The Mystery of our Salvation is contained within the Cross of our God and Savior Jesus Christ. And it is correct to say the “mystery of our salvation,” for what is contained there is more than a cosmic transaction (Christ pays for our sins): it is also the whole of our way of life. It is truly the mystery of our salvation.
The extent of this mystery is hinted at in Christ’s admonition: “Whosoever would be my disciple must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.” This clearly goes much further than a single transaction or even our faith in the efficacy of that transaction.
The mystery is again invoked in St. Paul’s statement: “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live. Yet, not I, but Christ liveth in me. And the life that I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.”
The clearest statement of this mystery is perhaps found in St. Paul’s description of the “mind of Christ” in the second chapter of Philippians:
Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Here the Apostle speaks of the Cross in its universal form – the mystery is being unfolded. To take up our cross and follow Christ is to have within ourselves the “mind which is yours in Christ Jesus.” That “mind” (phronema) is a complete orientation of our life – a life that understands that only in the path of self-emptying are we to find the path of exaltation. Our salvation – our deliverance from the emptiness of death – is found, mysteriously, in our willingness to be empty for Christ’s sake. The way of the Cross is the way of life, and, a way of life.
This is the path that martyrs have traveled. It is the path that everyone who would know love must travel. For love is found in “laying down its life for its friends.”
What we see in the Cross of Christ is surely everything we say of it as the moment of our salvation. There Christ died for us. There His blood was shed for us. There His life was poured out for the life of the world. There we were reconciled to God.
But the Cross also stands outside of time and for all time (the Lamb was slain”before the foundation of the earth”). The Cross was always the way of life. Love, self-emptying love, was always the love of God for all mankind – though until He made it manifest in the Cross of Christ we did not know it.
But now we know it. And now it should become our mind.
September 14 is the Feast of the Universal Exaltation of the Life-Giving Cross
An additional thought:
The Orthodox Tradition, as it developed in ancient Syria, had a great devotion to the Cross of Christ. It was believed by the Orthodox in Syria that the Shekinah glory of God, which had once dwelt in the Ark of the Covenant and filled the Temple in Jerusalem, came to reside in the Cross following Christ’s death and resurrection. There was thus a very deep and profound devotion for the Cross (any Cross) within Syrian Orthodox practice. It serves, I think, as a reminder that the Cross we wear from our Baptism, the sign of the Cross that we make when we pray, and the Cross wherever it is depicted and displayed, should be approached with great reverence and care. It is not (as the popular culture would make it) jewelry for the decoration of our bodies nor mere art. It is the sign of our salvation and the mystery of its power was ever held in great reverence by early Christians (and everywhere to this day by Orthodox Christians).
Before Thy Cross We bow down and worship, O Master, And Thy holy resurrection, we glorify!
wow! this is so profound and encouraging! thank you! many blessings to you Fr. Stephen!
A wonderful post (again), Father Stephen.
I’m with you on the central message but I found myself tripping some on the passage from Phillipians because of the difference in translation from the RC scripture. (“Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus, Who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.”)
The Orthodox use of “mind” intuitively seems more complete a meaning than “attitude” and therefore feels right, though I know nothing of scripture translation. Where I find myself puzzled is “thought it not robbery to be equal with God”.
I particularly love this passage and I would be interested in your comments about the meaning behind these words as translated. Thank you.
mary benton I agree with you completely the roman catholics totally miss it.
The NAB is an awful translation. It is a shame that it is so widely used. It is a product of the 1960s (released 1970, I believe). I’ve heard rumblings of a revised translation. Get the Douay-Rheims in the mean time!
“There I find myself puzzled is “thought it not robbery to be equal with God.”
This is a poetic way of saying that the Word shares really and completely in the divinity of the Father: He need not grasp for it (rob it), as did Adam, for it is His by nature.
What translation is used in most Orthodox churches?
I use the Orthodox Study Bible which is NKJV/LXX.
So do I. 😉 But what translation used at the Divine Liturgy?
we, obviously, use no translation but the original -well, in the Greek Churches that we attend-, but I think that in the English speaking Churches in the States it is the KJV
After Divine Liturgy last night, my priest gave a brief but strong homily on the haters of the Cross: those who call themselves Christians and those secular and Muslim. The object was to remind us that if we are to be Christian, we must live the life of the Cross–the kneotic life that Fr. Stephan mentions. The Lord promises that “all these things will be added to” those who follow Him exclusively.
