Wrath and Justification

In a previous post a conversation developed about how the Orthodox Church understands God's wrath. Below I am going to include some of my comments about God's wrath as understood in Orthodox theology, and then I'm going to ask you to consider Justification.

As far as I can articulate, God's wrath is very real, just as is His mercy. God does not change. Man changes, usually through the use of his free will. When man orients himself against God (in sin), he experiences God in wrath. When man orients himself properly regarding God (in faithful love) he experiences God in mercy and blessedness. God is constant, man is not and thus has different experiences of God.

To put it in the context of communion with God, when man is out of communion with God he experiences God as wrathful. When man is in communion with God he experiences God as blessedness and mercy. God, for His part, does not change Himself but rather does all to change man's situation. Hence He sends His Son to reunite humanity in communion with Himself through the Incarnation and to free men from their sins and from bondage to mortality and the Devil through the cross and resurrection. God is constant, man is not.

Having said this about God's wrath, now consider Justification (our context is Orthodoxy compared to Lutheranism).

In Lutheran theology justification is that God declares the sinner to be righteous. This means that man is truly sinful, but God changes His mind about the sinner and regards him as righteous instead. The result of this justification is that man is then able to enter into communion with God and be sanctified and becomes a temple of God and so forth. While justification and sanctification happen in the same moment in time in Lutheran theology, sanctification, communion with God, and the attending blessings are understood to be a direct result of God choosing to see man as righteous (for Christ's sake). In this paradigm God changes in order to save man from wrath.

In Orthodox theology God does not change in order save man from His wrath, but He changes man. What about man does He change? He changes man's orientation to God at the ontological and existential level, that is, He returns man to blessed communion with Him. This in itself is man's justification. If it is man's bondage to mortality, corruption, and passions that orients man to experience God in wrath (for in such bondage man is in broken communion with God), and on top of that it is also man's actual sins that further plummets man into the depths of experiencing God in wrath, then God's solution is to

  1. first restore communion between Him and humanity through the Incarnation of His Son by the Holy Spirit and Virgin Mary, and then
  2. second burst apart man's bondage through crucifixion and resurrection, and then
  3. third to make this salvation available to all who will believe through union with Christ in the Holy Spirit through Baptism, Chrismation, and the Eucharist.

In this way God changes man's situation. Each person's justification happens through communion with Christ, who Himself is our Justification. In this way man's sins are really destroyed by Christ's cross, and man really is made righteous through abiding in communion with God through Christ in the Holy Spirit. In this way Justification is more than just a declaration of favor, but is communion with the One who favors us. This is why Justification in Orthodoxy is much like Sanctification. Both mean a change in man through God's operation (in Orthodoxy, God's Energies). In Lutheranism Justification is different from Sanctification, in that the former is only a status change (declared righteous) and the latter is an actual spiritual change in man (made holy).

For this reason, in Holy Orthodoxy, man is saved from wrath. God does not change, so if we are not in communion with Him but instead in bondage and serve to sin, death, and the Devil then the wrath of God abides on us - for under those conditions that is the only way we can experience God's unchanging-ness. If we are in communion with Him, then our sins are cleansed and God dwells in us in Grace, mercy, and peace. One of the nice things about God not changing is that He loves us - which applies even when we were enemies in sin and had His wrath abiding on us. He pulled out all the stops to change our situation, our orientation to Him, but without forcing anyone to return to that communion that was lost in Paradise by Adam and Eve's first sin. In Christ we can return and abide with God and He with us (and in us and through us!), or we can reject this Grace for the love of sin and remain in wrath. God is with each person, but if we are not with Him through Christ then we experience God as wrath, for we lack blessed communion and experience only broken communion. Praise be to God that He is constant in faithful-love toward us, even when we were children of wrath!

There are some further applications that can be drawn from this paradigm, but I will stop with this for now.