The Orthodox Doctrine of God’s Economy of Salvation

The below article is a slightly edited form of a talk delivered as part of our foundational course in Orthodox Christianity, ‘For Behold, I Am With You’, on 16 August 2012.  It is presented below for your edification.

Note: For your convenience, most of the scriptural citations can be read by hovering the mouse over the reference.

The Orthodox Doctrine of God’s Economy of Salvation

The Old Testament

In the Beginning

  • In the beginning, God creates the world to be His own dwelling place, appoints man and instills His image within him, and intends for Him to grow in His likeness for all eternity
  • That image was there in order that they might be priests of God’s Temple, that is, all of Creation.
  • To this end, the pre-Incarnate Word (i.e. Jesus Christ) breathed the grace of the Holy Spirit on Adam and intended for Adam to grow in that grace.
  • As Adam grew in that grace, the entirety of Creation would reflect it as well.
  • Nothing created, including man, was immortal or even “good” by nature, but only by participation in the grace of God.
  • In the Garden was the Tree of Life, and through partaking in the Tree of Life, man would receive divine grace.
  • There was also the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil which man was not yet prepared to eat the fruit of.
  • Man was not “sinful,” so to speak, but was a spiritual infant and had not at this point grown up and matured spiritually.
  • Adam and Eve, however, inspired by Satan, disobeyed God and sinned (literally, “missing the mark”).
  • Even though the serpent told them that by eating of the fruit they would become like God,  this itself was not a bad thing: the problem was that they wanted to become like God, but without God.
  • They sinned, voluntarily withdrawing themselves from participation in the grace of God, thus leading to death (as God is the source of life).
  • This was not an active punishment from God (although the legal metaphor of crime and punishment is an acceptable one as long as it is not over-literalised).
  • The other consequence is that they subjected themselves to Satan and his demons, who hold the power of death (Hebrews 2:14).
  • When they fell, the entirety of Creation was subjected to corruption as well, as they were the ones to whom the presiding over Creation was delegated.
  • Genesis 4 through to 11 documents the descent of humanity into wickedness, culminating in the scattering of the nations across the earth at the Tower of Babel.

The Abrahamic Promise and the Family of Israel

  • In Genesis 12, the calling of Abraham commences God’s great work of restoring the entire to its original grace (and, most importantly, beyond).
  • Genesis 12:1 – God promises Abraham a land.
  • Genesis 12:2 – God promises Abraham a nation.
  • Genesis 12:3 – God promises that in Abraham, all families of the earth will be blessed.
    • This is a complete reversal of what just happened in Genesis 11 and is described by the Apostle Paul as “the Gospel preached beforehand” (Galatians 3:8).
  • Genesis 15:1 – The /Word/ of the LORD comes to Abraham in a vision (again, the preincarnate Christ).
  • Genesis 15:3 – Abraham needs an heir from his own family so that the promise of his family can be fulfilled.
  • Genesis 15:5 – God swears that Abraham will have his family, and that his descendants shall outnumber the stars in the sky.
  • Genesis 15:6 – When Abraham believed that God would create this massive family, God /made/ him righteous (justification).
  • Genesis 17:1-5 – God promises that Abraham’s family will eventually be a multi-ethnic, multinational family not made up of just one ethnic group.
  • The promise that God will bless the whole world through Abraham’s descendants goes through Isaac and Jacob (who is named Israel after struggling with the Word of God in a garden – again, the pre-incarnate Christ.