Through the Cross, all things needful especially our salvation are given. Mercy, Grace, love and the ordering of the created world so that the bounty of God’s creation is shared and protected. However, if we seek the created thing instead of seeking God, we fall into sin, degradation and idolatry which lead to the forfeiture our own salvation.
His Body and Blood that sanctified the Cross also sanctifies us and we can become a living Cross.
I noticed one of the hymns today under a new light, loosely translated as saying: “Oh! Cross, Joy of the world” what a lovely paradox explaining the otherworldly Joy of the martyr’s phronema…
PJ – thanks for the clarification about “robbery” – makes sense. (FYI – the new RC translation has been out for a bit, abbreviated NABRE.)
Leonard – please be kind to the Roman Catholics, of which I am one :-). Both within and between our churches, we as individuals are all in different places in our understanding. Our understanding grows as we share, though none of us has perfect understanding.
Mary I am one as well. But I stand by the thought that attitude is very weak compared to mind. The 1960’s have not been kind to the Roman church in the United States!
PJ, in English, most often the KJV or the NKJV or the RSV. The NRSV has been specifically forbidden in my jurisdiction. The primary reason for using the KJV or NKJV is not their English, but because their manuscript tradition primarily uses the “Byzantine Lectionary” tradition, which was the most readily form available in the 16-17th century. This, too, because they do not use the Vulgate as was the case for Douay Rheims at some points. But the recent NKJV uses the LXX as a corrective for the OT text, which, generally, would be preferred by the Orthodox, though not always dogmatically so.
I’m very fond of my Orthodox Study Bible in terms of the translation and commentary, as well as the look and feel (its “heft” is very pleasant). I need my Bible to have a certain “texture,” you know? I do wish, however, that the editors had cited the various patristic quotes.
Mary, PJ, et al.,
The new NABRE has the 1986 translation of the New Testament, which is the one we’re all familiar with from the good ol’ NAB (from 1986 on). I’m not sure if there are plans to revise the New Testament.
It is a vile translation. They especially butchered the psalms. I literally cringe at times. Damn you, mid-20th century!
In the Greek, the best rendering of the verse that I can give would be, “He did not think being equal to God as being something that he should hang on to” …but emptied himself.
The reason I rendered it that way, the “equal to God,” is clearly a single phrase in the Greek. The word variously translated “robbery,” etc. has the meaning of the “stuff” you get when you rob someone – something like “loot,” or “booty” (if you’re a pirate), etc. So Christ, even though he existed in the form of God, didn’t think of that Divine Equality as though it were a prize or loot that he should cling to, but emptied himself (gave up the prize or loot) and, accepting the form of a servant (same word as for “form of God”), being in the likeness of men, in the “shape” of a man (this is hard to translate – the word is literally schema), he humbled himself, being obedient unto death, even death on a cross, etc.”
It is also interesting, that St. Paul uses one verb for “being in the form of God,” that is different from “being in the likeness of men.” The first “being” is a very strong word, best translated as “existing.” The other is weaker, meaning just “being.” It is a very strong, though primitive, assertion of the divinity of Christ. He exists as equal to God. Take that Arius!
It should be added that scholars generally think that Phil 2:5-11 is an ancient hymn that St. Paul is quoting – a dogmatic hymn of the first century Church – older than the NT. There are many things in the NT that demonstrate that they are “older” than the written forms of the NT. The Tradition was quite mature long before the text of the NT.
How do you understand “emptied Himself”? Specifically what do you think that entails. What do you think John 14.28 means? How has that been understood over the years?
I find it shockingly magnanimous of God, that Man’s creation from the beginning, contains within it the Cross. Like the Father of the Prodigal son, God gave Man from the beginning the freedom to be able to say to Him, “you are as if dead to me!”, “as far as I am concerned you don’t exist!”, “give me my stuff and let me have no relationship to you whatsoever!”.
Is this not emptying of Himself even from the first moment of creating us?
