Western Christianity’s message:
I grew up mostly in Nondenominational Protestant churches. Like most Americans, I learned sin is an offense against God. Adam and Eve disobeyed God’s rules and were kicked out of Eden and later died. Today, we continue the viscous cycle of sin and death because we continue to break God’s rules.
It is taught that God, in his supreme holiness, cannot endure the presence of sin. Therefore, in the ultimate act of love, he sent his son to die on the cross in our place and wipe out our debt against him for our breaking of divine commandments.
In More than a Carpenter, the popular evangelical writer Josh McDowell states that Jesus did not just die for us, but for God the Father as well1. God is so holy, that he is actually bound by his holiness to eternally punish all sinners. Apparently, he realized that at some point and decided to send his Son to free us from the debt of hellfire we deserve.
Therefore, in this thinking, salvation is a righteousness that is imputed upon us by God through the sacrifice of his Son so that he does not have to punish us in hell for all eternity due to our sinfulness being an offense to his holiness.
These ideas were not the original teachings of Christianity, but were brought into Christian thinking through the influence of Western Christians throughout the ages.2 What that means is that if you grew up a Christian in America as I have, then you have probably been taught false doctrines regarding who God is and how you relate to Him.
The Orthodox perspective:
God is life, and He created us to commune with Him and unite to Him and His energies of love, grace, peace, etc in a process called theosis. In short, anything that breaks our communion with God and interrupts our journey of theosis is what we call sin. It is turning away from God, though He never turns away from us.
In this way, salvation is synergistic: God moves and humanity moves with Him. God extends His hands to us, but we must grasp them. I recently heard Fr. Thomas Hopko teach that it is accurate to say that Jesus has saved everyone; however, not everyone is actively working out their salvation.
In Genesis, Adam and Eve communed with Life Himself. When they broke communion, they did not repent, but rather offered excuses. Therefore,
Death in the true sense is separation from God, and ‘the sting of death is sin’ (1 Cor 15:56). Adam, who received the sting, became at the same time an exile from the tree of life, from paradise, and from God; and this was necessarily followed by the body’s death. Life, in the true sense, is He who said ‘I am the life’ (Jn 11:25), and who, having entered into death, led back to life him who had died.3
A GOD PROBLEM
So, in Western Christianity, sin is a legal problem that mankind has fallen into. God is loving in that he forgives us our debts if we “accept Jesus into our hearts.” Essentially, being “saved” means that we are saved from God and his wrath. Ultimately, that means that mankind has a God-problem, not so much a sin problem. Many of us enjoy our sin, but apparently it ticks God off, so we are supposed to try to stop so that we will no longer be offending his holiness.
But the truth is that sin is breaking communion with life Himself. Yes, we have a sin problem; it is a deceptive sickness in our humanity. But the real problem is that the result of sin is both physical and spiritual death. God created us to live and be in communion with Him. When we turn away from Him in pursuit of sin and selfishness then we are communing with death and cannot partake in his life. God was incarnated in order to save us from the vicious cycle of sin and death.
Next up: I’ll be hashing out more regarding sin and salvation from the Orthodox perspective. This blog was meant to be an introduction.
1 More than a Carpenter, Josh McDowell, pg 110.
2 The beginnings of these theories had seeds in the teachings of Augustine in the 4th century, were furthered by Anselm of Canterbury in the 11th century, and solidified in Christian thought by the legal-minded attorney John Calvin in the 16th century. Some call this the Penal Substitutionary Atonement theory.
3 Second Century on Love #93, Philokalia Vol II, St Maximos the Confessor.