I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed. (Galatians 1:6-9, ESV)
What’s My Gospel?
There are, obviously, different gospels being taught out there. Paul called the teaching that following the Jewish custom of circumcision was a gospel different enough to suggest that those who taught this should not stop at the foreskin. Yes, he said that. Besides suggesting that they should go to hell.
But which is the proper Gospel? As in the old TV show What’s My Line?, we should ask, “Will the Real Gospel please stand up?” Is it the one that says we should trust in our baptism (even when we were baptized as infants)? Is it the one that says salvation is based on our decision and our faith? Or perhaps the one that says that however we get in, we’ve got to avoid “backsliding” or be in danger of losing our salvation?
When you look at what Paul says, choosing a gospel can be a scary proposition.
A Pre-Modern Gospel
Being a somewhat independent sort (not always a good thing, I admit), I’ve done my share of wandering, at times being sucked in by some mildly religious/superstitious forms of Christianity. Over the years, being influenced by Luther, CS Lewis, NT Wright (and a number of good Anglicans), having spent a lot of time in Galatians, and spending 2 years teaching through the Gospel of John, I came to a number of conclusions about the Gospel.
Coincidentally, many of these conclusions are very close to the Eastern Orthodox approach to the Gospel. I recently found a great summary of the Orthodox view of the gospel, from the Saint Justin the Philosopher Foundation for Orthodox Christian Apologetics, who seems to exist only on Facebook. Because not everyone is on Facebook, I will reprint the article here, linking back to the original above. I suspect they won’t mind.
I encourage you to read through it, and comment as you see fit (respectfully, of course). I am not saying I agree with this 100%, but I think much of this is spot on.
Many Protestants ask Orthodox Christians what the Orthodox understanding of the Gospel is. This is our attempt at explaining to Protestants (and others) what the gospel is:
The gospel is that the kingdom of Heaven has broken into our realm through the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. If we have an incorrect understanding of what these things mean, this will lead to large errors of practice, which will seriously impair our entrance to the kingdom of God. For example, Calvinist theologian Sinclair Ferguson describes his spiritual life as “dragging his sin before the Cross.” By this, he means putting penal substitution into practice. When he sins, he feels guilty because God is angry at him. At this point, he remembers that God already punished Jesus for his sin, so he “drags it before the Cross” to rid himself of guilt. But what does this do to actually deify him? Note the word ”deify.” Ferguson has never used that word to describe salvation. But “deification” is the substance of salvation. Let me explain. Our Lord, the pre-eternal Son and Word of the Father, is fully divine. He has, from all eternity, had all the properties of deity common to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Man was created in the Image and Likeness of God. The Holy Fathers interpret this to mean that man reflects certain properties of God, but does not reflect them fully. This is not a “shortcoming”, but rather a statement that God is infinite, and the brightness of man’s reflection of God can increase forever and ever. So Adam was “very good.” But He was not as good as he possibly could be. If he was, the Hebrew would say “very very good.” Adam was granted authority over the garden. As he partook of the grace of God, he himself would reflect God ever more brightly, and, as the steward of God’s creation, the “high priest”, one might say, he would lead all Creation to more brightly reflect the grace of God. At this point we must briefly comment on the meaning of “grace” according to the Holy Scriptures and the Holy Fathers. Protestants interpret grace to mean “God’s unmerited favor.” This is an incorrect interpretation.
Grace is not only “God’s unmerited favor” (not to imply that the grace that we receive is earned, but rather that this idea is not contained in the word itself), but refers to the power of God actualized in the world. For example, in the first chapter of Saint John’s Gospel, Our Lord is referred to as “full of grace and truth.” How could Christ be full of “unmerited favor?” In the third chapter of Saint Luke’s Gospel, Christ is referred to as “growing in grace and stature.” How could Christ “grow” in unmerited favor? A reading much more in accord with the Biblical text is the understanding of grace as “God’s power actualized in the world.” This is what Orthodox Christians mean by the “energies of God.” In essence, God cannot be known. But God’s essential power is actualized in the world through His uncreated energies. These energies are truly and really God, and they are the means of participation in the life of the divine. Adam would grow in His reflection of God’s likeness in energies, but because no man or angel could ever partake of the divine essence, He would never be “subsumed” into God. He would always be a deified Adam, never losing his personal existence. Anyway, this path of deification was the right path Adam was walking. Tragically, through events we all know, Adam turned away from this right path. The serpent promised him that “he would be like God.” Wanting to be like God was not Adam’s error. (As a sidenote, the fact that many Protestants think it is reflects how completely they have lost the concept of deification) We should all want to be like God. The Holy Apostle Peter says that we are to “be holy, as he is holy.” So why would we want to be unlike Him? No, Adam’s error was trying to be deified (which means more fully reflecting God’s properties) APART from God. This was not the end of the Fall. The pre-incarnate Word appeared to Adam and asked him what he had done. The Fathers teach that if Adam at this point had honestly admitted his error, repented, and promised obedience henceforth, the serpent would have been thwarted and God would have reconciled Adam to Himself. But Adam did not. Adam lied and blamed his wife.
