It’s Really All About Being

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I wasn’t sure how to title this post. One part of me wanted to say, “It’s really all ontological,” but that would lose half my readers in the maze of theological/philosophical vocabulary. I also thought about entitling it, “It’s not what you do but what you are,” and that might have been better than what I chose. My podcast this weekend on Ancient Faith Radio will also touch on this same subject.

And the subject is this: the moral life is not about the moral life – it’s really about a matter of life or death. This is the great crisis that passes some people by while others are confronted with it square on. If you read about the life of Dostoevsky the writer, you discover that his entire life’s work really flows from a near-death experience courtesy of the Tsar. Arrested for involvement with a “revolutionary” group, he was sentenced to death. The Tsar really only wanted to teach a lesson, so, at the last minute, death sentences were commuted to a few years in Siberia’s prisons. And I mean at the last minute. Dostoevsky was standing in line for the firing squad when a rider from the Tsar showed up with the commuted sentence. He described the scene in a letter to his brother some twenty years after the event. It also shows up in veiled scenes in his novels. But standing at the abyss of death he saw the world completely transformed. Time seemed to stand still and the utter value and beauty of life flooded his awareness. The result, in time, was an Orthodox Christian Dostoevsky, who grasped the Church’s teaching on the true nature of the moral life (of life itself) like no other novelist in history.

I would have to take a reader back to St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation, to find anywhere near the clarity of our human predicament.

We saw in the last chapter that, because death and corruption were gaining ever firmer hold on them, the human race was in process of destruction. Man, who was created in God’s image and in his possession of reason reflected the very Word Himself, was disappearing, and the work of God was being undone. The law of death, which followed from the Transgression, prevailed upon us, and from it there was no escape. The thing that was happening was in truth both monstrous and unfitting. It would, of course, have been unthinkable that God should go back upon His word and that man, having transgressed, should not die; but it was equally monstrous that beings which once had shared the nature of the Word should perish and turn back again into non-existence through corruption. It was unworthy of the goodness of God that creatures made by Him should be brought to nothing through the deceit wrought upon man by the devil; and it was supremely unfitting that the work of God in mankind should disappear, either through their own negligence or through the deceit of evil spirits. As, then, the creatures whom He had created reasonable, like the Word, were in fact perishing, and such noble works were on the road to ruin, what then was God, being Good, to do? (2.6)

Of course, the answer to St. Athanasius’ question is the incarnation of the Word of God and the entire economy of our salvation. But it is how he frames the question that is of importance here.

Man…was disappearing, and the work of God was being undone. The law of death, which followed from the Transgression, prevailed upon us, and from it there was no escape. The thing that was happening was in truth both monstrous and unfitting.

It is this realization that the nature of sin at work in us is not a compilation of bad test grades, a gradual legal debt being incurred by our bad actions, but, in fact, a movement away from God and a verging on non-existence: that is key. Our problem is not moral (as in keeping laws); our problem is that we stand on the edge of an abyss of non-being (from which we came). Only the free gift of life in Christ stands between us and non-being. Who cares about our legal status? We’re talking about existence!

That is the realization which struck Dostoevsky, and it is the proper realization to strike every Christian, if he or she is to be struck in the Orthodox manner. For myself, I came early to this realization through a collection of family tragedies that included the death of loved ones and the murder of another relative very close to me – all in the tenth year of my life. I was a premature existentialist. One who found the moralistic bromides of cultural protestantism absolutely insufficient.

The mystery of the Church (which I first encountered among Episcopalians) came close. And I spent twenty-eight years among them. But during that time I began to discover St. Athanasius and the tradition of the Orthodox Church (Dostoevsky included) and eventually my heart carried me to the place where the answers were stated most clearly and unabashedly. That is, I came to the fullness of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

I still think of this daily, as I contemplate my sins. I think of it daily as I serve as a priest and hear confessions. It is not the legal peccadilloes that we share in our confessions, but the evidence of death and decay at work in our heart. At every moment we stand at the edge of the abyss, and Christ alone pulls us back and draws us towards the fullness of being.

