My last post, which may now be considered Part 1, was narrowly focused upon the notion of the death of Christ as a sacrificial, expiating atonement. This is of course not the only aspect of Christ’s death and resurrection that we can contemplate, and therefore, I proceed in this post to examine the notion of the atonement in relation to St. Paul’s teaching of Justification by faith and how we participate in it sacramentally.
The New Testament Doctrine of Justification
Current scholarship emanating from Protestant circles, known collectively as the New Perspective on Paul, has begun to confirm what has always been implicitly understood within the Orthodox Church regarding justification, namely that it is concerned with membership within the covenant community of God, or to put it another way, justification is being in a right(eous) relationship with God, which occurs by being a part of the covenant community of God. How one enters and remains in this community is how one is justified.
In the Orthodox service of baptism and chrismation, as the priest wipes off the holy chrism with a sponge, he repeats “Thou art justified. Thou art illumined. Thou art sanctified. Thou art washed: in the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.” The aggregate sacramental action of baptism and chrismation is a person’s justification (even an infant!) in that through baptism, a person mystically participates in the death and resurrection of Christ and is placed within his mystical body, within the covenant community of God. The requirement to be baptized is nothing more than to have faith, “to confess with the mouth that Jesus is lord and to believe with the heart that God raised him from the dead” (Romans 10:9). This initial justification of baptism is maintained by a life of faith. When faith wanes and we sin, we can renew and maintain our justification through the sacrament of confession, whereby our sins are absolved and our baptismal purity is restored.
St. Paul is adamant, in the face of Judaism, that one is justified by faith in Jesus Christ and not by the works of the Law. After the Protestant Reformation, the “works of the Law” were understood to be meritorious good works, whereby people could earn their salvation by performing them. This was the Protestant charge against Roman Catholic theology, against which they championed “Justification by faith alone.” Yet this was a misunderstanding of St. Paul, a misunderstanding that many Protestant scholars today have begun to realize. The “works of the Law” were never understood by the Jews to be meritorious works whereby they could earn their salvation. Rather, “works of the Law” was a technical term, ma’aseh haTorah, used by the Jews of the Second Temple Period to refer to particular “acts of the Torah” that allowed Jews to enter and maintain membership within God’s covenant community of Israel. This was first and foremost circumcision accompanied by the various other “acts/deeds/works” that are found in the Torah, the kosher laws, laws of ritual purity, and the ethical code of the Ten Commandments. These works did not earn a person salvation, but kept him within the covenant community of Israel wherein God gave salvation graciously as a gift.
The problem with this is that, to be in God’s covenant community, one would have to be a Jew or become a proselyte by circumcision. St. Paul then asserts that one enters and maintains membership in the covenant community of God not by virtue of being Jewish and keeping the Torah but by faith in Jesus Christ. Once one enters the covenant community, now the Church, by faith in Christ, the righteousness required by the Law is fulfilled by walking in the power of the Holy Spirit who empowers all believers to practice “works” of righteousness, “works” which St. James also regards as being essential to being justified (which is why we go to confession when we fail to meet that righteous requirement).
Atonement and Justification
When we now consider the atonement as described in my last post, we find ultimately that it is a work that God initiates and fulfills in order to purify his covenant people from sin. The expiatory nature of sacrifice purifies and thereby sanctifies the community to a relationship with God. From God’s perspective, the atoning sacrifice of Christ destroys the sin of all who put their faith in his blood (Romans 3:25). The uncreated energies of God, manifested toward sin as expiating “wrath” may now be manifested toward the faithful as deifying grace. It is not as though God’s wrath is assuaged by sacrifice (in a pagan sense), but rather God’s intent to destroy sin is satisfied, for sin is destroyed as it was borne by Christ on the cross.
From the perspective of the worshipper, sacrifice is not about placating an angry God but about eliciting faith from the worshipper, faith in God’s mercy. Justification is accomplished by faith in God’s mercy, not by the “work” of the sacrifice itself, for the “work” of the sacrifice is accomplished by God himself who offers his Son as the atoning sacrifice. To reiterate, all of the sacrifices of the Old Testament were not intended as works to placate an angry God, but they were instead intended to elicit faith from the worshipper that God would atone for his sins, which he did on the cross. God does the sacrificing; we only participate in it through faith.
The atoning sacrifice of Christ and justification by faith work hand-in-hand to wipe away our sins and place us in a right(eous) relationship with God. We enter the covenant community of the Church through faith, and through faith we sacramentally participate in the sacrifice of Christ. Through baptism, with Christ we die to sin and rise to life in God, and through the Eucharist we consume the sacrifice of Christ’s body, as the Old Testament priests consumed the sacrifices offered in the Temple, and we place our faith in the blood of the New Covenant. In the Eucharist, we become one body with Christ, and therefore the expiation that he made of sins is made for us, because we become one body with him.
Justification is not a one-time event as many Protestant Christians are wont to believe, but it is instead a life of faith, a life begun at baptism, a life of confession, and a life of Eucharistic communion, as we live in a justified, righteous relationship with God in the covenant community of the faithful.