Exodus and Covenant

  • Although Jacob’s descendants, the twelve tribes of Israel, were promised a land and nation, they found themselves in bondage in Egypt.
  • Israel finds itself in bondage and subjugation to both pagan societies and deities during its time in Egyptian captivity.
  • God calls Moses out of the tribe of Levi, making His name known to all the world even as Pharaoh resisted Him.
  • He displayed His own supremacy over the pagan deities through the ten plagues, each one intended to shame a specific god.
  • The final plague was where the Angel of Death passed through Egypt, killing the firstborn son of every family, passing over only the Israelite families who had spread the blood of a pure lamb above their doors.
  • Following the Exodus through the Red Sea into Sinai (and beyond), the people of Israel would commemorate this original Passover and become mystically present at it by eating the meat of a pure lamb and partaking in unleavened (i.e. unrisen) bread.
  • God intended to give Israel only the Ten Commandments to live by, but when Moses came down from Mount Sinai, Israel had already fallen into idolatry through worshipping the Golden Calf.
  • This demonstrates that the true bondage of the People of God is not just a bondage under men, but also under more malevolent forces, because even after Israel had been liberated from Egypt, they still worshipped pagan deities and false gods which were in fact demonic powers.
  • This proves that they were in Adam in the sense that they were deprived of the sanctifying grace which had been given to Adam.
  • In order to ensure that God’s promises might be fulfilled, Moses gave Israel a much more complex ceremonial law intended to set them apart from the nations (the Gentiles) so that they would not be tempted to partake in the idolatry of the Gentiles.
  • If Israel failed to obey Torah (the Law) perfectly, they would incur a curse in going after other gods which they have not known (Deuteronomy 11:28).
  • Through not obeying Torah, Israel subjects itself to demonic powers.
  • God leads Israel into the land of Canaan (the present-day region of Palestine), but they periodically fall into idolatry.
  • To atone (make at one and reconcile the people to God) subsequent to committing these sins, Israel was directed to offer animal sacrifices on the altar of the Temple Mount.
  • The purpose of these sacrifices was to restore communion between man and God by way of man offering himself to God by offering a pure sacrifice so that he might be purified by the blood of the sacrificed animal.
  • In the time of King Solomon, God had a Temple built around the altar on Mount Zion which He filled with His glory and Divine Light, which would descend during the animal sacrifices.

From Covenant to Exile

  • Israel eventually came to demand a king, but as God says in 1 Samuel 8, He is the true King of Israel.
  • God calls, through the Prophet Samuel, David out of the tribe of Judah to be the king of the Israelites, and promises David that he will never lack a descendant to sit on the throne of Israel for all eternity.
  • In Psalm 109/110, there is a description by David of this son of his who will sit on the throne.
  • God promises that David’s son (i.e. descendant) will be greater than David (as David describes this son as being his Lord) and that he will be a priestly king (Psalm 110:4).
  • The Prophet Isaiah also describes this king in Isaiah 9:6-7.
  • Only a remnant of the current people of Israel will hearken unto this Messianic king, as per Isaiah 10:20-21
  • This king shall usher in an era of universal peace wherein all people will know and worship the God of Abraham, as per Isaiah 11:1-10

Exile

  • Because of its great sin, Israel was judged by God, and Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed, with the Israelites being taken into Babylonian captivity.
  • The Prophets promised a day when this exile would come to an end gloriously.
  • The Prophets Ezekiel and Jeremiah spoke of a New Covenant that would be made with Israel in the days of return. (Jeremiah 31:31-34) (Ezekiel 36:26-28)
  • During the exile, the Prophet Isaiah details what the return from exile will look like (Isaiah 40:1-9)
  • Next, God reveals a servant who is going to accomplish this, in Isaiah 42:1-4.
  • God then promises that the Persian king Cyrus will aid in Israel’s return from exile, in Isaiah 45:1-3
  • God speaks to the servant, whom he prophesies will be a light to the nations, as well as despised by his own people (as per Isaiah 49:5-7)
  • God outlines the suffering of the servant, in Isaiah 50:5-10.
  • Israel does not believe what it hears from Isaiah. The servant is slain for our transgressions and the sins of Israel are healed by his wound; He is cut out of the land of the living, as in Isaiah 52:13-15.
  • His soul makes an offering for sin, and even after his death, his days are prolonged. (see Isaiah 53:1-12)
  • This all culminates in the Creation being renewed through the work of this Suffering Servant, as in Isaiah 55:12-13.
  • A portion of the Israelites (mainly from the tribes of Judah and Levi) return to the land under the guidance of King Cyrus of Persia, who reconstitutes the land for the Jews and builds the Second Temple.
  • Having returned to the land, however, they are still under the rule of pagan, demonic deities,  and the Second Temple was a huge disappointment as it did not possess the same display of the Divine Light that Solomon’s Temple did.
  • The Jews understood from the prophets, especially Ezekiel, that God had promised a Temple more glorious than the First Temple, and Malachi prophesied that the Second Temple would contain the Divine Light in an even greater manner than the First. To this end, Israel was still in exile, and for centuries, the Jews hoped and waited for the Redeemer promised by the Prophets who would redeem them from the pagans, renew the Creation, judge the world in righteousness, and resurrect the righteous dead.