And so my title: “It’s really all about being.” It’s just that serious – but also just that saving. Our relationship with Christ is securing for us an existence that is beyond corruption and death. The healing we experience is no mere legal absolution of our sins, but the healing of our very being.

At the core of my heart I cry: “I do not want to die – but to live – and to live in the image and likeness of God!” And for that heart’s cry, Christ was born.

35 Responses to “It’s Really All About Being”

  1. Margaret Says:

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen. You are so kind to share these thoughts. It is that serious.

  2. Tracy Gustilo Says:

    Exactly.

    At bottom, this is what is so horribly wrong with western Christianity. Catholics and Protestants don’t seem to care about LIFE, EXISTENCE. All they care about is “getting to heaven” or “going to hell” via good or bad behavior — with God as the Judge and Christ as the Suffering Sacrifice that takes care of the necessary punishment that must be endured for every sin. They couldn’t care less about life, death, or non-existence. It’s like they don’t get how precarious created being is when it has fallen away from God.

    My first encounter with Orthodoxy, the first time I ever even knew it existed, was through a book that had the following quotation in it. I REMEMBER reading this and how huge an impact it made on me. I can turn right to the page even now.

    ‘All creatures are balanced upon the creative word of God, as if upon a bridge of diamond; above them is the abyss of the divine infinitude, below them that of their own nothingness,’ says Philaret of Moscow.

  3. fatherstephen Says:

    Tracy,

    Precisely. Because of my own personal history, I think, everything that said anything less than this never satisfied me. It really is all about being. Oddly, I’d rather listen to some contemporary alternative band singing about life on the razor’s edge, than read theology that is avoiding the obvious. It seems more relevant. I would add – I have read Catholic theologians who “get it.” And know Christians of many stripes who either get it or are wrestling with it. To them all I would encourage Orthodox reading, and Orthodox prayers, all of which “get it.”

  4. restless evangel Says:

    This captures the essence of much of what I experienced by attending Orthodox liturgies in Ukraine, standing alongside Babushkas, whose life on earth has been nothing but hell.

    Amazingly, these very old women are still able to create beauty and if you go to church, you see where they get their inspiration to carry on. And they do it with great dignity.

    Their life is a testament to “living in the fullness.”

  5. Tracy Gustilo Says:

    Of course, Father, I know there are some who do get it. And there are plenty of Orthodox who don’t. I worry about our Orthodox youth, for example, who pick up on pop culture ideas of what salvation IS — or, they go along with the ideas of their parents or other religious influences. There are plenty of influences out there in our “pluralistic” world (and churches). Do they see any conflict? Will they one day, having soaked up an Orthodox ethos, become thoroughly confused?

    Most of the Christian world seems happy to go along with the Morality vision, and like as not, they don’t see any real difference between the two — no fundamental difference on the level of BEING. It all becomes like a great game, or, if one gets serious, a deadly dark made-up scenario, complete with a scary projection of God, metaphysical shenanigans, and a desperate desire for Moral Code. There is no deep desire here anywhere for LIFE, or the Giver of Life! What is wanted is The Judge, and, like as not, the real motive is self-reassurance and the moral conversion of *others*.

    For my part, if Christ hasn’t tramped on death, I just don’t know what Christianity IS.

  6. fatherstephen Says:

    It is possible to raise our children, and by the grace of God, for them to be Orthodox. I would describe all 4 of my children, the youngest at 17, as very Orthodox. Indeed the youngest is sometimes shocked when we explain what it is that her protestant friends believe (when the subject comes up). As a former protestant, I’m almost amused by the fact that she doesn’t automatically know about protestantism (everyone I knew growing up was protestant – mostly Baptist). She understands more and more and is not judgmental of others, but is decidedly Orthodox and thinks in very Orthodox terms.