I remember Elder Sophrony once saying that Christ incarnate and on the Cross manifested to us God’s utter humility so that we can never again blame Him for what befalls us -as we always default to doing- but, look for the blame “elsewhere”.
Another Father went as far as saying that Christ has emptied himself to such an extent towards us, that he has made us His ‘god’… Our God sees us wretched worms with such desire!, yet we still concern ourselves with futile matters other than the one thing needed…
I think emptied himself means the ‘reverse’ fulfilment of the 1st commandment… He demonstrated His love towards us with all His being beyond all comprehension, partaking of the blackest of human Hell for our sake, even though He eternally remains Hypostasised Paradise Himself.
Father Stephen & others,
Thank you for your enlightening comments – and for this forum that allows me the opportunity to interact with all of you.
We cannot fully understand the kenosis of the Word. However, His self-emptying refers, at minimum, to His incarnation as a creature, His obscure life, His ignoble death, and His descent into Hades.
As for the verse from John, it speaks to the Father’s monarchy. The Father is the source of divinity, the “principle without principle” (arche anarchos); or, as St. Augustine wrote, “The Father is the Principle of the whole Deity” (On the Trinity).
That verse is very easy to abuse. That is why it is important to read Scripture within the tradition of the Church.
Thank you for a great exposition on the Cross of Christ for our feast day! The Syrian tradition of devotion to all crosses is definitely a wonderful dichotomy to what the hateful rejection of the cross here in the US under the auspices of church-government separation. Thanks 🙂
The self-emptying of Christ looks toward both his Divinity and his Humanity. It is a “personal” self-emptying, particularly as he accepts death, hades (hell), etc., for our salvation. The Eastern fathers tend to understand these things in fairly “ontological” terms. Existence (being) is inherently good. Non-existence, or the movement towards non-existence, is the very nature of death, hell, hades, etc. It is a movement away from God.
Thus Christ’s death is tied to this very strongly in Orthodox understanding. It is his willing embrace of the “emptiness” of death, etc., that constitutes his kenosis. Death is the very contradiction of being.
In modern times, the Elder Sophrony (of Essex), has written the most that I know of on the topic, under the heading of the true nature of “personal” existence. In some ways, kenosis is the very heart of true personal existence. We save our lives by losing them – indeed they only truly existence when they exist for others. God is the “For-Others” (also Zizioulas has written on this of late). Thus God as Father is “for-the-Son-and-for-the-Spirit,” the Son is “for-the-Father.” “I only do those things which I see the Father do,” Christ says. This is not so much a “subordination” as it is a “for-others” life. It is the true character of personal existence (as opposed to individual existence). It is what it means to say that “God is love.”
In the same vein, John 14:28 is read in that manner. It is a dynamic statement rather than an ontological assessment. It is how the Son speaks of the Father. “This is my beloved Son, listen to Him,” is how the Father speaks of the Son.
I’ve been lurking here and appreciating this blog for some time now, and finally feel compelled to add a quote by C.S. Lewis that seems really relevant: “It [is] the rule of the universe that others can do for us what we cannot do for ourselves and one can paddle every canoe except one’s own. That is why Christ’s suffering for us is not a mere theological dodge but the supreme case of the law that governs the whole world: and when they mocked him by saying, ‘He saved others, himself he cannot save,’ they were really uttering, little as they knew, the ultimate law of the spiritual world.”
Thank you, Fr Stephen, for your blog and your podcasts. I find them, as so many others do, very refreshing and enlightening.
Dear Father Stephen,
Thank you so much for your patient and elaborate explanation of this particular verse. I knew it should mean something like that, but I could never put it in such an eloquent and easy way. Thank you so much for this wonderful blog. May God grant you many years…
Wy wife and I were talking last night about Fr. Stephan’s word’s concerning a ‘life for others’ and came to the conclusion that the cross of marriage (framed in this way) is what gives marriage its joy and why conjugal images are frequently used to describe our union with Jesus Christ.
While there is always podvig and the way of the Cross means that we will face suffering, it is also the way of joy.
