Orthodox Substitutionary Atonement

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For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures… (1 Cor. 15:3-4)

No statement is more central to the Christian faith than what Paul states here. He did not receive this through any particular “tradition” (contrary to opinions of men 2000 years after the fact) but from Jesus Christ Himself as he states :

But I make known to you, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. (12) For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through the revelation of Jesus Christ (Gal 1:11-12)

This concept of substitutionary atonement, however, is so hotly debated today; but how did many of the fathers of the Church interpret what this meant? This site has addressed this many times but let us take another look.

Metropolitan Macarius Nevsky of Moscow

“The justice of God demands the punishment of the sinner, but the love of God demands clemency. According to the justice of God, the sinner, as having nothing by which he could satisfy this eternal justice, must be subject to eternal torments. But love demands mercy. The Wisdom of God found a means to satisfy both justice and love. This means is the Redemptive Sacrifice of the Son of God. Christ paid by His blood for the debts of all sinners. They are forgiven, but after baptism people have again offended both the justice and the love of God. Consequently, they have again become heirs of hell. Then love wishes again to have mercy, and does not subject the sinner to eternal punishment, but punishes him temporarily, calling on him to repent through this punishment. If the sinner repents, the Lord forgives him, having established for this the Sacrament of Repentance, while Christ receives him into communion with Himself through the Sacrament of Communion.”

John of Damascus, Dialogue against the Manichaeans, 37

“a judge justly punishes one who is guilty of wrongdoing; and if he does not punish him he is himself a wrongdoer. In punishing him the judge is not the cause either of the wrongdoing or of the vengeance taken against the wrongdoer, the cause being the wrongdoer’s freely chosen actions. Thus too God, Who saw what was going to happen as if it had already happened, judged it as if it had taken place; and if it was evil, that was the cause of its being punished. It was God Who created man, so of course He created him in goodness; but man did evil of his own free choice, and is himself the cause of the vengeance that overtakes him.”

Gregory Palamas

“A sacrifice was needed to reconcile the Father on High with us and to sanctify us, since we had been soiled by fellowship with the evil one. There had to be a sacrifice which both cleansed and was clean, and a purified, sinless priest… It was clearly necessary for Christ to descend to Hades, but all these things were done with justice, without which God does not act.” Homily 16, 1, 2, 21

“Man was led into his captivity when he experienced God’s wrath, this wrath being the good God’s just abandonment of man. God had to be reconciled with the human race, for otherwise mankind could not be set free from the servitude. A sacrifice was needed to reconcile the Father on high with us and to sanctify us, since we had been soiled by fellowship with the evil one. There had to be a sacrifice which both cleansed and was clean, and a purified, sinless priest…. God overturned the devil through suffering and His Flesh which He offered as a sacrifice to God the Father, as a pure and altogether holy victim – how great is His gift! – and reconciled God to the human race…” Homily 16, 21, 24, 31

Blessed Theophylact

“Since the Lord offered Himself up for us in sacrifice to the Father, having propitiated Him by His death as High Priest and then, after the destruction of sin and cessation of enmity, sent unto us the Spirit, He says: ‘I will beseech the Father and will give you a Comforter, that is, I will propitiate the Father for you and reconcile Him with you, who were at enmity with Him because of sin, and He, having been propitiated by My death for you and been reconciled with you, will send you the Spirit.” Explanation of the Gospel of John, 14.16

Archbishop Theophan

“But if the Holy Fathers and Teachers of the Church look at the Old Testament sacrifices in this way, then still more significance must they give to the redemptive death of Christ the Savior for the human race on Golgotha. And this is indeed what we see. They all recognize the death of Christ the Savior on Golgotha to be a sacrifice offered by Him as propitiation for the human race, and that, moreover, in the most literal, not at all metaphorical meaning of this word. And from this point of view the death of Christ the Savior on Golgotha is for them ‘the great mystery’ of the redemption of the human race from sin, the curse and death and ‘the great mystery’ of the reconciliation of sinful humanity with God.” On the Redemption, pp. 25-27

Basil the Great

‘The Lord had to taste death for each, and having become a propitiatory sacrifice for the world, justify all by His blood’ Letter to Bishop Optimus

“There be some that trust in their strength, and boast themselves in the multitude of their riches. A brother cannot redeem; shall a man redeem? He shall not give to God a ransom for himself, nor the price of the redemption of his own soul” (Psalm 48.7-9): ‘This sentence is directed by the prophet to two types of persons: to the earthborn and to the rich…. You, he says, who trust in your own strength…. And you, he says, who trust in the uncertainty of riches, listen…. You have need of ransoms that you may be transferred to the freedom of which you were deprived when conquered by the power of the devil, who, taking you under his control, does not free you from his tyranny until, persuaded by some worthwhile ransom, he wishes to exchange you. And the ransom must not be of the same kind as the things which are held in his control, but must differ greatly, if he would willingly free the captives from slavery. Therefore a brother is not able to ransom you. For no man can persuade the devil to remove from his power him who has once been subject to him, not he, at any rate, who is incapable of giving God a propitiatory offering even for his own sins…. But one thing was found worth as much as all men together. This was given for the price of ransom for our souls, the holy and highly honored blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, which He poured out for all of us; therefore we were bought at a great price (I Corinthians 6.20)….

“No one is sufficient to redeem himself, unless He comes Who turns away “the captivity of the people” (Exodus 13.8), not with ransoms nor with gifts, as it is written in Isaiah (52.3), but with His own blood… He Who “shall not give to God His own ransom”, but that of the whole world. He does not need a ransom, but He Himself is the propitiation. “For it was fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, undefiled, set apart from sinners, and become higher than the heavens. He does not need to offer sacrifices daily (as the other priests did), first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people” (Hebrews 7.26-27) Homily 19 on Psalm 48, 3, 4

“’The Scriptures do not reject all sacrifices in general,’but the Jewish sacrifices. For he says: “What to Me is the multitude of your sacrifices?” (Isaiah 1.11). He does not approve of the many, but demands the one sacrifice. Every person offers himself as a sacrifice to God, presenting himself as “a living sacrifice, pleasing to God”, through “rational service” he has offered to God the sacrifice of praise (Romans 12.1). But insofar as the many sacrifices under the law have been rejected as useless, the one sacrifice offered in the last times is accepted. For the Lamb of God took upon Himself the sin of the world, “gave Himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5.2)… There are no longer the “continual” sacrifices (Exodus 29.42), there are no sacrifices on the day of atonement, no ashes of the heifer cleansing “the defiled persons” (Hebrews 9.13). For there is one sacrifice of Christ and the mortification of the saints in Christ; one sprinkling – “the washing of regeneration” (Titus 3.5); one propitiation for sin – the Blood poured out for the salvation of the world.’” Works, Russian edition, Sergiev Posad, 1892, vol. I, pp. 241-242

SEE THE OTHER POSTS ON THIS SITE ALSO IN REGARD TO SUBSTITUTIONARY ATONEMENT. There are some today who are outright denying this juridical aspect of the atonement of Christ as taught by the scriptures and the Fathers, and instead teaching a purely “therapeutic” model, which is a true aspect of the atonement – but by itself is a dangerous half-truth when ALL the scriptural and patristic evidence is examined.

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