    I have no magical formula, other than keeping an Orthodox home, with prayers, going to Church a lot, and sending them to camp, retreats, Sunday School, and talking to them about the faith in natural settings.

    Relatively speaking, I think we talk a lot, although it always seems like we’re very quiet at home to me.

    Of course, her two older sisters are married to priests, so things are sort of thick in terms of Church and family.

    We set reasonable limits but not limits that are utterly afraid of the culture. We sometimes argue and disagree, but that’s just part of having a real relationship.

    I think life and death are such realities, that if the gospel is lovingly presented in those terms, most people will get it. It’s getting through to those who have avoided the topic for years, or had no idea that it could be addressed that is hard.

    There is also a sort of strange (relatively speaking) side to post-modernism, in which there is sort of a friendship with death, or, at least, a kind of pax mortuis – many unbelievers have made their peace with the notion of non-existence and are not troubled by it.

    Think of the recent television and movie things that have focused on the world without human beings (the history channel just did one). Some animal rights activists seem to think the world would be better without human beings. And, of course, this is largely true. We’re the sinners here.

    But the Gospel has been preached in all kinds of settings. Because it is the truth, it will and can be successfully preached. Orthodoxy has barely even begun its mission to America. Miles to go before I sleep…

  7. Michael Bauman Says:

    I’ll be bold, any Christian who has not read St. Athanasius, “On the Incarnation” has missed a foundational treatise on the faith. It is full of deep riches and yet, in the edition with the forward by C.S. Lewis, is quite approachable. It can be read over and over with profit each time.

    “Man…was disappearing, and the work of God was being undone. The law of death, which followed from the Transgression, prevailed upon us, and from it there was no escape. The thing that was happening was in truth both monstrous and and unfitting”

    People still prefer darkness to light, nothingness to being, depravity to holiness. God offered Himself up for the life of the world. Do I approach such a gift with reverance and thankfulness knowing I am unworthy, or complacent ignorance and a sense of entitlement? Am I a testimony to others for or against the existence of such a gift? Do I crucify my Lord anew with my own actions or give Him glory?

    As Shakespeare put it: “To be or not to be, that is the question.” Each time we sin we make the choice for not being driving that “bare bodkin” into our own heart in the search for our own peace apart from God. It is a the labor of Sysiphus.

    Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner–that is the door to being.

    John 6:44-53

  8. fatherstephen Says:

    Amen.

  9. handmaid Says:

    Amen, indeed.
    As an aside, in an indirect or maybe directly due to St Athanasius’ intercessions – perhaps, he has floated on the periphery of my Orthodox life. When I was first seeking a Church and still nominally an Episcopalian but hearing rumblings of trouble within the confession, I found a little Anglican church in the phone book.
    This was way back in the early 90’s long before I was actually ready to get serious. This little church’s name was St Athanasius and we had to drive right by the beautiful Orthodox Church that we attend now, Holy Theophany/Ss. Constantine & Helen Parish in Colorado Springs. This experience caused me to remember Holy Orthodoxy and to know it was a possibility for our family.
    That little church isn’t there any longer, it is Ss. Aiden & Luke I think, though still Anglican.
    I feel I owe much to St Athanasius…
    Thank you for the thoughts today Fr. Stephen.

  10. Michael Bauman Says:

    I’m not really trying to be contentious with this comment, I keep trying to find a way to word it so it is not. I’m trying to understand better. It just seems to me that a good deal of Reformed Theology that I am familar with ignores the Gospel of John. The plain, simple interpretation of the words, e.g, “Whoever believes shall be saved” (not a few, not some). “Unless you eat of my body and drink of my blood you have no life in you” If I had the time I’m sure I could make quite a lengthy list. I wish someone could explain what seems to me to be such a cognitive disconnect.