The paradox that “the Cross is our unshakeable Joy” and that, as a rule, “pleasure is followed by pain, while the pain (of the Cross) is followed by Joy”, points to a different way of thinking, that of the Martyrs and great Ascetics of whom the world is not worthy, yet, who are the only leaven that can change the world…
Marriage is truly ascetic and it is a shame we view it the way we often do – which is almost as secular as the world views it.
Admittedly, ‘pain’ (difficulties) is mainly involuntary and pleasure (of body and soul) the voluntary choice in Marriage, while the reverse is true (or rather should be true!) of monastic callings: ascetical pain is a voluntary choice and spiritual pleasure an ‘involuntary’ result. However, both paths are clearly Cross-bearing paths that lead to the same Kingdom, even if one sometimes resembles taking the scenic route and the other taking the high altitude aeroplane…
dinoship: the question is which is the scenic root.
In a world who holds up a fantasy view of marriage as the goal, a world that is hunting our children to devour their souls, a world that has few extended families to help so people are left isolated, a world that seeks to destroy the family altogether and earning a living without morally, ethically and spiritually compromising one’s self is becoming increasingly difficult, there are days when the devotion and ascetic struggle of a monastary under the guidance of a spiritual father looks wonderful.
I know, the grass is greener, but still….. each is a vocation that must be discerned and comitted to in Christ and the Church and blessed by her in order to bear fruit.
The real point is that we need one another to share the burden. Frankly, I would not make it were it not for my wife. We lift each other up daily and face the challenges knowing that each is praying for the other, taking care of each other.
Marriage is the scenic route, full of distractions, and monasticism is obviously the far more efficient aeroplane transportaion. There is no doubt about that…
However, humanity is becoming so secular, that no matter which route we go for, those years of upbringing have left an indellible effect on us.
Frankly, we are saved through involuntary tribulations to a large extent in marriage, and the distractions of secular life makes our preparation for enjoying this Cross-bearing of those tribulations incomplete and therefore difficulaties are that much less enjoyable.
But our generation is struggling to produce monastics who jump into the fire of tribulations voluntarilly too…
One has to maintain that “flame”, remember, not just taste of it a few times, in order for a zealous life of self denyial to flourish.
Irrespective of the path and the path’s weakening distractions (or strengthening elements), the goal is the same 2 commandments of Love…
Also, the classic consolation for married persons I hear in the Holy Mountain is: better to be married and eye-up the greener grass of manasticism, than to be a monastic and desire the ‘world’ you gave up…
What do you think about Kyriacos Markides? Don’t mean to sidetrack this thread, but I’m considering buying his books and I’ve heard mixed reviews.
I had the same thoughts as you about his book when it was recommended as a good book present for an outsider… I bought it for them as a present, and read it before to make sure. Both the criticisms and the recommendations are valid.
It covers most important issues well and succinctly, yet, you will surely notice a new age kind of syncretistic approach to his exposition of them. I am not sure whether he is trying to pitch it towards the new age influenced crowd and uses that approach as a ‘bait’ to lure them in or not. Irrespective of that it is not a bad book at all. There are better ones of course…
Thanks. Your review fits the impression I formed from listening to his interview on Ancient Faith. He clearly stretches the boundaries of orthodoxy on certain issues (hell, for instance). That said, he seems to have wonderful insights on other matters.
Father, I have some questions about the Eastern Church’s views on salvation, if you don’t mind my asking.
1. How do works relate to salvation? I am an evangelical Protestant, so I’m naturally nervous when people brings works into discussions of salvation. Anyway, I read of a discussion between an evangelical organisation and an orthodox priest (who was a former evangelical himself). They began discussing the creed of the organisation, at which they reached these lines: “We further confess that salvation is only possible through faith alone in Christ alone because of God’s grace alone. We reject that any works of righteousness contribute in any way to man’s salvation.” The priest said he was alright with the first line, provided that faith would always produce good works, but was not thrilled with the second line, since one cannot make a distinction between faith and works (this seems fairly reasonable. After all, good works are faith in action. Simply, we act upon what we believe. If we don’t act upon what we profess, we don’t really believe it). What the priest said sounds to me like sola fide. Would this be an accurate statement? Does the priest represent Orthodox teaching?
2. Do the Orthodox believe in the ‘perseverance of the saints’, or eternal security? Do they believe in assurance of salvation in this life? Do they teach that a Believer can lose his salvation?
