restore them). Of course the problem was that the sacrifices, though capable of bearing divine blessing to the people, were not permanent receptacles of God’s blessing; Christ had to make the divine life intrinsic to human nature in order to be able to make the perfect sacrifice–one which would be lasting in its effects because of the “power of an everlasting life” (Heb). Thus the Eucharist is the Incarnational fulfillment of the OT sacrifices; in it, Christ offers us His everlasting life in a touchable, consumable way, and by the cleansing fire of His indwelling Divinity He abides in us gloriously forever.


This article in the link below also discusses debt/payment and the Atonement. It’s really worth

the read

For more on the nature/person distinction and how it relates to free will, here’s one from my blog:


3 comments on “Matters of the Atonement and Justification

  1. Pingback: Satisfaction Theory and Christus Victor in Job and Hebrews | Irish With A Tan

  2. Benjamin Scott
    August 30, 2015

    Mr. Irish With A Tan,

    I keep coming back to your website as I make my journey towards Orthodoxy. For thinking people this is a slow journey but I am beginning to really believe that I will complete this journey and that excites me.

    My response here is probably off topic to where you are presently thinking, but honestly if you ever come around to the subject again, think about what I’m telling you here because I’ve thought about these issues as much as you have. Your thinking and writing on these subjects is very well developed and thought through and I’ve read a lot of Orthodox stuff which doesn’t have as much sensitivity to the issues as you have here. I agree with what you say above about 95%. I am still working through my understanding of Recapitulation, as you know, but the one weakness I see in your reasoning is on the law. I know I’ve pointed this out before.

    The NP on Paul has a lot of weakness with its arbitrary divisions of ceremonial and moral law. I believe that “Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” as well as the Orthodox understand of the state of imperfection that Adam and Eve had in the Garden, both point to the idea that God is primarily relational and not “moral”. Or rather that relation to God transcends morality. I am sure you agree with this in some way. There are “rules to the house” but He’s after something in us which is higher than morality and law. One could term this ”
    “supra-nomian.” The issue with the law of Moses is that it doesn’t give life, Gal. 3:21. This can be understood to reflect upon the fact that those not in Christ, are in a state of “death” whatever that might mean within one’s view of original sin. I can keep the 10 commandments, the laws on sex, on charity and all the rest in the law, but without God’s Spirit, and in the end it is questionable as to whether I really kept any of them. The outward becomes everything and the inward is still lost.

    I think that NP and Orthodox want to keep righteous living and fruit of the Spirit from being a “work” so they ascribe “works” to being “ceremonial law”. Of course this is based on a supposedly refined understanding of 2nd Temple Judaism too, right? The NP’s on Paul are really not that solid in their starting point. I like the theology that comes out of them but not their starting point. This starting point is unnecessary to reach conclusions such as final judgment according to deeds, when one realizes that we are not justified by unregenerate “moral law” keeping at all, but rather by the transformation that comes to us by faith in Christ which is unto good works. Good works follow simultaneously with the transformation in us by faith. And of course the ceremonial aspects do largely factor into all of this. That’s the stuff that unregenerate people tend to focus on is the ceremonial. They even turn “moral” things into ceremonial.

    The whole law is a covenant made with the Jews at Sinai. It’s not something which can be divided into sections with some standing and others falling. Only the Ecumenical Counsel in Jerusalem in Acts 15, in keeping with Orthodox practice, asserted what was to remain of the Mosaic law in Christian’s lives. The things listed include prohibitions on blood, fornication, etc…. Certainly one would think that prohibitions on murder and other moral issues should be on the list? It seem that these were not because the assumption is that the law is not for Christians at all, except for the parts dictated to be so by the Apostles. 1 Tim 1, Rom. 7a, Gal. 5b, etc…. But this is a manner of speaking I am aware. I think that for Christians the law is more a source of wisdom and that’s all. We transcend it in Christ and through the law of Christ, which is lived out in a transformed way through faith and union with Him through baptism.

    I am only writing to you because your position is the closest to my own of anyone I’ve ever come across, and that’s part of what first attracted me to follow your blog. It’s not just your conclusions but the way you think about them and arrive at them in paragraph after paragraph. I read you like I know you and yet I learn a lot from you as well. “God’s moral concern.” That’s one example of how I think. God is concerned that our lives change, not that He has something to say about us such as “righteous” in some ethereal Protestant Heaven realm which has no bearing on our lives! I have suffered through these categories of thought and I appreciate your refreshing voice and thoughts. The issues with Protestant theology are gross and destructive to life. They cut the breath out of the lungs and the people who are starving for air aren’t aware of what life is like outside of the gas chamber they are living in. It takes time to get them out in the open and breathing. I really pray your blog gets some serious traffic and people think through issues more deeply and move in a more ancient direction as you have done.

    I am reading other Orthodox blogs and see quite a diversity of thought on issues of atonement, law, etc…. Some sound very Protestant and some sound very UnProtestant. It’s interesting to see the diversity in Orthodoxy on these issues. I believe it’s because as a church, Orthodoxy realizes that what matters is becoming like Christ, not specific issues of justification. Justification was something Paul had to work through with the Jews because of the Old Covenant/New Covenant debate he was having with them and how that unfolded. Once we moved past that historically, the essence of what the entire Bible says is what Orthodoxy has emphasized, and that is for each of us to work our our salvation in fear and trembling, looking towards Jesus, that single individual in whom the whole body is made whole and complete into the New Man, growing up into his likeness.



  3. Pingback: Original Sin | Irish With A Tan

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