Eastern Orthodoxy: How Should We Speak About Salvation?

We have seen that Orthodox theology stresses the work of Christ as being one of victory over Death and Satan, and the salvation of sinners as one of thesis. On the other hand, Refonned theology emphasizes the work of Christ as a substitutionary atonement, and the salvation of sinners as a Judicial decree of Justification followed by the believer's sanctification in good works. One relevant question which may have crossed the reader’s mind is whether there is a real connection between these two conceptions, or whether they are simply independent Biblical themes which bear little relation to each other? While it is true that these conceptions usually are not dealt with together in preaching or theology, this does not have to be. I would like now to offer a couple of suggestions as to how these Biblical themes can be integrated.

First, consider the connections between Christ as the victor over Death and Satan and Christ as the justifier of His people. Christ came as the Second Adam, and He stands as the head of the covenant of grace as Adam stood as head of the covenant of creation. As we studied above in the context of Romans 5, Christ brought justification and life to the people under His covenant in a manner similar to that by which Adam brought condemnation and death to those under his covenant. Both Adam and Christ were representatives who acted on behalf of others, and the consequences of their respective actions (whether condemnation for disobedience or justification for obedience) were also laid upon the people they represented.

Consider now what the task of obedience was which Adam should have rendered: God told Adam not only to refrain from eating of the forbidden fruit, but also to guard the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:15). Thus, when Satan came to Eve, Adam should have recognized that this intruder did not belong in the pristine paradise he was to guard, and he should not only have resisted Satan’s temptations, but also driven him from the land. At this task he failed. But when God promised to Adam and Eve that a Savior would come, he told Satan that this hero would accomplish the task that Adam should have carried out: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel” (Genesis 3:16).

When Christ came, he did just this, as Eastern Orthodox theology has well recognized. Unlike Adam, he resisted the temptations of Satan, both in the wilderness for 40 days, and in the New Garden, that of Gethsemane. He faced Death head on, but emerged victorious, for as Peter preached on Pentecost, “It was impossible for death to keep its hold on him” (Acts 2:24) (NIV). In the resurrection, victory was won by our Savior: “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (l Corinthians 15:55) (NIV). But this resurrection was more than simply a military victory. It was also Christ’s justification (compare Romans 1:4 and 1 Timothy 3:16): Whereas Adam had failed to overcome Satan and had been condemned, Christ prevailed over Satan and was justified, that is, declared to be righteous. This was the reward of His obedience. And, gloriously, Christ’s justification is also our justification: “He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised for our justification” (Romans 4:25) (NIV). Because Christ is our covenant head, our representative, His obedience is reckoned as ours and His judicial vindication imputed to us. Christ the Victor is also Christ the Justifier. Indeed, Christ’s conquest of Satan was a key element of His obedience to God. And it is this very obedience which
is the ground of our justification.

It is perhaps along these same lines that we can see how the concept of thesis can be integrated with the concerns of Reformed theology. Recall that one crucial element of thesis is union with Christ. In what are we united with Him? Scripture tells us that we are united with Him in His death (2 Timothy 2:11), in His burial (Romans 6:4), in His resurrection (Colossians 3:1), and in His reign (2 Timothy 2:12). Because of all this, His death, burial, resurrection and reign have become ours as well. Why are we justified in Christ’s resurrection, as we remarked above? It is because we were united with Him when He burst the bonds of death. Why have we conquered death? Because we are united with our resurrected Lord in His kingly reign, as He sits at God’s right hand.

And this union with Christ also has consequences for the kinds of lives we live here on earth. As Paul wrote in Colossians 3: 1, 3: “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at God's right hand....For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God” (NIV). If we are united with Christ as He sits at God’s right hand in heaven, then should we not live as those who have been brought into the presence of God? And if “our life” is really not to be found here on I earth, but is hidden with Christ in God, should we not feel compelled to conform our lives to the way life is lived in heaven? Therefore, union with Christ does involve a process (though not only a process), a process of being conformed unto the image of Christ, a process of growing in intimate fellowship with God.


We have shared the doctrines offall and salvation in Eastern Orthodox theology. We have found much to appreciate and much
to criticize. We have found much rich, Biblical imagery, and also much Biblical truth which has been greatly overlooked or lost in other truths. Eastern Orthodoxy is a world with which we Protestants are largely unacquainted, but it is not a world with which we will likely be unacquainted much longer. As Reformed Christians, we ought to take the time to learn about this ancient religious tradition, that we might more knowledgeably interact with it in years to come.

In response to Eastern Orthodoxy, the Biblical truths taught in Reformed theology ought to be vigorously defended. While there are many points of common doctrine between the two traditions, the points of difference are too serious to be downplayed. And this is true not only of the doctrines we have discussed. There are also serious differences in matters of worship, of the sacraments, of Scripture and tradition, and of the nature of the church. But we might pray that God would one day soon send a Reformation to the East, as He did centuries ago to the West. Specifically, we might pray that many old doctrines hidden in its traditions would be rediscovered and that many of the Biblical truths proclaimed in the Protestant Reformation would be seriously considered and believed. Perhaps our Lord would use an Eastern Reformation to cause ever more light to shine forth from the inexhaustible treasure of His word.

1. For some examples, see Athanasius, Contra Gentes and De Incarnatione, trans. and ed. Robert W. Thomson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971), 141; John of Damascus, “An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith,” in Writings, trans. Frederic H. Chase, Jr. (New York: Fathers of the Church, 1958), 265–6. For a modern statement, see Serguis Bulgakov, The Orthodox Church, trans. Lydia Kesich (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1988), 105.
2. Byzantine Theology (New York: Fordham University Press, 1974), 143.
3. For a detailed defense of immediate imputation, see John Murray, The Imputation of Adam’s Sin (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1959). 4. De lncarnatione, 183.
5. The Homilies of S. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans (Oxford, 1848), 151–52.
6. Ibid., 155. See also 154.
7. The Orthodox Church (New York: Penguin Books, 1993), 223.
8. Ibid., 224.
9. Ibid., 221.
10. Byzantine Theology, 151–52.
11. De Incarnatione, 189, 195, 199–207, 251.
12. “Exposition of the Orthodox Faith,” 321.
13. Ibid., 332.
14. De Incarnatione, 269.
15. “Partakers of Divine Nature” in Eastern Orthodox Theology: A Contemporary Reader, ed. Daniel B. Clendenin (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1995), 184, 188.
16. The Orthodox Church, 236.
17. Byzantine Theology, 160.
18. Homilies, 96, 153.
19. Ibid., 115, 121, 149, 142–53, 308.

Mr. Van Drunen has a Master of Divinity degree from Westminster Theological Seminary in CA. He is a student at Northwestern University School ofLaw in Chicago, IL and at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deeifield, IL. He is a member ofthe Western Springs CRC in Illinois.

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