3. What is the Orthodox view on predestination? (On that note, what do they think of John Calvin? In Catholic circles he’s a bogeyman. G. K. Chesterton called him a heretic!)
4. Do the Orthodox teach ‘nulla salus extra ecclesium?’ And if so, how exactly do they define ‘the Church’? Is it visible? Invisible?
I know I have so many questions, father, so thank you for bearing with me. God bless!
Very substantial questions, but I’ll try to be succinct. Glad you’re reading the blog, you’ll find helpful information and thoughts.
One problem to start with is what evangelicals often mean by “salvation.” In Orthodoxy, salvation means union with Christ and being conformed to His image. It is a completion and fullness of what we were created to be, and greater than that through union with Him. This tends to make all Orthodox thought on the topic to be rather “process” oriented and not “static.” No state (justification, etc.) is a single thing. Everything is everything, to a degree. Our words are more or less descriptions of an aspect, etc., but not definitions.
In addition, grace is understood to be the very life of God Himself, the Divine Eneergies. It is not God’s attitude, or generosity, or “unmerited favor.” Grace is both what saves us and is the very substance of our salvation. To be saved is union with the Grace of God, by which we are changed and to which we are united.
In St. Paul, “works” generally refer to religious actions such as ritual aspects of the Law. They do not refer to things like giving to the poor, prayer, etc. This false distinction is what St. James speaks to – I never know why evangelicals dismiss St. James while championing their misunderstandings of St. Paul. Our “works,” meaning “what we do,” are no less important than “what we think” (“faith”). What we do does not “save” us, in that everything we receive from God is His grace.
This makes the whole discussion of salvation quite problematic with Western Christians.
Our works (what we do) obviously are related to our very selves. How can they be unrelated to our salvation? My cooperating with grace (doing in my actions the very things that grace is making possible) obviously plays a role in expressing and allowing my salvation to be realized. It is part of the transformation of our lives by grace. Faith, rightly understood, is the attitude of heart that yields to God.
Second. We don’t really have opinions on these things. They’ve never been part of Orthodox conversation. They grow out of Calvin’s speculations. They are “man’s opinions” and not the stuff of salvation.
Third. Orthodoxy has formally condemned the notion of predestination – when it is understood to mean that God has created us in such a way that our freedom has no relation to the outcome of our life. That He would create someone predestined for damnation is considered to be an evil doctrine, a very dark heresy that destroys the true understanding of the good God. This condemnation came in the 16th century in response to a Patriarch of Jerusalem who became a Calvinist (he studied in Switzerland).
Fourth. It is a highly nuanced acceptance of St. Cyprian – indeed there is some continuing discussion of what the phrase should mean. Orthodoxy believes in One, Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church and that the communion of the Orthodox Church is that same Church, visible. We believe that grace is everywhere and that God wills to save everyone (“not willing that any should perish but that all should come to salvation”). How he manifests that is a mystery. This is a question that receives fairly complicated Orthodox answers. As such, I think many Orthodox wish that St. Cyprian had not said it in quite that way. Stated flatly, it could be misunderstood and be as destructive as Calvin.
Thank you father for responding. I’ll try to absorb it all – the Orthodox approach things in a very different way. I’ve never heard salvation taught like this before – it’s all very alien to a Western Christian like me!
What you said about the relationship between faith and works intrigues me. Personally, I think of good works as faith in action (I mention this in another post). Good works – any works – must proceed from SOME faith that holds that they are noble or praiseworthy even if that faith is a false one. If you hold a conviction, you will act upon that conviction. If you don’t act, you never truly held that conviction. I think this is what James was criticizing in chapter 2. What he was criticizing were the ‘vague inclinations’ of those who knew of God through the Shema (2:19; note that this is not faith in Jesus, but bare monotheism). The so-called faith that sees a brother hungry or naked and says ‘go away clothed and filled’ is this sort of ‘faith’, whereas a true faith built on Jesus is one that answers the needs of his brother, that ‘does not ask whether good works are to be done, but before the question is asked, it has already done this, and is constantly doing them’ (Martin Luther). A faith on Jesus will act – it cannot help but do so.