  11. fatherstephen Says:

    We will all understand and take it that this is not contentious.🙂 I myself have been in a situation (by invitation) where I was in a 3 way presentation of the faith: myself, a Catholic priest, and a Reformed pastor. The audience was a protestant college group. When I went to St. John’s gospel, fairly obvious (to me) statements of Christ that are normally taken rather literally in patristic teaching and in the faith of the Orthodox Church, were interpreted by many in the audience in ways that did everything to keep them from meaning what they obviously said. This was especially true of the passages on the Eucharist in the 6th chapter.

    I do not think John has been a central focus in the development of Protestant theology (except John 3:16) although many evangelicals who are not Calvinists would probably make great use of this gospel and its proclamation of salvation to “whomsoever will.”

    Of course, they feel a similar frustration with the Orthodox when they quote, “Call no man father,” and we explain why we treat the verse the way we do. We must frustrate each other terribly.

  12. FrGregACCA Says:

    RE: John 6, etc. vs. “call no man father.”

    John 6 is but one passage in Scripture which, by its plain words, is indicative of sacramental realism. In fact, I cannot think of a reference to either baptism or the eucharist which indicates a less than realistic understanding, and this is certainly reinforced by reading the fathers, going all the way back to the Didache, St. Clement of Rome, and St. Ignatius of Antioch. The interpretation of “call no man father, OTOH, must be conditioned by the fact that St. Paul refers to himself as a “father” and calls St. Timothy his “son”.

  13. Tracy Gustilo Says:

    Father, you wrote, “I think life and death are such realities, that if the gospel is lovingly presented in those terms, most people will get it. It’s getting through to those who have avoided the topic for years, or had no idea that it could be addressed that is hard….many unbelievers have made their peace with the notion of non-existence and are not troubled by it….”

    There are many factors involved in preaching the (real) Gospel, which has to do with being — life and death. We have a “death denying” culture, for one. People today are not confronted daily, as they were in almost all ages past, with the reality of disease, corruption, life-threatening injury, and death. When death hits today, it is a shock and numbing, and our culture and medical establishment simply try to pacify and soothe. The goal seems to be for death to become a “natural part of life” and/or for it to be dealt with in the most calm, rational, and sanitary manner. Horror and grief are not tolerated (they are not “dignified”) — probably because without a real Gospel, there is no way TO deal with them. For their part, Christians merely talk about the person “going home” to God. Is that a comfort?? It has nothing to do with the Gospel that tramples down death! I wish all funerals could be Orthodox funerals. That would be a way — perhaps “the” way — for people to hear the Gospel when it matters most.

    As to non-believers, the honest seekers at any rate, I think they don’t want to succumb to a delusion, which is what they see Christianity (the false kind) as. It’s fake. Or, it’s outright distasteful. Who wants to worship a “God” whose morals (and it’s all about morality, remember) you think are below your own. The legacy of Christian civilization is that God IS moral (unlike the old pagan gods), but the fear among non-believers today, for various reasons, is that He is not a nice guy or a good guy. Shamefully, there are plenty of Christians who promote that view. I have heard it first hand: “It doesn’t matter if He is not ‘nice.’ It’s who he IS. So suck it up and comply… and BELIEVE… or risk going to hell.” It is inexcusable! Who would want to believe in such a God? And if a person did, what would that say about him?

    You also wrote, “But the Gospel has been preached in all kinds of settings. Because it is the truth, it will and can be successfully preached. Orthodoxy has barely even begun its mission to America.”

    For a long time after my conversion I left off reading (and reading and reading), which I had done previously. It was time for me just to “be” in the Church and hear the Church’s words IN Church — and not to have all the voices one finds in books rattling around (mentally, intellectually, with no ground in Reality) in my head. Lately, however, I have gone back to studying a little. It is time. But I have wrestled with the reason for those studies. What is it I am looking for (and what ought I to be studying)? I am slowly coming to the conclusion that it is “useful words” or “expressive words” that I am seeking, ways to “successfully preach the truth.” Not that I am a preacher, but as a Christian I have to be able to speak about my faith and to witness to it. It is very difficult to do, esp. in the face of all the alternative “Christianities” out there.

