A Conversation on the Saving Work of Jesus
We asked two of our Editors—Ben Cabe and Ben Winter—to hold a discussion about an important theological question: How does your tradition view the saving work of Jesus? What follows are their replies, as well as responses to each other’s position.
Soteriology is inextricably connected to Christology. That is, what salvation is, how one “attains it,” and what it effects in the human person, cannot be understood without a proper understanding of who Jesus Christ is—and this has been the topic of much confusion (or unconfusion, depending on which side you fall on) and debate over the last two centuries. Thus I will only touch on this topic in light of Saint Gregory Nazianzen’s succinct phraseology, “what was not assumed, was not healed.”
From the very beginning it seems clear that God desired to unite mankind with himself. And so, man was created in his image and according to his likeness to make way for the Incarnation. But then something terrible happened; man freely transgressed, not only against God but against himself, fracturing his nature and severing his communion with God which, at that point, was still in seminal form. It is the long held understanding of the Orthodox Church that Adam and Eve were created with a vocation, a calling, to be united and consummated into the inner life of the Holy Trinity. As infants requiring spiritual milk, however, they partook of the fruit for the mature, attempting to become gods by way of a shortcut, or in their own power as it were, instead of through steady growth in grace. And this action inaugurated a new era for man; a slavery to death and the devil.
Christ’s saving work, then, must be understood against this backdrop, and far from just paying a penalty for man’s sins, it should be understood in light of everything he did, from the Incarnation to the Ascension, but even more: to the consummation and realization of the promise in His second coming. With respect to this, Orthodox Christians proclaim “I am saved, I am being saved, I will be saved.” There is never a mere pronouncement of one’s salvation as having taken place exclusively in the past.
But it may be asked how one “attains salvation” and what it effects in the human person. We understand that with Christ’s historic work (every part of it), how it is “applied” to the human person is one of the great controversies in Christianity. The traditional (and Orthodox) understanding is that Christ has made himself available to us through the Church, in the sacraments. This is a very physical as opposed to psychological reality for sinners, and in this way, it is more accessible, more given to oikonomia; it is a reality that requires not a mere utterance of a prayer but the living and progressing in a holy life. It is through constant struggle that we seek to become less that He might become greater. We are not trying to “earn” our salvation, we are trying to run towards Christ like the prodigal. We are not under any impression that we deserve or could do anything to deserve (or earn) our salvation. But we do recognize a need for struggle, synergism. One may object with the example of the thief on the cross; but it is not the mere utterance of a word that saved the thief. It is his self-condemnation. His realization that he is suffering justly and that Christ is suffering unjustly. And it is this kind of self-condemnation that the (Orthodox) Christian is encouraged to grow in (and grow in realizing) every day. Less this be written off as a one time task, let us look at how unwillingly we suffer; how we justify ourselves! Humility is the only path to our humble God.
Glory to Jesus Christ who became man, uniting the uncreated and created natures, progressed through human life thereby sanctifying all of human life, wept turning our tears into divine tears,1 died and destroyed death and the devil, descended into Hades and was raised again, and then appeared to many before ascending to sit at the right hand of His Father. And now we await his promised return, not idly, but as we work out our salvation with fear and trembling.2
Ultimately, salvation and life belongs to God, and what great and fearsome mysteries they are. And we have a loving God. This is euangelion.Show Sources
2 Philippians 2:12
Jesus Christ is “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created … all things have been created through him and for him” (Col 1:15-16). Equal to the Father in every respect, Christ sustains all being and holds the entire universe together (see Acts 17:28). In fact, without Christ nothing would exist: “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being” (John 1:3). This is the cosmic and world-defining dimension of Christ. This is the Christ Who gives meaning (as Logos) to everything, the Christ Who is the second member of the Trinity.
Yet if this God were not also man, then none of these facts would matter. Christ, while being the infinite coequal of the Father beyond all being, is also the One who took on particular, limited being for the sake of humanity. As Pseudo-Dionysius puts it: “In a fashion beyond words, the simplicity of Jesus became something complex, the timeless took on the duration of the temporal, and, with neither change nor confusion of what constitutes him, he came into our human nature, he who totally transcends the natural order of the world.”
