We are declared righteous because we share in the life of Christ. He was justified by His resurrection from the dead, and we are justified through our participation in His death and resurrection by the Holy Spirit.
Recently, a friend asked me if I knew of any good resources contrasting the classical Protestant and traditional Orthodox understanding of justification. Because I couldn’t think of anything devoted to this purpose, I’m writing this article. Because of the theological diversity in Protestantism, I cannot claim to capture all of the subtlety that may be present in particular traditions. Rather, I am presenting the doctrine as it is usually articulated by evangelicals.
Salvation — According to Evangelical Protestants
In evangelicalism, justification by faith alone is understood to mean more than simply “faith alone.” This is essential, because the most profound difference between the evangelical view and the traditional view is the content of justification, not merely its instrument. Thus, the first question one must ask is not how one is justified, but what justification actually is.
For most evangelicals, justification is understood to be a purely forensic verdict pronounced at the moment of trust in Christ alone and based on the double imputation of sin and obedience. In this view, Christ’s works during His period on Earth are legally counted as if they belonged to the believer. When God judges mankind, then, He does not judge the believer based on their own deeds, but based on the deeds which Christ performed during His life on Earth.
Likewise, the sins of mankind (or the elect, depending on if one is a Calvinist or not) were imputed to Christ on the Cross. On the Cross, God treated Christ as if He had committed all the sins committed in the history of mankind — past, present, and future. Having legally declared Christ guilty, God turned His face away from Christ and executed Him. For some evangelicals, the function of the resurrection is primarily that it proved that God had accepted the sacrifice of Christ.
None of this should be taken to imply that Christians are not to do good works. Rather, at the moment of justification, the Holy Spirit regenerates the heart of the believer and ensures that the regenerated Christian will produce new works which conform to God’s will. This is called sanctification. In many articulations of the doctrine, if a Christian does not change their pattern of life, they were never regenerated or converted at all, and thus never had true faith. The quest to have “true” faith is often a point of anxiety among young evangelicals, because they observe that their lives often do not conform with Christ’s commandments and come to believe that they never had faith at all.
Salvation — According to the Orthodox Church
For Orthodox, by contrast, justification is understood to be grounded in the ontological transformation of the human person by union with Christ.
For Orthodox Christians, the penalty of sin is death. This was both a penalty from God and the simple natural consequence of separation from God. The only source of life is the Holy Spirit, and by separating himself from the Holy Spirit, Adam’s condition turned to one of disintegration. Satan’s intent was to simply eradicate the human race from existence.
In order to solve this problem, the Eternal Son, in whose Image we are made, assumed a human nature. In uniting human nature with His own divinity, He glorified it and made possible true participation in God. Christ freely took the penalty of our sin — death. The death of Christ on the Cross is His condemnation, and in that sense, we can speak of substitutionary atonement. Yet because Christ is life itself, in dying, He filled death with life and turned it back, being raised from the dead in a glorified and transfigured body. Because Christ shared in human nature, He communicated His glory to it, thereby ensuring the resurrection of the dead.
For those whose wills conform to God’s will, they will be raised in complete unity, willing in accordance with their resurrected nature. For those whose wills turn against God, they will be raised in damnation, permanently divided from their own resurrected nature. In Scripture, the heart of the concept of “death” is a separation, and that permanent separation is therefore spoken of as an eternal death.
So how is a person justified? In contrast to evangelicalism, which regards faith is the instrument by which Christ’s obedient works are counted as if they were the believer’s, for Orthodox, it is faith itself which justifies because of what faith is. Faith is the unique quality of the relation of a father to his son. The son is not employed by the father as if he could obligate his father to pay him a wage. Rather, he is loved by his father, and the father freely gives gifts to his son.
In faith, we trust that God has our good at heart and will fulfill His promises to us, giving us the Holy Spirit and raising us in glory. As Hebrews says, faith is that which justifies because to do good for God, one must “believe that He exists and that He rewards those who seek Him.”
Working for a Father, Not for an Employer
A reward is not something that a father owes his son — nor is it disconnected to what the son does. If Johnny cleans his room, that was what he was supposed to do anyway. But his father might take him to dinner as a reward. It is a gift which is truly a gift, even as he does it in response to his son’s deeds.