    One also needs more than Scripture to do so, for Scripture is interpreted in too many ways. You have written about Fr. Behr and how he presents St. Irenaeus’ explanation of the mosaic of Christ’s face as a KING vs. a fox. This is it exactly. We have to know how to arrange the mosaic tiles of Scripture. The Fathers teach this art of arrangement. But they do it for an age and a culture that is long past. Still, as we do today, they were dealing with non-believers and with Christian heresies (departures from the real Gospel), so they should have wisdom.

    Another part of why I need to read and study is to try to keep a sure handle on the Truth within my own post-Florovskian crucible.🙂 The assaults of the world are many.

  14. fatherstephen Says:

    Indeed, father, but we sound we’re dancing around when we explain that, if I’m hearing what we sound like to others. But you are entirely correct.

    When I am being contentious, I point out that the Scriptures forbid calling anyone Mister as well (Master).🙂

  15. AR Says:

    I imagine that we are to call no man father in deference to God the Father, in the same way that we are to hate our families and our own lives in preference for Christ.

    Re: John and the Reformed. Michael, I don’t want to come off as always defending my old point of view…but I don’t like to promote misunderstandings, either. If we are going to oppose the views of those with whom we share a common confession of Christ the Lord, or anyone at all for that matter, it’s necessary to understand those views in the way they are meant.

    Calvinist theology is meant to be extremely logical. It’s based on the assumption that truth is coherent. Reformed people know that there are difficult passages relative to their interpretation. The goal is to create as coherent a system as possible using all the data. The interpretation of some of the data, i.e. certain verses of scripture, is subordinated to the needs of the system. Remember the “Deacon” and the “One-Hoss Shay.”

    I don’t blame them for this; it’s just an effort to grasp the truth without an ancient guide to remind them that the Truth we seek is ultimately unknowable and that the meanings of many scriptures are mystical rather than factual. The fact that many Biblicists who argue with Calvinists like to insist that God is “above logic” doesn’t really help because those people often have extremely disorganized and contradictory ideas about Christianity so their point doesn’t come off as very valid. I.E. Dave Hunt and etc.

    However, the idea that “whosoever will may come” to Christ is not one of those truths that Calvinists ignore. They teach this quite strongly in fact. God never turns away anyone who comes to him through Christ in true faith, they believe and confess. Ultimately, they don’t see how anyone could have that faith and that will to come without the direct intervention of God. That’s why they interpret election the way they do – it seems to provide the perfect explanation for why, if God has it in his power to save all, only some are saved.

    The idea of election is that it is something that happens outside of time and in the depths of God’s secret counsel, an impentrable source of the ultimate outcome of human history.

    Now I am going to tell you what I think is the real root difference between Orthodox and Reformed soteriology. I don’t think it’s that Calvinists want less people to be saved, or that they don’t see God as loving, or don’t want to take the scriptures literally. I think it is that they don’t understand the distinction between nature and person. Therefore the human need for salvation is simpler to them and they are able to comprehend it in one regenerative act of God. However this leaves them with the inevitable question…why doesn’t God just do this for everyone? Once that question lodges in your mind, it’s almost impossible not to assume that the apostle Paul was asking the same question in Romans 9 and interpret the following three chapters accordingly.

    As for the gospel of John, most Calvinists see it as the book that explicates their ideas most, after the epistle to the Romans. “I am the good shepherd, and my sheep hear my voice and follow me” and “Whoever the Father gives me will come to me and of all who come to me I will lose none” and “No man can come to me unless the Father draw him” are verses they ponder often, seeking to understand the gracious and inscrutable will of God whereby they find themselves cleaving to Christ while their loved ones and neighbors and friends pass Him by. As most people do with something they can’t understand or bear, they seek for the answer in God and as Christians they try to become resigned to it as to his will. I don’t see this as an evil impulse though the outcome falls short.