 

The New Testament

The Incarnation of the Word

  • In the first century AD, the pre-eternal Word of the Father became a man in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
  • Because He is the eternal Word of God, He is the perfect image of the Father in every single way, being the Father’s internal self-expression.
  • Therefore, when He became a man, He did so in order to renew the divine image within man that had been tarnished and corrupted by sin.
  • Christ is a single person in two natures. When we say that Christ is a single person, this means that whenever Jesus did something, it is Jesus who does it, not a particular nature.
  • That is, even if the person of Christ does something by virtue of the properties of one of his natures, it is still the single mode of existence that those natures subsist within that does the act.
  • What this means is that regardless of whether Jesus does something in his divine nature or in his human nature, it is God-man in His entirety who performs that act.
  • When Jesus does a miracle, even though He does this through His divine nature, it is still a man who performs the miracle, and when Jesus suffers on the Cross, even though He suffers through His humanity, it is God who suffers.
  • This is necessary, because if we are to participate in who God is, then God must participate in who we are.
  • It is a view of a number of Fathers that even if man had not fallen, Christ would have still become incarnate in order to bring man closer to the likeness of God.
  • When we say that Christ is completely man, we mean not only that He has human flesh, but also a human soul and all the other elements that make up a human person.
  • Because God and man are perfectly united in the person of Christ, His humanity is brought into the perfect likeness of His divinity.
  • Furthermore, then, Christ has both a human will and a divine will so that the human will is brought into perfect conformity with and submission to the will of God.
  • For this reason, we might say that the humanity of Christ is perfectly divinised.
  • By this, we mean that the human nature of Christ participated in the divinity in a perfect fashion.
  • Hence, we might say two things about Christ because of the Incarnation: firstly, He is the new Adam because He restores what Adam lost, and not only this, but he also He takes humanity beyond Adam to what Adam was intended to progress to; and secondly, He can be said to be the perfect Temple of God because the divine glory that filled the first Temple fully dwelt within and radiated from Christ. (cf. John 1:14 and John 2:19-21)