Faith, in fact, was what characterized the life of Christ, the Eternal Son. Paul speaks of the “faithfulness of the Messiah.” Christ lived as an obedient Son of the Father. He wholly consecrated Himself to God, a consecration that was consummated in His giving up of His own life to God on the Cross. Through all of this, Christ trusted absolutely that God would bring life out of death — just as Abraham did with his own old body and with the offering up of his promised son.
Thus, the faith of Christ reached its appointed goal with His self-consecration to God. It was faith which gave birth to Christ’s self-gift, even as the faith is distinct from the self-gift. God’s reward for Christ was the resurrection of the dead and the inheritance of the world. The Jews and Romans declared Christ guilty on the Cross, but God declared Christ righteous precisely in and through the transformation of His body. It is for that reason that St. Paul says Jesus was “justified by the Spirit” in 2 Timothy 3:16.
Hence, we are declared righteous because we share in the life of Christ. He was justified by His resurrection from the dead, and we are justified through our participation in His death and resurrection by the Holy Spirit.
It is the Holy Spirit who enables us to do any good deed at all. Our wills cooperate with the will of God and Christ through the animation of the Holy Spirit, and it is this cooperation which leads to union with Christ in His death — and thus, His resurrection and justification. It is therefore not quite accurate to say that we are justified by grace through faith and works. Rather, we are justified by grace through faith through works.
Thus, we do not strictly distinguish between justification and sanctification, but understand them as two sides of the same process, or as St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6:11, “You were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified into the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”
Saved Through a Relationship
To put it simply: We are saved in a relationship with God. That relationship is characterized by faith from which works proceed. To draw an analogy, what creates a friendship? If I go to some guy’s house and mow his lawn every day but never speak to him, I have “worked” for him, but we will never become friends. The works which facilitate a friendship are works which naturally lead to and deepen friendship. I talk to my friend, hang out with my friend, love my friend, and trust my friend. It is the same with God. We don’t work for Him as an employee and then expect some kind of payment. Instead, our trust in Him ought to produce works which deepen our relationship with Him.
What about mortal sins? What are those? Mortal sins are sins which sever our relationship with God. Compare the friendship. If I annoy my friend by talking too much, that’s a “venial sin.” It’s not going to sever the relationship. But if I sleep with my friend’s spouse, that’s a “mortal sin.” It fundamentally severs the relationship. Unlike men, however, God is infinitely forgiving and is always prepared to restore the relationship if we repent — because repentance means to turn back.
This is where forgiveness comes in. Christ, in dying but being raised, fundamentally severed the inevitable connection between sin and death. Sin leads to death, yes — but death can be followed by resurrection. As such, God forgives us our sins and continues to work with us. Sins do not inevitably lead to disintegration and the severance of our relationship with our Father.
How Faith and Works Cooperate
What is the precise relationship, then, of faith and works? James refers to works as the “fruit” of faith, and this is absolutely true. As St. Paul says, “anything that does not proceed from faith is sin.” The critical point that we must understand is that faith without works is still faith. James says that faith and works are like the body and the spirit. The body without the spirit is still a body, but dead. Likewise, faith without works is still faith — but left unable to reach its goal. Whereas many evangelicals, noticing that their faith is without works, attempt to produce a different kind of faith, the proper response of the Christian is to use one’s faith to bring forth works. The proper and natural goal of faith is works, but reaching that goal requires active cooperation.
Imagine that you had to lift a weight. The weight is salvation. Faith is the muscle which lifts the weight, and the Holy Spirit is the energy which gives power to the muscle. Salvation is when, through the energy of the Spirit, one exercises the faith in order to lift the weight — and that process is called good works.
Hence, St. Paul says that it is neither circumcision nor uncircumcision which counts, but “faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6) and that because it is union with Christ: “I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.” Thus, works are the fruit of faith, but not the automatic fruit.
I hope this has been helpful in understanding the Orthodox doctrine of justification (which I think largely applies to the Catholic doctrine as well) and its contrasts with the common evangelical Protestant view.