Thus, Adam was expelled from the Garden, and the creation over which he was set a steward fell into corruption, death, and decay. Death itself cannot be spoken as a literal (though the imagery can be used metaphorically) “punishment” from God. God did not say to Adam, “If you eat, I will surely kill you.” God said, “If you eat, you will surely die.” Death is simply the natural result of turning away from the only source of life.Corruption, death, decay, these now all became a part of the human experience. And, in a significant, but often overlooked passage, Moses writes, “When Adam had lived 130 years, he fathered a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth.” This is the “image of Adam” described in the New Testament. It is the image of God in a state of corruption and imperfection. The Old Testament, even in the deified Prophets and Patriarchs, is a story of how man tries to reach God and always falls short. The ideal of ever more brightly reflecting the Divine Image could not be attained. Even the Saints of the Old Testament could not attain full glory, because humanity was enslaved.
This is where Christ comes in. The pre-eternal, infinite, uncontainable Word of God became a human being. The eternal Divine Word acquired a human nature. That is, He acquired the set of properties common to all human persons. In assuming humanity into Himself, He deified it. The human nature was perfectly united and brought into communion with the Logos of God and so became completely deified at the very moment of the incarnation. Christ, the perfect Image of God (Colossians 1:15) reconstructed the Image of God in man by becoming a man Himself. Christ grew up, sanctifying every stage of life in His own Person. When Christ announced His public ministry, this was not going to be a collection of pithy moral sayings before He got to what really mattered, the Crucifixion. No, every miracle and act that Christ did, every word that He spoke, has immense significance in the Christian life. By subjugating himself to death, Adam subjugated himself to Satan. Satan was the “Prince of this World” and God’s people was a small resistance movement. Most of the false gods throughout pre-Christian history have been demonic. Many pre-Christian civilizations were under the direct control of Satan’s minions. This is a frightening truth, but if one reads the Book of Daniel, one finds references to the demonic princes and rulers of other, specific nations. So, when Christ announced “The kingdom of God is at hand!”, this was a world-shaking truth. It was a declaration that Satan’s rule was over, that God had come at long last to set things right. The Israelites, however, expected this to be in a carnal sense. They expected the Jewish Messiah to come and lead an army to overthrow the Romans and establish a Jewish government in the Holy Land. The evil Roman Empire was itself only a symptom of the disease, and Our Lord understood that, so He went and fought the source- Satan. When He cast out demons, this was a statement that God was finished with them, that they were going to be driven out. When Christ healed men from diseases, this was a statement that the reign of corruption was coming to an end. In short, these were all means of announcing that corruption, death, demonic rule, these were finished. When Christ taught, He was giving us the true Torah, that which the Torah of Moses was only a shadow. This Torah was one of the heart. It was how man would live in the Kingdom that Christ was ushering in. This Torah changed the heart of man, which is why the Lord said that “the Kingdom of God is within you.” So, Christ’s ministry had two closely related functions. It was first to announce the nearness of the Kingdom of God and it was second to describe how man would live in that Kingdom through the preaching of a Torah of the heart.
On Great and Holy Friday, Our Lord Jesus Christ was crucified for our sins. While this phrase is acknowledged by nearly all who confess the name of Christ, what this actually means is a subject of intense debate. Most Protestants suggest that God poured His wrath upon Christ’s head so that He did not have to pour it on our heads in hell. The Scholastics suggested that Christ, in dying a shameful death, generated an infinite store of honorable merit, which could be accessed by the Sacraments and good works. The Church, however, through its Prophets, Apostles, and Fathers, has an altogether different doctrine. It was mentioned above that Adam had made suffering, corruption, and death a part of human experience. Christ came to reconstruct the Divine Image through His own incarnated Person. In order to sanctify the fullness of human experience, the terrible truth was that God had to partake of death itself. He had to descend to the lowest state of human existence. And He did. Christ suffered greatly, and died one of the most shameful deaths known to man. He partook of all our sufferings, our sorrows, our sicknesses, and our pains. And because it was the infinite God who entered into these things, He healed all of them. This is why the Prophet Isaiah says, “By His stripes, we are healed.” Satan, as the one who held the power of death, believed that He had won. He had taken the Messiah of God. What He did not take into account is that Christ had never subjected Himself to Satan’s authority. Christ had never entered into Satan’s communion. But Satan took Him nonetheless. This was his greatest mistake. As Satan had no power over death, Christ broke free of it, and released all the spirits who communed with Him into Paradise as well. Satan was disarmed. Christ said that He would “disarm the strong man”, and that He did. In the Apocalypse, Christ says that HE “holds the keys of death and Hades.” This is a profound and glorious truth. Christ had gone down into the lowest state of human existence. He now was bringing up human experience to the highest points of divine experience. This is the message of the resurrection! The resurrection is the ushering of humanity into the high places. It is the deification of the body itself. The body, while before it had been a prison of corruption, sickness, and death, was now in Christ a glorious blessing. It was renewed, deified, made incorruptible.