    I hope this makes it a little easier to understand those at whom you find your mind so boggled. I actually think, based on my own experience, that the Calvinist model of regeneration makes a very good bridge to the idea of theosis. However you are correct that a suspicion must at some point sneak in that there are more to these sacraments than meets the eye, if one is going to begin crossing the bridge, and the gospel of John ought to provide exactly that suspicion. Remember the demands of the system, though. It’s not easy being born Protestant, Michael!🙂

  16. Michael Bauman Says:

    AR, thank you, three things stand out to me in what you say: 1. the demands of a system; 2. the lack of distinction between nature and person; 3. trying to maintain a simplicity about God. I’ll have to think about those for awhile.

    It’s not easy being born outside the Church either. I came to the Church by just about every backdoor and side road you can imagine. It is a path I’d want no one to repeat. Consequently, I’ve only gotten snippets of Protestant theology from time to time. It is tough for me to keep all the influences straight and I really miss the nuances.

    I have conversations with a man who actually seems to know Reformed Theology pretty well, he attended Liturgy with me once. We get along well. He is able to see distinct differences between the Orthodox and Rome and has very little problem with us. He’s a bit of a rounder now and I feel as if his ideas of predestination preclude, to him, the idea of repentance and healing. How does repentance and the fact of besetting sins fit into the mold?

  17. fatherstephen Says:

    For readers of books who think much about these things:

    Vladimir Lossy makes interesting forays into the realm of nature and person, but I’m not sure his final conclusions are helpful.

    I think the category of Person is by far the most helpful in our Christian lives.

    The best development of Person that I have seen is in the devotional (more or less) writings of the Elder Sophrony. Thus I commend them strongly.

  18. AR Says:

    Thank you, for that recommendation, Father Stephen. Lossky’s Mystical Theology etc. is the most theological book I’ve read within Orthodoxy so this is helpful. Did you mean to say that you disagree with Lossky’s ideas or just that he doesn’t tie it all together clearly enough?

  19. AR Says:

    Michael, thanks for sharing your background, it’s good to understand where people are coming from. I had assumed you were born Orthodox but that was hasty, I see.

    For me Orthodox theology is still very indistinct. I’ve just grabbed on to a few important truths and other than that I try to practice it and I find that the practice helps most of all in understanding Orthodoxy. It was the opposite where I came from – understanding came by reading words, assuming the Holy Spirit assisted with enlightenment. Anyway, trying to compare my old and new ways of thinking is difficult.

    I think I see your difficulty with your friend. Yes, it’s quite true that if you believe in election there is always that nagging fear in the back of your mind that you aren’t one of the ones. If you ask a Calvinist pastor how you can know whether you are elect, he’ll tell you the only way to “make your election sure” is to experience God’s salvation and live in His will. The experience of grace in your life will indicate that you belong to Christ. If you find that you can’t seem to do this, you have a big problem and it can create despair.

    I think it still goes back to this inability to distinguish between nature and person, apologies if I’ve misunderstood what the Orthodox say about it. That is, with everything riding on this initial act of God in regenerating one’s nature, if it appears that the grace accompanying your initial conversion is insufficient to make you holy for the rest of your life then it was probably a false or spurious conversion. Especially since “falling away from the faith” indicates that you were never truly regenerate in the first place, and the warnings in Hebrews seem to make it clear that once you’ve fallen away there’s no coming back.

    And in light of this I see what you meant at first. Someone like this would be ignoring the plain words…come and I’ll heal you, come and I won’t cast you out…because they are paralyzed by fear that they CANT come. And according to their system they might be correct…you can’t come until you are regenerate because until then you have nothing within your nature that would ally you to God and his holiness, nothing that would approve of holy things and love them, nothing that would trust Christ because nothing that could see the beauty of Christ. To sum up: If you thought you were regenerate but find yourself still chained by a besetting sin, you begin to doubt the reality of your initial experience and little hope then remains of experiencing God’s renewing grace.