The Ministry of the Word

  • At age 30, Christ began His public ministry.
  • Around this time, St. John the Baptist proclaimed that every Jew who did not faithfully follow the message of God in these times would be cut off from the House of Israel.
  • Following this, John baptized Christ in the Jordan, publicly proclaiming Him as the promised Messiah of Israel. (Matthew 3:9-10)
  • When Christ was baptized, He sanctified the entire Creation.
  • This demonstrates that His mission was not only to redeem and liberate humanity, but also to redeem and liberate the entire Created order.
  • When Christ began His public ministry, He announced that the Kingdom of God was at hand. (Mark 1:15)
  • This means that through His own life and work, He was inaugurating the time when the demonic oppressors who took over the Creation would be overthrown and God would become the true King, populating His Kingdom with people renewed after the image of their Creator.
  • He proved that He was liberating humanity from the oppression of the powers and the principalities by immediately casting out demons.
  • The Jewish people expected the Messiah to liberate them from their pagan oppressors, but as we have seen, the oppression of the pagans was only symptomatic of another more malevolent oppression which Jesus came to liberate man from.
  • Jesus proceeded to heal humanity from their oppression and also from their corruption in a public ministry of miracles and exorcisms. (Mark 1:23-25 and Mark 1:40-42)
  • In doing so, He was making direct war with the oppressors and the corruption which they had introduced into the Creation.
  • Jesus also forgave sins, doing what the Jews thought could only be done at the Temple,  proving that He was indeed the perfect Temple of God. (Mark 2:5-7)
  • In addition to inaugurating the Kingdom of God through His own work, He gave man a way to actually live in this Kingdom, showing them that the true Torah was that of the heart.
  • It was concerned not with outward expression, but with inward renewal. (Matthew 5:17, Matthew 5:27-28 and Matthew 5:21-22)
  • Through this, He showed that the mission of the People of God was not to horde blessings for themselves, but to be a light to the world, a light that would teach every man, regardless of race, about the one true God. (Matthew 5:14-16)
  • He showed that genuine Sabbath rest was not just ceasing work on a particular day, but by acquiring genuine inner peace in Him. (Matthew 11:28-30)
  • When He had announced that some standing before Him would see the Kingdom coming in power, He was transfigured before them. (Mark 9:1-3)
  • When He was transfigured, He demonstrated that the Kingdom of God really had arrived,  because the new glorious Temple filled with the Divine Light and promised by the Prophets had arrived at last.
  • This glory which radiated from Him was not something that could only be possessed by Him, but would be shared with God’s People when they participate in their Lord. (John 17:22)

The Passion of the Word

  • The Prophets had promised a day when God would return to Zion.
  • When Christ rode into Jerusalem, He demonstrated that He was Israel’s God returning to His People.
  • These promises of the Prophets were fulfilled in a way unexpected by the Jewish people.
  • Subsequently, the Lord entered the Jewish Temple, and because He was God incarnate, the glory of God did indeed fill the Second Temple in a way much more real than it did in the first, fulfilling the prophecy of Malachi.
  • When the Lord entered into the Temple, He caused an uproar, temporarily stopping the daily cycle of sacrifices and symbolically enacting a parable of its coming destruction.
  • This showed that Jesus was proclaiming through His own ministry the era of the Temple made by human hands was coming to an end, and that the true Temple would be Christ Himself, found wherever His people would worship God in spirit and truth. (John 4:20-24)
  • Because the Jewish leadership found His words offensive and believed that He was leading the people astray, they thought to destroy Him.
  • Because sin had introduced corruption and death into the world, God would have to participate in corruption and death in order to reverse it.
  • Israel, because it had not perfectly obeyed the Torah, had incurred a curse wherein they had been subjected to the powers and principalities of this world.
  • In order to participate in corruption and death and overcome the powers and principalities,  Christ went voluntarily to His death, and even though Satan had no rights over Him (because He had never sinned), He nevertheless subjected Himself to Satan by dying. (Hebrews 2:14)
  • On the Cross, He participated in all of our sufferings and our sicknesses and our sorrows, freely falling victim to the one who had no rights over Him, and in doing so, He died.

The Resurrection of the Son of God

  • Because He was God, death could not hold Him, and instead of falling victim to death, He conquered death for all men who had been subject to it, and because He had never sinned,  the powers and principalities had no right over Him. (Acts 2:23-24)
  • He spurned them by taking His life back. (Colossians 2:13-15)
  • Christ, therefore, was resurrected from the dead not simply in the same kind of corrupt mortal that He had before, but in a new, glorious, transfigured, and incorruptible body. (1 Corinthians 15:53)
  • It was still the same body that He had before, but it was transformed.
  • It could appear and disappear and walk through walls, and it could never die.
  • The Lord then ascended into heaven, claiming His right as the Lord of the world, and expanding His Kingdom until the day that He would return bodily to Earth.
  • This fulfils the prophecy that a descendant of King David will sit on the throne of Israel for all eternity, but ironically hearkens back to God saying that He is the true King of Israel, for this reigning descendant of David is in fact God incarnate.

