What did Christ do for us?
A friend wrote to ask me how Orthodoxy looks at what Christ accomplished for us.
I am under the impression that certain ideas regarding why Christ died that I understood as a Protestant, are not really Orthodox teachings. Such as… Sin has a price: death; Christ came to pay the price for sin; His resurrection shows that God accepted His payment for our sins…
An Orthodox take on that would be that there isn’t really any price to be paid, no divine satisfaction required. God gave Adam a warning about disobedience — it’ll cause death in you. Like “Don’t jump off the roof or you’ll break your leg” or “Don’t look into the laser or it’ll blind you.” It’s not a crime-and-pubishment thing, it’s a warning about consequences. So of course in the story Adam goes and eats the fruit anyway, and sure enough he’s caught this “death” disease in his soul and body.
The Old Testament idea of death involves separation. Somebody dies and they’re cut off from you, inaccessible. In fact to be “cut off” (like a rotten branch) is a biblical euphemism for dying or being killed. What died in Adam was his direct connection to God. One day he’s got a high-speed internet connection to God, the next he’s traded that in for experience of both good and evil, and now man is offline.
Now man is stuck with just his five physical senses, plus the rational, emotional, and willful parts of his soul. The part that’s meant to see and hear from God (the nous) has gotten clouded, and Adam’s attention is fragmented, stuck on all the shiny things he sees with his eyes and feels with his body. He’s like a sleepwalker, just shambling away from pain and toward pleasure without any purpose.
It’s like Captain Stubing has left the Love Boat, and the only officer left to run the whole ship is Julie the tour guide, and her ship-to-shore radio is mostly on the fritz. The rational mind is meant to be a tool and a servant, not a master, and the appetites and the will are definitely not supposed to be anywhere near the driver’s seat. But the part that thinks like God has gone comatose so the rest of the soul muddles on, half-blind and distracted.
The Fathers call that state a sickness. The Greek word that gives us pathology and pathetic means suffering from illness, and in Latin it’s passions. That’s why the suffering of Christ is called the Passion. So Adam has traded in his divine life with God for existence as a spiritually sick, suffering stranger to God, and everything he tries just makes his state worse. So God mercifully locks away the other tree, the tree of life — that is, God says “You’ll live only a limited time in this body.” …Imagine Adam living forever in a body that began to age and die in the day he first sinned.
When the Fathers look at what Adam needed to be saved from, and what Christ did, they look at healing and restoring life to a race that’s drifting away from the source of existence.
Isaiah says that Christ was wounded because of our sins, and carried away our sorrows on His shoulders. Jesus’ death is foreshadowed by the Old Testament idea of sacrifice for sin — but an even clearer illustration is the scapegoat, which carried the sins of the people away. Christ took our death and sin and pain, all there is, and He carried it away, and brought back the prisoners. (Check out the Harrowing of hell — we’ll sing some of this story during Holy Week.)
About 318 AD, Athanasius of Alexandria wrote an excellent article called On the Incarnation of the Word of God to answer the question “What did Christ accomplish?” Conveniently, I’ve put it online; print it out and give it a read.
Meanwhile… if death is separation from God, then life is union with Him. In fact, “life” is used in the New Testament as a synonym for the nature of God. Vine’s NT dictionary, under “ZOE” says:
Life as a principle, life in the absolute, life as God has it. That which the Father has in Himself, and which he gave to the Incarnate Son to have in Himself, which the Son manifested in the world. From this Life man has become alienated in consequences of the Fall, and of this life men become partakers through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, who is the Author of Life to all that trust in Him, for the Life that He gives, He maintains. Life is the present actual possession of the believer because of his relationship with Christ. The fact that Life will one day extend its domain to the sphere of the body is assured by the resurrection of Christ.
I once read some advice for Bible translators to be careful with the term “eternal life.” They were warned not to accidentally translate it as “existence without end.” In Greek and Hebrew it literally means the Life of Eternity. The life of God Himself. Eternal life isn’t a binary thing (you got it/you don’t). Everyone with any connection to God has His life in them to one degree or another. Some flourish and bear fruit, while others wither. In John 15 Jesus calls that life the sap that’s in Him, the Vine — and He says that the exact same thing that’s in Him is in us. Then in Romans 11:16-24 St. Paul says the same thing — that we’re grafted into Christ, and the life that’s in the root is in the branch (us).
When a Person of the Trinity becomes a human, He does something mind-boggling: He makes Himself one Person with two different natures, Uncreated and created. He’s still part of the Trinity, ruling the universe, and He’s also totally a member of our species. One of us sits on the throne of the universe.
Life, and forgiveness, and holiness, righteousness, healing… it’s a mistake to think those are gifts God gives us. Instead Jesus IS the life in us. He Himself is our righteousness, our peace, our wholeness. You don’t receive these things as gifts, like created items separate from Him — instead in Christ you get all of God. He says that you exist in Him — when He busts out of death from the inside, your human nature is in Him, and you’re in Him when He tramples on satan. And when you get the unexpected peace to endure hardship and to love your wife, and the extra strength to say no to what tempts you, He is in you. It’s all Him. That’s why Orthodox people insist on that expression “uncreated grace” — because grace is God at work, in people, in places and in stuff.
Christ told one person “Your faith has saved you” and another “your faith has made you whole” but in Greek those are the same sentence, in both passages. Salvation is restoration, wholeness, reconciliation, reunion. Oh, and forgiveness of sins, too — that’s free for the asking because God wants to forgive us. He didn’t need to crush Jesus on the cross to forgive us. That was all us — humans being sinners and the devil getting in his licks — and God permitted the incredible injustice of it because He doesn’t care about being just; He’s merciful.
One last thing: Here’s something I started writing before I was Orthodox, and finished after I’d been Orthodox for a while: The River.
Christ became one of us, uniting what we are to what He is in one Person. As long as He lives, our nature and God’s nature are held together in perfect union, and He lives forever because He is Life.