Why did he do it? For the salvation of all. To re-render human beings into His own image, and to grant us life eternal (John 17:3). As Paul so beautifully affirms: “With all wisdom and insight God has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph 1:9-10).
The Catholic Catechism lists four reasons why Jesus Christ took on flesh. The first is perhaps the most obvious: “To save us by reconciling us with God.” The second reads: “So that we might know God’s love.” Without love, exemplified by Christ’s willingness to take the form of a servant (Phil 2), it would not be possible for us to commune with God or with our neighbors. The third reason is one that we will spend a bit more time on: “To be our model of holiness.” Christ’s disciples were struck to the core by the man Jesus. His words and deeds were so compelling that humans continued to preserve them, throughout history, in unbroken oral and written Tradition. The path of humanity to holiness is where the doctrine of “the communion of saints” come into play.
With regard to Christ’s work, the Catholic Church teaches that we all have a part to play. Christ is Head of an unbroken Body—His Church—and this Body extends throughout time and space. Catholics understand each member of the Church has a role in the salvation of the whole. By doing our part, we can lead others to God through the active workings of grace, which revitalizes the core of our very being. As co-workers with God (1 Cor 3:9), we work out our own salvation with fear and trembling (Phil 2:12), while we continue to complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions (Col 1:24). In other words, we are called to make present the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ through the sacrifice of a contrite heart (Ps 51:17). In so doing, we become God’s instruments, extending the light and life of His Son to all people. As the Catechism states: “God thus enables men to be intelligent and free causes in order to complete the work of creation, to perfect its harmony for their own good and that of their neighbors. Though often unconscious collaborators with God’s will, they can also enter deliberately into the divine plan by their actions, their prayers, and their sufferings. Then they fully become ‘God’s fellow workers’ and co-workers for his kingdom” (CCC 307). While the cross is “the unique sacrifice of Christ,” all are called to take up that cross, and to make it known throughout the world—thus participating in Christ’s very work (see CCC 618).
Finally, Christ came in order to “make us ‘partakers of the divine nature’” (CCC 460). Acknowledging, with the Council of Chalcedon, that Christ is “consubstantial with us in our humanity,” it becomes clear that our true end is full communion with the Triune God. We were created to find rest in God. Assenting—with heart, mind, and soul (Matt 22:37)—to the love, knowledge, and humility of Christ, we grow in grace toward the super-luminous summit of Christian life: the eternal dance from glory to glory (2 Cor 3:18).
Respondeo: Ben Cabe
It seems clear that Benjamin Winter and I agree in our responses to the posed question, though we approach it from different sides. One particularly key aspect of the saving work of Christ is His invitation to us to suffer with Him and so be glorified with Him. A contrite heart is indeed a pleasing sacrifice to God (Psalm 50 LXX) and one that can only be offered with the corollary pain. That is, pain of heart is a natural, physical and spiritual, manifestation of repentance, contrition. God may even give us grace to shed tears over our sins; something that the father’s call a second baptism. Indeed we must take up our crosses. For the cross, foreboding as it is, gives life, the resurrection, but the tempting tree in the garden reaps death. Let us throw off all luxury with the aim of suffering with Christ. For all things, every circumstance, can be transformed into a means of our salvation.
Respondeo: Ben Winter
The two Bens are in resounding agreement on this topic. I would like to think that our respective Traditions are also on the same page with regard to the work of Christ.
Beyond the essential dogmas about the second Person of the Trinity, there are two points of potential contention wherein our voices sound in unison. First, we both affirm the need for co-working or synergy between Christ and humanity in the realm of soteriology. Second, we both describe the cosmic role of Christ the second Adam, who has come to recreate all things and draw all of humanity to himself. This is accomplished through the self-emptying of the cross, and the subsequent story of triumph over sin, death, and the demonic powers. Let us also seek to conquer our lusts, to put away envy, greed, and pride—and to thus ascend with Christ into God, through the power of the Paraclete and the prayers of all the saints in Christ’s Body, the Church.
We welcome a continuation of this conversation in the comments section.