The Eastern Christian world has some funny ideas about things. For this former sometimes Methodist, sometimes Evangelical Protestant, the typically understood formula for our salvation was pretty simple, and could be expressed thusly:
1. Repent of your sins (though only privately – me and Jesus, baby!).
2. Accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior (Get saved!).
3. Get Baptized – if you hadn’t been already – at some point down the road if you wish (this point varies widely from one Protestant denomination to another).
4. Keep calm and carry on!
I’m sure many of my Protestant friends would argue that what I’ve presented here is fairly reductionist (as I’ve made no mention so far of Protestant theological viewpoints on Justification or Sanctification), and I’ll grant them that, but in most practical cases – that’s it.
In reflecting on this model of salvation, we can conclude with what most Christians – particularly in the West – believe to be the central proposition of Christianity: that Christ died on the Cross to pay for our sins.
Broadly speaking, I don’t believe many Byzantine or Eastern theologians would disagree with the core of that statement – that Christ died for our sins – but where we start to develop a problem is the notion that Christ’s suffering and death on the Cross was a kind of penal transaction; that the “ransom” St. Mark speaks of in his Gospel is to satisfy the demands of God’s justice.
For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many – Mk 10:24 NAB
Scripture speaks of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross with such language as “propitiation”, “ransom”, giving a transactional and legal impression – at least at first glance.
Perhaps among the cornerstones of Evangelical views of salvation and atonement is the Penal Substitution theory. With this I’ll cut right to the chase: Byzantine Christianity rejects this notion wholesale. Over the course of this series, I’m going to examine the reasons why the East objects to these ideas, and what the Eastern churches actually teach about salvation. For now, let’s try to establish exactly what Penal Substitution is.
“God requires two things of us: punishment for our sins and perfection in our lives. Our sins must be punished, and our lives must be righteous. But we cannot bear our own punishment, and we cannot provide our own righteousness. Therefore, God, out of His immeasurable love for us, provided his own Son to do both. Christ bears our punishment, and Christ performs our righteousness. And When we receive Christ, all of his punishment and all of his righteousness is counted as ours.”- John Piper
John Piper, a well-known and popular Evangelical pastor and theologian, has articulated this as a critical point of doctrine many times over the course of his career and writings. He’s gone so far as to describe this theory as “life-saving, biblical truth” and argues that it is an indisputable point of orthodox (little ‘o’) Christian doctrine. As he’s one of the most prevalent voices in support of this theory, we’ll look more at what he has to say about it in future parts.
Penal Substitution can be described as the notion that Jesus Christ, on His own perfect initiative, was punished in exchange (or in the place) of all humanity, and in so doing satisfied the demands of God’s justice and wrath so sins could be forgiven. Put simply, Christ settled our debt toward God on our behalf.
In Part Two, we’ll take a look at the scriptural basis for this theory, then begin examining the Eastern response.