Man, however, still has freedom of choice. God desires all men to come into the communion of His energies, His love. But true love requires freedom. If we choose not to be deified, then that is our choice. If we desire this wonderful state of deification, how do we do it? The first thing that we must do is have faith. Faith is the foundation of the entire Christian life. It is the particular attitude which sees God not as a distant lawgiver, but a close father, one who is merciful and good. The one who acts consistently with his faith will undoubtedly be saved. It must be emphasized that faith does not guarantee consistently acting with that faith. One may have faith, but if one does not act consistently with it, the faith dies. If one DOES act consistently with the faith, one chooses to be baptized. This Baptism, St. Paul says, clothes us with Christ. It clothes us with His death and resurrection. It frees one from the subjugation of Satan, who takes every man who sins even once. This Satanic system is the system of law. When we are baptized, we are freed from it, because we become “in Christ.” As Satan had no authority over Christ, so also He loses authority over every man who is “in Christ.” We are now in a different system, a “system” where the goal is “partaking of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4), and being “conformed to the image of His Son.” (Rom 8:29) When we are anointed with the oil of God (this is known as Chrismation and is described in the Book of Acts as “laying on of hands), we are indwelt with the grace of the Holy Spirit. This “Chrismation” is really a part of the Mystery of Baptism. The Holy Spirit is our only hope. He is the one who indwells us, who bestows grace on us, by whose power we do anything that is good. However, salvation still requires “work.” This is not the “work” that one does in a business setting, where one works a particular number of hours and the boss gives you a particular payment. This is the principle of obligation condemned so forcefully by St. Paul in Romans 4:4. If we work like this, there is no relationship with the boss. One simply works and receives due payment. But God owes us nothing. Salvation itself requires intimate COMMUNION with God, so if one does these works out of view of Christ, the communion is not improved, and they will be burned up on the Last Day. This is why St. Seraphim teaches that only good works done for Christ’s sake give us the grace of the Holy Spirit. NT Wright describes works that save in this fashion. The only works that benefit for salvation are those that are organically related to their result. So, when you make a new friend, you might describe yourself as “working” for that friendship. But this is only in the sense that talking, hanging out, spending time with this person naturally produces a friendship. If you went to his house, mowed his lawn, did not talk to him, this “work” woul do nothing to produce a friendship. It is the same with God. Praying, fasting (as fasting dulls the passions), partaking of the true Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist, these are the ways that we commune and relate with God. They naturally produce communion with God.
Christ, through His incarnation, death, and resurrection, ushered the People of God (who already existed in the form of Israel) to the highest and most advanced state possible, that of being His own Body, which we call the Church. The Church is the People of God that have partaken of the Divine Nature in Jesus Christ and through the Holy Spirit. The Church is “necessary for salvation” only because Christ is necessary for salvation. It is through Christ alone that man can be saved, and the Church is Christ’s Presence in the world. This is meant this in more than a symbolic sense. The Church is a Eucharistic Community. It is the Eucharist which creates the Church. St. Paul says, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” (1 Corinthians 10:16-17) The Church is Christ’s Presence to the world because of the Holy Eucharist. We become “one body in Christ” by partaking of Christ’s body in the Holy Eucharist. This is the People of God as it has been transformed by the new covenant. The Prophets and Patriarchs of Israel and the Old Covenant are also members of the Church, because the Church is not an organization that exists in this world, it is a heavenly reality, containing ALL the People of God, made manifest and visible to this world in the form of Eucharistic Communities.While man experiences a foretaste of his eternal destiny when he dies and his body is separated from his soul, this is still an unnatural state. On the Last Day, the Lord will return to Earth to Judge all mankind. This “Judgement” is simply the placing of every person in the place where the condition of their soul requires. Christ will deify the New Creation. The grace of God will be in all and through all. For the person oriented towards God, this means they will continue on their journey of deification forever. For the person oriented away from God, the energies of God only inspire further resistance to God. Thus, the person who reposed while walking the wrong path will forever walk that path. His Divine Image will be deconstructed eternally as they become more and more evil and selfish. The state of living eternally without any love for others, and living with others who are like that- this is hell. The state of living eternally, in a deified and glorified body, in a condition of ever-increasing love and bliss, and living under the direct rule of Christ the King, with others who lovingly serve Christ the King- this is Heaven. This is not to say that we won’t have something to do on the New Earth. No, we, as the Image-Bearing representatives of God to all Creation, together with Jesus Christ, the ultimate Image of God, will forever work on our mission of deifying all Creation. This is eternal joy.