The Resurrection of the Dead and the Life of the Age to Come

  • One day, Christ will return, not to destroy the physical Creation, but to finally complete the process of renewal that began with His Incarnation. (Romans 8:20-21)
  • He will resurrect all of the dead. Those who have lived righteously will dwell bodily with Him in the renewed Creation, ever becoming more conformed to His likeness.
  • Together with Him, they will inherit the world, and they will join Him in ruling it perfectly.
  • The wicked will attain to the resurrection of damnation because they have lived a life that is diametrically opposed to the Creator God. By refusing to orientate themselves towards God and make His love their love, their nature has become like the demons and Satan, orientated only towards hate and destruction.
  • They will therefore be banished from God’s good world, but because God will encompass and be in all things, they will never be able to escape Him, His love following them for all eternity like a River of Fire, which only inspires them to further resistance.
  • Their eternal destiny is to always become less conformed to the image of God.
  • The Transfiguration of Man and the Renewal of the Divine Image
  • The Age to Come is consummated in the future, but it has broken into the present through the Church.
  • The Church is the People of Israel, the true people of the Abrahamic Covenant, transformed and renewed by the Incarnation of God and the Outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
  • The Prophets told of a day where all of God’s People would be filled with the Spirit, obeying God’s Law as it was written on their hearts.
  • This will be brought to completion at the Return of Christ, but even now, the people of the Church have God’s true Law, as expounded by the Lord Jesus Christ, written on their hearts by the Holy Spirit.
  • This is the significance of the Day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit was poured upon the Church.
  • It is the Ministry of the Holy Spirit to all men that calls them to Christ through the preaching of God’s gospel in Jesus.
  • Without the drawing of the Spirit, no man could come to Christ.
  • When one is in the Church, the Spirit operates not externally upon a person, but actually indwells them and works from within.
  • It is through the Spirit that we are united with Christ and conformed to His likeness.
  • The redemption of our bodies will occur on the Final Day. In the present, our task is to live the life of the redeemed, seeking to spread God’s Kingdom all across the Earth.
  • The first step in our own transformation is faith. Faith is necessary because:
    • Without faith it is impossible to please God, for whoever comes to God must believe that He exists and that He rewards those who seek Him – Hebrews 11:6.
  • Faith is then the foundation of the entire Christian life. Nobody can become like God by his own power. We must humbly orient ourselves, through faith, towards God, allowing the Spirit to work on our hearts and transform our natures.
  • When we say that we are justified by faith, we do not mean that God declares us righteous when we exercise faith alone. Instead, we mean that God actually makes us righteous by faith working through love.
  • Faith is the muscle, salvation is the weight, and works of love are when we use the muscle,  by the power of the Holy Spirit, to lift the weight. (Galatians 5:6)
  • Upon having right faith in God, we will be baptized.
  • Baptism is where we are clothed with the death and resurrection of Christ, having our sins cleansed from us and forgiven. (Romans 6:3-4 and Colossians 2:11-12)
  • Before our Baptism, the powers and principalities claim authority over us if we sin even once. (Zechariah 3:1-3)
  • Through Baptism, we are united to Christ, over whom the powers and principalities had no rights, as He was sinless. When we participate in His death and resurrection, through which He trampled them down, they lose authority over us as well. (Zechariah 3:4-5 and Galatians 3:27)
  • In Baptism, we pass from Law, where the demonic powers would accuse the person who had sinned even once, to grace, where one enters into a fatherly relationship with God through adoption into His family. In this relationship, He forgives our transgressions when we sincerely repent. (Romans 6:14 and 2 Corinthians 5:19)
  • Though we begin our participation in Christ in personal faith, this faith is effected to unite one most fully into the Church through Holy Baptism.
  • Baptism is completed through Chrismation, which is the latter half of the Baptismal Service. In Chrismation, our Baptismal grace is made fully effective, as we receive what the Apostles received on Pentecost – the indwelling of the Holy Spirit of God. (2 Corinthians 1:21-22 and Acts 8:14-17)
  • Through faith acting in Baptism and Chrismation, we are cleansed of our sins, united to Christ, liberated from the authority of the powers and principalities, indwelt by the Spirit, and engraven with the Law of God on our hearts.
  • Baptism is where we cross the Red Sea out of the Egypt of Sin, governed by the powers and principalities. Chrismation is where we are given the true Torah, the Torah of Faith, the Torah of the Spirit of Life. (Romans 6:6-7, Romans 8:1-2, and Romans 8:38-39)
  • God has infused His own holiness into us through these things. He has poured His love into our hearts. (Romans 5:1 and Romans 5:5)
  • Even so, salvation is not a simple, one time event, whether taking place at the moment of faith or the moment of Baptism.
  • Salvation is a process, encompassing the entire Christian life. We must make a decision for Christ every day. We must work out our salvation. (Philippians 2:12)
  • The substance of this ongoing work of salvation is divinization or theosis – partaking of the divine nature and being made like God.
  • As mentioned in previous talks, God in His Essence is unknowable, but we can know Him through His Uncreated Energies, which emanate forth from His Essence and are just as eternal and divine as it.
  • When we speak about grace, we are talking about these Uncreated Energies – when we receive the grace of God through the Holy Mysteries, we are receiving God Himself and being conformed to His image and likeness. (2 Peter 1:3-4 and Colossians 3:9-10)
  • Because the essence of salvation is union with God, through Jesus Christ, effected by the Holy Spirit, to be saved means to be progressively transformed. Therefore, it is not by faith alone.
  • It is by grace (the power of God), through an attitude of faith, which acts in works of love. Faith is the foundation and the power behind every good work, but if one does not make an effort to do good works by the power of faith, then one will not be saved. (Romans 8:13 and Galatians 5:18-21)
  • The sanctifying grace that was given to Adam and lost through sin is restored to man through Baptism – but it is continually strengthened by partaking of the Tree of Life.
  • The Tree of Life is the Cross of Christ, and the fruit of the Tree is the Body and Blood of Christ, which is the real, physical flesh and blood of our Lord. (John 6:53-56)
  • It is through partaking of the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist that we become, in a supreme way, the Church, the Body of Christ. (1 Corinthians 10:16-18)
  • By the power of the Spirit, in faith, hope, and love, we seek for glory and immortality. If we are faithful to God, then when we die, our souls will go to be “with Christ.” (Philippians 1:23)
  • This is where the Saints are resting presently. Even so, this is not the end. This is not the ultimate purpose. The final redemption comes not when we go to Heaven, but when Heaven and Earth meet together and the entire creation is renewed.
  • All men will be resurrected from the grave and judged according to their works. those who have been united with Christ and done good by faith and the power of the Spirit will be saved. Those who have done evil will be condemned. (Romans 8:23, Revelations 21:1-5 and Romans 2:6-11)