    This is an awful burden and I understand your frustration with it if you are dealing with it in a friend. The experience of trying to live a system can sometimes be terribly different from someone’s good intentions in creating it. Thanks for talking.

  20. AR Says:

    I should add that most protestant interpret “come unto Me” as a call to salvation which they limit to one’s initial conversion or regeneration experience.

  21. Fatherstephen Says:

    I would have to be a great theologian to disagree with Lossky. Apparently when studied very closely, he and Zizioulas come down in slightly different places.

    It just that I find Sophrony more helpful and readable, though deep.

  22. AR Says:

    Ah.

  23. molleth Says:

    What an excellent excellent post. Thank you.

  24. Carl Says:

    AR, your explanation of the danger of Reformed theology definitely falls into line with my own experiences. I was raised Presbyterian, and when I fell into sin later in my life, I definitely found myself wondering if the reason why was that I was predestined for Hell.

    Now, I’m taking great comfort in the words, “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” and the rest of the pre-Communion confessional prayer.

  25. Oliver Goodrich Says:

    Father, thank you for this posting. I am particularly struck by a paragraph near the end:

    Our relationship with Christ is securing for us an existence that is beyond corruption and death. The healing we experience is no mere legal absolution of our sins, but the healing of our very being. The healing we experience is no mere legal absolution of our sins, but the healing of our very being.

    As I read this, I am struck by the magnitude of the healing we experience through relationship with Christ – it is eternal! And even more than taht, as we experience relationship with Christ here and now through the Church and the sacraments, we (quite literally) taste eternity, immortality. We experience that eternal life already – what a mystery, that we do not need to wait until the age to come to experience this existential change.

    I’m curious to know if there is any connection between this notion (of our present partaking in eternal life) and the last line of the creed, namely our belief “in the life of the age to come”?

  26. William Says:

    I think another root difference between Reformed and Orthodox soteriology, in addition to the Reformed misunderstanding of the distinction between nature and person, is also the emphasis on what Christ’s death entailed. Rather than seeing Christ as the innocent yet willing victim of the sins of the world, he is seen by the Reformed (and by Protestants in general) as the scapegoat for God’s punishment aimed at sinners.

    If Christ is merely a scapegoat for sin, taking on the guilt and punishment of sinners, then it would stand to reason that, because not everyone appears to be saved, then his atonement must be limited in some fashion. Either that or everyone will somehow be saved, despite appearances.

    However, if Christ is thought of as the sole true victim of all the world’s sins, then one can see how it is that Jesus is able to offer forgiveness to all who have sinned against him (everyone) and give it to those who ask for mercy (only some), and how he can forgive over and over the one who keeps returning to him after sinning again. Also, by extension, this view also makes clear why none of us has the right to withhold forgiveness when someone sins against us; we are not the true victims, our sufferings are suffered by Christ!

    This gets at the heart of what it means that Jesus Christ “became sin” and what it means that “the Lord has laid on him (or caused to land on him) the iniquity of us all.”

  27. fatherstephen Says:

    Oliver,

    I’ve never seen a specific reference, viz. the last phrase of the Creed, but it is quite clear that the Life we partake in Christ, here and now, is indeed the same as the Life of the world to come, for He is the only Life of the world, now and forever.

    William,

    Once you make a move from the forensic metaphors of much of Protestantism, and see that the Scripture is speaking in a far more ontological manner, the Scriptures open up. They cease to be the delicate constructions of interpreters and speak clearly for themselves. Obviously the Tradition has to guide us – but one of the first thing the Tradition does is teach us that the language of Scripture is about our very being and not about our legal status before God.

  28. William Says:

    I agree. I think it’s been said on this site before, but I’m continually blown away at how much more expansive and clear scripture became for me when I began to discover how it is read in Tradition.