Conclusion

  • In the first creation, God first created the universe and then created man.
  • In this creation, God first renews man and then renews the entire creation.
  • The Church is a renewed people, journeying through the Wilderness of this present life into the Promised Land of the life to come.
  • It is through the Church that the covenant with Abraham is fulfilled.
  • God, as we saw in Genesis 12, wished to reverse what Adam had caused through the Family of Abraham.
  • He wished for Abraham’s Family to be a truly human family, a family that bore the Image of God in purity once more.
  • Through Abraham’s children, God brought forth the Messiah, who, as God Incarnate, was the perfect Image of God.
  • Through participation in the Messiah, we become members of Abraham’s Family, regardless of physical descent.
  • Abraham is truly the “father of many nations” as the Lord had promised; And the true promised land is not a tiny strip of holy turf.
  • It is the entire cosmos, transformed and redeemed by the Incarnation of the Almighty God and the renewal of the true people of Israel – the Holy Orthodox Church.

References from the Old Testament: Scripture taken from the St. Athanasius Academy SeptuagintTM.  Copyright 2008 by St. Athanasius Academy of Orthodox Theology. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
References from the New Testament: Scripture taken from The Holy Bible of the Eastern / Greek Orthodox Churches, based on the Septuagint and Patriarchal Text. Copyright 2007-2008 by Laurent Cleenewerck, editor. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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