  29. Carl Says:

    William, your explanation was quite excellent. It took a thought that I have held inchoate for a while and made it clear. It makes me think that of the monotheistic religions only Christianity has a good theodicy, for only in Christianity does God Himself take up the terrible pains of the world and in so doing over throw them and show them all to be naught in comparison with His Glory. In a monotheistic religion without this component, one is obliged to ask, how could a good God create a fallen world. In Christianity, the answer is clear: out of love for us, who otherwise would not exist.

  30. William Says:

    Thanks, Carl. I really appreciate the insight you shared. I hadn’t extended the thought that far. After reading a bit of St. Athanasius and then rereading what I wrote, I realize it’s quite insufficient as an explanation of soteriology, but I hope it was useful in looking at some aspects of forgiveness and suffering.

  31. dcn. Alexander Says:

    The transformative power of the approach of death is something deeply grounding, all of the “fluff” that makes up our lives attains its proper perspective. I was given this beautiful poem on this very topic – about a Soviet Solider about to die… it is not morbid but truimphant – I hope that you like it.

    POEM OF A SOLDIER
    The following poem was found on the body of a Russian soldier killed in one of the fiercest battles with the Germans during World War II.

    * * *

    Listen, God? for never in my life before

    Have I spoken with You, but today
    I want to greet You. As You know,

    From childhood I was always told
    That You do not exist?

    And I so stupidly believed it.

    I never gazed at your creations, but tonight
    I looked out from a crater dug by a grenade

    At the starry sky above me; and I understood
    Quite suddenly, while marveling at the lights,

    How cruel a lie can be.

    I don’t know, God, if You will stretch Your hand to me?
    But I will tell You and You’ll understand ?
    Is it not marvelous that amid this fiery hell

    I’ve suddenly seen the light of knowing You?

    That’s all I have to say. Just one more thing?
    I’m glad that I have come to know You.

    At midnight we are set for an attack,
    Yet I’m not scared: You’re looking down upon us.

    The signal? Well, I must be off?

    How wonderful to talk to You? And I just want to add
    That, as You know, the battle will be fierce,

    And so perhaps this very night
    I will come knocking on Your door.

    And though I have not been Your friend before,

    Will you allow me to come in??
    But I am crying… O my God? You see,

    My eyes have opened to the light.

    Farewell, my God? I’m off? and hardly will return.
    How strange? but death now holds no fear for me at all.

  32. at joshua.treviño.at Says:

    […] “It is this realization that the nature of sin at work in us is not a compilation of bad test grades, a gradual legal debt being incurred by our bad actions, but, in fact, a movement away from God and a verging on non-existence: that is key. Our problem is not moral (as in keeping laws); our problem is that we stand on the edge of an abyss of non-being (from which we came). Only the free gift of life in Christ stands between us and non-being. Who cares about our legal status? We’re talking about existence!” Share and enjoy, gentlemen: These icons link to social bookmarking sites where readers can share and discover new web pages. […]

  33. In Christ is True Existence « Glory to God for All Things Says:

    […] have written recently that the true central question of our relationship with God goes to the very fact of our existence, that “in Him we live and move and have our being.” I have also written some short […]

  34. the art of the unretirement [or how to go back to blogging after you've been cleansed from everyone's rss feed] « moving towards existence … Says:

    […] this idea first sparked into my mind from fr stephen freeman, specifically his posts on “being“.  how our very idea of existence is tied to God. we can’t exist without Him. without […]

  35. wheretruthleads Says:

    This is absolutely beautiful. I was an atheist until I found Dostoevsky, and now I am considering converting to Orthodoxy. It is minds like yours that show Christianity isn’t about sentimentalism, or overly legalistic pronouncements of sin and retribution. Thank you, father, for sharing your wisdom. I am now a joyous follower of your blog. Much peace to you.

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